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The Bachhaus in Eisenach describes itself as the world’s first Bach museum. Ironically, it’s not the house old J S was born in, and he seems to have been keen to leave Eisenach early and reluctant to ever go back. Perhaps with good reason: even today, it’s the one town we visited in the former GDR that is still obviously suffering economically, and the one place on our travels where we didn’t feel welcome, but did feel ripped off. However, we’d come not for Bach, or for Eisenach itself, but for the Wartburg, perched on a rock high above the town.
‘The weight of history’ is a phrase that kept occurring to us on this tour, but in few places was it as palpable as in this extraordinary confection of a medieval castle. This is where the 13thcentury contests of Minnesingers were held that form the basis of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and many other legends. St Elizabeth of Hungary (and Thuringia) was chatelaine here, and was canonised just four years after her death in 1231. Luther hid out here, disguised as ‘Junker Jorg’ and wrote much of his translation of the New Testament while under cover, and you can see the cell where he worked, purportedly original. Which is more than can be said for his so-called cell in the Augustiner Monastery in Erfurt, which has been rebuilt at least twice. And in 1817, exactly 300 years after Luther kicked off the Reformation, German students held a fraternity meeting in the Wartburg, a meeting which is seen in retrospect as an important milestone on the road to German unity, thus making the castle today a pilgrimage site for certain right wing nationalist groups as well as for Protestants from all over the world.
So it’s no wonder that Goethe (yes, him again) proposed that this slumbering giant should be reawakened as a museum, though it was Carl Alexander of Weimar, the grandson of Goethe’s employer, who eventually took on the task of the castle’s restoration. The result is an extraordinary challenge to our notions of ‘authenticity’. From the outside the Wartburg looks like every child’s dream of a medieval castle (and it inspired Mad Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein), and at its core is one of the most important secular Romanesque buildings to survive in Northern Europe. But Carl Alexander’s architect Hugo von Ritgen turned the interior into a delirious dream of what the 19th Century thought a medieval castle should look like. The end result no doubt disappoints many visitors seeking an ‘authentic’ medieval experience—one TripAdvisor comment calls it ‘disappointing kitschy neo-classical’—but for anyone with an interest in the myths of nation-building, the impact is thrilling and overwhelming. This is ‘bildung’ on the scale, not of an individual, but of an entire emergent nation (see Part 3). This is the image of a fantastical, colourful, German history that Nazi ideology would so distort, and one has to work hard to get past that distortion, and to appreciate the idealism and the optimism with which something like the Wartburg was created.
Even the GDR co-opted the Wartburg in a new phase of nation-building, as in 1967 the castle was the site of celebrations of: the GDR’s national jubilee, the 900th anniversary of the castle’s (legendary) founding, the 450th anniversary of the start of Luther’s Reformation, and the 150th anniversary of that primal student gathering in 1817. Phew!
At the heart of Luther’s Reformation is the idea of the individual’s unmediated relationship with God. If we had any doubt that this focus on the individual was already deeply rooted in German history and culture, it would have been swept away by our next visit, to Naumburg Cathedral. Here I have to make a confession: I have been wanting to visit Naumburg for almost fifty years, ever since I first made the acquaintance of a very special lady, the Countess Uta. Naumburg Cathedral is unique in German art. When the church was rebuilt in the early 13thcentury, it was decided that the west choir (an unusual feature of certain German churches) should be dedicated to the 12 ‘founders’ of the original church, and that they should be commemorated in 12 lifesize and almost freestanding stone sculptures. These are among the first and the most impressive portraits of named individuals in all of medieval art, and the greatest of all is that of Uta, wife of the Margrave Ekkehard. When Umberto Eco was asked which woman from art he would like to have dinner with, he immediately chose Uta. Her beauty has haunted me for much of my life and, I can tell you, the reality does not disappoint.
Except, this is not a portrait. At the time these twelve sculptures were executed, their subjects had been dead for about 150 years. If they are based on living individuals, and it’s hard to believe they’re not, then those individuals were entirely different people. And it seems that the touches of paint—on eyes, cheeks and lips—which are so important in giving life to Uta’s beauty, may be largely or wholly the result of various restorations from the 17thto the 19thcentury.
And Uta, like the Wartburg, suffered from being co-opted into Nazi ideology, promoted as an ideal of Aryan womanhood—restrained and demure—in contrast to her sister-in-law across the choir, Reglindis, whose inappropriate smiling (I kid you not) was thought to be due to her inferior Polish ancestry. So many layers to strip away, as the 19thcentury ‘restorers’ stripped away the Baroque trappings of the Cathedral to get back to its medieval core. In all those layers, is there such a thing as an ‘authentic’ Uta? Naumburg, by the way, is a wholly delightful town, worth at least a day of anyone’s time.
