Hepworth theft

December 22 2011

Image of Hepworth theft

Picture: AFP

A curious article in The Guardian today from Zoe Williams, who, it seems, struggled when her editor said 'give me 800 words on what the Hepworth theft means'. She thinks it points to a wider malaise in society, and blames, in part, the free market:

When you throw someone into the mix who doesn't care that a statue's true value is £500,000, and cares still less about its emotional value to the community, and will trash all that for £1,500, that person has a lot of power. It's caring that makes you weak.

The reason this is such a blow at this peculiar time is that the free market – the fundamental understanding of society where we exchange time for money and money for stuff and everybody wins – isn't working out. There is a full spectrum of explanations for the failure. On the right, it's because governments interfered, over-regulated, overdid the handouts and overspent. On the left, it's because government privatised, outsourced, didn't regulate, and created a corporate plutocracy by failing to protect wages, grouting the gaps with benefits and ultimately subsidising super-profits. There are centrist arguments that blame the legerdemain of financial instruments – just one giant, apolitical "oops".

Sadly, people have been stealing and vandalising art since the year dot, and will continue to do so. Probably the same section of society that does not care whether something is beautiful or historically important is the same as that which cannot empathise with their fellow man. Call it cultural pyschopathy. It has taken many forms throughout history; one is iconoclasm. 

Meanwhile, a reader writes with a further suggestion on how to deal with the current problem of melting sculptures for scrap:

Re your point about scrap metal thieves, I agree entirely with everything you write. Here's one additional point, though, not least because you clearly have plenty of experience of the policy world, and the importance of framing these things properly from the start.

The theft of scrap metal or indeed 'architectural salvage' items from a listed property - something which, perforce, would include not only lead from church roofs, but also lots of things which do end up stolen and sold - e.g. pews, lecterns, statues, light fixtures, door handles, sinks, fire surrounds, you name it - ought to be considered an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing in criminal court. This is both (a) easily defined and (b) covers a lot of serious problems currently afflicting heritage properties, both ecclesiastical and secular, at least some of these involving what might reasonably be regarded as works of art.

Sounds eminently sensible to me. 

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