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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NETFLIX REVIEW: Aquarius, by Kleber Mendonça Filho

Aquarius, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, tells the story of a middle aged woman defying the inevitable dominion of real estate developers who plan to buy up and rebuild on the site of her family apartment.

Clara, played by Sônia Braga, is a sensitive but stubborn former music critic (with a love of old Queen records), who has survived cancer and insists on clinging to her values in spite of the vulnerabilities of old age and the changing world around her.

The film opens with a flashback to 1980, with a young Clara played by Barbara Colen. Though it’s only a small appearance, Colen’s subtle performance sets up the character’s ambivalence and passion, conveying an ironic and reflective strength which forms the spiritual backbone of the film.

Beautiful, insightful, but a woman of few words, we meet Clara after she has just recovered from cancer, plunged back into family life and celebrating the birthday of an honoured elder stateswoman of the family, Aunt Lucia.

In the present day, the reflective and introspective beauty of Clara is still there, but she is now a battle tested elder herself.

Clara gets a knock one day from a building developer and his slick, smiling grandson Diego, who have an offer she can’t refuse. They want to buy up her apartment block to put new high rises on the beach front.

With the love of family already established as key to Clara’s character we are unsurprised by her wry refusal of the offer. She is nobody’s fool, and she sees through Diego’s friendly manner.

The apartment block is called ‘Aquarius’ and Diego tells her that the new project is called ‘New Aquarius’ out of respect for the history and sentimental value of the area. This only serves to disgust Clara more.

The camera work in the film moves from pristine, careful frame shots of Clara to a documentary style steady-cam. The shift from luxurious beauty to claustrophobic and intense, jarring close-ups, help tell the imagistic story of a woman whose hard-fought-for freedom and peace are being disturbed by anxious memories, as well as a valueless world closing in on her.

Another key scene sees Clara being interviewed by young journalists, keen to know what this veteran music critic thinks of the age of MP3s and digital downloads. She is not against them, she insists, but pulls out an old vinyl copy of John Lennon’s Double Fantasy album. Clara tells the story of her buying it, and how she found in the sleeve a cutting of an interview with Lennon published just weeks before his assassination.

The story’s significance is lost on the two writers. So, does she or doesn’t she like MP3s?

There is a simplistic interpretation of this film, that it is about the unseen significance of sentimental value, and Clara is someone clinging to the beauty of the past in the face of change. In fact, the film is about how meaning develops through grief as well as joy, and how the values of real estate development and digital technology are robbing us of this truth in the name of progress. The things that make us who we are, are under threat.

Clara is no reactionary. She smokes weed, drinks wine late into the night and even hires herself a gigolo. She commands her environment with a Queen-like beauty and grace, even after losing a breast to cancer and being haunted by the mistakes and sorrows of her youth.

The virtues of Clara’s character seem to be what the filmmakers want to celebrate. It is people like her, who see the meaning in tiny events, who see the ineffable rush of spiritual power in the soft lyric of a folk song or the crashing breath of the ocean, that are the best bulwark against corporate corruption and the ideology of progress.

Everyone tells her to move. Her family, her disgruntled former neighbours, her concerned friends. And still, Clara’s quiet but raging defiance never gives way. Those that love her worry she is putting herself in danger, causing unnecessary harm to her peace of mind.

The unspoken truth that we as the audience feel in common with Clara, but which no one else in the film seems to truly see, is that this stand against corporate bullying and the arrogant crawl of concretisation, is about far more than her own personal peace of mind. It’s about salvaging the fragile things that make life worth living.

Memories, kisses, old photographs, the winds upon the sea, the laughter of young children and the solidarity of love – these are the things that are eroded by the sinister passive aggressive creep of empty, modern morals.

Maeve Jinkings plays Clara’s hot-headed daughter Ana Paula. Ana Paula is the only one prepared to stand up to Clara and really push the idea of moving out. She feels this is just another stubborn and selfish project of her mother, and while the boys cower in silence she confronts her at a family get-together.

