EXHIBITION REVIEW: Sixty Years at Tate Britain

Sixty Years at Tate Britain is a journey through the events of British post-war history, seen refracted in the prism of work by artists from 1960s to today.

The opening blurb tells us that each piece in the collection is a response to narratives and issues such as ‘immigration, feminism, racial and sexual identity, AIDS activism, music and club culture’.

The show is explicitly political, and political in a very particular, post-modern sense. The Britain presented here is not the Britain of Churchill, empire and high gothic ambition. Each piece appears to have been chosen for its explicitly non-historic, anti-patriotic sensibility.

Jon Savage’s Uninhabited London series is a strong example of the kind of searching, slightly nihilistic eye that this exhibition wants to celebrate.

His pictures show empty back streets, overpasses, rail bridges and derelict housing blocks, all in black and white and all of them devoid of human activity or the comfort of identity.

The photos were taken between 1977 and 2008, in and around North Kensington and west London, and they show a London still peppered with bomb sites, still reeling from the damage of war.

This could be East Germany as much as London. There is no civilisation here, but only concrete and the carcasses of Victorianism, the bland, hard edges of dreary development.

This is a London that is somewhat unrecognisable today. However, following the horrors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in Kensington, you do catch yourself searching for anything that might resemble that building. There are skylines with high rise blocks, and the general texturelessness and loneliness of the landscapes presented here does speak to this recent trauma.

However, much of these areas have probably been gentrified now, and the London we see through Savage’s eyes is only one side of the city – there is no creativity, no bustling energy of optimism. All you are allowed to see is the forgotten, vacant lifelessness of desolate alleys and parking lots.

The pictures themselves, however, are clean, well composed, and show a technical control for depth of field that allows for maximum impact in conveying the shape and form of the city Savage was trying to present.

Cunt Scum (1977) by Gilbert and George, presents a similar face of London. We are still seeing a dour, post-war Britain, only this time with slightly more explicit political flavour.

Gilbert and George give us the prophetic images of what we will come to know as ‘Thatcherite Britain’. Working men in crowds, Bobbys on the beat, homelessness, inner city high rise developments.

The photographs used are not as technically pristine as Savage’s, but the over and under-exposed quality of the shots deliberately contrast the stark light and grim shadow of a Britain gutted of its identity.

If anyone still has doubts about the power of Abstract Expressionism, and the thrust of its techniques, they should look no further than Ataxia – Aids Is Fun (1993), by Derek Jarman.

Almost certainly the most moving of the works in this exhibition, Ataxia hits the viewer in the most vulnerable aspects of the subconscious. No amount of description and campaigning can compete with this image of the fragmentation of the nervous system caused by AIDS. It is a terrifying work, that leaves no one in any doubt about the meaning.

AIDS was not just a cull of gay men, it was, and still is, a tectonic natural disaster for every individual affected. This painting is hard to look at – violent, uncompromising and entirely precise.

Hommage a Chrysler Corp. (1957) by Richard Hamilton, is possibly the most technically impressive part of this show. A masterpiece of negative space, and a proto-Pop Art achievement, the work explores the sexuality of women and motorcars – a staple of pop culture already by the time it was painted.

In this painting you see so much of modernity captured in the slick curves and urbane textures – everything from Kerouac, to the Velvet Underground to Madonna’s aggressive slut-empowerment in the early 1990s.

As a primary source, this painting will communicate to future historians unspeakable truths about the post-war age in the west, so much more than the nihilistic trends that emerged from the 1960s.

Michael Fullerton’s portrait of disc jockey John Peel (2005) opens this patchy exhibition, and it’s a brilliantly understated and traditional work.

A reference to the portraits by Thomas Gainsborough in the 18th century, this work captures the loveable paradox of Peel. He was on the frontlines of counterculture for the best part of four decades. However, he was a national treasure, as well-known and loved as the Queen herself, by the time he died.

Painting him in this way, allows the viewer to see Peel and all that he represents, through a lens of continuity and cultural endurance. The other works in this exhibition lack this sense of connection.

Peel’s love of the underground was not a post-modernist quest, but rather and desire to keep the tradition of British art alive and thriving. To be counter-culture, for Peel, was not to be anti-culture. He was a kind of spiritual patron, rather than an iconoclast or revolutionary. We see Peel here where he belongs, in the Pantheon of British creative innovators and leaders, not as some snotty champion of disaffection.

Fullerton’s portrait reminds one of Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington’s Oscar Wilde portrait (1884) also showing in the Tate. The same deep colours, the same ironic, but accessible creative expressions on the subjects.

There is a deliberate dislocation of Britain from its past in this exhibition which seems designed rather than simply observed.

