The Urge to Scribble

January 8, 2008

Culture Vultures

Filed under: Uncategorized — theurgetoscribble @ 1:32 am
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Its not often I’ve felt out of place in a museum or gallery. I was a geek. Museums were my refuge where being fascinated by the world and interested in culture and art was allowed. The only moment of unease I remember was as a very self-conscious teenager when my mother enthused loudly about how glorious some Gauguin nudes were, weren’t their curves great? But apart from mortification over breasts at the hands of one’s mother in the Courtauld Institute, London’s cultural institutions have been places of sanctuary. It was odd then, to feel somewhat lost amongst the capital’s culture vultures at the Lee Miller exhibition in the V&A today. But the longer I stayed, the odder I felt.

It was only when I realised that I was witnessing a rather twisted version of the modern St Trinian’s film in action that things started to slot into place.

At school I was surrounded by groups. You chose your group and you stuck with it. The recent St Trinian’s has taken celebration of this teenage tribalism to new levels. Each look has its name, its look and its habits. But I am sure that it is generally assumed that once you strike adulthood such herd activity can mostly be left behind. That was how those of us who couldn’t and wouldn’t fit a group were comforted. However, cultural tribalism was certainly in action at the V&A. Despite all the time and effort and money put into widening access it was the middle classes with bohemian pretensions who had populated the exhibition. Which meant it didn’t feel very bohemian at all. And neither did it feel comfortable.

Three distinct groups were making there way around the Lee Miller exhibition:

  1. The Ladies of a Certain Age

    It does not matter what this age is, only that no woman will ever admit to being it. Most exhibitions though will have more than their fair share of attendees coming from leisured older women with a dress sense beyond the conventional (anything from frilled edges to fur coats) and the ability to make knowing caustic comments on the exhibits in a stage whisper.

  1. The Mid-Life Crisis

    These are perhaps the lesser spotted exhibition attendees but will come out in force for something suitably avant-garde. Lee Miller is obviously a case in point. Never have I seen so many grey haired men uniformly dressed in black leather jackets. At least they had left the leather trousers at home.

  2. The Arty Students

    Not necessarily art students but definitely students with artistic pretensions, many layers of clothing and gloriously dishevelled hair which probably took more time to master than simply running a brush through it.

Their appearance thought, is not really what matters. This need not descend into a society magazine ‘spot your type’ article. It is the sheer fact of their cultural homogeneity. The government spends millions widening access, the museums have never had more visitors and yet their audience seems still to be such a narrow group. And while I certainly wasn’t one of these groups (my hair being far too neat and my clothes lacking the requisite number of layers) I’m also hardly ideal audience diversification (still white, still middle class).

Our museums and galleries have never been more popular, since the Labour government introduced free admission numbers have soared. And even exhibitions requiring payment are becoming blockbusters – queues for tickets to the V&A’s recent exhibitions have stretched out the door onto Exhibition Road. Maybe I’m making an issue out of nothing. Lee Miller is after all a relatively sidelined cultural figure, however much I think she shouldn’t be. And maybe if I went during the week I would see school parties being introduced to her work and people beyond my three types. But I fear it would be yet more culture vultures.

The people I saw at today’s exhibition were in no sense representative of the country I live in. A few years ago I wouldn’t have realised. Coming from rural Sussex I thought the world was white and middle class. But its not. Does it matter that they weren’t at today’s exhibition? If they knew it was there and chose not to go then no, it doesn’t. But I’m not sure that’s the case. Culture is for everyone. We want a shared democracy, a society with shared values, and culture, in whatever form it takes, is a part of that. It is one of the joys of the world we live in. If we want people to share in the duties and responsibilities surely we should also strive to include them in all its rewards? Maybe I’m being naïve. Probably so. But if I felt out of place in today’s exhibition, imagine how many more will allow themselves to be put off by London’s professional culture vultures for evermore.


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