Philip Hensher: Putin, art and the 'sausage sword' debate

Share
Related Topics

Vladimir Putin was paying a visit to one of the best-known of Russian painters, Ilya Glazunov, the other day. All was going well, until he ventured away from the usual exchanges of civility between artists and rulers, and suddenly, and quite rudely, remarked of a painting of a medieval knight: "That sword's too short. It's only good to cut sausage." Most artists, at this point, might have considered handing Mr Putin the paintbrush and telling him to have a go if he thought he could do any better. But Mr Glazunov humbly agreed to correct his mistake.

The works of Mr Glazunov are new to this column, although 20 pleasant minutes on the internet soon introduced me to such previous works as a 5m-long canvas from 1980 entitled The Contribution of the People's of the USSR to the Development of World Culture and Civilization and even bigger ones called Mystery of the XX Century or The Market of Our Democracy. I may be wrong, but these works suggest to me that he is an artist who on occasion in the past has invited the comments of patriotic Russians on his work. I don't suppose you can complain when they compare your patriotic swords to sausage knives, even if they are your head of state.

The whole amusing affair has its chilling undertone, though. Within living memory, if a ruler of Russia made an observation as specific as this to an artist, the artist would be well advised not only to amend his sword, but publish a piece of self-abasement, confessing to personal aesthetic crimes.

Nowadays, a criticism like this in Russia only has the force of our own royals' unenthusiastic engagement with the arts. George V, going round the Tate once, is said to have called out to his wife "Here, May – this'll make you laugh." He was standing in front of a Cezanne. After John Piper showed his marvellously romantic, thundery and crepuscular views of Windsor Castle to George VI – widely interpreted as allegories of wartime Britain – the monarch stood in silence for a while, before observing "What a shame you didn't have better weather." The Queen, a notoriously reluctant opera-goer, was supposedly told in her silver Jubilee year that she really ought to attend the Royal Opera House once. The schedules were ransacked, and the relatively inoffensive The Marriage of Figaro suggested. "Is that the one with the pin?" the Queen asked. The flunky agreed that yes, it was. "I've seen it," she said.

Suggestions from the great about possible improvements to works of art are not often welcome. But would we want them any different? Last week, Andy Burnham was replaced by Ben Bradshaw as minister for Culture, Media and Sport; it was widely interpreted as a shift from a minister who was mostly interested in the sport part of the portfolio to one more at home with the culture and media parts. Mr Bradshaw won't have any difficulty spontaneously answering the traditional interview question of what film, play or concert he last saw.

One wants everyone to be interested in cultural activities, but I don't think it matters whether politicians are culturally enthusiastic or not. I get rather worried when the people in charge of arts fundings have favourite orchestras, or views about whether conceptual art is a complete con, or whatever.

The late Francis Bacon, asked about Mrs Thatcher's supposed philistinism, had it right when he said that: "It simply doesn't matter very much". Enthusiasm for the arts in general is all very well in a politician, but sooner or later, you may find them looking over your shoulders, and making helpful suggestions about the lengths of swords.

Queen's hit the right note with pianist Mitsuko

Though no artist wants government interference, it's nice when a government humbly recognises the highest excellence.

The pianist Mitsuko Uchida, made a Dame in the Queen's birthday honours, is not a noisy star; not someone in search of celebrity; not someone, really, with much interest in public image. But what a wonderful pianist she is, and how few more appropriate candidates for a high honour there are.

With the great Canadian Louis Lortie, she is my favourite pianist. But her greatness consists of making you listen not to her, but to the music. I remember one magical night when she played the eight Schubert Impromptus, a miracle of transcended ego and selfless service to Schubert.

You felt, at one point, that until that evening you had always been listening to one person's version of Schubert or another's; and then, in Dame Mitsuko's hands, the clouds parted and there, with perfect lucidity, was nothing else but the G flat Impromptu itself. And at the end, you had to remember to breathe. A great pianist, and a supreme musician.

Japan comes to a standstill over smoking

In Japan a couple of weeks ago for the first time, we were surprised to discover that the authorities, faced with the question of passive smoking, had come to very different conclusions to Western authorities.

In Tokyo, you may smoke in bars and restaurants. However, you may not smoke in the open air while walking, and designated street corners with ashtrays are surrounded by people doing exactly that, smoking while not walking. All over the place are delightful posters with anti-smoking imprecations, seemingly composed in haiku form by Basho. My favourite, I think, was: "Inhaled. Burned. Thrown away/If it were anything but a cigarette/It would surely be crying."

A clear demonstration of the fact that the anti-smoking movement has no basis in assessment of risk and solution – after all, if passive smoking is as clear a risk in particular circumstances as people say, the answer to it ought to be universally agreed. Rather, the conclusions reached by different authorities suggest that, really, it is just something defined by culture, and imposed in different forms by a single ideology. I have no particular objection to that, but it seems foolish of the anti-smoking lobby not to admit what is driving it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Advisor - £35,000 OTE

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Advisor is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor / Contact Centre Advisor

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As the UK's leading accident an...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Recruitment Genius: Web Hosting Support Agent

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading web hosting pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If teenagers were keen to vote, it could transform Britain

Peter Kellner
Crocuses bloom at The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew  

From carpets of crocuses to cuckoos on the move, spring is truly springing

Michael McCarthy
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003