Taken on their own, each piece has something important to say about this country. However, there is a disingenuous agenda in the collection, as if the only things relevant to post-war Britain were issues of immigration, sexual health, gay rights and feminism.

Britain is a divided nation, and in some sense that divide runs down the fracture between a historic past, and a post-Thatcherite economic identity.

Explicit in the form of this collection seems to be the assertion that nothing of Britain’s past is fit for purpose, nothing about the identity formed over centuries up until the 1960s speaks to the issues that face the country today.

Sixty Years presents a cultural orthodoxy which is itself archaic and mismatched to the reality of the times. The creative disgust of punk and post-modernism are far more connected to time and circumstance than their advocates would have us believe, and the idea of being liberated from the past is no longer the seductive, working class utopian vision it once was.

Far more powerful, would be an exhibition that tried to link the fractured world seen in the works of Savage and Gilbert and George, with the through-line of art history in Britain.

The moral eye of this exhibition is bankrupt, and the forms have become fetishes.

This dislocation was painfully available to us in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Protestors and rabble rousers leaped upon the deaths of impoverished families, as if they were somehow catapulted back to 1981, to a world of miners strikes and the Falklands war.

In trying to present a distinctly modern Britain, this exhibition comes off as suspiciously nostalgic for a time when a clear, Marxist model of social forces was convenient and offered clarity in an era of confused, class emancipation.

Sixty Years goes out of its way to avoid any sense of continuity. For a worldview obsessed with identity, that very concept of identity itself seems incredibly impoverished. Beauty is seen as something representative of the evil establishment, a veneer of the old guard.

It may or may not be true that the classical beauty and Victorian baroque of British art is linked to its imperial past. However, what Sixty Years shows is that the fractured aesthetic of sex-club fetishism and class-war concretism is dangerously anachronistic and ill-fitted to meet the challenges of contemporary Britain.

Even seen as a retrospective, this exhibition is curiously limited, confined to one narrow view of Britain’s recent history. For all its celebrations of alienation and working class anxiety, the world view implicit here could only emerge from someone on the affluent sidelines of the culture, frustratedly clinging to an academic model of urban Britain that is simply not relevant any more.

‘Equal marriage’ is a phoney emancipation for lifestyle activists

After the weekend’s LGBT marches in Northern Ireland, and the German parliament’s vote in favour of gay marriage, the great non-issue of ‘equal marriage’ is back in the headlines.

Writer Colm Toibin, in a recent interview, said that the referendum vote in the Republic of Ireland a couple of years ago, marked a historic moment for gay people like himself. In a religiously conservative culture, the acceptance of gay people’s right to marry in a church, said Toibin, is final proof of inclusion for LGBT people.

It is certainly part of civil freedom to allow any one of us to declare love to another person in any which way we want, and have that recognised and protected by law. One thing the reactionaries like the DUP have right, is that marriage is a vital force of social cohesion.

When we make a commitment to another person under the law, we promise to invest the power of our citizenship in their lives. We are making a symbolic gesture of the very meaning of citizenship itself, that with one’s freedom comes a responsibility to protect that same freedom for another. Marriage is a very intimate way of expressing that responsibility.

There are differences between marriage, civil partnerships, and civil marriages. However, these differences are purely material. What each contract embodies, is the same level of freedom to love and the duty of care that involves. Whatever imbalances may exist between civil partnerships and Christian marriage, these are not matters of human rights, but legal procedure.

Colm Toibin may be right in claiming that allowing gay people to marry in church is profoundly symbolic, especially in countries where the church has wielded serious political clout. If that is true, then it should be permitted, without question.

However, the idea that this campaign is the new civil rights question of our age, or is a matter of ‘equality’ and human rights, is tiresome and fatuous. The hard political battle over LGBT rights has been won. The reason that it is still treated like some great fight for emancipation is because it makes people feel like revolutionaries, without actually calling on campaigners to expose themselves to any risk.

The recent resignation of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron shows how twisted the issue of ‘equal marriage’ is. Farron is a typical Westminster centrist, and a committed human rights advocate. His own personal beliefs about the nature of marriage are of little consequence.

Part of what it means to be a liberal, is an ability to separate questions of civic justice, from personal conscience. The balance of liberty can only exist if we tolerate opposing views on what constitutes the moral good, while we protect each person’s right to determine the answers to such moral questions on their own terms.

‘Equal marriage’, as it is pompously called, is a perfect way to see into the heart of modern liberalism. We can see why the free press and free speech are issues treated with contempt by the left. Liberals have no interest in allowing people to form opinions based on personal conscience.