And so our epic tour came to an end, as we returned to the German city we know best, Munich, and, by happy coincidence, to a major exhibition which somehow epitomised all the conflicting ideas and issues that we’d been exposed to on this holiday-cum-pilgrimage through German history and culture. Munich’s Kunsthalle is a remarkable temporary exhibition space in the middle of an upmarket shopping mall, rather is if the Royal Scottish Academy were relocated to inside Harvey Nick’s. And the exhibitions it mounts are no less remarkable. Du Bist Faust explored the impact of Goethe’s two-part epic on two centuries of art and music, moving step by step through the familiar story, and in doing so showing how quickly Goethe’s ‘authentic’ philosophical vision had been simplified (many would say cheapened) by such manifestations as Gounod’s opera Faust(for a long time known in German-speaking regions as Marguerite to distance it from the great original). And showing also how Goethe ensured that the late-Medieval legend of the learned doctor who made a pact with the devil would become an inescapable metaphor for the human condition.
Perhaps Faust is the greatest, most ‘authentic’ of all German myths, because it subsumes all the others and touches so deeply on something within all of us. Can it be coincidence that the historical Faust—if there really was such a man—was a near-contemporary of Luther? Is Faust’s disgust with a lifetime of learning actually a rejection of the whole concept of bildung, and is his pact with Mephistopheles—the spirit of negation—a black mirror of that striving for a secular perfection? And if the drive towards German unity in the 19thcentury was a kind of national bildung, was the subsequent failure of the Weimar Republic and the collapse into totalitarianism, a kind of Faustian pact? Is any quest for perfection, for utopia, for authenticity, doomed to be perverted into its dark opposite?
Goethe’s Faust Part 2 ends with a ‘Chorus Mysticus’ (in Philip Wayne’s translation for Penguin):
All things corruptible
Are but a parable;
Here finds fulfilment;
Here the ineffable
Wins life through love;
Leads us above.
But what if ‘Earth’s insufficiency’ is all there is? Returning home to a garden rampant with three week’s untamed Spring growth, we were drawn more to the final words of another great European masterpiece, Voltaire’s Candide: ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin’.
And so we crossed from Austria to Germany, leaving behind the family tragedies of the Habsburgs, and also the gemütlich sentimentality of Mozart in Salzburg, and entering the heady and high-minded world of Luther, Bach, Goethe and Schiller, and the double-edged question of German unity. We were about to spend a week in Erfurt, capital of Thuringia, which region, though once part of the GDR, is at the very heart of Germany, both geographically and culturally. And we were about to steep ourselves in a philosophical milieu that is best summed up in the single, untranslatable term, bildung.
‘Bildung’ is defined by Peter Watson, in his exhaustive (and exhausting) study, The German Genius as referring to ‘the inner development of the individual, a process of fulfilment through education and knowledge, in effect a secular search for perfection’. The term is not widely known in English circles, except in the form bildungsroman, applied to a novel, like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which depicts the growth of an individual. It came as no surprise to learn that the first bildungsroman was written by Goethe, whose pervasiveness in German culture has no match in English, unless you combined Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Ruskin into one.
Erfurt is about the size of Aberdeen and, having been spared the worst ravages of Allied bombing, is, like Bamberg and Regensburg, a lively working city which just happens to have a centre made up largely of buildings dating back to the Renaissance and earlier. And, as noted in Part 1, most of those old buildings have been restored to the point where they look ‘as good as new’. There are few cars, lots of trams, bicycles and pedestrians, and a mix of river, canals, trees, and characterful old streets that reminded us of Bruges (though with many fewer tourists!). Our Munich friends were surprised that we could spend as much as a week there (as if we’d said to a Londoner that we’d spent a week in Doncaster), but it is a welcoming and endearing town and an ideal centre for touring the fascinating region of Thuringia and beyond.
Erfurt’s sense of its own centrality in German history and culture is amply demonstrated by the impressive series of 19thcentury murals in the Rathaus (Town Hall). In the main council chamber these depict, as you would expect, scenes from the city’s history, ranging from the more or less accurate to the downright apocryphal, but in the grand staircase fantasy had been allowed free rein. Here the murals tell the story of Faust (the original legend with its gory end, not Goethe’s version), an equally dubious tale about a local count, and the fantasy version of the life of Tannhäuser (a historical figure) which Wagner retold. Even the murals of Luther’s life include scenes with no documented basis. I was reminded of the famous lines from The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!’.
