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.

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White guilt, masochism and immigration: Douglas Murray gives the inaugural Smith Lecture

The inaugural Smith Lecture of the New Culture Forum was given by author and journalist Douglas Murray this week.

Murray’s book The Strange Death Of Europe: Immigration, Identity and Islam is already a bestseller in the UK, and set to become one in the USA. In it, the author sketches a terrifying picture of European immigration and its effects on social stability across the continent.

Europe, claims Murray, is committing suicide by allowing unregulated, mass immigration, a policy that is changing the cultural and political landscape at the expense of existing citizens.

However, Murray’s book is more than an assault on immigration policy, or the lack of it. The book’s real purpose is to ask the tough questions politicians and pundits are at pains to avoid.

While the Right grandstand and appeal to nationalist identities, the Left preach about tolerance and diversity without actually offering practical ways those ideals can be realistically maintained.

This was the starting point of Murray’s lecture – whatever one believes, wherever you are on the political rainbow when it comes to immigration, the substance of the public discussion is dangerously flimsy.

Those on the Left would like to dismiss Murray and his readers as Rightwing scaremongers (he was recently called a ‘hate preacher’ live on the BBC, for which the BBC apologised). However, with the rise of nationalism, Britain voting to leave the EU and the increased threat of jihadist violence across the continent, a failure to engage in this discussion means surrendering serious questions about Europe’s future to the whims of the political fringe.

Murray’s book is vast and covers everything from hard policy to the more spiritual questions of European culture and identity. One question he feels all commentators are failing to ask is: ‘who is Europe for?’

If, as the Left and compassionate centrists claim, Europe needs to make itself a curator of the world’s cultures and a place of refuge for the needy from all corners of the globe, how are we to solve the problems of resources, capacity, open borders and integration?

It is clear that even the most well-intentioned progressive can’t simply base practical policy on ‘being nice’ to everyone who needs our help. If we want Europe to be a safe space for the dispossessed, then we need to move beyond virtue-signalling and admit that we are prepared to change the culture to make that happen.

In the early parts of his talk, Murray spoke of the hypocrisy in places like Sweden and Austria, where, despite subscribing the the EU’s free movement policy, they have erected what seem to be old-fashioned borders in response to the fears of jihadism.

The result is a laughable PR spin, where they talk the talk of free movement, while walking the walk of tough counter-terrorism responses.

This is just one of the many contortions and unsustainable policy contradictions that European powers are finding themselves in as a result of mass immigration.

When challenged on what he believes to be the first practical step in preventing the ‘suicide’ of Europe he warns of, Murray offers a surprisingly liberal and sane starting point: slow it down.

As he details in his book, Murray mirrors the broad consensus among citizens across Europe, who are not against immigration, but simply want to see it better controlled.

As a conservative, one suspects that Murray’s answer to the ‘who is Europe for?’ challenge is a little more exclusive than the standard view, which seems to be that Europe has a duty to offer limitless succour the the world’s needy.

Murray is adamant that a Leftwing driven white guilt about European empire and the crimes of slavery and colonialism, is what is stopping many politicians from even limiting immigration numbers, never mind stopping the flow.

He is at pains to acknowledge that a country that does not have a healthy knowledge of its dark past as well as its achievements, is a dangerous one. However, the culture of white guilt, he argues, has left us with a heritage of ‘original sin’ from which we can never be redeemed. And it is this that is stopping politicians from acting to limit immigration, even when they know it is unpopular with their own electorate and it is causing serious security threats.

Murray, however, is less concerned with the hard policy solutions, as he is with the spiritual questions about European identity.

With sardonic irony, he believes Europe’s problem is a kind of cultural masochism, which has unfortunately found its ideal sadist in Islamic terror.

Even if one disagrees with Murray about the solution to the migration crisis, it is still a kind of self-hatred and white guilt to refuse to even ask, never mind answer, the tough questions.

Not once did Murray mention any nationalist agenda. His concern in this talk was in re-igniting a sense of cultural ‘continuity’ among Europeans.

Like many conservative commentators, Murray is quick to put blame on the Left for the breakdown in cultural pride and the fragmentation of common values that are necessary to a resilient identity. He is right. The Left have made a fetish of ‘the new’, and associate history, the constitution, parliament and the rule of law with stuffy old white men in bowler hats.

The new world of gay marriage and Five Guys burgers and Snap Chat is far preferable, according to the counter-culture narrative, than anything associated with heritage, christianity and a veneration for the great men who sculpted our liberties over centuries.

As we can see with the new Winston Churchill film, old white guys are bad, no matter what they did. They represent a power structure that leaves everyone else ‘marginalised’, they represent established might, rather than egalitarianism. It matters not a jot that Churchill, like many ‘old white guys’ before him, carved out an indelible legacy of freedom which every tech entrepreneur and rap star and YouTube celebrity enjoys and takes for granted today.

Even the word ‘civilisation’ is often conflated with colonialism, as is anything which doesn’t explicitly pay homage to the trendy, Twitter-friendly, right-on, emancipation-lite of Black Lives Matter and Amy Schumer.

All that being said, the Right have a lot to answer for too. What Murray and many conservatives fail to acknowledge is that the neo-liberal, nation-building Thatcherite and Reaganite revolutionary politics of the eighties and nineties also did a lot of damage in not only eroding the power of our cultural institutions, but also in eroding the faith citizens are supposed to have in them.

The industrialised, bottom-line utilitarianism of the modern Right is as much to blame as the anachronistic protest culture of the Left. Both collapse the credibility of notions like common identity, cultural heritage and civic duty.

The Left talk big about ‘civil rights’ but they pour scorn on the very process of history that formed these bedrock principles. The past is racist, and the future belongs to the oppressed, however much the definition of oppression changes to suit the mood of the day.

The Right simplistically revert to reactionary, better-the-devil-you-know nationalism, and claim that they are a kind of insurgent rebel class, merely because they detest the Left-heavy media elites.

Neither remaking the world anew, nor reverting to pre-Sixties institutions, will do the trick. Murray’s demand that we re-establish ‘continuity’ with our cultural inheritance and really live the values bequeathed to us, is spot on. However, we must create cultural pride as a bedrock to individual freedom, not as part of some ideological flight into the past.

Invoking the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, Murray insists that we are the beneficiaries of a rich and robust cultural heritage. As citizens it is part of our duty to make sure that liberty, pluralism and equality under the law are preserved for coming generations.

Even if we want to be the source of refuge for the world, we cannot do it out of a default masochism. And neither can we allow our sense of a brotherhood of man to erode the very principles which make Europe the safe, stable and free continent that it is, and which makes people seek refuge here in the first place.

 

The Strange Death Of Europe: Immigration, Identity and Islam is now available on Amazon, and at fine bookstores everywhere