There is a scene in the very underrated Mr Bean: The Movie (1997) which occurs once the nincompoop protagonist has been mistaken for an “English art scholar” and flown to America to oversee the transfer of Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother to a Los Angeles art gallery. After accidentally destroying the portrait days before it is due to be exhibited, Mr Bean breaks into the gallery in the dead of night and substitutes its remains for a poster from the gallery gift-shop. When the portrait/poster is finally exhibited, Mr Bean is asked to give a speech about it. Standing before the poster and thoroughly lost for words, he wonders “…why was it worth…spending fifty million of your American dollars on this portrait? And the answer is… erm…well, err, this picture is worth such a lot of money… because…”
Similarly ludicrous – and at odds with the common sense of Mr Bean – is the present campaign to raise £50 million to keep Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon” in the National Gallery of Scotland, before the Duke of Sutherland’s Bridgwater Loan expires. Perhaps the fear is that unless the money is found, the painting will end up hanging in the apartment of some spiv who is too philistine to appreciate it and that the masses will be correspondingly deprived. It is apparently immaterial that “Diana and Actaeon” has little to do with Scotland’s history and culture, or that it may more rightfully be regarded as the property of Venice or the Italian nation. The possibility that £50 million could or should be raised through public subscription is rarely broached, exposing an assumption that the public cannot be trusted to raise the money themselves.
Yet anybody who would pay £50 million for “Diana and Actaeon,” be they a spiv, the Scottish public, or the National Gallery of Scotland is flatly an idiot. We today have a culture where no work of art has any aura in itself, so that it can be endlessly reproduced and distributed amongst those who want it, on tee-shirts and tea towels and coffee cups. This is called modernity. There no distinction of any consequence between the original “Diana and Actaeon” and the image of the same painting which presently serves as wallpaper on my laptop. If one considers this sceptical attitude towards aura to be philistine, it seems that such an insistence upon originality has a cost: about £50 million. Tychy would sooner that the Scottish public spent £50 million on graffiti art and that they let “Diana and Actaeon” go to the dogs. Perhaps Mr Bean can be parachuted into the National Gallery of Scotland to make some suitable adjustments to the painting…