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A space for thinking


This is a short note about a rare moment; it happened just the other night:

And so, the BBC kindly chose to broadcast a documentary concerning the ‘Treasures of the Indus.’ The content was beautiful. But it was less the material subject matter that struck me. It was the presenter. She was graceful, scholarly and, little by little, she revealed her refined aesthetic perception. Her name is Sona Datta. On display, then, was something more than the artistic treasures of the Indus. In the manner of her presentation Sona Datta showed us that she was thinking hard about what she was saying. She paused to think – sometimes in mid-sentence. She provided an unusual ‘space’ for thinking. And more: there was something about the timbre of her voice that complemented the depth of her thinking; I was reminded of the velvet notes of a clarinet. Perhaps there were notes, too, of a lovely perfume, of Guerlain or Balenciaga …

I think that it’s hard to present a documentary in the course of which the presenter reveals how difficult it is to do justice to complex matters; to do justice to the meanings of art – or to any subject that explores history, ethics or anthropology.

Not so long ago we were cautioned to think carefully about the words we use. We were taught to avoid any form of slickness. Thinking – hard thinking – was prized. Much of that has been lost.

But Sona Datta underlines the importance of that earlier tradition. I think she is exemplary.


One internet source tells us that Sona Datta ‘is an art historian and museum curator, specialising in the visual culture of south Asia. She completed her BA in Art History at Kings College, Cambridge; her MA in South Asian studies at SOAS; and her PhD at Cardiff on Temple architecture in medieval Tamil Nadu.‘  She worked for eight years at the British Museum where her exhibitions included the ‘Voices of Bengal’ season (2006). She writes on modernism in Indian art and, as a curator, her acquisition of contemporary art from Pakistan helped redefine the British Museum’s engagement with contemporary south Asia.

From 2014 she will take up a new role as Lead Curator for Indian & South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.


Farnham, Surrey: let it bleed


A student has pinned a notice to a tree: the notice reads: ‘Polite art’. The work consists of one white square piece of paper – added to which are the words ‘polite art’-  a pin and (perhaps) the tree. The tree, which may or not feature in the work, is a Norwegian maple.

I liked the work. I imagine that the student must be a student of art. The piece of paper – the art work – was placed next to the University for the Creative Arts. I saw the ‘Polite art’ from the pavement. It was there to be seen and read.

What does it mean?

It seems directed at the viewer – and suggests that there might be a way of categorising art as either ‘polite’ or ‘impolite’. Is the tree the subject? Are trees polite? (We’d have to try and go further and define these terms; for example, ‘polite’ could mean art that, in broad terms, pleases because it meshes with the conventional idea of ‘respectability’.)

But beyond this it’s perfectly possible to imagine that this work of art challenges the viewer as she or he stands (or passes by) on the pavement. Is he or she, as viewer, ‘polite’ or ‘impolite’? Or more: is the work of art reaching beyond and questioning the value of politeness in english culture today?

Well, if it’s possible to think of the work in this latter way then the artist has an important point to make: In a town like Farnham at least, the old norms and standards have fallen away. It’s becoming more and more ghastly – both to look at, and to witness the social behaviour on display.

Two examples will suffice:

First, once upon a time there was a certain respect for the highway code. Now, in the main street of Farnham any sense of such a code is in sharp decline: A large 4 X 4 vehicle piloted by a woman in her 30s decides to do a three-point turn. She allows the bonnet of her vehicle to intrude onto the still busy pavement. She looks at us with a “f*ck you” expression. We have to get out of her way. She’s a bully and she doesn’t care.

Second, close to the semi-charming Oxfam store for books and records I suddenly hear a loud noise – a kind of baying; it sounds like a pack of football supporters. What is going on? I hesitate to approach the store. But there’s a loud throbbing sound of music that accompanies the baying. I look up and notice that some sort of club is now situated above the Oxfam shop; a body-mind-sensation place has materialised. I won’t use its actual name – so let’s call it ‘Exhale.’ It’s an intrusive phenomenon. It disturbs. The strange thing is that it seems to be simply grafted on to the town – a pulsing pleasure dome – a sign of our times: history is junked.

The examples could go on and on. It’s all very curious. I imagine that the relentless decline of Farnham, Surrey is connected with de-regulation: we seem, in England, to have brought a culture into being where there’s a de-regulation of the self – not of all selves but sufficient of them to make things unpleasant. The de-regulation also refers to the atrophy of some of the great virtues such as ‘politeness.’

That’s why the student may have been making a very significant point with his or her work, ‘Polite art’.

Footnote: The photograph below shows a hand-made small poster attached to the railings of a school in Farnham. It asks parents and dog-walkers to clear up the mess left behind by their dogs. Once upon a time there wouldn’t have been the need for someone to make and display such a poster. It’s another sign of the ghastliness that has befallen the town of Farnham in Surrey.