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Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Cock and Bull

The coincidence of Bradford's dismay at the loss of its photographic collection to London with the decision of Cambridge University to remove a Benin bronze cockerel from public display reminds us that historic symbols are constantly repurposed and revalued, which paradoxically makes them subversive despite their antique nature. The transfer of the Royal Photography Society's collection from West Yorkshire to the Victoria & Albert Museum is being justified on the grounds that the resource is currently under-utilised and combining it with the V&A's existing collection will be a benefit to scholars and public alike. The more banal explanation is that the National Media Museum is likely to be reorganised and renamed as the Science Museum North, after a decade of commercial under-performance, making the media angle largely redundant.

The political interpretation is that the creation of "regional cultural hubs" during the Blair years, such as Sheffield's ill-starred National Centre for Popular Music and Doncaster's Earth Centre, has now been reversed in favour of metropolitan centralisation. In fact, while lottery-funded initiatives during the New Labour regime dispersed more money to the regions than the Arts Council ever managed, London still benefited disproportionately in terms of per-capita spending, largely because of the demands of the existing cultural "estate". What has happened since 2010 is that government has dropped intervention in favour of market forces, which has accentuated the metropolitan bias. This can be seen not only in the NMM decision but in a "northern powerhouse" that (whether realistic or not) envisages economic growth driving cultural philanthropy through private channels.

The Bradford collection makes for an interesting contrast with the Elgin Marbles, not because it is being shipped to that there London (most of the collection was held in the capital before the move north in 2002, so this is actually a "return"), but because the argument of utility and convenience (i.e. better for academic study and easier to get to) is often wheeled out to explain why Phidias's sculptures would be ill-served by repatriation to a museum on the Acropolis. Meanwhile, the bronze cockerel in Cambridge is being lumped together with Cecil Rhodes at Oxford as a symbol of colonialism, which it undoubtedly is, however a better parallel would be (again) the Elgin Marbles, which is itself a symbol of Britain's informal empire - i.e. the product of economic and diplomatic coercion. The fundamental issue in the three cases other than the Rhodes statue is not display but possession.

When something becomes a component of the imagined national patrimony, which can happen many years after its creation, it stops being a commodity that can be freely traded and thus alienated. One of nationalism's critiques of monarchy was that it couldn't dispose of territories hitherto treated as personal properties. This is why the bronze is categorically different to the statue. The stone Rhodes (great name for a band) has been reinterpreted by students as evidence of a contemporary blitheness towards racism by Oxford University, rather than as the symbol of colonial dispossession presented by a property-obsessed media. Oriel College's decision, that pissing off students would be better than losing donors, rather proves the point. The sensitivity over the cockerel is that restitution, of what is a relatively minor artwork, would set a precedent for the British Museum's extensive collection of Benin bronzes, not to mention those marbles. Cambridge's tactical retreat is intended to take the heat out of the issue: repatriation to Nigeria will be kicked into the long grass.


The "cockerel affair" has been taken up by those, from The Daily Mail to Spiked, who believe that students have been led astray by cultural relativism and the legacy of the Frankfurt School: "this is another example of how students are using history as a morality play to express their own moral superiority in the present" (what, like Macaulay?). They ought to go and see the Coen brothers' new film, Hail! Caesar, which features a hilarious communist plot (in a film otherwise criticised for being plotless) that combines the Red Scare, the Lavendar Scare and Herbert Marcuse reimagined as a cross between Einstein and Yoda (and nicely played by John Bluthal in the spirit of Spike Milligan's Q series rather than The Vicar of Dibley). The film shows that you can be simultaneously sympathetic to a character's historic predicament (studio boss Eddie Mannix trying to reconcile Catholic guilt with commercial amorality and American optimism) and sincerely appreciative of historic forms (from Westerns to musicals) while ripping the piss out of history.

I've mentioned before that the uptick in media coverage of safe spaces and no-platforming - which is not the same as an actual increase in these practices on campus, though the coverage will inevitably create a feedback loop - reflects the increasing commercialisation of further education and the psychological impact of student debt. It's about privilege and property: in-group cultural norms and the currency of historic assets. In that context, the cockerel kerfuffle is a more interesting development than the objection to the statue of Rhodes because it treats the bronze as both an artefact of historic abuse, the plunder of Benin, and as a modern asset whose value potentially constitutes financial reparation as much as aesthetic restitution. No wonder it has disappeared from view. This is subversive because students are embarrassed by the economic basis of their privilege. In contrast, the Rhodes Must Fall movement is a conventional meritocratic demand for equal access to privilege.

I couldn't finish a review of symbols that have suddenly morphed from conservative to subversive without mentioning the Queen. My interest is not simply the report (vehemently denied) of pro-Brexit views, which I suspect is just the latest attempt by Rupert Murdoch to warn Cameron not to employ the royals in the referendum campaign, so much as the royal family's own history as imports from Germany and Denmark. Being an acquisition from afar does not stop something becoming a symbol of free-booting Britishness (tea, bungalows, fish and chips etc), but the pragmatic accession of William and Mary, reinforced by the cynical hiring of the Hanoverians, did require the apotheosis of that peculiarly British abstraction, the crown in parliament, as a substitute for the divine right of kings and the preservation of elite interests. Despite the best efforts of Macaulay and other Whig historians, this has always been potentially unstable.

While other nations replaced the individual body politic with the sovereign people, the UK maintained the institutional obscurity of the monarchy as the basis of state power, which is why attempts to draft a bill "to enshrine parliamentary sovereignty", which would risk letting daylight in, come to nought. Who ultimately commands the military? What are the limits to executive power outside the scrutiny of Parliament? Who has the right to declare a state of exception? These are questions that cannot be satisfactorily answered in the British constitution. At the heart of government is a black hole from which no information escapes. The role of the monarch is to distract attention from this void, but that requires absolute political neutrality. The problem is that the Queen's intervention on the "yes" side in the Scottish independence referendum, however oblique, broke the spell. The risk for the establishment is that the EU vote could yet prompt the constitutional moment that was swerved in 2014.

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