Monday 2 February 2009

“A pair of boots is preferable to the poetry of Pushkin.” (Dmitri Ivanovich Pisarev)

Channel 4 News’ coverage of the sale of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon to the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery in London for fifty million pound (£50,000,000) was brilliant and, as usual, entertaining. They invited Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery and some Scottish bureaucrat or politician whose name I didn’t catch, and asked them: “Is it really worth, in such a time of crisis, to spend fifty million pound on a single painting?”

As it might be expected, the guests’ opinions were at opposite poles of the spectrum, but more than their arguments and replies, I loved to study their faces and body languages. Dr Penny had a worn-out face and dark shadows under his eyes, yet he seemed relaxed after what must have been a complex and extenuating negotiation and fund-raising process. The politician’s piercing eyes and stiff posture betrayed the bad temper of someone who suffers from haemorrhoids, and his face – oh well, his face was certainly not a romantic face – not the face of a poet!

Their brief exchange reminded me about the following passage from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment:

“And tell me, please, what do you find so shameful even in cesspools? I should be the first to be ready to clean out any cesspool you like. And it’s not a question of self-sacrifice: it’s simply work, honourable, useful work which is as good as any other and much better than the work of a Raphael and a Pushkin, because it is more useful.”

Which is a subtle reference to Pisarev’s words in the title of this blog entry. Difficult to say who’s right and who’s wrong, because both sides – the nihilists and the cynics on the one hand and the idealists and artistic-minded on the other – can put forward very valid arguments.

Whilst I adore Titian, I must admit that fifty million pound is an obscene amount of money to pay for one painting. And it is arguable whether “saving” this work for the nation is more in the public interest than, say, open a few more schools, libraries or hospitals. Still, I am delighted the painting hasn't ended up in some Russian billionaire's living room and is for everyone to see and admire – not just for now, but hopefully for generations to come.


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