I’m fascinated by the world of German theatres and opera houses, and Erfurt has a particularly fine example, which opened in just 2003. We were very fortunate that on our first night in the city we caught the final performance of a studio production of Cavalli’s opera La Calisto. Opera lovers of our generation will have happy memories of a famous 1970s Glyndebourne/Peter Hall production of this delightful opera, starring Janet Baker, no less. But that Raymond Leppard arrangement was on the grandest and most sumptuous scale. Erfurt’s production was no doubt closer to the 17thcentury original: eight singers, and an instrumental ensemble of just 14. But this was no dry effort at authenticity: alongside the violins, viols, harpsichord, and cornetto that Cavalli might have expected were a batch of modern wind and brass instruments, creating a wonderfully rich sonority at key points. And the production wittily merged Greek and Thuringian themes: for example, the satyr whose antics spark the plot was one half goat-leg and horns, one half dirty lederhosen, while Pan had combined his Mediterranean attributes with those of the thoroughly German folk figure of Rübezahl. It was a truly wonderful production and performance, well nigh flawless, and a tribute to the standards that even the second rank of German opera companies can achieve. ‘Historically informed’? Certainly. ‘Authentic’? To the spirit of the original, I have no doubt.
Our first excursion from Erfurt was just 15 minutes on the train, to Weimar. This truly is the cultural centre of Germany. Bach first made his name here, Goethe, Schiller and Herder all worked together here, and later Liszt made it his base of operations for many years. And of course this small provincial town was where the first attempt at a German Republic was proclaimed in 1919, and where, in the same year, the Bauhaus was founded. That’s a lot of history to bear for a town that, even today, has fewer than 70,000 inhabitants.
On our previous trip, a few years ago, we had visited Goethe’s house: an eerie experience, as there are no labels or captions, and no electric light, and the excellent audio guide persuades you that a member of Goethe’s family might turn the corner at any moment. This time we visited the corresponding Schiller house, and had a very similar enthralling, and enlightening, experience, even though a much greater proportion of the contents were not linked to Schiller’s family, but only generally to his time. One gets the sense that the importance, in Germany, of these two great writers lies almost as much in their lives as in their works, as exemplars of fulfilment through bildung. I was reminded strongly of the conventions of hagiography, as if Goethe and Schiller were being given the status of secular saints, a process which always carries the danger of smoothing out the wrinkles of their lives as lived, and making them seem, ultimately, something more—or less—than human.
This cross-over from sacred to secular was evident throughout Thuringia in the treatment of Luther, especially as we were encountering a great deal of the hangover from the 2017 quincentenary of his 95 theses. Such anniversaries—and not just in Germany—show just how much we are still in thrall to the ‘Great Man’ theory of history popularised by Carlyle (think of the recent success of Darkest Hour!). There is no more extreme example of this than the Walhalla hall of fame created by Ludwig I of Bavaria, which we had viewed from the Danube on our visit to Regensburg some years ago. It contains 191 busts commemorating ‘politicians, sovereigns, scientists and artists of the German tongue’, only 12 of them women. In the wake of the defeat of Napoleon, the creation of the Walhalla was seen as a crucial demonstration of a shared German heritage, and an important step towards German national unity. On our next excursion we were about to encounter another such demonstration, on a similarly grand scale, but that’s for the next part of this blog.
Although I’m obsessive about planning flights, trains, and hotels, once we’ve arrived, as far as possible, we allow serendipity to rule our holidays. Unexpected discoveries are always the best. So it was with our arrival in Vienna this month. Just before our flight took off, I scanned Google Maps to see what sites might be worth visiting within walking distance of our hotel, and that’s how I found the Hofmobiliendepot or, in English, the Imperial Furniture Collection. As Judith is a retired furniture restorer, this was a no-brainer. But I wasn’t expecting one of the most enthralling, and ultimately moving, museums we’ve ever visited.
Surprise number one was the fact that, of the numerous Habsburg palaces across the middle of Europe, only the Hofburg in Vienna was permanently furnished. All the rest were equipped as and when needed from the furnishings kept in the Hofmobiliendepot.Visits by the Emperor and members of his family and court would be preceded by convoys of up to 100 carts, carrying everything from wardrobes to candelabra, from beds to mirrors.
So, the first part of this fascinating museum told this story, and gave a vivid impression of what the store must have been like in its heyday (and if the prospect of twenty different designs of spittoon case doesn’t intrigue you, perhaps this part of the collection isn’t for you!). But it then moved quickly into a different gear, with a series of displays of items related directly to the lives and surroundings of individual Habsburgs.
The story of Franz Joseph 1, longest-reigning Habsburg Emperor, and third-longest reigning monarch in European history, is one of a succession of hammer-blow tragedies. His brother Maximillian embarked on an abortive project as Emperor of Mexico and was executed by Republicans. His son Rudolf committed suicide in the scandal known as ‘Mayerling’. His beloved Empress Elizabeth, known to all as Sisi, was stabbed to death by an anarchist. The shooting of his nephew, and heir presumptive, Franz Ferdinand, triggered the First World War, and the dissolution of the Empire that Franz Joseph had spent his long life trying to preserve. It’s impossible to stand before the objects and furnishings that these people used on a daily basis, and not be moved by the associations.
