jctv: 30.12.2011HOME




A week in London, day I: The British Museum

We went to visit family in London over the New Year. The carrot was seeing them; the stick was to escape the fireworks in Holland. Victoria rightly accuses me of being a large-scale-stick-in-the-mud about fireworks. Be that as it may, I loathe them, he-said-a-little-pompously. And what do I loathe about them exactly? That is not so hard to pin down: I loathe the unexpected loud bangs too near by half and I particularly loathe the way unthinking young boys and brain-dead aggressive young men terrorise neighbourhoods with their hormonal problems and their sublimated war-urges and I feel sorry and angry when their stupid bravura gets them and others hurt. It’s that simple. What I like about New Year’s Eve in Holland, is, as was pointed out to me by someone who is obviously much less of a stick in the mud, the wonderful camaraderie exhibited by all the people in one’s neighbourhood who come out to participate in the fireworks and hand each other champagne and chat and wish each other a happy new year and huddle around small fires in front gardens and share the great surpluses of food, beer and wine and so forth, all that is all good. And the fact is that the good spirits of that evening carry through the year. And I suppose that people wouldn’t be coming out in quite such numbers all over Holland and in every street if the fireworks weren’t there to look at, be immersed in and impressed by. So I am stuck in a muddy moral dilemma which can only be solved by getting rid of hormonally challenged, aggressive young men for the period of two weeks over New Year and having them all locked up in some unpleasant dungeon specially built for the purpose: long Spartan barracks lined up in a thin belt crossing the country with a highway running over the roof, something like Cob’s plan for Algiers. No doubt this will cause other problems, but we’ll deal with them as they come. Alternatively, we spend New Year’s Eve in London and become known to our dear neighbours as miserable, somewhat distant people whose windows are always dark when it’s fun outside. I regret this side-effect, but on balance it is to be preferred over loud bangs and the full scale simulation of war that Holland’s New Year’s celebrations have become.

London was fabulous. I spent whole days in various museums and was rarely conscious of the weather. First we went to the British Museum where we saw the Grayson Perry exhibition and loved it. Beautifully crafted, strange objects selected by Perry from the museum’s collections on the theme of religiosity, accompanied by his own recent works, often featuring Perry’s personal God and Prophet Alan Measles evangelising his creed that all people should “hold their beliefs lightly”, a not unworthy sentiment but not without its problems. Lightness of being quickly keels over into banality. To hold one’s beliefs lightly may elicit the accusation that one thereby trivialises beliefs and the religions that have formed around them. That view would be supported by the fact that Perry features a 50 year old teddy bear as god and saviour. One could counter that by pointing to the extreme trivialisation that the religiously inclined have imposed upon cultures all around the world. After all, some gods are hardly more than teddy bears whose job description has been somewhat overstretched. In any case, what does it mean to hold one’s beliefs lightly? Does it mean that one should hold them lightly and be prepared to discard them the moment “better” beliefs come along? The more oligarchic and tyrannical religions would no doubt object to that. You commit to your jealous god like you commit to a mafia patriarch or an oligarch; uncritical loyalty to them is a first duty, a first commandment: Thou shalt have no other god… So even though I would like to agree with Perry, namely that belief might be subject to improvement with the progressive insight of scholarship and science and that belief should surely never lead one to commit to doing wrong, I feel that it is the very DNA of religious power-play and politics that is at issue here. How different would a religion be that does not impose punishments for believing something else, that just presents itself as a delightful possibility that one would simply like to believe in. How hateful all these religions whose marketing departments and advertising campaigns do everything that has been rightly made illegal in other commercial and political institutions. Imagine saying: Drink Coke or else you will be punished in hell! Or: kill all Apple users and you will be rewarded with 70 virgins! Perhaps religions should be made subject to the same restrictions as political parties and commercial enterprises. Paradoxically, it is the very triviality, apparent or real, of religious technology and imagery that needs to be treated with respect. Calling religious activity and religious technology trivial might be an overly protestant or ascetic standpoint. Furthermore it would, I believe, not be endorsed by Grayson Perry himself who, despite his own highly marketable eccentricity and self-conscious affectation, appears through all the theatricality he is guilty of, sensitive, sincere and above all kind. That might well be the secret to holding one’s beliefs lightly. If religious activity is trivial, then don’t bother condemning it too hard: don’t make your beliefs so heavy! Just be sincere, sensitive and kind! It is an enjoinder also to those who believe, wrongly I think, that the religiously antireligious are any better or any less trivial. The high priests of atheism, Dawkins, Dennett and their ilk are boring in their evangelical heavy-handedness and have obviously completely missed the point, it is never religion that is the problem, it is the people using it for whatever purpose. Their brand of tyrannical atheism will do just as much harm as any sect leader. On that note I enjoyed Perry’s texts accompanying the objects almost as much as the objects themselves. Everything he said appeared sensible and rang true. I particularly liked the yellow vase and the motorbike with its reliquary altar on the back and the two grand virtues Patience and Humility painted on each side of the petrol tank. The word humility hovering in pinks and whites over a gigantic engine appeared particularly appropriate as if Heaven’s Angels might also travel on bikes, just as their counterparts in Hell. I also loved the Early English Motor Bike Helmet, more because of its name it has to be said, than for the object itself, but even so. The iron figurines of a man and a woman loaded with things and possessions strapped over their shoulders were disquieting. They appear at first rather simplistic and literalist and I wouldn’t want them in my home; they have something of a curse hanging around them, but their image and possible meaning haunts me, even now. I find myself thinking about them often, even though I would not be able to put my finger upon what it is I think about them. The end result however is that I look at my home critically, and want to get rid of any surplus. But then I must be careful that I do not allow my impatience with things to define what a surplus at that moment is. I also loved the cloak of burgeoning penis-flowers splashing dainty drops of sperm, particularly perhaps because of the innocence implied in its meticulous embroidery.

