Sunday, 24 February 2013

In Times of Austerity is Art Just Middle-Class Decadence?

"For sale, £4.99 ono. One careless owner ha ha!" Photo May Ayres.

As a low-income blue-collar worker and council tenant living in Tower Hamlets who is currently watching his standard of living plummet, I fail to qualify for the title of home owning decadent wine sipping overpaid pretentious arty fetishist. I understand though that some of those living among us might fit this description, and I stand shoulder to shoulder with them on the subject of 'Old Flo'.
I believe that the decision by our local council to sell this Henry Moore sculpture in order to bolster its haemorrhaging coffers is a misguided one, and I also find myself in broader disagreement with those who say that art is a luxury the Borough can no longer afford.
Advocates for the sale of 'Old Flo' accurately note that nearly 30,000 children are living here in poverty, in one of the poorest boroughs in Britain, and that there are single bedroom apartments being occupied by six people. They also point to the dire and decrepit nature of some of the housing stock that people are compelled to live in. They are surely misguided though to imagine that the hopelessness and desperation can be eased with a one-off sale of a piece of the family silver.
London County Council purchased 'Old Flo' in 1962 for £7400, and at the time this sum was sufficient to buy three houses locally. The sale of 'Old Flo' will likely realise £20 million, and today when the average house price is £384,820, this is a sum sufficient to buy over forty houses. The work then has obviously remained a financial asset providing a strong bulwark against inflation over the years, and is something the Borough should perhaps be holding onto for the benefit of future generations. Why it is not being used as collateral to raise desperately needed low-interest loans for local enterprises is perhaps a pertinent question that people should be asking.
The sculpture was a gift at cost-price from Henry Moore, and over the years it continued to enrich the lives of many living here until it was removed for 'safe keeping'. It was local people who gave it the name 'Old Flo', and is a measure of the affection they felt for it.
It was not as some of it's critics maintain 'the arrogance of the rich' that planted a sculpture amongst poor and working people living in Tower Hamlets but the artist himself, and he made his motives very clear: hoping to make art accessible to those who would not normally consider visiting a gallery. 
Ironically, it was the very arrogance of the more 'well off', who are among those resisting the impending sale, which was responsible for its removal to a Yorkshire park in the first place. 
They successfully argued that its location on a council estate exposed it to vandalism, despite its only defacement having been from pigeon droppings. 
Another irony is that the Borough whose Council is trying to auction 'Old Flo' off is also home to the wealthiest, and many would say venal and reckless financial institutions that were responsible for the economic crises now set to dwarf the Great Depression of the 1930's.
The crimes of this family of financial institutions are gradually becoming a matter of public record, most recently in December 2012, when HSBC agreed to pay $1.9 billion to the US Treasury in a settlement that avoided criminal prosecution for allegedly laundering Mexican drug money and providing material support to Saudi terrorism. 
While there are many people living here who would take pride in being a part of a tradition of lawlessness personified by the Kray Twins, others seek inspiration in more sustaining and nurturing aspects of human existence; pursuits which are by no means confined to the wealthy.
Old Flo meanwhile serves as a reminder for many; of East London's endurance during the 1940's, and of the refuge sought on platforms of the London Underground through long nights of relentless bombing. It is a story also of people physically overcoming the resistance of an officialdom which feared the masses devolving into a species of subterranean dwelling troglodytes. 
Another installation, the statue called 'Stairway to Heaven' presently taking shape in Bethnal Green Park and funded by public subscription, also demonstrates that the Blitz is something East Londoners wish to remember. 
I can think of no better site for Old Flo's return than close to Bethnal Green Underground Station, sharing space in the park with another monument to those condemned to living and dying under the bombs.