Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Jock McTitian — Transfer Window About To Close

Glasgow South MP Ian Davidson has added his voice to those opposing the spending of public money on acquiring Titian's Diana And Actaeon from the Bridgewater collection (left). An announcement is expected at any moment confirming that the necessary £50 million has been raised.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland's 'Good Morning Scotland' programme, Mr Davidson, argued that it was difficult justifying spending such sums on "a picture by a long dead Venetian — it's not as if it's Jock McTitian."

This was interesting for all sorts of reasons — not least the way in which Davidson used the nationalist card (generally used to argue for the retention of cultural property) to argue against its acquisition. Titian wasn't a Scot. Ergo, why keep it?

But leaving aside the finer points for and against acquiring the picture, what struck me most was the way in which art history as a discipline once again subtly emerged as the whipping boy. "Very few people will ever have heard of Titian," said Davidson, unwittingly revealing his own ignorance of the history of western visual culture. "Many will have thought he was an Italian football player. What is the point of wasting this money in this way?"

His comment reminded me of a 2006 edition of Celebrity University Challenge featuring television journalists against television drama writers. The TV-hack team — comprising Kate Adie, Michael Buerk, Bridget Kendall and, I think, Nick Robinson — were shown three famous paintings from British national collections and asked to identify the picture and the artist. I recall the images included Sir Henry Raeburn's Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, from the Scottish National Gallery (right, top), Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage Portrait from the London National Gallery (bottom right), and Paolo Uccello's Battle of San Romano (centre), also from the National Gallery. The journos muttered and exchanged mystified expressions.

Should we be critical of them for not recognizing any of these pictures? After all, these guys are justifiably celebrated for their war-reporting rather than for their knowledge of art history. But it was notable that rather than the usual frustrated finger-clicking indicating that they knew but couldn't quite dredge up the answer, they all displayed totally blank faces as if they'd been asked to compute the molecular density of moon rock. The skating cleric aside, the other two pictures are, let's face it, seminal images from the history of art.

The fact that a handful of prominent BBC news journalists were unable to identify three of the most internationally famous images from UK national collections perhaps underscores Ian Davidson's point that one of the greatest artists of the Italian High Renaissance could be an Italian footballer for all it matters to the British public.

So isn't it time to promote the teaching of art history at primary and secondary school level? It remains a highly popular subject at university, but why isn't a basic knowledge of art history recognised as a valuable component of children's intellectual development and enshrined as such within the national curriculum?

I was interested to read that Munira Mirza, London Mayor Boris Johnson's director of cultural policy, has included in her manifesto: "raising the profile of art history in schools". Bravo.

This ought to be adopted as a matter of urgency. If our children — and indeed our celebrity news hacks — had a better visual education then perhaps these perennial issues over whether or not to save a picture for the nation would not be quite so fraught with marginal bickering. Most people would know who Titian was and would have some idea of his significance to the development of Western painting.

All we'd need to do then is decide whether or not to fork out for it. The transfer window for Jock McTitian is about to close. Hold the back page.

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