Tag Archives: London

Superheroines on the Streets of London

Regular readers know that I like to play the role of a superhero in social media, and sometimes write about the cultural significance of these mythical figures in our society.  Yet however much I enjoy sporting the big red cape, in real life heroes often take a very different form from those of literature, film, and our imaginations.  You’re about to learn about some real-life superheroines in London…who just so happen to wear a religious habit.

At a two-day conference held at the Vatican this week, Pope Francis and other attendees heard reports about an innovative effort to combat human trafficking.  Since January of this year, a group of nuns from the Madrid-based religious order known as the Adoratrices – formally, “The Handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity” – have been going out on patrol with police officers in Central London, to help rescue women forced into prostitution through human trafficking.  The project has proven so successful, that it will eventually be expanded throughout London, and other cities are looking to copy it.

Previously, getting these prostitutes to trust the police had proven to be an impossible task.  In many cases, because they anticipated reprisals if they reported having been sold into sex slavery, raped, or abused, they would say nothing.  Others feared being sent back to their countries of origin, to families or acquaintances who had sold them into slavery in the first place.

The nuns who ride along with the police and talk to these women are able to provide a motherly level of care, which many of them respond to in a way that they could not with a police officer.  With the help of the Adoratrices, the police are able to go after the criminals who put the women in these situations, while the nuns take the victims in and shelter them, so that they cannot be “got at”.  Later they can be returned to their home countries, or apply for asylum.  As Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland explained at the conference, “If they go to stay with religious women, they find the peace and tranquillity they need while going through the horrors of testifying in court.”

In effect, these nuns are making themselves targets for the criminals engaged in these activities.  Someone who has no compunction about kidnapping, raping, and selling a 15-year old into prostitution is probably not going to find it difficult to have a nun threatened, beaten, or permanently silenced.  Unlike the police, nuns are neither armed with weapons, nor can they call for backup, if they find themselves in a dangerous situation, but they go out and do this work anyway.

I think there’s a three-fold lesson to take away from this story.  We should support efforts like this when we are asked to help, because most of us, frankly, would not want to be doing what these sisters are doing.  We should also be inspired to take a look at our own lives, and see whether there is something, however small, that we could be doing on behalf of someone else whom we know is in a bad way or having a difficult time.  And finally, we should always remember to adjust our expectations of what a hero really looks like, rather than selling people short.  Because oftentimes, true heroism comes from where you might least expect it.

St. María Micaela of the Blessed Sacrament (1809-1865) Foundress of the Adoratrices

St. María Micaela of the Blessed Sacrament (1809-1865)
Foundress of the Adoratrices

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Take Up Your Cross and Suffer Through This Exhibition

If you happen to be traveling on the Tube, London’s subway network, during this season of Lent, you may come across some rather provocative billboard images of Jesus on the train platforms.  These posters are advertising an exhibition of the work of a number of contemporary artists called “Stations of the Cross”.  While the pieces are designed to grab the viewer’s attention, in the end one has to reject their premise, and question why a Christian church would host such an exhibition.

Marylebone is the home of the BBC’s Broadcasting House, Sherlock Holmes, and Madonna, among others; this scrivener lived there during graduate school.  It is an area consisting primarily of rather large Georgian and Regency-era terraced houses; among the churches in this former village, now very much a part of central London, the most prominent is the Anglican church of St. Marylebone, built between 1813-1817.  This is the venue for the “Stations of the Cross” show, and one wonders what former members of this church – Charles Wesley, for one – would have made of it.

In looking over the images chosen for the exhibition, some are well-executed, thought-provoking examples of contemporary artists considering the story of Christ’s Passion. There is a cleverly telling piece in which, instead of placing Christ before Pilate or the Sanhedrin, He is stood before a panel on a show like “American Idol”, to judge whether He lives or dies. It is not hard to imagine that He would be condemned by our 21st century pop culture just as He was by 1st century culture.  Similarly, there is a beautifully executed, geometric rendering of the Crown of Thorns that one could see being used as, for example, a stamping on the cover of a hymnal or prayer book.

The majority of the images however, are simply poorly-executed, head-scratchers, or just plain dumb. For example, several of the artists have chosen to make allusions to the practice of capital punishment, and as someone opposed to its use, I understand the point they are trying to make.  Yet putting Jesus in an electric chair denies the lengthy suffering that was crucifixion, which medically speaking is death brought about by asphyxiation. One wonders whether they would portray Jesus being aborted as a baby, or euthanized as an old man, but one can imagine why not.