For Austrians, of course, those associations are very much more powerful, but not for purely historical reasons. There can hardly be a single Austrian alive today who has not been exposed to the trilogy of ‘Sissi’ films made in the 1950s, and an annual Christmas feature on Austrian television to this day. Romy Schneider, herself a deeply tragic figure, launched her career playing the Empress ‘Sissi’ (note the extra ‘s’, a nod to those typical movie disclaimers that ‘any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental’), and most commentators date the cult of the real-life ‘Sisi’ (with one ‘s’) to the advent of those films.
This is directly relevant to the Hofmobiliendepot. The film-makers couldn’t always get access to palaces like Schönbrunn, which otherwise had to be recreated in the studio, but they could borrow furniture and props from the Hofmobiliendepot, and clever displays in the museum show the actual pieces alongside clips from the films in which they were used to create a sense of ‘authenticity’. So when Austrian visitors now view these objects in the Museum, are they being moved more by the associations with their original users, or by the memories of their appearances in the films that they’ve known since their childhoods?
The Hofmobiliendepot is not averse to tugging the heartstrings directly. There is an extraordinary shrine to Maximillian, built around the coffin in which his body was brought back to Vienna from Mexico, which is guarded by the elaborate helmets and swords of his Imperial Guard, and accompanied by his own stylish white sombrero—just what he is shown wearing in the reproduction of the famous Manet painting of the execution displayed behind the coffin. And here my own reactions are equally complicated: Maximillian is a leading character, played with great conviction by George Macready, in one of my own favourite films, Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz.
The serendipity effect continued on our second day in Vienna. Enjoying our favourite holiday roles as flaneurs (not entirely aimless wandering of city streets), we found ourselves close to the Kapuzinergruft, the Capuchin Crypt, in which most of the Habsburgs were buried from 1632 onwards. Actually, ‘buried’ is not quite the term, as the various monarchs and their relatives are entombed in individual sarcophagi, some unbelievably elaborate (the lid alone of that of Maria Theresa and her husband weighs 1700 kilos), others austerely plain (starting with that of Maria Theresa’s son Joseph II, he of the famous ‘Too many notes, Herr Mozart’ quote).
On previous trips to Vienna I had shied away from this ‘visitor attraction’, expecting it to be rather kitsch and touristy (like all those bewigged touts trying to sell concert tickets at every major tourist site). I could not have been more wrong. The Kapuzinergruft is resolutely low key, under-stated, and defiantly anti-tourist. Without a decent knowledge of Habsburg history, or a good guide, the visitor will get little more than a mild frisson from these serried ranks of tombs: 107 separate sarcophagi including 12 emperors and 18 empresses.
The climax is the second-to-last room dedicated solely to Franz Joseph, his murdered wife, and his suicidal son. We found this space, and its simple austerity, almost unbearably moving: the weight of history, so to speak, was pressing on us. And on many other visitors, it seemed, as there was a plethora of small and touching tributes at the feet of the coffins, from flowers to children’s drawings. I’ve never been to Queen Victoria’s tomb at Frogmore, but I don’t imagine it receives similar spontaneous tributes.
But what, exactly, are these tributes to? To the memory of one of the last Imperial dynasties of Europe, and an empire that, by its end, had become impossibly sclerotic (read Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March!), or to the characters made familiar by those endlessly repeated ‘Sissi’ films?
And I couldn’t avoid one sneaking, and impertinent, suspicion: could we really take it on trust that the actual bodies were resting in these imposing sarcophagi? After all, forensic investigations had just disproved the long-held belief that The Old Fox, Lord Lovat, was buried in the crypt of the mausoleum in the village where we live! I was reminded of the wonderful sculptures of Harris-based artist Steve Dilworth. He makes beautifully fashioned objects that purport to contain eggs, bird skeletons, even Hebridean air! When asked for proof that one of his sculptures did in fact contain a bird, he replied ‘Destroy it, and see!’. With Dilworth’s sculptures, as with the Kapuzinergruft our reactions have to be rooted in a trust in others, not in any objective proof—and of course, in our own willingness to believe.
One of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan is the Ise Grand Shrine, in the Mie prefecture, near Kyoto. It was built in 2013.
This apparent paradox is due to the tradition that the shrine is completely rebuilt every 20 years, using exactly the same techniques and materials with which it was first constructed. The current manifestation is the 62ndsuch building on the site. Equally paradoxically, this practice both symbolises Shinto belief in the impermanence of all things, and yet also seeks to ensure the continuation of age-old crafts and construction techniques.
I had been reading about this, and many other similar examples in South East Asia, just before we started on an ambitious 17 day tour across eight cities and towns in Austria and Germany, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the idea of ‘authenticity’ was very much on my mind as we plunged into the heady worlds of the Hapsburgs, of Luther, of Goethe and Schiller, and of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and the GDR.