What follows is one of the most honest and emotionally raw scenes of family life in cinema. Ana Paula and Clara butt heads, harsh words are spoken on both sides and we learn that Clara’s past life is one of perpetrator as well as victim.

How can you stay in this old house, asks Ana Paula. Clara’s answer could be the most significant in the whole film.

‘If you like it, it’s “vintage”. If you don’t like it, it’s “old”.’

Clara continues to fight for her right to stay in her treasured home. The film’s consummation comes once Clara finds that Diego and his PR bullies have planted termites in the apartments upstairs. Clara moves into battle and the film’s denouement is as funny as it is satisfying.

This is a film about meaning, and what threatens the meaningful treasures in our life. It’s not just a film about faceless corporations and the defiance of ordinary people. There are no stereotypes here.

Clara is not perfect, and Diego is not a Donald Trump figure. Rather than being a fight between a normal woman and Gordon Geko-style bullies, this is a battle between human culture and public relations, between the slow progress of the soul, and quick, impatient phoney-progress of modern values.

Aquarius is available now on Netflix

 

Bohemianism versus hipsterism and lifestyle marketing

Traditionally, bohemians are middle class. But they are not bourgeois, in the sense that they don’t define themselves by wealth. Bohemianism emerges from the middle classes who are disillusioned with economically-driven social values.

Today, bohemianism has been distorted by lifestyle marketing.

Bohemians made an artistic statement through their lifestyles. Hipsters, use lifestyle fashion to seem like they are making a statement through their lives.

The difference is in the substance. Not just your actions, but your values.

Part of the problem, if not the complete problem of modernity, is that consumerism, brand marketing and public relations have made what you say more important than what you do.

The real value of bohemianism is in the influence these kinds of lifestyles have had on the culture. You can’t impact history, by simply dressing a certain way.

By putting out into the culture that it is possible to live a certain way other than through commercialism or politics, that you can put individual values front and centre of your existence, certain groups of people in history have left a legacy of stories, art and values, that remind us that individual growth is as important, if not more so, than collective survival.

This is different from the right wing individualism that is so prevalent in American politics. It’s also wildly removed from the liberal, hummus-eating, Camden-condo lifestyle hipsterism you see everywhere online and with which London is packed right now.

How do we tell the difference between crude individualism and lifestyle fashion, and genuine bohemianism? The influence.

Influence as a cultural force can be defined as that which new generations can’t avoid, they have to confront the phenomenon, before they can be free of it. They both love it, and resent, and the struggle for a new creative influence comes from this need to master the influence and transcend it.

Neither selfish individualism, nor lifestyle hipsterism fall into this. The selfish right wing are concerned with short term pursuits, and they believe that a momentum of short term self-advancement keeps the culture alive. Any case of corporate malfeasance, or political corruption proves this wrong.

Hipsterism is a false individualism. It reduces freedom, emancipation and creativity to fashion statements, and therefore becomes competitive and ego-driven. It’s simply commercial values masquerading as bohemianism.

To repeat, bohemianism is when you display a fresh, non-commercial, non-economic way of living in the world. It’s got nothing to do with technology, fashion or whether you drink green tea or Italian coffee.

What matters is whether you are seeking to create a new way of living that sources its values from alternative places outside the dominant, contemporary culture.

In the nineteenth century, it was bohemian to be a socialist atheist, or a christian anarchist. Nowadays, these things have become mainstream, or simply uninteresting cliches.

If you were a member of the Bloomsbury group, drinking green tea and sowing your own dresses was bohemian. Nowadays it has become a fashion statement.

Being a bohemian is not about what you do, but what values you are manifesting in the world.

Bohemian values are not to be found in certain clothing styles, record collections, or political movements, which have themselves become fashion statements.

Marketing has turned everything into a fetish. Which means that the lifestyle affectations become ends in themselves, rather than means to ends.

The true value in bohemianism is in creating a legacy of independent thought. You don’t fall for branding, advertising or marketing.

Advertisers are expert at looking to what your values are, and convincing you that their product will bring you closer to those values.