Another artist has employed altered images of the famous Jacques-Louis David painting of the French revolutionary Marat, dead in his bathtub. Given that Marat was hardly a Christian, – and that’s putting it mildly – it makes no sense why his image would be the basis for this manipulation. Jesus was not put to death for whoring about while writing awful poetry. And then there is a photograph called “Phat Jesus”, which is simply tired old pornographic trash emanating from a diseased mind, the sort of thing that we’ve all seen before in supposedly edgy art magazines.

The apparent moral problem in criticizing this display is that the impetus for the event is a good one. The exhibition hopes to raise funds in the ongoing search for a man who has been missing for ten years, and to raise awareness of a group dedicated to helping find missing people.  Dare one criticize an event that hopes to achieve something good?

Unfortunately, yes, but it must be said, not really because of the artists themselves. The fact that moral relativist artists can create and put on such a show should not surprise anyone: blasphemy is a cliché that has been worked to death since the dawn of Modern Art, for the simple reason that Christians are an easy target, and tend not to fight back. The real issue is why a Christian church would agree to host this exhibition in the first place, particularly during Lent. I will leave that to the reader to decide.

The best that can be said for this exhibition, it seems to me, is that if you are in London and want to engage in a penitential act during this season of Lent, go along and see how much the world continues to hate Jesus. He told us this would happen of course (St. John 15:18), and in an age which is becoming increasingly hostile to Christians, it is perhaps not a bad thing to be reminded of that fact. Clearly this is something that the powers that be at St. Marylebone forgot.

"View of St. Marylebone Church" by Thomas Shepherd (1828)

“View of St. Marylebone Church” by Thomas Shepherd (1828)

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Art and Abercrombie: Lowered Standards for Abysmal Times

The headline, “Royal Academy woos new audience from the Abercrombie and Fitch generation” caught my eye in the Torygraph this morning.  In a move designed to attract younger audiences to its halls, the nearly 250-year-old British institution has decided to take a more ill-mannered approach to increasing patronage.  An upcoming exhibition will encourage visitors to lie down, touch works of art, and otherwise “interact” with the objects on display – all while drinking.  The chief executive of the Royal Academy noted that the wing where this bacchanal will take place is located “opposite Abercrombie and Fitch and I think it has the potential to attract a rather different and younger audience. And we’re programming this building in order to do just that.”

The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 by a group of men and women who successfully petitioned King George III for approval to create an institution dedicated to the study and promotion of art and design in Britain.  Charter members included the prominent 18th century painters Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and Benjamin West.  Its location on Piccadilly, then and now one of the most famous and fashionable streets in London, ensured that society would come and engage with the membership for exhibitions, lectures, and courses.

However in recent years the Royal Academy has increasingly seemed a bit senile, even downright hostile, with respect to the promotion of standards in art.  There is much artifice and little actual art in the types of shows it mounts.  Perhaps the most well-known example from recent years, the infamous “Sensation” exhibition which first opened in London in 1997 and subsequently traveled to New York back in 1999, featured an image of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a collage of female genitalia and adorned with a piece of elephant poo.  One wonders at the selection process that determined this rather déclassé object was found to be worthy of examination, let alone exhibition.

Yet the shift away from the encouragement of actual artistic standards to the celebration of a kind of underdeveloped sense of self-worth is not only a critical aspect of the contemporary art world, at least as pushed by the Royal Academy in recent years, it is also reflected in that often most mundane of tasks, purchasing clothes.  The idea of reaching out to an audience of retail shoppers, and encouraging that audience to behave poorly on one’s premises, may at first seem rather odd for an art institution.  Yet if art was once meant to be inspirational, and is now mainly self-referential, then the aforementioned Abercrombie and Fitch is a perfect example of how a parallel lowering of standards has taken place in much of the rag trade.

