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Cultural heroes, please stay out of politics The finest minds lose all their nuance when they get political on Twitter

January 22, 2020   4 mins

There are two stars of the British cultural firmament that I admire beyond all others — with an intensity bordering on infatuation.

The first is Bendor Grosvenor, who presents art history programmes on the BBC. He used to be included in the hit BBC1 series Fake or Fortune, as number two to the art dealer Philip Mould, but was regrettably dumped from it in the more recent version. He has since been moved to a more recherché programme on BBC4 called Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, correcting the misattribution of 17th and 18th century portraits languishing in public collections.

It’s lovely stuff. Bendor is inescapably patrician — he brings to mind the parson in a Jane Austen novel, missing only the britches — so the BBC has paired him with a lady called Emma Dabiri, a model turned visual sociology researcher at SOAS with a luscious Ulster accent and a vibrant wardrobe. Their genial non-chemistry only adds to the programme’s charms.

Bendor can walk past a portrait of an aristocrat, of the kind that lines every National Trust property in the land, and instead of seeing just another bloke with a big nose, he can identify the artist, the context, the whole long lost language of gesture and pose. To see his excitement as damaged paintings are restored to life, and his appreciation of every brushstroke, is an inspiration.

Another hero is Jonathan Foyle, an expert on Tudor architecture and furniture. His is a less outlandishly period presence, but he more than compensates with deep knowledge and surprising superpowers including climbing buildings and stunning architectural drawing (to watch him recreate the lost Nonsuch Palace by hand in the recent Henry’s Lost Palaces was a particular joy). Mr Foyle’s contribution to the rediscovery of Henry VII’s marriage bed has earned him an unassailable halo in Tudor enthusiast circles.

Between them, Grosvenor and Foyle offer a tiny bat’s squeak of hope in the vast cultural void. Here is connoisseurship of the highest order, a lifeline connection to the past, and a rejoinder to today’s deadening relativism with a powerful reminder that some things really are better than others, and there are still people around who can appreciate them. Bravo BBC!

And then… you follow them on Twitter.

Why oh why, throughout the long and painful Brexit years, did these two art experts take it upon themselves to be so loud and confident at the most aggravating end of Remainer obsession? How can it be that two such fine minds, one of whom (Grosvenor) actually has a PhD in History and even some work experience in politics, be so subtle and enlightening in the realm of art and so pat and incurious in a political context?

If I were their brand advisor I would have delicately pointed out that, in the niche fanbase of English renaissance art, there might well be as many Brexiteers as Remainers, so there’s an obvious career disadvantage in getting so ‘stuck in’.

But more than that I would try to persuade them that some of the same élan that they respond to so powerfully in Henry VIII’s palaces, or a perfect van Dyck portrait, was involved in the Brexit movement: cherishing the particular over the generic, a need for a more stirring purpose than only economic pragmatism and a pushback against the dullness of globalised modernity. (And this comes from a Remain voter, but one who has since been trying to understand rather than demonise.)

One of the things I was most looking forward to about the end of the main phase of the Brexit argument was that these important minds could go back to their illuminating expert subjects — but no! Bendor Grosvenor, who has moved to Scotland, has started campaigning for the SNP to fight the Tories’ “hard Brexit” deal, including campaign videos and a New Year’s Day column in The Times.

The SNP! Does he think a post-independence Scotland will be prioritising investment in museums? Or that the inconvenience of Brexit would even compare to the inconvenience and damage of a hard border between Scotland and England?

As for Mr Foyle, on the day after the killing of Quasem Soleimani, when the Iranian streets were being flooded with protestors (with disastrous effects and more than fifty dead), he gave us this gem:

What wisdom does this comparison, between Donald Trump’s apparently sparsely populated inauguration and the funeral of a known killer and sponsor of political instability across the Middle East, give to the world? Are we to conclude that Soleimani had more supporters, and was therefore the better guy? The crowds are even bigger for the Ayatollah himself — does that mean he wins this competition? Jonathan, I could watch you talk about Tudor buildings for the rest of eternity but, please, make this stop.

I suspect that for lifelong fans of Lewis, the sudden elevation of actor Laurence Fox to anti-PC badboy since his appearance on last week’s Question Time is equally distressing. Gone is the fresh face of Lewis’s loyal assistant Hathaway, and the cosy parochialism of Oxford; a few elections later, the new Laurence Fox has become very cross and transformed into someone you might feel a little uneasy about if stuck in a tube carriage with late at night.

I share much of Fox’s frustration at the overreach of identity politics, but I also suspect that the angry man routine won’t convert anyone; it will only rouse the rabble who already agree with him, and put off more cautious listeners from the cause.

Fox’s now famous row with Shami Chakrabarti on Question Time was about the Labour leadership — that it shouldn’t matter what gender the candidates are, it should be about their policies and capabilities. So far so good, but his argument would have been rather stronger if he had mentioned a single one of Keir Starmer’s policies or capabilities as his reason for supporting him. Instead, as he told Brendan O’Neill the next day, he supports Keir Starmer “only because I think he is the one that can go up against Boris — I think they’re both a bit dick swinging and, you know, that’s how it works.”

Lozza. If you’re going to offer yourself as more high-minded than the gender-obsessed wokerati, it’s probably best not to offer “dick swinging” as the main attribute you look for in a potential leader. I know what you’re trying to say, and I probably agree with it, but you’re not making things better here.

Cultural figures are people too, and, in the virtuous parlance of modern celebrity, why should they not ‘use their platform to promote causes they care about’? Well, perhaps because, whether you agree with them or not, they tend only to make things worse.

Watching highbrow brains drop all nuance and get down with political Twitter is particularly painful, but even actors have something precious to protect. Earlier in the same interview, Laurence Fox asked, “What’s the point of an actor?” and answered his own question: “Essentially the only job of an actor is to take a writer’s words and give them life. That’s your only job.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Freddie Sayers is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.


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David Zersen
David Zersen
3 years ago

Writing from across the pond, I’m astonished that noone has commented on this article in almost nine months! Although only Laurence Fox is known to me as Hathaway in the much beloved Lewis, your comment that “Cultural figures are people too” rings true. It is oft defensively repeated by “cultural hereoes” in the U.S. However, all too often their political perspectives, touted by media simply because they are celebrities, is embarrasing for all because their insights are inferior to their professional skills.Your ability to phrase the issue so cogently should be read by all here in the States.