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Friends Like These:
There has been a lot of talk in the band press over the past few weeks about the new commission from the Victoria and Albert Museum entitled, “Breathless” by the artist Cornelia Parker.

Given that it has so much coverage, we at 4BR thought we may as well put in our four penn’th worth as well, and give you a little bit of information to think about before you possibly make your mind up to whether the 50,000 was well spent or not.


Breathless by Cornelia Parker

We’ll come straight out and tell you what we think.

This is a stunning work. One that has given impetus and created debate, asks questions of us and the role of the brass band, and above all is very beautiful to look at. For us it’s a very positive literal image of the history, present and future of a movement that’s artistically entwined in the very fabric of our society.

We can appreciate that on the face of it, for many people 50,000 is a lot of money to spend on a work of art - especially when it involves the destruction of musical instruments, but good contemporary art isn’t cheap and it must be stated that both the Museum and the artist made very proper and thorough investigations to ascertain that the instruments themselves were destined to be scrapped by the organisations that were approached and were beyond economic repair.

Some people don’t like contemporary art and the one organisation who voiced their strong opinion about the so called “lunatic scheme” to spend 50,000 of the V&A’s money was the Churchill Society who were represented on the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme by Norman Harvey Rutherlyn.

Mr Rutherlyn was outraged by Cornelia Parker’s work, the cost and especially what he believed was the wanton destruction of instruments that in his opinion could have been used by children whose parents cannot afford to buy instruments. It made for an explosive exchange of opinions.

We therefore made a few investigations into the background to the affair to find out something a bit more about both parties.

Cornelia Parker is a renowned contemporary artist who was short listed for the Turner Prize in 1997, has had works displayed at the Tate modern and Serpentine Gallery as well as being Artist in Residence at the Science Museum 1998-1999 and having her work in collections with the Arts Council, The British Council, The British Museum and the Saatchi Collection.

The Churchill Society was formed in 1990 ostensibly to research the causes of war and terrorism. However, a little bit of research finds that it’s first stated aim is “To alert the British public to the awesome consequences of their loss of Parliamentary Sovereignty and to the loss of Sterling – both matters that Churchill would find unbelievable: and to this end, to foster patriotism and a renewal of the ideals of the Commonwealth.” That’s a bit different to what’s been doing the rounds.

The 50,000 work takes the form of a flattened brass band, suspended on wires in a circular space that was once a solid floor between galleries. As the work is suspended, it can be either viewed from above or below and is described by the artist herself as “A vibrant working class tradition has been brought into the British Galleries in the guise of a heraldic ceiling rose. I wanted to create something that would explore the ideas of duality: light/dark, silence/noise, upper class/lower class, the North/South divide, black cloud/silver lining, death/resurrection. I see the work as a ghostly last gasp of the British Empire”.

The work uses 54 instruments that were purchased from the British Legion and Salvation Army and were crushed into the required shape and form by using one of the 22 tonne accumulators that hydraulically raise and lower Tower Bridge.

Cornelia Parker stated that the artwork had not deprived any children of needy instruments and that the decision to scrap them was taken by the organisations involved. This is challenged by the Churchill Society.

However, the fact remains that Cornelia Parker undoubtedly purchased the instruments and that the organisations involved freely accepted the payments for them. If, as has been stated by the Director of the British Legion, there are weekly pleas for old instruments, how come they were not handed directly to the Legion to be disposed of before Cornelia Parker purchased them, or why weren’t the Legion made aware that a request to purchase the was being made and that whether or not the organisations involved could sell them or whether they could be disposed of without financial recompense.

How come Cornelia Parker and the V&A get all the grief then? What about asking a few questions of the organisations that found themselves in a position that they just happened to have instruments to sell but not to give away despite weekly pleas from their own Director of Music?

The Churchill Society also stated that the “lunatic scheme” involved 50,000 of public money wasted through the actions of the Arts Council. Subsequently it was informed that the money came direct from the V&A as part of a tradition that has involved the purchase of works since 1852.

Mind you, the Churchill Society has a grave disliking of the so-called “Public Institutions” such as the Art’s Council and the BBC.

In his Christmas Lecture of 1996 for the Society, Mr Rutherlyn outlined is main objections to these organisations in these terms….” To composers Radio 3 is an absolute totalitarian state” “…..have run a stylistic anti English “closed shop” and have for years favoured foreign or homosexual composers” He further added that “ The homosexual ascendancy that has existed for so long in the new music selection department must be controlled” “Radio 3 …..have favoured almost exclusively foreign and homosexual composers”. He describes the musical period 1955 to 2000 as “The Deviancy Period”. In addition, its tribute to the life of Enoch Powell should leave you in no doubt to which arm of the “Conservative” family it belongs.

The Arts Council is described as a “bureaucratic nightmare” that is “luxuriously housed, …lazy, overpaid, over pensionable staff…… past masters at writing buck passing letters.”

Just to show they are not out of touch with the so-called “pop music” scene he answered his own rhetorical question, “Who actually finances “pop music”? by posing the answer “Is it funded from laundered drug money? Or is it the other way round?”

Now you get a better picture of where they are coming from don’t you? Not the most liberal sympathetic attitude concerning sexuality or nationhood is it?

Miss Parker and the V&A have done us a great favour. 50k is a great deal of money, but in the great scheme of things it’s peanuts compared to say the 12.5million pounds that was spent by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to purchase the “Churchill Letters” or the 14 million which has been used by brass bands themselves to replace their own stock of instruments through the National Lottery. Mind you just about every band created a “Youth Band” so that the old instruments could be kept in useful existence didn’t they?

The brass band movement needs to be brought screaming and kicking into the 20th let alone the 21st century in many ways, and the work at the V&A has shown that when it comes to progress the banding movement has a singularly “Luddite” mentality. The work will be on show for many years and thousands will enjoy it. With friends like the Churchill Society, Miss Parker’s prescient interpretation of the work as “a ghostly last gasp of the British Empire” runs depressingly true.

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Breathless by Cornelia Parker

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