But our values must always be ready to change, or if they are fundamental, we must always be prepared to re-examine why we hold to them.

The bohemian doesn’t wear her values as fashion statements. The only value that really matters is individual conscience, free of the manufacture of opinion that characterises modern democracies.

The fastest way to embody bohemianism in the modern Mactopia, is to be suspicious of all lifestyle, fashion and advertising.

Yes, it is a losing battle. The war has already been lost. But there is something curiously and quintessentially bohemian about fighting a losing battle. In some ways that just adds value to the fight.

The number one duty we have is to dig deep into our culture, into what has stood the test of time – the architecture, the philosophy, the ideas and concepts of beauty, that have lasted centuries.

Some say this is a reactionary philosophy. I say it is truly innovative. The purpose is not to use these resources for dictation on how to live, but to build up enough of an inner world of creative possibilities and imaginative sophistication so as to be resilient against the ephemeral culture of modernity.

I am not advocating an orthodoxy of values. Simply recommending a way of feeding the soul so that we can become truly independently minded, free from the influences of contemporary agendas.

Going back to the idea of influence; we do not revisit past culture to imitate it, but to be free of it, and retain all that is useful and valuable in it. Also we remain connected to aspects of who we are that have nothing to do with the short term interests of power and money in our immediate world.

Being free of these distractions and interests is really what being a bohemian is all about.

Art, utility and bohemianism: The challenge for the modern artist

The biggest challenge for a writer and an artist these days is persistence. The sad truth of the matter is that as artists we are engaged in activities that don’t have immediate value in the market of exchange.

The artist is engaged in the celebration of life, not necessarily its enhancement, and his or her work is only valued in as much as it is a relief, a tonic to the business and pressure of the marketplace.

This means not only that our work cannot be valued in the same way as typical commercial products, but also that our work culture is different.

The first thing to remember in this battle is that there is actually a divide, between the values of beauty and the market. For sure they overlap, and they have been successfully combined at rare moments in civilisation. The Renaissance being one of them. And there remain pockets in contemporary life where examples of this overlap are very prominent.

Some of the older university colleges maintain a culture based on beauty and contemplation, while still offering value to the marketplace, for example. Some art galleries maintain a commitment to beauty for its own sake, and are a celebration of older, more permanent values, while they still function in the world as commercially viable enterprises.

These are rare examples, however, and in each of them the battle to preserve non-commercial values is ongoing. The beautiful for its own sake is always being infringed upon, and you can see that most starkly in places like London, where heritage buildings are never left alone by local councils. There is always some kind of tinkering and modification going on in the name of “accessibility” and “community education”.

It’s almost as if the price we have to pay for not demolishing old buildings (just for the crime of being old) is to allow the philistines to have their say, to leave their scars upon the heritage of beauty. It’s only way to placate the monster of modernity.

So how does the individual live in this world? How do we preserve those parts of ourselves that are of no utility, but of the deepest significance?

It’s very hard, because science and technology have reached a stage if unprecedented arrogance, and they have convinced the world that there is no underlying value other than utility.

However, the reality of being human doesn’t match up to their supercilious simplicities. The very fact that churches will be packed to the rafters this weekend is one example of this hidden, inexplicable dimension of human reality.

Another example is the tourist industry. Why do people flock to historic sites, to the Vatican, to London’s galleries, to the old monasteries of Scotland, if utility is the only permanent value worth integrating into culture and education?

Another slightly more ironic example is the fact that once people have enough money, having committed to the market their time and labour, they flock to older parts of cities, to more ornate houses built pre-modernism. The problem of gentrification in places like Brooklyn, San Francisco, or Shoreditch, speaks directly to this problem. Utility does not seem to be enough to those aspiring to climb the hierarchy of the market.

The best sign of status in the marketplace, seems to be the ability to exhibit non-market-based or utilitarian values. This could just be a kind of aristocratic self-indulgence. Or it could be proof of the fact that people demand more from their life than utility. Perhaps beauty and civilisation are of inherently higher value than the market?