I’ve always liked the paradox known as my grandfather’s axe: my father replaced the handle, and I replaced the head, but this is still my grandfather’s axe. Looking it up, I was surprised to find that the concept has a history that goes all the way back to Plutarch, who told it of Theseus’s ship, preserved by the Athenians, yet with every element gradually replaced over time: was it, or was it not, still the ship in which Theseus had sailed from Crete?
After the Second World War, the shattered cities of Europe and Asia faced a crucial set of decisions: rebuild, reconstruct, or build anew? In Britain, almost overwhelmingly, the decision was to build anew—to replace bombed out city centres with modernist developments; Exeter is one of the most extreme examples. In many towns and cities, indeed, the planners went far beyond the Luftwaffe in removing old buildings and replacing them with a new architectural language. Ironically, this approach was almost certainly hugely influenced by the pre-war influx to the UK of a host of European modernist architects, fleeing Fascism. It’s not the purpose of this blog to explore how far such decisions have contributed, two generations on, to the pervasive decline of the British town centre.
In much of the rest of Europe, however, and especially in those countries which formed the Soviet bloc, the decision was to rebuild. From Warsaw to Nuremberg, from Dresden to Munich, immense effort went into recreating the pre-war cityscape, using photographs, drawings, paintings, plans and, where at all possible, actual fragments of the destroyed originals.
In different contexts, approaches also differed. In Munich, patterns of brickwork in the exterior walls of the Alte Pinakothek Gallery show what survived and what had to be rebuilt. In Erfurt’s Predigerkirche thousands of tiny fragments of medieval stained glass were brought together from bombed churches across the city and refashioned into a set of dazzlingly beautiful abstract choir windows. In Warsaw, as Dan Cruikshank fascinatingly revealed in a documentary a couple of years back, the post-war reconstruction work is now itself sufficiently old as to demonstrate a passage of time that could as well be two hundred and fifty years, as fifty.
But what of those towns which had largely escaped the ravages of Allied bombers, or the steam-roller of the Red Army? When I visited Cracow in 1994, just five years after the fall of Communism, it was like stepping back in time to what much of Europe must have looked like before the Second War. But these surviving old buildings are like Theseus’s ship: they cannot survive without ongoing repair and replacement. And so, in cities like Bamberg and Regensburg, which we visited a few years ago, and Erfurt and Naumburg which we saw on this trip, there have been huge programmes of renovation and restoration, often funded by the EU. The result is disconcerting. These historical survivals, gleaming with paint and gilding, now look as good as new. In fact, they look newer than those wholly reconstructed buildings which were erected 50 or 60 years ago. If, In Cracow, I felt I was going back to the 1930s, the aim in these restorations is to go back to the 1630s, or even earlier.
To a Brit, this approach is troubling. We like our old buildings to look old. The more worn the timbers, the more lopsided the structure, the more faded the plasterwork, the better. Faithful restorations, such as of the Great Hall at Stirling Castle, may strike us as garish, perhaps even a bit kitsch. And yet, over time, we have whole-heartedly adopted the approach of our European neighbours. Now, if a Hampton Court or an Uppark is damaged or destroyed by fire, the original will be meticulously recreated.
It can seem, therefore, as if this is now a universal norm. If we can ‘preserve’ Theseus’s ship by gradually replacing all its elements, we’ll do so. But if, through some terrible accident, the ship is destroyed, we will faithfully recreate it. But this approach is in fact far from universal. China, for example, has a completely different philosophy. For a culture that celebrates 3500 years of continuous history, China has remarkably few historic buildings, apart, of course, from the Great Wall and the Forbidden Palace. This is because, for many centuries, ‘heritage’, in China has been represented through texts, through continuity of practices (the infamous Civil Service exam system), and through personal expressions such as calligraphy, painting and ceramics. As one historian put it, ‘the Chinese civilisation did not lodge its history in buildings…the only truly enduring embodiments of the eternal human moments are the literary ones’.
Ideas of architectural ‘authenticity’, therefore, unavoidably shaped our reactions to the different cities and towns, familiar and unfamiliar, which we visited on our tour. But much wider and more diverse themes of myth and authenticity also seemed to present themselves wherever we looked, right from our very first day in Vienna, and that’s what I’ll turn to in the next part of this blog.
Arts funders rarely get a good press. But, just before Christmas, suddenly there was good news, with the announcement from the Scottish Government of a budget settlement for Creative Scotland which was far better than any of us had dared to hope for. Then it all went horribly wrong, and for the last few weeks, Creative Scotland has been the subject of a perfect storm of bad news headlines. I’m not going to enter the heated debates about who won and who lost in the recent funding round, but there was one headline you might easily have overlooked, but which I think gets close to the heart of the matter.