The exhibition was very busy and we had to wait until we were allowed in. So before the appointed time we went to see the Nereid Monument and the remains of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. They were fun and a fitting prelude to showing Rosie the Parthenon Marbles, which she saw for the first time. They were fantastic. They have always been fantastic, from the first time I saw them years ago, and all those times I went to see them when I was doing research in the British Library when it was still located there and I could walk around when things in my head became a little knotty. I particularly love that wonderfully energetic progress of restless, naked young men, with their finely chiselled profiles, divine, concentrated and confident upon their young restless horses, a sure emblem that the world will never change and that we are caught in an evolutionary stasis: condemned to favour restless adventure-hungry young men who love war and are loved by girls. I also liked the girls watching them, standing there so gracefully with their trumpets, watching and chatting, as girls do. And then the Gods themselves, full of dignity and posture, viewing the procession from their comfy chairs with an aristocratic commitment. All of it too beautiful for words. We had the inevitable discussion about whether the marbles should be returned about which I am unequivocal. Cultural crimes should not figure on the same scale as crimes against humanity of course, they are incommensurable, but as cultural crimes go, the selfish, arrogant, large-scale and careless dismantling and partial destruction of the Parthenon by that miserable little upstart Elgin who came from a culture that rather badly confused Areté or excellence with in-breeding and inheritance, and whose destruction did more damage to one of the most beautiful buildings in the world than an explosion and a bomb attack combined, must measure on the same scale as the Taliban blowing up the Buddha’s of Afghanistan, Bomber Harris’ disgusting campaign to bomb Dresden merely to humiliate a people and the destruction of the Libraries of China, Heidelberg, Alexandria and Gent as well as all the other attempts to break the human spirit through the destruction of its defenceless and therefore trivial objects of beauty and care. There, that feels better. Those marbles belong in Greece. And if that starts a large scale tectonic shift of cultural objects by the need to redress old wrongs, then so be it. We should concentrate on making beautiful things, not on stealing them or developing a theology to help justify keeping what has been stolen.

After lunch (Thai-all-you-can-eat) Reino and I, the real die-hards, returned to the Museum and spent time in the Asian and American galleries where we saw the jade mosaic masks of the Aztecs with their large ivory teeth and the porcelain of China. I enjoyed the many versions of the many-armed Shiva acrobatically making love to his passionate woman. I could not help wondering that he might use those arms to good effect in the process rather than holding them in that rather tiring pose of his the whole time, but still, I am no god and the ladies who were clawing at him in various versions certainly did not seem to want for anything.
The foot of a soldier in the Nereid monument  
Parthenon's horse's head  
Parthenon Frieze, Young men on horseback during the Panathenian progress
Another detail of the same
Grayson Perry's Pelgrim's Bike  
The reliquary on the back of the bike. The bear inside is not Alan Measles himself  
Another detail  
A Nigerian tunic  
About maps, a text by Garyson Perry  
A sketchbook with a map of the southern hemisphere from Isfahan  
Chinese people with serious problems  


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