Wednesday, 23 November 2016

your views are important to us

Our postman is no slouch.  He came early this morning to beat the resurfacing works in the lane, so early that we had not opened the gate for him.  He brought my pink dress, which I have not tried on yet since I was too idle to change out of my gardening clothes and now I am avoiding even opening the parcel until I am fresh out of the shower, and a letter from the National Gallery.

The letter was a puzzle.  It was a two parter, part fund raising appeal and part something else, in a nice thick Basildon Bond envelope that I am sure was not the cheapest envelope they could have bought that would have done the job.  I was not sure what to make of the part that was not a fund raising appeal, or whether it was even genuine or really intended to warm me up for the request for money.  Apart from the fact that I have booked tickets for temporary exhibitions from time to time, I did give them the last of the cash on my CAF account towards the appeal to buy Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks, and I have got a National Art Pass, so I can see how they could easily have got hold of my details.  It is a pity that in their attempt to personalise the whole thing they addressed me by a weird mashup of the nickname I am always called by and my middle initial, which I do use but only with my proper first name, so ending up with a combination I never call myself by and nobody who knows me personally would think of using either.

Apart from money, their archivist wants me to 'contribute to the rich tapestry of stories so that generations to come can connect the history, heritage and significance of our great national institutions to their own lives.  Please write to tell us why you love the Gallery and what these wonderful paintings mean to you'.  By way of illustration he enclosed a perfectly nice postcard of a seventeenth century Dutch portrait of a boy with a little essay on the back by somebody called David about why he liked the National Gallery, and a piece of paper headed up with the weird mashup of my name plus my full postal address, on which I was supposed to write my own short essay to be added to the archive.  Or I could email them.

This seems to be a thing nowadays.  The Radio 3 breakfast show includes a slot for a listener to explain why they love the piece of music Radio 3 is about to play.  The woodland charity, totally unbidden, sent me a spiral bound notebook in which I am supposed to invite people to write down their memories of trees.  Or they can do it online.  You cannot leave an art exhibition now without passing a noticeboard on which people have written their thoughts about the exhibition on postcards, unless there was an interactive touch screen inside the exhibition for them to record their thoughts.  I rarely listen to the Radio 3 breakfast show because I find the presenters annoying, nor have I asked anybody to write anything in the spiral bound book.  I don't stop to read the postcards.  And I don't know who David is so why do I care about his favourite picture?

Sometimes it is nice to know what other people think.  If I'm at a gallery with a friend I am interested in their reaction to the art, because I'm interested in them.  And sometimes they have spotted something I haven't.  But if I'm about to listen to a piece of music it really doesn't help to know that somebody I don't know and am never going to meet likes it because it was the first piece they played in the school orchestra, or they heard it fifty years ago on their first date with the person they are now married to.  Those are lovely memories for them.  For me, not so interesting. If a music critic were to tell me that the music was booed at its first performance, or suppressed by Stalin and not played in public for a quarter of a century after it was written, that would be an interesting bit of historical context.  If they were to tell me that the violins would repeat in the third movement the theme first introduced in the opening bars by the horns, I could strain to listen out for it and I might learn something about the music.  Knowing that a complete stranger first heard it when their university friend played it to them on a wind-up gramophone and so it reminds them of their friend (or the HMV dog) really doesn't matter.

I'm not anti all customer feedback.  We found the excellent curry house in Barnard Castle by dint of looking on Tripadvisor and seeing it was the most recommended local eatery by a country mile, and sure enough it was very good.  Buying clothes online it's useful to know if other customers found the cotton thin, the shade of blue darker than it looked on the screen, or the sizing so huge they had to go down one from their usual size.  Especially when several people agree that the material was practically transparent, the blue surprisingly dark or the boots enormous.  If a book has numerous reviews on Amazon you can generally work out quite a lot about what sort of a book it is, even if you ignore the reviewer's conclusions, just as you ignore comments that the blue or the boots were lovely, because their idea of loveliness might not be yours.

I don't know what the National Gallery will do with the pieces of paper, or the emails.  Will they archive them properly, with an index, or just shove them in boxes until they end up in a skip in twenty years' time?  Archiving and storage are not cheap.  I thought that on balance I'd rather the gallery put its finite curatorial resources into researching or restoring some of the actual artworks they've got sitting in storage.  Who knows, there might be another School Of that turns to be a By. The archivist invited me to give permission for my words to be published, with or without my name and details, or to say how long I would like it to be closed from public view (which makes it sound quite exciting, like Cabinet papers).  Only I have a dark suspicion it is actually rather pointless.

But maybe it is mainly an exercise to make me feel they are listening to me, like the email from the Tate with an email address I could respond to if I didn't use Facebook, only when I did respond the message was bounced back because it was invalid.  There is a detective story by Dorothy L Sayers in which the murder victim, who believes something about themselves which it would be a plot spoiler to reveal, is sent a coded message by their murderer arranging to meet them (and, as it turns out, murder them).  Lord Peter Wimsey on discovering the message points out that the first bit, that panders to the victim's belief, is sloppily coded, but the part relating to the meeting is highly accurate.  Ergo, it was the meeting that mattered to whoever wrote the message.  I remember the story sometimes when I am not sure what is going on in a given situation: what part of the situation is the other party paying attention to, because that's the thing that's important to them.

I really don't know what the National Gallery wants this time, my views or my money.  It doesn't really matter, since they are not getting either of them, the views because I don't see who would be interested in them, and the money because the CAF account is long emptied and since quitting the City my Art Pass and my Tate membership are as much as I can manage.

Addendum  Of course, what is cardunculus if not my views on life addressed to people who don't know me?  But since it has scarcely gone viral it is largely read by people who do know us.  And it quite often contains useful snippets of gardening or cookery advice garnered from first hand experience.  And it is all done for free in my spare time, without the aid of Basildon Bond envelopes or the salary of a professional archvist.

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