Old Flo, the Bamiyan of Bow*?

In a bland blog in the Huffington Post, Tower Halmets Mayor Lutfur Rahman defends his plans to sell off Draped Seated Woman, the Henry Moore sculpture erected in an east London housing estate in 1962.  The article runs through predictable bromide about ring-fenced funding, Tower Hamlets\’  record in providing affordable rented housing and his electorate\’s support for the sale.

But Mayor Rahman makes an interesting point in passing: \’if only there was as much national media interest in the fact that we are being forced to make £100million cuts by 2015, as there has been over the proposed sale of this sculpture to mitigate the effect of some of those cuts.\’  There is something slightly uneasy about the intense focus on the sale of this work of art, when the material conditions for the people of Tower Hamlets, where more than fifty per cent of children live in poverty, are so poor and receive so little coverage in the media.

Of course there is more to it than that (and you can worry about poverty and cultural deprivation).  The sale of the sculpture (affectionately known as \’Old Flo\’) is understood by both sides of the argument as symbolic.  On the one hand it betokens nostalgia for post-war \’nothing too good for the workers\’ social solidarity that also gave us the magnificence of the Royal Festival Hall.  On the other hand, there is impatience with this nostalgia, which is largely (but not exclusively) being expressed by middle-class liberals like me: when will we start protesting as loudly about poverty and exploitation; when will we value flesh and blood, as much as bronze?

The comparison needs to be cautiously made, as Tower Hamlets is not the Afghanistan, but the terms of the debate remind me of when the Taliban government of Afghanistan blew up the great Buddhas at Bamiyan in 2001 – an act that scandalised the world.  The Taliban said that they did so after Swedish scholars offered money to repair the statues, but refused to let it be used instead to provide food for starving children.  Their gratuitous act of vandalism was a dynamite retort to westerners worrying about material heritage more than current poverty.

The sale is probably a done deal now, and a scandal of sorts. The issue is what sort of scandal it is: one of a callous council ready to sell its heritage for a mess of pottage, or one of tough choices between selling artworks, or cutting back services, exposing to greater risk local people already leading precarious lives.

* or Stepney, actually, but the rhyme works better if shifted a little further eas

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