‘Creative Scotland spent £150k to deliver cuts’ claimed The Herald, on 22nd February. Like many such headlines, it only told part of a complex story, which was that the funding body had had to spend £150,000 on hiring external assessors to help to process other grant schemes, while its own staff concentrated on the huge and demanding Regular Funding round.
Much of the recent controversy has been about how those Regular Funding decisions—which account for by far the largest part of Creative Scotland’s budget—had been made, with many claims of a lack of transparency. On the other hand, ostensibly, Creative Scotland have been entirely open about their need to bring in this team of external assessors: they were recruited by open advertisement, and once appointed their names were listed in full on the Creative Scotland website, together with their artform specialisms. Except they weren’t–not in full. I know at least one person—highly qualified, I must stress—who was called in to take on assessments, despite their name not being on the advertised list. Despite, in fact, them having their application to be an assessor turned down in the first place.
So, which is worse for the harried, hard-pressed applicant for arts funding? To know that their efforts will be assessed, and decided on, by an internal panel of Creative Scotland officers, or to know (or perhaps find out later), that a crucial role was played by a paid, and possibly anonymous, external assessor, whom, in the small world of the arts in Scotland, they probably know, and might even be in competition with? Myself, I don’t find either option very attractive.
There used to be another way. When I worked for the Scottish Arts Council in the 1990s all but the smallest funding decisions were devolved to genuinely independent (and unpaid) artform committees and panels. As a Visual Arts Officer I looked after both the Exhibitions, and the Artists’ Awards panels. The former was made up of experienced professionals in the field: curators, critics, art historians and gallery directors. My role was to work with applicants to help them to make the best possible case to this independent panel, and at the same time, not to waste the panel members’ time by bringing forward too many applications that weren’t worthy of serious consideration. I used to consider that if the Panel approved more than 75% of applications, they weren’t scrutinising them closely enough, but if they approved fewer than 50%, then I was failing in my job to bring forward strong and interesting proposals.
Of course this system was far from perfect, and in a small country no such process could ever be truly objective. And it could readily be charged that, in the role of gate-keeper, I could show favouritism–or its opposite. But for me the very strength of the system lay in admitting it was imperfect: that any panel or ‘jury’ would bring their own knowledge and prejudices to the task, and that the crucial point was to ensure as open a process as possible, with appropriate checks and balances. And it was a process that could embrace innovation. In the days before ‘craft’ was part of SAC’s remit I was able to convince the Panel to fund an exhibition by the Scottish branch of the British Artist Blacksmiths Association, and also, many years before there was any link between arts funding and the ‘creative industries’, I argued successfully for funding for an exhibition by an association of illustrators. Both exhibitions were great successes which toured widely. Neither would have been funded under a rigid application of SAC’s then remit and priorities.
But gradually SAC became obsessed with the concept of objectivity, with measuring applications against a publicly stated set of standards and priorities. The only problem with this apparently laudable aim is that, the more objective you want the process to appear, the more specific (and restrictive) you have to make the criteria against which applications will be measured. This method may have reached its nadir in the recent Regular Funding round, where applicants had to match their artistic plans for the next three years against five of Creative Scotland’s ‘ambitions’ and four ‘cross-cutting’ themes. I imagine three-dimensional chess would be easier to master.
At some point down this road, the committee and panel system had been abandoned, and all decisions on funding were brought ‘in house’, to be made by SAC officers. Looking back, I’m not sure now how far that decision was philosophical, or simply pragmatic, on the basis of cost (though remember that these external assessors were not paid!). And that ‘in house’ model was the one which Creative Scotland inherited, albeit with a smaller staff team trying to deal with a steadily increasing number of applications.
Even before this current Regular Funding round, it sometimes seemed that the sheer burden of assessing applications was bringing Creative Scotland to a standstill. When I left the SAC at the end of 1993, one CEO of an arts organisation was kind enough to say that he’d miss the ‘pastoral care’ I was able to offer the ‘clients’ with which I worked. That’s a concept that has not entirely disappeared within Creative Scotland, but for those officers who still try to offer such support, it can be a huge struggle to do so while balancing all their other responsibilities.
And that’s, perhaps, where it all went wrong this January. It’s not just that Creative Scotland officers could not spare the time from the Regular Funding process to meet with their clients, it’s that the very process itself demanded that they should keep a healthy distance from those clients, to ensure that the decisions which they were advising on would remain truly ‘objective’. ‘Only Connect’ said EM Forster, and, going forward, that is what I recommend as Creative Scotland’s new motto, and opening up the funding decision process beyond the tight circle of their own officers would be a crucial first step.