None of this helps the artist, or the creator of those buildings, and thinkers of ideas, that become the sought-after artefacts of status. The artist as individual is stuck trying to prove his or her worth to the world of the market.

Not only that, but a modern artist understands that the true holy grail of their craft is to affect the market in a non-market way, to re-establish the values of beauty, contemplation and civilisation as a kind of guerilla assault on the marketplace.

For those who simply want to confine themselves to the cloisters, to puzzle away on useless problems, or who are content to sit in the quietude of creative privacy, it is enough to put up a barrier between the beautiful and the market.

For the artist, who sees herself as part of a tradition, who feels anxious about preserving the heritage of the culture, life is not so easy. You have to live in the market, but not of it.

This living in, but not of, the marketplace was what was once called bohemianism. Bohemians were neither bourgeois (though often they came from the middle classes, which is different), nor are they working class dissenters of the trade union, Marxist type.

The bohemian does not conform to, nor demolish, the marketplace. The first true bohemian could be said to be Socrates – a man who devoted the same energies most of us devote to survival, to ideas and the search for truth.

Jesus Christ, too, was a bohemian. Oscar Wilde called him the first Romantic, for calling on people to live “flower-like lives”. The whole Sermon on the Mount is a call to abandon the demands of the marketplace, and to live with “no thought for the morrow”. That is, not to get caught up in the busyness of trade and ambition, but to live for the enrichment of the spirit, to nourish the highest aspects of ourselves.

The Marxist Terry Eagleton has said that the commodification of culture has robbed culture of one of its most vital functions – to offer a critique of the marketplace. Eagleton says that culture has in fact become an engine of the marketplace – through public relations, the creative industries, advertising – rather than a counterbalance to it.

This explains why it is so hard to be a bohemian artist in the current economic culture. There is no room for a dissenting way of life manifested in creative values, because consumerism has subsumed dissent into itself.

This is the exact phenomenon we see in the recent outrage over the Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert. The language of critique and dissent is used for the propaganda of commodities. The imagery of resistance is used to induce capitulation.

The most prophetic example of this was the legendary Apple Mac Superbowl advert from 1985, whereby IMB was portrayed as the evil Big Brother state, and Mac users were shown to be the free-spirited individualists, emancipated by their personal computers.

How, then, does the artist live? How do we keep our spirits enraptured to our values, when anything that is said by an artist is subsumed into the marketplace?

The only way to live is to live ironically. That is, to accept the sorry state of affairs for what it is, but to refuse to let the marketplace have the final say.

This will require toughening up a bit. We have to become immune to accusations of delusion, madness and naivete. We have to abandon the need to prove our worth the a world that doesn’t deserve such efforts.

But finally, we have to keep working. There is a certain amount of trust involved. In truth, there has always been such an element of faith in the work of any great artist.

Michelangelo and Shakespeare were both adept at winning patronage in the marketplace of their times. However, their compromises probably came from viewing their work on a historic plane. They were okay doing a dance with the devil, for the long-term gain of imprinting their art on the cultural heritage.

It only seems harder to live as a bohemian, if you accept the view that contemporary, utilitarian values, are the end-of-history, final say of cultural evolution. The ironic shift in perspective necessary for an artist comes from finding emancipation in a private dialogue with history, with spending as much time in the timeless realm of ideas as possible.

This quiet, unobtrusive dissent will actually raise us up to the level of great artists, but it will do so to the scorn and ridicule of the world. We have to abandon the “cool”, we have to shun the group, and we have to resist the moronic need to prove the utility of our daily work.

‘Heard it all before’ is the cry of a conceited generation

In order to project the appearance of a superior intellect, in order to make everyone around her bow to her cynicism, the modern sneering hipster goes out of her way to remain unsurprised by everything.

All the great things have been said. There are no new causes to fight. There’s nothing new under the sun.

Such an attitude mistakes fact for truth. Truth is more than just a rendition of fact, despite what the snotty, teacher’s pets like to say. Yes, more often than not, we have heard the facts before. ‘Torture is bad’, ‘man is the architect of his own doom’, ‘Just War is so rare as to be a myth’.

