Vol. 46 No. 11 · 6 June 2024

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What are galleries for?

Julian Barnes remarks on the use of cameras in art galleries to take snapshots of the works, as aides-mémoires for the visitor (LRB, 9 May). In the age of the smartphone this may well be by far the most common use of cameras at exhibitions, but allowing photography in galleries also underscores that they are places where art is made and not only shown. I am always delighted to see people sitting in galleries drawing in their sketchbooks; and, since I believe that photography is an art form, I maintain an informal boycott of exhibitions – exhibitions of photography in particular – that forbid visitors from using cameras. Some galleries seem to be run by people who believe that visitors would only take pictures for the purpose of copyright infringement – an example of the prejudice against and suspicion of photography in public spaces, which often hinders the making of the very kinds of work these galleries hang on their walls.

Daphne Preston-Kendal

Julian Barnes’s disappointment on viewing a painting by Odilon Redon, when he was expecting a smaller portrait, brings to mind a story about Sergei Rachmaninov. In 1907 he was seeking inspiration for a tone poem, and in Paris saw a monochrome reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead. His tone poem of that title followed in 1909. Some time later, he saw the actual painting and was disappointed. He was quoted as saying: ‘If I had first seen the original, I probably would not have written my Isle of the Dead. I like it in black and white.’

Mark Flinn
Chester, Cheshire

Julian Barnes describes Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate in Palermo as ‘staring towards us’. In fact she’s looking slightly down and to the left of the observer, as can be seen in the reproduction accompanying the piece. This doesn’t stop admirers – I have seen them – shuffling around and squinting at the picture from different angles, trying to find the right one to meet her unmeetable eye.

Killian O’Donnell
Cashel, Galway

Breaking Point

In his discussion of the US constitution, Martin Loughlin omits mention of one of its crucial counter-majoritarian provisions, perhaps because the danger it poses has until recently remained latent: the right of state legislatures to determine the way electors to the Electoral College are selected (LRB, 25 April). It is customary practice that legislatures base the selection of electors on the outcome of the popular vote. But there is no formal legal requirement that this standard must always prevail. In seeking to overthrow the results of the popular vote in such crucial swing states as Michigan in 2020, Donald Trump sought to convince Republican-controlled legislatures to substitute Trump electors for the Biden electors chosen by the voters. On that occasion, he did not succeed.

Should Trump regain the presidency this year, there is reason to be concerned that such a ‘reform’ would go into effect in states his party controls, effectively disenfranchising the electorate. The change would be justified on the ‘originalist’ ground, which may find favour among the conservative Supreme Court justices, that the states were merely reverting to a constitutional right.

Albion Urdank
Los Angeles

Women in Philosophy

Sophie Smith speculates that the gender imbalance in undergraduate philosophy may be owed in part to the timing of course choices: ‘In Britain, you choose a degree subject while still at school’ (LRB, 25 April). This doesn’t quite apply in Scotland, where the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree postpones this commitment for at least a year longer than elsewhere in the UK, and facilitates changes of mind pre-honours. Is there a difference in the proportion of undergraduate women philosophers in Scotland? The application process and undergraduate experience would be comparable to those in England and Wales, suggesting there might be a crisp signal here, but the only relevant publication I can find (a paper by Helen Beebee and Jennifer Saul, ‘Women in Philosophy in the UK’, published by the British Philosophical Association in 2021) doesn’t disaggregate its statistics in a way that would speak to Smith’s hypothesis (which seems plausible to me). That data does show the standard ‘leaky pipeline’ of steadily falling participation as we go from undergraduates (where there is near gender parity) to senior academics (a 1:3 split).

The statistics I do have to hand are for STEM subjects, where data of this sort is gathered fairly compulsively. I see that astronomy is modestly but consistently closer to gender parity than physics, even though there is very substantial overlap in the students’ backgrounds and course choices. It’s hard to be confident about the reason for this, but astronomy seems to evade a gendered public presentation more successfully than physics. That isn’t easy to back up statistically. The idea that people are put off participating in subjects where they don’t see ‘people like them’ represented seems a little too obvious to be interesting. But it matches each of these patterns of under-representation.

