Archive for ‘everybody loves pop culture’

August 6, 2015

on the financial accessibility of culture

Well, there’s a mouthful of a subject-header. I was going to write a couple of short reviews of some exhibitions I’d seen recently, but I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while, and that’s what I ended up writing about, instead.


People always talk about how awesome the web is for democratising culture, and it is. It’s great that it’s so easy to gain access to the cultural resources available in places people may otherwise be unable to visit (e.g museums in other countries). It’s brilliant that you can find a free tutorial for practically anything you wish to know about, or easily start up your own creative business. But sometimes you want to be able to look at a piece of art directly in front you — inspect how the paint was applied, or how the sculptor followed the grain of wood. Sometimes you want a hands-on demonstration from a skilled expert who is standing right next to you to explain how to improve what you are doing. You want to be able to feel the weight of the technical materials that real professionals use, the equipment you can only find in dedicated spaces, not in your kitchen drawer.

But those things are becoming harder to do, if you’re not wealthy enough to afford them. Experiencing creative culture (aka The Arts) is starting to feel like the domain of only those who can afford it. (Although I’m writing this from a visual arts perspective, obviously it includes things like music, cinema, theatre, etc.) While there are still a lot of free museums in London, cultural funding keeps getting cut, with museums and galleries having to consider charging for entry. Some have already started, and many smaller museums (especially those run by local authorities) have been forced to downsize or close completely. Corporate sponsorship of exhibitions has shrunk, which means the prices have increased. If you want to see any of the major exhibitions this summer, you’re looking at putting down at least the better part of £15 before they let you in the door — and that’s often the concession rate for people on a low income. People like me.

Educational institutions are having their funding cut, too. The college where I take my classes has had so much funding cut that they can no longer offer concession rates for many classes, meaning classes are only available to those who can pay the full rates. But they’re daytime classes during the week, when most of the people who might have enough disposable income to afford paying £200 for a course will be at work. People who have the time to take a midweek daytime course are often the very people who can’t afford to do it unless it’s subsidised — the unemployed, OAPs, people like me with longterm health conditions. So the inevitable knock-on effect is that because people can’t afford to pay full price for a class, not enough people will sign up, and the college will have to cut it from the prospectus due to perceived lack of demand, leaving the teachers out of work. Meanwhile the few classes left that still have concession rates are likely to become oversubscribed due to high demand, because many of the people from the classes which had their concession rates cancelled will migrate to the classes that they can still afford.

I count myself lucky — the printmaking class I was taking was the only print class that didn’t have its concession rates cut, so I can still afford to do it, and I managed to get a place, despite worries that it would already be full of all the other students migrating from the classes that no longer offer concessions. I’d been hoping to do two printmaking classes a week but obviously I had to rethink my options once I discovered there were no more concession rates for other classes. But again, I count myself lucky, because I managed to find a course at a different college that still offers concession rates on courses, albeit for a bit more money than my usual college.

The reason I count myself lucky is because, while I was looking into an alternative place to study, I discovered that a number of other colleges (including ones I’ve studied at in the past) no longer offer concession rates at all, meaning that in those places education is now only for those who have enough disposable income to use them. Meaning wealthy people, which means the classes will be the domain of people who are socially very much alike. One of the great things about colleges being able to subsidise courses and offer concession rates is that the classes were a wonderful social mix as a result, full of people who otherwise would never have an opportunity to rub shoulders, which meant that people learned more than just the subject they were all there to study. And if you notice I’m talking about it in the past tense, it’s because it’s much less likely to happen if all the people attending a class are of the same basic demographic.

It makes me so, so sad that this is happening to this country, because we have such a long history of adult education in Britain, and of having a wide variety of interesting subjects that were always made affordable for everyone and not just rich people. (There’s a very brief but interesting article on this history of adult education here).

All of this has a knock-on effect to the cultural psyche of a country (yeah, I know that’s a pretentious way of describing it, but I can’t think of a better one at the moment). Institutions can (literally) no longer afford to take risks, whether it’s a museum planning the next exhibition or a college planning next year’s prospectus. The knock-on effect is that this country’s cultural output gets blander and blander (how else do you explain the ever-increasing popularity of photorealism, which is the visual equivalent of those professional session musicians who can play everything pitch-perfect every time, and are utterly soulless and banal as a result?)

People talk about the Tory government and their return to Victorian values, but at least during the Victorian era there were philanthropists building institutions for the edification and education of the masses of people who would otherwise not be able to afford to see or create beautiful and inspiring works of art. All that we get these days are more cuts, and more closed doors. Yes, of course, there was always creative work happening in the past before the philanthropists stuck their oars in (so to speak), and lots of people were creating things at home, but craft skills were handed down throughout families (the very skills we now scour the internet for tutorials on, because they’re no longer passed on by family members), and those works were rarely displayed outside the home. Now we have the opportunity to display work on the internet, and find a like-minded community and that’s brilliant, but it’s not like seeing the texture of the paint, or feeling the weight of the press, for yourself.

The internet is great, but sometimes it’s not enough. Having to rely on it for your cultural education and experience is probably a scary thought for a lot of people, but it’s starting to feel as though it soon might be the only option some of us have.