All of these are truths that our culture has regurgitated through the centuries, and there are many more of them. However, their repetition, and their persistence in the consciousness of history, does not make them any less true, nor does it make them of any less value to the present.

The mark of truth is not whether something is new, if we’ve heard it before or not. The mark of truth is how well we have integrated the facts of our knowledge into our actions.

Any familiarity with the the Socratic tradition will drive home the point that that knowing something is not sufficient for wisdom.

It is the great flaw of our industrialised world, a world which reduces scientific thought to the mere listing of facts, that we no longer understand the process by which individuals and societies become wise.

This is also arguably the great mistake of any Marxist view of the world – the idea that we can construct a society free from accepted cultural truths, that the facts are sufficient for the good.

If we are to measure truth and the value of our governing principles by asking whether we have ‘heard it all before’ then we must agree to throw out the Gospels of Christ, the back catalogue of scientific study, and much of William Shakespeare.

Familiarity breeds contempt, when it should actually invite a deeper journey towards wisdom. The philosophies of the east are far better examples of the importance of this.

It is not enough to read the Diamond Sutra once through. You must sit with truth, repeat it in the silence of your own conscience. It must become part of yourself.

That is what I mean by ‘integrating’ truth. It is only when a truth becomes part of who we are, that it becomes wisdom, and only then is truth of any use to us.

What this sneering, conceited generation doesn’t want to hear is that the simplest of truths always bear repeating. Philosophical and poetic truths necessarily have a familiar flavour to them. This is part of their power.

A tangible example of this is a song-melody which penetrates the heart deeply. The first time you hear Strawberry Fields, for instance, you are arrested not just by the sheer freshness and originality of the melody, but also by its familiarity.

There is a paradox at work. The deepest truths are those that already exist inside of us. The originality does not lie in the truth, but in the way the truth is expressed, the way it is newly integrated into our present consciousness.

All the great things have already been said. Yes, indeed they have. But they always bear repeating, because wisdom is about action, it is about the development of the individual. Each of us has to come to truth, to approach God, to conceive of The Good, in our own way, through our own realisation. There is always, then, a new context, in which old truth must flourish.

If we are to dismiss every piece of wisdom just because we are already familiar with it, the way people plough through popular novels and discard them, then we miss the most important half of human development.

This may partly explain our age’s distaste for traditional religion. There’s nothing new in it. Nothing shiny and remarkable about it. A relationship with our past requires a humility about our idea of knowledge. It requires a certain patience and discipline to return the familiar and see the new in what we already think we know.

It is mistaken to dismiss the familiar and recurrent as simply ‘cliches’. A cliché is something that lacks thought, that is automatic. And in that regard, there is nothing more cliched than thinking you’ve ‘heard it all before’.

Black artists protesting Emmett Till painting are fatuous philistines

A painting of murdered black boy Emmett Till’s beaten body on show at New York’s Whitney Biennial has become the latest object of fatuous, philistine claims of cultural appropriation and so-called systemic racism.

In 1955, 14-year-old Till was beaten and murdered in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman. The attackers were acquitted by an all-white jury. Till’s mother famously insisted on an open casket so the world could see the full horror of the crime.

‘Open Casket’ by Dana Schutz recreates the original, iconic photo of Emmett Till’s disfigured face, as an impressionist, modern and powerful reminder of a decisive moment in the movement towards civil rights in America. Whitney claim the painting was made as a response to worries about police brutality against black people today.

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However, a number of protestors have taken it upon themselves to brand the art work as racist and illegitimate, claiming that Schutz has no right to objectify black victims, as a white artist.

Rather than see the painting as a sign of solidarity, these silly, imbecilic activists are determined to make Schutz the enemy.

Artist Hannah Black has written an open letter to Whitney calling for the painting to be destroyed. She writes:

‘Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.’

