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Art is not a luxury

To celebrate its bicentenary year, The National Gallery has put together a programme that aims to broaden its appeal. COLLECTION WORKS © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

Look at the little kids in a primary school class. They delight in pictures. They love listening to stories. They jump about to music, bash table tops like drums. Art, this would seem to suggest, is a lot more than a frilly bit tacked on to the fringes. It is fundamental. It’s integral to human life. So why this lingering sense that the art world is the realm of the privileged, that our museums and galleries are places where posh people swan about?

The cultural world has a class problem. But for the last few decades we have been kept so terribly busy worrying about gender or race or sexual orientation that we haven’t got around to discussing it as fully as we should. Is it only the comfortably affluent who can afford to fanny about with fine art?

The filtering process starts early. Cuts in state-school arts funding have in large part left art history the preserve of the privately educated. It is predominantly the fee-paying schools that now offer it as an A-Level subject. And so, a little further down the line, it becomes seen as the university “posh option”, a sort of modern-day answer to the eighteenth-century Grand Tour. It’s a preconception not helped by the fact that several prominent royals (Prince William, Kate Middleton, Princess Beatrice) have studied it, nor by figures suggesting that as many as 80 per cent of its students are girls. In a highly competitive landscape of graduate recruitment, fine art is not deemed directly useful and so it becomes the plaything of females with banker boyfriends and long, flicky blonde hair.

Graduates have two basic options: either gravitate towards London’s booming art market, gliding about Sotheby’s or some swanky commercial gallery, confident amid people that can afford to collect paintings and bestow patronage, or become a curator or academic and so slide into an increasingly arcane sphere, spewing tedious discourses to prove this is not the “soft” option as you plunge ever further into unfathomable “art speak”. The result: the clichéd assumption that art history is either obscurely refined or impossibly elite. It’s certainly not for those summer-frocked enthusiasts who pitch up every August at the Royal Academy to enjoy pleasant landscapes and a plethora of pet cats.

The annual mockery of the Royal Academy’s Summer show (even the exhibitions secretary used to boast that he timed his holidays to coincide with the month it was staged) has become as much a part of the British social season as strawberries at Wimbledon or the Chelsea Flower show. Galleries are not for people who just want to enjoy pictures. No. God forbid. They are for those who can afford to fork out 25 quid to elbow their way round the latest blockbuster so that they can expound fashionably at their next Nobu dinner.

Strip art history of its pretentious finery and it is anything but elitist

This is precisely the sort of discrimination that museum directors are determined to crush. Their task, however, is not straightforward. The art world is packed with complex contradictions. On the one hand are the artists. Many of them – JMW Turner for example – came from underprivileged backgrounds. Several of those who were better off at the start – Van Gogh or Constable – were rendered poor by their profession. It was only really in the wake of the industrial revolution and, even more emphatically, after the social volte face of the Sixties, that working class artists (David Hockney makes a good example) sprang to the fore. And even then, ironically, the work they produce – often intended as a critique of society, or in some cases, of the art world itself – ends up as a valuable asset in the vault of a billionaire collector.

The idea that art history is posh is not just an idea, admits Maria Balshaw, director of Tate. “If you look back across the two centuries of the evolution of museums, they began as princely collections, as collections of the wealthy, before they came into the public domain and it took probably until the 1960s for there to be a really strong sense that museums were for everyone.” Its only in the latter half of the twentieth century, she suggests, that art came to be seen as part of the everyday entitlement of everybody. “Most museums,” she says, “have had to work long and hard to challenge the elitism of the institutions we inherit.”

This year the National Gallery celebrates its 200th anniversary. Accessibility to everyone, regardless of class, has always been part of the gallery’s DNA, insists its head of learning and national programmes, Karen Eslea. Its Trafalgar square site, she explains, was specifically chosen so that people from across London – both the wealthier West End dwellers conveyed there in their carriages and the workers from the East end factories who walked, could easily get there. And get there they all did. One mid-nineteenth century keeper gives an account of how parties of people would pitch up to picnic in the middle of the galleries. Once, politely approaching one of these merry bands to remonstrate, he found himself wrongfooted by a kindly lady who offered him a glass of gin.

This broad appeal – minus the beef tongue sandwiches and the booze – is what the gallery now wants to encourage. It already offers free public access to its permanent collection – including, in the Sainsbury wing, the finest collection of early Renaissance art to be found anywhere in the world outside Italy. Now their richly packed NG200 programme embraces anything from taking a vehicle stuffed full of paintings (or at least copies of paintings) to communities all around the country, to staging free-for-all art events in the square, exhibiting the work of children from schools across the nation, and creating a free, drop-in family zone.

The National Gallery will particularly be targeting deprived areas, explains Eslea, because engagement with art, a Northampton-based research project suggests, has been shown to have a huge impact on the creativity and communication skills of children. This will prove invaluable in their later life.

Strip art history of its pretentious finery and it is anything but elitist. It can offer a marvellously vivid – and often uniquely intimate – glimpse into our human story. History, so often looked at through the lens of politics or war, is studied in the mirror of the personal. What can feel more direct or relevant? Of course, in most cases it was commissioned by or sold to the wealthy. But its meanings still resonate. What counts as sacrilegious and why? Consider that when you study the art of the Reformation. Look at Rubens’ dramatic image of Samson and Delilah. Is she an evil bitch who betrayed her lover lightly? Would you have dobbed in your boyfriend if you found out he was a terrorist? The political history recorded in our textbooks can seem extremely dry when compared with the vividly bawdy versions which Gillray or Cruikshank present.

Art can communicate in an almost magically direct way. As Leonardo de Vinci so famously put it, a poet would be “overcome by sleep and hunger before being able to describe with words what a painter is able to convey in an instant.” And consider just how important our visual culture is in today’s predominantly image-driven world.

It is lazy to dismiss art as a luxury, to see it as the soft option for the privileged in search of a pastime. Art is not about exacerbating social divisions. Rather, it is possessed of a profound capacity to unify people. It can speak in all languages without need of a translator. And if the fundamental creativity which it offers is a luxury, then being human is probably just a luxury too.

Rachel Campbell Johnston is former art critic of The Times and now a freelance writer

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