On the brutal art of liberty

7th April 2006 at 01:00
One perk of a life working in art schools is that art comes your way. The downside is that there is constant competition for wallspace between books and pictures. If anyone has a solution, other than a bigger house, please let me know.

Acquisition happens in many ways. I have swapped nicely seasoned boards of ash and yew, collected for furniture-making, for pieces of sculpture. I have bought work from friends who were temporarily financially embarrassed and the degree shows of promising students. I have been given things to celebrate moments of glory or moving on. The Central school of art and design keeps a couple of prints of its interior especially for departing principals. The sight of them being framed is akin to the Black Spot.

One of these gifts is a set of three screen-prints by the Irish artist Robert Ballagh, called The Liberty Suite. They are adaptations of works by other artists: The Rape of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David; The Third of May 1808 by Francisco de Goya; and Liberty Leading the People by Eug ne Delacroix.

Perceptive souls will note the connection between freedom and bloodshed.

The gore in each has been known to cause dissension about their place of honour above our dining table. Nevertheless, they stir up good conversation.

Anyone who has taught art and design will be unsurprised by a marriage of creativity, reform and violence. The Central expressed it perfectly in its message to an earlier principal, the sculptor Hubert "Nibs" Dalwood. Nibs had put forward plans for change which his colleagues regarded as treacherous. They expressed their view with customary subtlety, by half sawing through the frame of Nibs' bicycle. Front wheel parted from rear, creating two unicycles and a dilemma for Nibs as to which he should cling on to halfway down London's Kingsway. He took the point:if you are going to submit others to a period of turmoil, you'd better be sure you are right, or at least that they have no way of biting back.

Liberty has a nasty habit of falling into the "one man's meat is another man's poison" category. Of all the countries of the Middle East where, goodness knows, the flux between different notions of freedom is complex enough, Saudi Arabia always seems to be at once the most inscrutable and most challenging to our ideas of what is right. I last visited very briefly many years ago and I confess that my impressions then were unfavourable.

Another opportunity to visit recently, therefore, felt like a bit of a mixed blessing but a good opportunity to test my prejudices against reality.

I hope you will not be surprised to hear that I had a great time. I met some charming and perceptive men and women who talked candidly about the stresses of reconciling monarchy, theocracy and materialist democracy in a state founded only 70 years ago. I saw artefacts in a museum which illustrated vividly how cosmopolitan that part of the world was, both after and before the time of the Prophet. The trade of many countries passed through in the frequent caravans, and it seems increasingly likely that the trek of mankind out of Africa was made through Arabia. I read Karen Armstrong's excellent Islam: A Short History.

The effect of experience is, I find, invariably to make me less dogmatically sure about what is right. It still seems to me deeply problematic to restrict the opportunities for women to move about freely and to work at what they are good at, particularly where the majority of graduates are women but only 10 per cent of them contribute professionally to their country's economy. The tensions look still more acute as "Saudisation" attempts to reduce the country's dependence on 6 million migrant workers, including many who hold an effective monopoly on technical skills.

On the other hand, I have every sympathy with a reluctance to sacrifice the grandeur of many of the egalitarian precepts of Islam to the more tawdry aspects of Western representative democracy and commerce. We have much to learn from the inseparability of Islam's ethical ideas - its commitment to protecting the weak and the poor - from the politics of the "ummah", the community.

I believe that our own state should remain firmly secular, but ensuring it retains its moral compass in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society should be a matter of constant rumination. It is impossible to read a newspaper and remain sure that we are doing well.

The impression that has stayed with me, however, is the price that has to be paid to keep the turmoil of ideas and ideals peaceful. Saudi Arabia is going through a very sticky patch. There are roadblocks and heavy weapons protecting every sensitive building. The pathway to liberty is neither clearly signposted nor toll-free.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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