Norman Gray
University of Glasgow


Laleh Khalili quotes Paul Fussell: ‘Sail is still far superior to power, partly because you can’t do it simply by turning an ignition key and steering – you have to be sort of to the manner [sic] born’ (LRB, 9 May). The sic is wrong, Fussell falsely accused. ‘To the manner born’ is from Hamlet: ‘though I am native here/And to the manner born, it is a custom/More honoured in the breach than the observance.’ The eggcorn ‘to the manor born’ is, although sometimes seen, less correct except when referring to the title of a late 1970s BBC sitcom.

Benjamin Letzler
Mödling, Austria

Purely Superficial

Sheila Fitzpatrick asks ‘why Gulag hospitals needed psychiatrists’ (LRB, 9 May). The ‘officially acceptable rationale’, she writes, ‘was to discover malingerers’. My great-grandmother Eva Rabinovich, who was imprisoned in the Gulag between 1937 and 1941 as a ‘family member of a traitor’, recalled that the camp doctor dismissed any ailment short of acute infection or loss of a limb with the remark ‘This is purely nervous, purely superficial’ (‘Chisto nervnoe, chisto napusknoe’), a phrase that is still part of the family repertoire more than eighty years later.

Georgy Kantor
St John’s College, Oxford

Italians, Good and Bad

John Foot begins his piece about the ‘good Italian’ war myth by excoriating ‘the dreadful 2001 film version of … Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ (LRB, 23 May). However dreadful it may be as a film, its message is faithful to Louis de Bernières’s novel, on which it is based. Foot remarks that the likes of Giorgia Meloni maintain a ‘good Italian/bad German’ narrative for the Mussolini period; there may have been ‘bad Italians’, but ‘most of them were communists.’ This is precisely de Bernières’s take on ‘bad Greeks’. The novel belongs firmly with the Cold War fiction that seeks to begrime the communist resistance and absolve the fascist occupiers.

Benny Ross
Newcastle upon Tyne

Levitating Nuns

Malcolm Gaskill mentions that in the Cambridgeshire village where he used to live, belief in magic persisted into the 1920s (LRB, 9 May). This reminded me of a small silver bottle donated in 1926 by a Miss M.A. Murray to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where it remains on display. The vessel had been acquired around 1915 from an old lady living near Hove, who reportedly declared: ‘They do say there be a witch in it and you let un out there it be a peck o’ trouble.’ The bottle’s stopper is still firmly in place.

Ian Ellison
Wadham College, Oxford


Maureen N. McLane or Donna Stonecipher, or both, are mistaken if they think that when Goethe’s Faust speaks the words ‘Stay, thou art so fair’ (‘Verweile doch! du bist so schön!’) he is voicing a nostalgic ‘plea to linger awhile in the perfect moment’ (LRB, 23 May). On the contrary, he is expressing his conviction that he, unlike the rest of humanity, is not one to be duped by life’s deceptive pleasures (‘Gaukelwerk’) and thus will never be found uttering these words. In the play, life ambushes him regardless, and rescues him from his own destructive and self-destructive pride.

For nostalgia we must look to a moment in the very first scene of the play. Determined to kill himself, with the fatal beaker already raised to his lips, he hears the Easter service being held in the church across the way, and is overpowered by the memory of his own youthful piety. He desists.

Kevin Hilliard
St Peter’s College, Oxford

Better without Humans

Rebecca Solnit writes about the spread of driverless cars in San Francisco (LRB, 8 February). As she points out, one of the rationales for the introduction of these vehicles – that they allow ‘people with disabilities to get about without having to rely on other human beings’ – hardly conceals the profit motive. In fact, much ‘autonomous’ technology is actively ableist, since it is geared at an imagined, non-disabled consumer. In a driverless car, who is going to fasten the straps that secure the wheelchair? Disability is always part of a social situation, and is partly the creation of social arrangements. The fantasy of purely technological solutions is bound up with the desire to eliminate political and social responsibility for human vulnerability.

Jan Grue
Oslo, Norway

Where Culture Comes From

Hayden Pelliccia writes that between San Diego and Sydney ‘it’s all ocean’ (Letters, 9 May). Not if you go in the other direction.

Nick Totton

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