Munich is perhaps our favourite city. Friends are often surprised when we say this, as the city, for them, still has too many associations with its Nazi past. But Munich today is a relaxed, friendly and hospitable city. Its centre is light, airy and spacious, yet compact enough that you can walk across it. And it has one of the finest concentrations of galleries and museums of any city in Europe. Yet, perhaps because of its dark past, Munich is not (yet) a tourist ‘must see’ like Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona or Rome, and so those galleries are rarely crowded or afflicted with coach parties. Indeed in some of the less highly promoted institutions, such as the splendid new Egyptian Museum, or the truly overwhelming Bavarian National Museum, it’s possible, in some rooms, to be the only visitor.
So, when Carol Main, Director of Live Music Now Scotland, asked for Board members to accompany her to an international gathering of LMN groups in Munich, I jumped at the chance. I’ve had the privilege of being involved with Live Music Now for over twenty years. The organisation was founded forty years ago by Yehudi Menuhin, and the Scottish branch was set up in 1984, and Carol has been its Director from the outset. Four years ago, it was devolved from the main UK organisation, but Carol still leads for the UK on international development and networks. Two years ago, she organised a highly successful international networking event in London, and now the LMN Munich organisation had taken up the challenge to host a similar gathering.
In case you’re not familiar with Live Music Now, I should explain that its role is twofold: to help emerging musicians at the start of their careers, and to bring high quality performances to places and people that would rarely experience them: special schools, care homes, prisons and the like. LMN in Germany and Austria also owes its beginnings to Menuhin, but these groups were set up on a rather different basis. Where LMN in the UK is run by professional staff overseen by volunteer Boards, in the rest of Europe most Live Music Now groups are wholly voluntary. So, that meant that this international gathering brought together a large number of committed volunteers, not only from Munich, but also from other parts of Germany, from Vienna, from France and the Netherlands, and even from Chile.
It was an extraordinary weekend, both for me and for Judith (several delegates had brought their partners as vital supporters and networkers!). Rarely if ever have we met so many people, from so many different countries and backgrounds, with whom we immediately felt such a profound empathy and sense of common purpose. But I shouldn’t suggest this was a solemn occasion—there was a great deal of laughter too (especially around the painful subject of Brexit). But the total commitment to the value of live music, and to enabling access to that value, was genuinely moving and inspiring.
The whole event, however, had a much deeper and more haunting resonance. Our meeting was held in the Hochscule für Musik and Theater—entirely appropriate as the institution has very close links with LMN Munich. But the Hochschule is housed in a building that was constructed to be the Nazi headquarters in Munich. It is actually known as the ‘Führerbau’ and the room in which we were meeting had not only been Hitler’s own office, but was the location of the signing of the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement. For many this event was the unforgivable peak of ‘appeasement,’ though some see it as a desperate attempt by Chamberlain and Daladier to buy time for Britain and France to prepare for a war that they saw as inevitable. To add to the historic weight of the occasion, our meeting encompassed the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—marking the 1918 Armistice, just twenty years before that fateful gathering of the European Powers.
The Hochshule’s Chancellor Dr Alexander Krause gave us an enthralling presentation on the history of the building, and led us on a tour of the cellars where, below 2.5 meters of concrete, 3,500 looted artworks had been kept safe from the Allied bombing which destroyed so much of Munich. He spoke about the controversy around the survival, continued use, and planned restoration of the Führerbau, and of his and his colleagues’ belief that a school of music was by far the best means of ‘exorcising’ the building’s past.
If we’d needed any demonstration of the power of music to support that argument, we had it that weekend. The day before our meeting, an evening reception had included an informal recital by two of LMN Munich’s most gifted alumni, of violin sonatas by Beethoven and Saint-Saens. It was a privilege to sit only a few feet away from such powerful music-making. Then, on the Sunday, we were guests of honour at a Benefit Concert for LMN Munich in the imposing marble splendour of the Herkulessaal. The great conductor Mariss Jansons led the Hochschule’s student orchestra in accompanying two of the school’s starriest graduates in violin concertos by Bruch (yes, that one) and Glazunov. The extraordinary level of music-making literally brought tears to our eyes. The future of classical music is safe in the hands of these amazing young people.
The ‘relevance’ of classical music today is often questioned. It can be dismissed as an elitist artform, too closely linked to its historical context as an expression of courtly or bourgeois taste, or (especially opera) too expensive and too exclusive to engage with ‘ordinary’ people. Hearing those two remarkable concerts, in which young people devoted themselves, heart and soul, to bringing life to music from the 19th century, was a humbling experience. Played with such commitment and insight, even ‘old warhorses’ as familiar as Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata, or the Bruch Concerto, can reach places that very few artforms, or any other form of human expression, come close to. I think all of us, regardless of our nationality, came away from this weekend in Munich with a renewed purpose to continue Live Music Now’s invaluable work, and to continue to foster strong international links through the power of music.
© Robert Livingston
You know how it goes, even if only because you’ve read the Christopher Brookmyre novel of the same title. You put the frog in a pan of cold water and raise the temperature very slowly. The frog doesn’t notice till it’s too late. Of course, in reality, the frog would notice, and jump out in plenty of time. But that doesn’t stop this being a useful metaphor for those of us who ignore potentially calamitous circumstances until they’re about to overwhelm us, whether that be personal debt, or climate change.
