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Opinion

John Bird: Art can change the world in so many ways

“The colossal civilising effect that galleries make on the face of the world cannot be exaggerated. Changing one’s perspective through art has been one of my pet subjects”

Last week I went all Star Wars, all big threats to the galaxy. I seldom write about that stuff.

I write about poverty, about saving the NHS by keeping the healthy healthy, so we can put more resources for those that, through no fault of their own, need them. I write about art, and, at times, walking to free parks, and doing things for jack shit.

In the early New Year, I went to that vast old power station on the Thames at Southwark that – in our modern times – has been turned into the Tate Modern. And there I saw the most wonderful collection of drawings, paintings and sculptures by the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. I can’t see the wrong in any of his work. The place was packed because there’s such a vast amount of work – including the largest group of his nudes ever reunited in the UK – because Modigliani produces some very pretty pictures, many of them women bereft of their clobber.

As we know, it’s expensive being poor. With the poorest paying through the nose for their credit, their energy bills, their food, their ‘pay as you go’ life

I have been drawing from life, as they call it, since I was 17 and when I wandered into Chelsea School of Art with my badly cut hair, my soiled pants (from paint), and a rough hewn look to ape an art student of the time. I took to nakedness like a duck to water.

So when I look at the Tate Modern’s retrospective, I look as a drawer and painter and I can see the hard work that seems to flow off of his brush and pen. Often rapid and seemingly thoughtless, but precise and true.

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But I did find myself, as I often do now, talking to people in the gallery who I guess were born somewhere around the time that mum and dad made me. I love increasingly to know what they’ve done with their decades, the same ones I’ve passed through. Where have they lived? Do they, for instance, remember the Express Dairy (one of my employers, until they checked my references)? Or Mac Fisheries? Or the Lyons’ Corner Houses where the tea and sugar-topped tea cakes were to go to war for.

This day though, a few Fridays ago, I stood before a painting at the Modigliani show and found myself telling a story. How, aged 16, and in a reformatory, I was on home-leave. I bought a print of the exact picture we stood before in the Tate. I had pinned it on the space above my reformatory bed, only to find later that it had been ripped down and thrown on the floor. Imagining it was a fellow inmate who didn’t like the ‘School of Paris’ (of which I believe Modigliani was a member), I began an investigation. Only to find out from an inmate that they’d seen one of our overseers tear it down.

I was shocked. Why did he not tear down the countless pictures of naked-butted women sitting astride motorbikes that were to be found on other boys’ bits of walls? I accosted, politely, the overseer but he refused to discuss it. Until, when we were alone later on, he said, “I had to. It looks just like my wife.”

And sure enough, on reflection, I could see the reason for his jealousy.

The story, which I told to two women – including one who had heard me speak at a gallery a few years previous – went down well. But I had, as usual, taken up too much of our precious time in storytelling, and needed to zip through the exhibit to get to a business meeting nearby.

The colossal civilising effect that galleries make on the face of the world cannot be exaggerated. I’m nuts about art, and as I say, it made me – jokingly – the posh bloke I am today. Certainly, it was difficult going as a young man; to go out nicking when my mind was full of paint, canvas and brushes. Changing one’s perspective through art has been one of my pet subjects.

But walking around the kind of Thameside village that’s grown up around the Tate Modern, it’s surprising the amount of places there are to eat in. And not at a bargain price. All grown-up recently, with towers of expensive flats above. As Grayson Perry said once, “artists are the shock troops of gentrification”. That wherever you get art, and artists, you then get posh flats and big prices.

These obvious signs of prosperity though hide an uglier reality. British prosperity, wherein we seem to simulate the continental world, is based on cheap labour. For our restaurants by the chain, and they are all almost all chains around the Tate Modern, create wealth for the creators and their investors. But the workers mainly don’t get enough to live a good life. And if they’re paid a Living Wage, it’s because the chain has cut back on other staff perks.

And as we know, it’s expensive being poor. The poverty premium can be as high as £1,190 a year for some households, says the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. With the poorest paying through the nose for their credit, their energy bills, their food, their ‘pay as you go’ life.

The threats still hover over us. There is still this mad, competitive world thrown up by the insatiable appetites of us, global consumers, to consume more, while we make the wealthy even wealthier. There is still the insatiable appetite of investors to make more (and more) as we move towards toxic meltdown.

Next week, I want to write about how I cured my ingrown toenail through thoughtfulness: by getting bigger shoes.

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