The ‘good’ in society is prescribed before one’s conscience even comes into play. If you fail to fall in line with what has been determined as right thinking, you are branded a bigot, excluded, just as gay people were ostracised before 1965.

The DUP in Northern Ireland are indeed wrong. They are stunting democracy and imposing their own views by abusing their veto on gay marriage. However, this is the very same tactic used by many of the LGBT side, especially those who called for Tim Farron’s resignation.

Liberty means that no one’s personal whims can be imposed on the constitution. The benefit of this, is that we are all free to express love, hate and indifference to each other as we please, as long as that doesn’t amputate aspects of each other’s citizenship.

‘Marriage equality’, bears no resemblance to any case of emancipation.

What are the core features of a real act of emancipation? The first has to be that there is some form of social and conservative oppression. The great trick of the modern left, of course, has been to redefine ‘oppression’ to be so broad, so abstract and invisible, that it exists everywhere. But the real moments of emancipation – the freeing of slaves, the civil rights act, the legalisation of homosexuality – conversely, happened against the backdrop of identifiable crimes.

To go out and protest these crimes meant you were up against an infrastructure of repressive state violence and corruption, and this meant a direct threat to one’s physical safety and livelihood. Speaking out meant ostracisation, blacklisting, or being beaten up.

The second feature of authentic emancipation is a clear and tangible miscarriage of justice. What’s interesting about the great movements of emancipation was the fact that they involved fighting an internal contradiction between the proposed values of the state, and the way the state was actually behaving.

Today, protesters and activists are not going up against miscarriages of injustice, so much as claiming that the very structures of society are unjust. This must be treated with suspicion. It’s not enough to mouth off about ‘inherent privilege’ or contort everyday unfairness into some evidence of hidden structural inequality.

Real emancipation can only happen when real violations of basic rights have occurred. In the case of marriage, it’s not a right. So it cannot, by definition, be an issue of equality. The only question of rights would be whether people are free to declare their love to each other without fear of persecution or danger.

Yes, it is wrong to stop people from using their Christian faith to declare their love. But allowing this to happen is not a matter of human rights or justice.

The final feature of an emancipation is that it radically alters the society from a restrictive one to a free one. Can we really claim that allowing ‘equal marriage’ does this? Is there some great attitudinal shift at the heart of this issue? Are people who were once deprived of basic human dignity now tasting the fresh air of liberty?

The only people who are actively against ‘equal marriage’ are evangelicals and reactionary conservatives. These people are a laughable minority, and their views have no hope of oppressing anyone politically, or violating anyone’s human rights in a legal sense.

And yet, the social justice movements, and the triangulating politicians that feed off such movements, give the impression that the bowler-hatted 50s Tory is still the great threat, that we are still fighting forces of establishment aristocracy and Victorian conformity.

These activists need to invent an archaic establishment to fight against, and refuse to see the massive social changes that have happened since the 60s. The bowler-hatted man is dead. And the stuffy, bourgeois conservatism that was so dangerous to gay people, has been deposed.

This is the problem with the Left in general. It has been ossified, trapped in history and over-saturated with 1960s iconography, to the point where it is wildly ill-equipped to identify the real, modern battles for justice, and to see new challenges and new forms of oppression when they present themselves.

And the new establishment of the Merkels and the Camerons and Mays love this delusional kind of activism, because it acts as no real threat. As long as people mistakenly battle against an idea of the establishment that died years ago, they pose no danger to the yuppy, neoliberal, corporate globalism that is doing the real damage to people’s lives.

You can tell this is a non-issue by the feebleness of those objecting to it. The celebrations, protests and marches are completely disproportionate to the moral and political victory that is supposed to be had by making equal marriage legal.

Protest has become a lifestyle choice. Since Apple Mac’s ‘think different’ ad campaign in the late nineties, freedom-fighting has become a kind of branding, a social status symbol, rather than a moral necessity.

Essential to this neutered, narcissistic version of emancipation is the fighting of causes that have little or no impact. Nothing substantial is achieved by allowing gay people to marry in churches. Most people, gay or straight, probably get married in civil ceremonies anyway.

Virtue-signalling about ‘equal marriage’ is an easy way to give yourself a moral high-ground, but the truth is it has little to do with gay rights, gay health, or the well-being of individuals struggling against religious fascism or political persecution for their sexuality.

There is no need for barricades, no long nights starving in the flanks. There is no danger involved. It’s a false issue. A great way to make yourself seem like a revolutionary when what you are is really the worst kind of bourgeois sheep.

All the while gay people are thrown off roofs in the middle east, and the best they can hope for from their LGBT brothers and sisters in west is the signing of a few petitions and some Facebook outrage.