In my version of the metaphor, the frogs are all of us in Scotland who care about culture, and especially the arts, and the gradually warming water around us is the state of funding for the cultural sector as a whole. I would say the temperature has probably reached about 90° C and is still rising.
Of course, every now and then an isolated example of something under threat hits the media, and campaigns are mounted: to keep a gallery or a library open, to stop a Council withdrawing free instrumental tuition in schools. But these are just the outliers, the big chunks of ice breaking off the continental ice shelf that everyone notices. I’m concerned with something much more insidious.
For instance, in this time of cultural glut during the Edinburgh Festivals, it’s easy to forget just what the situation can be in Scotland’s capital for much of the rest of the year. Let’s take some examples:
- The Traverse Theatre sitting empty for sometimes weeks at a time, when it used to have new productions running on a monthly basis.
- The Fruitmarket Gallery mounting just four exhibitions a year, where not so long ago it used to present eight per annum.
- Anything up to three floors of the City Art Centre sitting empty at any one time; the current exhibition, and the one which will follow it, are each running for six months, and only feature work from the City’s own collections.
If we move across to Glasgow:
- The Gallery of Modern Art has exhibitions that run for anything up to a year at a time. In a wonderful piece of irony, one current exhibition, by artist Marlie Mul, consists precisely of the absence of an exhibition: the gallery concerned will simply sit empty for six months. There could be no more pointed statement about the parlous circumstances we’re in.
- Scotland’s finest suite of exhibition spaces, the MacLellan Galleries, has not been open to the public for years.
- Kelvingrove has, admittedly, had great success with its current Frank Quitely exhibition, but there’s nothing on their website to say what will succeed it when it closes in a few weeks’ time.
- The CCA does rather better than the Fruitmarket, presenting six exhibitions a year, but when I worked in its predecessor, the Third Eye, in the 1980s, we mounted at least ten a year.
- The Citizens Theatre, once considered the most exciting Rep theatre in Europe, is mounting only one wholly new main-stage, in-house production between now and the pantomime.
Of course, these are major cities which still have a range of exciting and stimulating cultural experiences to offer residents and visitors, while a huge percentage of the Scottish population has, for example, no access of any kind to the visual arts, nor much access, it has to be said, to any other kind of funded arts either. And it is the funded aspects of culture that I’m concerned about. These are, to borrow a phrase from the Voluntary Arts organisation, Our Cultural Commons, paid for from our taxes. And like the agricultural commons of two centuries ago, they’re being taken away from us.
This is not new. We can’t just blame it on one political party, whether it be the Tories or the SNP. Back at the end of the last Millennium, I did an exercise whereby I compared the latest Scottish Arts Council annual report with one from a decade previously. Over those ten years, the 1990s, the same 14 organisations accounted for the bulk of grant aid (this was before the ‘national’ companies were funded directly from the Scottish Government), but the difference was that the number of productions, performances and exhibitions they presented had shrunk enormously, by anything up to 30%, and audiences had consequently reduced by a similar amount. We frogs were put in that pan of cold water a long time ago.
So, now, the ‘conversation’ has begun which will lead us towards a new Scottish Culture Strategy, and the Culture Secretary launched the process with a speech in which she stated: As the Scottish Government, we believe that culture lies at the heart of Scotland’s future. Back in 2003 the then First Minister Jack McConnell, said something similarly bold in his famous St Andrews Day speech. But little was then done, to turn down the heat under the pan.
My contribution, therefore, to this ongoing ‘conversation’ will be to use this blog to record any examples I come across of the temperature of the water being raised another fraction of a degree. Some of these examples might seem quite trivial, but everything’s connected. Here’s the first.
The Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh has come under sustained attack for its decision to close Inverleith House as a gallery of contemporary art, after more than 50 years of continuous use. I haven’t been able to get too outraged by this decision. After all, as I’ve noted above, Edinburgh is not short of exhibition spaces, many of them currently under used, while the Botanic Gardens themselves are a unique facility and resource for the city, and bring me joy every time I visit them. Last Monday, so glorious was the weather that I suggested that Judith and I enjoy a stroll round the Botanic Gardens before going for something to eat, only to find that the Gardens now close at 6.00 every night, even at the height of summer and during the Edinburgh Festival. So, now, anyone who works normal office hours has no chance to enjoy the Botanics on a weekday. I don’t live in Edinburgh, so this state of affairs might have existed for some years now, without my noticing. But I do feel it’s another little slice of Our Cultural Commons that has been taken away from us, as, in case you hadn’t realized, RBGE is a Non-Departmental Public Body, directly funded by the Scottish Government.
© Robert Livingston