The customer whom the once-venerable Abercrombie – founded in 1892 – originally hoped to draw in through its doors possessed some degree of education, leisure time, and disposable income.  They wanted to engage in deer hunting, fly fishing, and other outdoor activities, and sought out the very best clothing and equipment for doing so.  It is hard to imagine today, but the company that now sells fake gym jerseys originally fitted out the well-known and well-to-do among the American haute bourgeoisie with the kind of outdoor clothing that would have looked perfectly at home at Downtown Abbey.  U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt was a regular customer  for example, and the company outfitted Charles Lindbergh for his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.  The customer who shopped at Abercombie and Fitch back in its heyday expected that he was going to walk out of the shop properly dressed for any pursuit, and that if needed he could be educated by the staff on hand as to how to engage in that pursuit well.

Today, Abercrombie and Fitch markets its cheaply-made, Asian-import clothing to the young, and to those who want to pretend that they still are young.  There is something decidedly creepy about their shops, which so often seem to speak not to the individuality of the customer, but rather to the fantasies of the proprietor.  Their dark, poorly-lit stores are so heavily perfumed with an atmosphere and odor reminiscent of a high school locker room, that passers-by ought to be issued with gas masks so as not to be overcome by the fumes escaping from the premises.  The print ads, catalogs, and billboards the company creates sexually objectify unknown young models for the delectation of the public, who oftentimes are not actually wearing the clothes they are allegedly trying to sell.  Sometimes not even the models themselves are shown, but rather suggestively cropped images of their body parts are displayed.

Perhaps then the shift to recognize that the Abercrombie and Fitch customer of today is the art patron of tomorrow is a more shrewd move than it first appears.  The Royal Academy has long abandoned any real claim to being a true art academy, after all.  I have often observed in these pages that its celebrated Professor of Drawing, British artist Tracy Emin, cannot actually draw, for example.  And indeed, I am not the only one who thinks so, see, e.g. Harry Mount’s recent post.

If many of the prominent artists running things at the Royal Academy are not actually capable of producing good art, but are given a platform by which to spread their gospel of underachievement, it is hardly surprising that the customer base that institution would seek to draw upon consists of those incapable of understanding why hypersexualization of the young has an equally negative impact on the culture. There is a natural fit between the vapid and the vacuous here, rooted in another “v”: vanity.  Clearly there is no aspiration in either of these institutions, academy or shop, to better oneself in an attempt to rise above one’s more bestial impulses.  Rather, self-expression (whatever that is), baseness and incontinence are celebrated; diligence, modesty, and self-control are banished.

If this seems too sweeping a generalization with respect to either of these bodies, gentle reader, bear in mind that the real issue here is not whether I have been painting with too broad a brush, so to speak, in a single blog post.  Rather, we ought to be asking ourselves whether we have so whitewashed over these types of observations so as to not even bother to consider them.  The last few decades have shown us what the effects of a self-obsessed culture, which imposes few standards of any kind upon its members, will bring to the world at large.  Whether it is in the arts or in commerce, lowering our expectations and our standards has served not to make things better, but rather to encourage a general embrace of mediocrity at best, and the institutionalization of plain ignorance, at worst.

AandF

Entrance to Abercrombie and Fitch, across from the Royal Academy, London

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Popping Cork Street’s Bubble

For those of you who are not particularly interested in the art world, the news that London’s Cork Street is about to undergo a major redevelopment may be of little interest.  Following on the heels of the eviction of the Gemäldegalerie collection of Old Master paintings in Berlin, which I wrote about last week, it now appears to be the turn of the modern and contemporary art world to feel the boot.  That being said, in the case of London, perhaps this will be a good wake-up call to the present art establishment in Britain that they do not have permanent control over the cultural narrative which they believe they hold by right.

Historically Cork Street in London’s Mayfair district has been the home of many of the city’s major sellers of modern and contemporary art since the previous century, probably due in part to the fact that the Royal Academy is very close by. Painters like Francis Bacon and Joan Miró first found their major British patrons here, as each gallery tried to compete to identify the next big thing in modern art, a process which continues to this day. Other streets around Cork Street itself have taken up some of the slack as well, since the amount of available space is limited, though for a certain well-heeled segment of the population, having a Cork Street address has remained the most prestigious thing you can hold as a modern/contemporary art dealer, rather like having your suits made on nearby Saville Row.