June 21, 2015

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

Just a quick post today — it’s the end of a weird week, and I don’t feel like writing about it tonight, I just want to climb into a hot bath with a good book. So I’ll leave you with some cheery collage pieces from my sketchbook.

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

June 14, 2015

sketchbook Sunday: landscape edition

sketchbook Sunday

I never used to keep a sketchbook. I kept notebooks, which occasionally had sketches in them, but I was really too self-conscious and too self-critical to draw very much, let alone in public.

This year I’ve been getting over that. I’m still a bit self-conscious, but nobody’s tried to peer over my shoulder while I was working, so I’ve been learning not to be. And I’m still quite self-critical, but not so much in a way that stops me trying anymore, usually because I can see how to improve what I’ve done. My drawing class (which I wrote about here) has helped with this, but I think I would have got there on my own, anyway, because I don’t always agree with my art teacher. He’s always trying to get me to draw straighter lines, but I’ve realised that I like my wonky lines, they’re a part of what makes a drawing look like my work, and not an imitation of someone else. (I sometimes find that the way my teacher wants us to approach a drawing is completely counter-intuitive to the way I would do it on my own, and I have to flip his explanation around until I can get it from my own perspective. Even if we were drawing the same subject we’d start at different places on the page, and it’s not that I think he’s wrong and I’m right, it’s just that we have our own approaches to things; and that’s OK.)

I realised after doing a couple of these landscape sketches that I’d like my next sketchbook to be a little bit wider, because I have a tendency to scrunch my lines down to fit the page, and it messes up the proportions. It’s been interesting to compare the sketches with the landscape in these photos; I hadn’t looked at them all together and they really illustrate where my eye is drawn to — some parts are bigger in my drawings than they are in the skyline, because that’s what I focussed on. I’m sure there’s a scientific study in that, somewhere.

Anyway, here are some observational landscapes I’ve done in my sketchbook this year.

{sketchbook Sunday} a roof in the Dutch Garden, Holland Park
In the Dutch Garden in Holland Park. You can read earlier posts on Holland Park here.

{sketchbook Sunday} view across the playing field in Holland Park
The view across the playing field in Holland Park, towards what used to be the Commonwealth Institute but is currently being renovated to rehouse the Design Museum. My proportions were way off, but that building next to it was surprisingly complicated to draw, it’s full of angles that go in and stick out in odd places.

{sketchbook Sunday} Parliament Hill bandstand, Hampstead Heath
Parliament Hill bandstand on Hampstead Heath, with Euston Tower and the BT Tower on the skyline. Still getting the proportions wrong, because I was focussing on the detail… Three chocolate labradors with different owners came by as I was sketching, hence the punny note.

{sketchbook Sunday} Kensal Green cemetery
View from in front of the chapel at Kensal Green Cemetery. I blogged about my visit here.

{sketchbook Sunday} the Hill Garden, Hampstead Heath
At the Hill Garden — I blogged about this visit here. It got too windy and chilly to finish this sketch off at the time. At least what I did manage to draw was to scale, wonky balustrade columns notwithstanding.

{sketchbook Sunday} Primrose Hill
Sat in the sun on my favourite bench on Primrose Hill, before heading off to see the roses in Regent’s Park. There’s the BT Tower again; it’s fun to draw. I drew the London Eye too big, though, you can barely see it in the photo. See what I mean about focus?


Do you keep a sketchbook? I’m thinking of making this an (irregular) feature on my blog and I’d love to include the work of others as well!

April 21, 2015

Record Shops of Soho, 1946-1996

Here’s another music-related post for you — about another music-related exhibition.

On Saturday I got the bus into town, to see an exhibition about fifty years of record shops in Soho. It was the last day before the exhibition closed, and it also happened to be Record Store Day.

Record Shops of Soho, 1946-1996
(there’s a better view of the map here)

The exhibition was in Berwick Street, which used to be home to so many record shops that it was even known (amongst my friends, anyway), as “The Famous Street of Record Shops”. I think at one point we counted 16, if we included music stalls in the market, and some of the shops on the streets leading off Berwick Street, so although we used the name ironically, it was also well-earned.

Record Shops of Soho, 1946-1996

As part of the Record Store Day celebrations, there was a mini music festival in Berwick Street, so the area was rammed with people sitting in the streets, although they all seemed to be waiting around for something to actually happen, and there wasn’t any music playing. I didn’t notice many of them holding any record shop bags, either (mostly they were just holding beer), but the sun was out and there was quite a nice atmosphere. You really can’t beat Soho in the sunshine.

Record Shops of Soho, 1946-1996

The exhibition itself was pretty interesting, and there was quite a wealth of information, ephemera and memories crammed into a small space, of which the images here were only a small selection.

One of the first things I noticed when going around the exhibition was how many of the shops’ bag designs had the same red+black+white colour-scheme.

