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

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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.

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