Personally, although I did go to Cork Street quite a bit when I lived in London, I spent most of my time on that particular stretch of pavement visiting friends who worked there, or patronizing fine drinking establishments bearing that address.  My “beat” was Old Master painting, which has its own stomping grounds on Bond Street and Albemarle Street in particular, not far away.  As it happens, from the point of charm or architecture there is little or nothing particularly attractive or even gracious about Cork Street itself to commend it to the visitor: it is simply another street in the West End, with lots of store fronts and a mixture of brick, Portland stone, and concrete buildings.

However even if you have little or no knowledge of modern and contemporary art, the name “Cork Street” itself has become practically synonymous with new ideas in art over the past century, and is often referenced or visited in literature or screenplays.  In John Galsworthy’s monumental “Forsyte Saga” for example, the respectably Edwardian Forsytes end up being dragged into the avant-garde world of the 20th century in part through the association of members of their family with Cork Street. In one sequence, Soames Forsyte unwittingly visits an art gallery owned by his Cousin June, whom he has not seen since a falling-out some time ago, and is perplexed by a contemporary painting on display entitled “The Future Town”:

“Soames!”

Soames turned his head a very little.

“How are you?” he said. “Haven’t seen you for twenty years.”

“No. Whatever made you come here?”

“My sins,” said Soames. “What stuff!”

“Stuff? Oh, yes–of course; it hasn’t arrived yet.

“It never will,” said Soames; “it must be making a dead loss.”

“Of course it is.”

“How d’you know?”

“It’s my Gallery.”

Soames sniffed from sheer surprise.

“Yours? What on earth makes you run a show like this?”

“I don’t treat Art as if it were grocery.”

Soames pointed to the Future Town. “Look at that! Who’s going to live in a town like that, or with it on his walls?”

June contemplated the picture for a moment.

“It’s a vision,” she said.

“The deuce!”

- John Galsworthy from “The Forsyte Saga Vol. III: To Let” (1921)

Now, as real estate prices in London continue to escalate, international property developers have decided to demolish two large buildings on the street, replacing them with luxury residences and mixed-use space. This will involve the eviction of eleven existing art galleries, seven of which have already been told to vacate their premises by June of this coming year, including the oldest continuously operating on Cork Street. Naturally the art community in London is rather upset, and protests have been lodged with appropriate authorities.

To now, the reaction from government has been that property owners are free to do what they wish with their own properties, and canceling a lease with advance notice is without question the right of the landlord over the tenant.  Moreover, it is not the role of the state to proscribe that commercial art galleries must be preserved on a particular site or street. Given how far into socialism Britain has fallen in recent decades, this rather common-sense approach is rather surprising, I must say.

While from a historical perspective no doubt many will be sad to see the end of this enclave and its affiliation with the art world, in truth such things are almost inevitable.  Cities change with the passage of centuries, and the center for the production and vending of a particular commodity shifts as well.  After all, it has been quite some time since lime was processed and sold on Lime Street in The City, the term for London’s financial district and historic center, and there hasn’t been a “May Fair” in Mayfair, from which the neighborhood’s name originally sprung, since 1764.  Cork Street in the 18th and 19th centuries had nothing to do with the art world, and over time the galleries presently located there will likely pop up somewhere else.

Although it is unfortunate when communities fall apart, perhaps this change can be viewed as a positive development.  By shaking things up and having to re-think their identities, the better galleries will survive in some new fashion, the weaker ones will fold, and new ones will take their place, in some other corner of the British capital.  Nothing we human beings make with our own hands lasts forever, which we must keep in mind in this life, but sometimes these experiences of shaking things up or loose is just what we need to change course and do something positive.  And no doubt many in the contemporary art world could use just such a good bursting of their balloon.

View of Cork Street, London

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Looking Back at London

If you have ever moved to another city, another country, or another continent for any extended period of time, gentle reader, then you know that the first few days you spend there are some of the most vivid memories you will take away from that place.  You may of course forget some of the later things that happened once you settled in, and began to see the place as your home.  However this is why I want to encourage those of my readers who are going to be living somewhere far from home for awhile, to make an effort to write down their experiences and observations now, in order to be able to draw upon them later.

Reading my updates on Facebook this morning I had a bit of a shock, realizing how quickly time seems to pass.  A good friend from here in the States had just arrived in London to begin a year of graduate school there, and I saw the news that he had safely arrived at Heathrow posted in my timeline.  It suddenly dawned on me that it was 15 years ago, in September of 1997, that I moved to London for the first time.  I could not help but sigh a little, as I thought about what my friend would be experiencing, as this was his first time ever in London.

