The Observer carries an article by one Jonah Albert, who asks rhetorically: "Where are the black visitors in my gallery?" His gallery is, it turns out, our gallery: the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, where Mr Albert is a curatorial fellow. He writes:
The Inspire scheme, which I am part of, was initiated by the Arts Council two years ago in an attempt to get more black and Asian people into curatorial positions in London and help rectify the imbalance. Let's face it; there are very few from black or ethnic minority backgrounds - they account for less than 5 per cent of full-time curatorial staff....
An obvious culprit hides in the nature of the National Gallery's collection: Western European painting from 1200 to the turn of 19th century was the remit it was given when it was established in the early 19th century. Other institutions would collect and display Eastern and African Art; the National Gallery was set up to focus on old master paintings.
To the minds of those who choose not to engage with the place, it's little more than the work of some dead men - well, mainly dead white men.
I greatly desire a full integration of black and Asian British into all fields of national life. It is a pity that on the evidence of this article there is one black British man too many in the field of arts administration, namely Mr Albert, who should immediately be relieved of his responsibilities on the grounds that he has no idea what the arts are for. His incomprehension is merely compounded by this truism:
You don't need a black face in a painting for it to hold stories relevant to black people. The paintings in the National Gallery deal with major life themes: love, loss, death, jealousy, betrayal, war, peace, power and many more ideas, all of which are just as relevant to black people as anyone else.
The pedagogic power of art lies not in its being "relevant" - though it is obviously, and trivially, true that the subjects cited by Mr Albert are of universal rather than parochial significance - but in its broadening our experience and appreciation of enduring human concerns. Race and racism are important themes in human history, and some great artists and writers have illuminated them. (All my readers will know Othello. Many may not know a magnificent play by the writer of the German Enlightenment Gotthold Ephraim Lessing called Nathan der Weise, or Nathan the Wise. It is, in European literature, one of the great attacks on racism.) But they remain nonetheless a partial way of approaching art.
Albert cites "the buried story" behind portraits in the National Gallery - the history of slavery and colonial plantations. The history is important in itself, but to invoke it as the reason for being interested in paintings is to diminish the content of art. It may be interesting background, and the paintings themselves may tell us something about that history; but to reduce your artistic appreciation to one issue is merely an indication that Albert isn't interested in art to start with.
Albert states: "If that history is not enough to entice minorities into our museums, there are all the other issues which affect attendance - class, education, the immigrant mentality, employment status." All the other issues? How can you be a curatorial fellow of one of the greatest art galleries in the world and say nothing about the enjoyment and elevation that art provides? How can you have any role connected with arts administration and not regard the love of art as a sufficient - or even a possible - reason for looking at paintings? In my view, you can't or at least shouldn't. If Jonah Albert is representative of the Arts Council's "Inspire" scheme, then the Council should put a stop to it with alacrity. (You can read more about the programme in this article from Time Out.) In any event, Mr Albert's article is more than reason enough for the Council and the National Gallery to dispense with his services.