Record Shops of Soho, 1946-1996

Record Shops of Soho, 1946-1996

Record Shops of Soho, 1946-1996
(oops, just realised that Musicland bag is featured twice, oh well)

The other thing was that I didn’t spot anything of the shops I used to go to back in the 1990s, like Selectadisc (which closed down, but still has a shop in Nottingham) and Sister Ray (which is now in the spot that Selectadisc vacated, though it used to be further down the street). I was also puzzled as to why the collection only went up to 1996, which is almost twenty years ago. I know 1996 is fifty years on from 1946, which is a nice round number and all that, but they could have extended the dates to 2006 and celebrated sixty years of Soho record shops, which would have included more of the time I actually shopped there myself (although I was shopping in Selectadisc and Sister Ray before 1996, as well). Hopefully they’ll be able to extend the exhibition and put it on again next year, when it will be seventy years since 1946. In fact, they really have enough stuff to make it into a book. They should make it into a book. (If you fancy reading more about the record shops in the 1990s, this is a great post on those days.)

After seeing the exhibition, I popped next door to Gosh (one of my favourite bookshops), to say hi to my artist chum Lizz Lunney who had mentioned on Instagram that she was going to be there (she currently lives in Berlin). Unfortunately I didn’t really get to chat to her because the shop was heaving with people and she was busy painting the window (one of the things I love about Gosh is that they regularly get artists and illustrators to paint their windows with wonderful pictures). On the upside, I bumped into another artist chum, Andy Poyiadgi who has a new comic being launched at Gosh this very Friday. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s about a postman who finds all the things he’s ever lost have been stored in the local lost-and-found, which is very similar idea to this artwork by Lally MacBeth, don’t you think? It’s funny how certain ideas seem to find their Time.

April 19, 2015

Secret 7s

Last week I popped into Somerset House to see the Secret 7″ exhibition that’s on display until May 3rd.

Secret 7'' at Somerset House

Secret 7″ is an annual fundraising project that raises money for various different charities (this year is Nordoff Robbins music therapy). Each year they release seven 7″ singles, each one with a pressing of 100, with 700 individual covers designed by various creatives. The “secret” part is that none of the cover designs are officially credited until the records are sold at auction.

Secret 7'' at Somerset House

Some of the designs are completely random and it’s not obvious who’s designed them or which record the design is for.

Secret 7'' at Somerset House

Others are more immediately obvious. I’m pretty sure that’s a David Shrigley design in the middle of the selection above (although the others are pretty random; I just liked them). The ones below are all designs for Reflections by Diana Ross & The Supremes, which is one of the seven songs chosen this year.

Secret 7'' at Somerset House

With 700 different cover designs made in different media, including collage, sculpture, embroidery, crochet, and wood marquetry, as well as the more standard style of record cover design, there’s a great variety of creative design work on display, and the exhibition is worth a look if you’re in central London over the next couple of weeks.

But if you can’t make it, here’s another visual treat for you:

April 14, 2015

2 Temple Place

I have a special knack for making it to exhibitions just before they are due to close, or else just plain forgetting about them until the day after they’ve closed. (Although it’s probably not so much a knack as a lack of organisation which is the culprit…)

2 Temple Place was somewhere I had been wanting to see for a while, but it’s only open a couple of months each year and, what with one thing and another, I never got there, always missing it for another year… Until the Saturday just gone, when I finally made it, only a week before it closes again until January 2016.

2 Temple Place

The house is currently (until Sunday) playing host to a marvellous wunderkammer, and the rooms have been filled with curious artefacts collected by eminent Victorians, but in this post I’m going to focus on the incredible details in the house itself.

(I apologise in advance that the photos aren’t the greatest quality, but the house was dark, and I forgot to charge the battery of my proper camera, so I had to make do with using my phone.)

2 Temple Place

The house was originally called Astor House, and was built for the American William Waldorf Astor (politician, publisher, hotelier, faker of his own death — by all accounts an interesting fella). It’s a gothic fantasy, covered in carvings inside and out — and the perfect place for such an exhibition as is currently on display there.

inside 2 Temple Place: cotton in a vase / marble floor / stained glass roof / lanterns in a corridor

As I mentioned, there are carvings everywhere inside the house, but they’re a bit more unique than the usual stuff you see in these places, and many of them are charmimgly characterful.

inside 2 Temple Place: carved details

inside 2 Temple Place: carved details

inside 2 Temple Place: carved details

inside 2 Temple Place: carved details

Many of the carvings represent characters from some of Astor’s favourite books, including plays from Shakespeare, The Last of the Mohicans, Rip Van Winkle, The Scarlet Letter, and The Three Musketeers.

inside 2 Temple Place: carved figures on the staircase
carved figures from The Three Musketeers

There’s also some lovely stained glass, which throws pretty colours across the wood panelling whenever the sun shines through.

inside 2 Temple Place: stained glass

inside 2 Temple Place: stained glass

The attention to detail was even noticable in the ladies’ loo, which had a very grand door, and nice views out of the windows. There was a pipe that for some reason had been painted to match the grain on the wood-panelling, and I noticed that the pretty piece of vintage cotton on display under the mirrors was embroidered with golden thread.

inside 2 Temple Place

From Cotton To Gold is closed today (Tuesday) but open from tomorrow until this Sunday, the 16th. If you can’t make it (though I recommend you do), then you can read a pretty detailed account of the house here.