To give you some context about what Britain was like at the time when I first went to live there, I arrived exactly one week after Princess Diana’s funeral on September 7, 1997.  The Labour MP Tony Blair had only been Prime Minister for four months, after decades of Tory government under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and the most popular British musical act at the time was The Spice Girls, who had only released their debut album in the U.S. earlier that year.  The Queen Mother was still going strong, mobile phones were seemingly all made by Nokia and about the size of a television remote control, and internet was exclusively of the dial-up variety (and very, very slow.)

As weird as it may sound, I can remember my entire first day in London on September 13, 1997, as if it were yesterday.  If you recall the expression of “having your wits about you,” I would say not only did I have all of mine about me, but they were firing on all cylinders.  Everything was new and interesting, and there was this strange sense of having landed on another planet.  For although the language was the same, many details of everyday life were handled completely differently.

For example, once my cab had dropped me off at my halls of residence on Regent’s Park – no Heathrow Express to Paddington in those days – I decided to see how long the walk was from there to where I would be studying, close to Piccadilly.  I remember looking at the words painted on the asphalt at intersections as I made my way through the car park and around the side of the building, which read, “Look Right” or “Look Left”.  I did not quite understand what they were for, until I started walking down Portland Place, and crossed an intersection without looking in the direction indicated.  As I did so a car came whizzing past honking its horn at me, and I had a near-miss with getting flattened within minutes of arriving in London.  From then on, I was quite careful to read what was on the ground before I stepped onto it.

Feeling a bit shaken and deciding I had better calm myself and call home, after a couple of blocks I spotted the BBC and All Souls Langham Place, both of which I knew from a lifetime of watching British television shows.  Across the street were three red telephone boxes in a row, standing at the side of a rather grandiose Victorian building, which I later came to learn was the Langham Hotel.  I chose one and made a telephone call to my parents, waking them up at about 5:00 a.m. Eastern to let them know that I was there and safe.

They were happy to hear from me, particularly my Father who is more the Anglophile of the two, and as I looked about from inside the phone box describing what I saw, I spotted a cafe across the road and down a little ways.  I told them I would head there to get some caffeine and try to call them again later, after I had done some exploring.  I could not have known it at the time, but later I ended up spending many, many hours in that Italian cafe/deli, using it as a place to study and write, and to meet up with friends, since it was centrally located but not a major tourist draw.

However rather than ordering their – excellent, as it later turned out – coffee, I must admit I bought a bottle of Snapple Iced Tea imported from the U.S.  It was warm, and the thought that I would be able to have American iced tea despite being far from home was rather encouraging.  As I continued down Regent Street sipping my beverage, I passed a news agent’s – which again, as time went on I would come to patronize regularly for magazines and for postcards – and noticed that they had that day’s New York Times for sale.  I realized that although I was in a different country and a different culture, there would still be plenty of things from home to keep me connected to the other side of the pond.

That was the beginning of a wonderful day, which included visiting my school and running into some of my classmates who were also figuring out the lay of the land; visiting what would come to be my parish in Mayfair for the first time; having my first gin and tonic in London at The Marlborough Head just north of Grosvenor Square; and coming back to my residence to find that a friend from high school was in town from Cambridge, and would be returning later that evening to meet up and go to dinner.  This is not a testament to any particularly astounding powers of memory on my part, mind you, but just an inkling of how much of an impact that first day in London had on my memory.  It is something I still treasure.

And if for some reason I should forget all of this, thank goodness I had the sense to keep a journal during both of my stints living in London.  It runs to many volumes, and though I must confess I have not sat down and cracked open these books in years, I do know they are there if I ever want to do so.  Perhaps with the realization of this anniversary, it might be a good time to revisit them, and recall some of the things I experienced, but have forgotten with the passage of time.

In the end that was the one piece advice I emailed to my friend today: that he makes sure to keep a journal for the year he will be living in Blighty.  No one knows what the future holds, and whether his experience will be as rewarding as mine, but having these memories to draw upon undoubtedly makes your life, and your understanding of the world in which you live, much richer.  Whether the city is London, Vienna, or Poughkeepsie, take the time now to write about what your impressions and thoughts are, so that you can relive those experiences later.


Phone boxes at the side of The Langham Hotel
Langham Place, London W1

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