It appears we are suffering here from the ‘sacredness of the protestor’ syndrome. From Islamist victimhood to Black Lives Matter’s self-entitled immaturity, all someone needs to do now to be taken seriously or to make a university board cow to their every need, is to pull off the pose of the protestor.

We have been so programmed with the Apple Mac repackaging of the sixties, that the image of a marching, placard-carrying youth is now the shorthand for progressive ideas, and any attempt to criticise it is automatically reactionary.

Protesting has now become a lifestyle choice, a badge of honour for the instagram age. People seem more concerned with being seen to be on the right side of public opinion, than they do on being on the right side of history.

We really have to take a look at the issue of white guilt. Doing so does not mean we are re-writing the past, or turning a blind eye to colonialism. If we now live in a public space in which any reference to whiteness and privilege clears the ground for arbitrary moral claims to be given extra weight than they really deserve, then surely there is something wrong with the idea.

It is now impossible to weigh the claims of Black Lives Matter protests or outcries over ‘Islamophobia’, on their own merits. All someone needs to do to rise above scrutiny is shout accusations about systemic oppression or marginalisation, and all of a sudden they elevate themselves to some ethereal moral space that rules out further discussion.

If you pursue the fundamental moral worry, you hear all sorts of apologism about such and such a person’s experience, the marginalisation of their historic perspective and so on… on and on and on. All of this is supposed to give such claims a special dispensation against scrutiny and challenge.

If you are black, muslim or gay, for instance, you are now immune from such ‘white supremacist’ concerns about free speech, logical consistency or public order.

And this doesn’t even touch on the concern about artistic freedom. History tells us that when a movement begins to prescribe which art is morally acceptable and which is not, then that movement has turned from revolutionary to reactionary, it has assumed the role of executive power, and often does so without any deference to public warrant.

Not only that, the protestors in this case are not content with the removal of the pice of art in question, nor the closing of the exhibition – both of which would be an outrage in their own right. What is being piously demanded is the destruction of the piece of art in question.

How close are we now to book burning? How much further do we need to go from destroying works of art that we don’t like, to exterminating people we deem to be collectively guilty?

These protestors have ever right to protest and express their anger. But that same right gives the rest of us the freedom to not give a monkey’s behind about their feelings, and ignore them.

Crying wolf about racism and oppression is a double insult. Firstly, such claims are false and amount to a slander on what is undeniably one of the freest and most expressive cultures in history.

Secondly, they are a mockery to the countless feminists, journalists and political dissidents currently languishing in rat-infested cells around the world for simply disagreeing with their governments, or being of the wrong skin colour or racial group.

Appeals to invisible racism, or sub-conscious oppression, or hidden biases, amount to nothing more than a tenuous attempt by spoilt, bratty bourgeoisie kids to give their life some kind of elevated meaning. All you need to do to make yourself feel like a revolutionary is to invent through circuitous sophistry some reason for explaining away your liberties as examples of fascistic oppression.

Ultimately, if we are to accept the claims that only black people are allowed to discuss or creatively reflect on the crimes of white racists, what will happen to the numberless songs or works of art that formed the backbone of the civil rights movement? If we destroy this piece of art, what other mementoes of struggle do we have to wipe from our history? And who gets to decide which works stay and which have to go?

Some may respond to what is being said here with a claim that though the reaction of the protestors is extreme, their concerns are legitimate, that Dana Schutz’s art is an example of cultural appropriation, so we as white people should ‘check our privilege’ nonetheless.

Well, this too has hidden repercussions. Beneath this seemingly moderate claim is the admission that artistic value depends on political correctitude. And what is deemed correct still needs to be referred to some mythic council of tastemakers.

Fundamentally, the protests against Dana Schutz’s work are an insult to everyone who would otherwise get to make up their own mind about the painting. The very idea of cultural appropriation itself is an insult to the notions of artistic experiment and cultural exploration.

The people protesting this painting are using the right to protest to give their ideology credibility it does not deserve. They will no doubt claim to stand in history alongside Martin Luther King Jnr as dissenters against ignorance and racism. However, this claim has no more weight than the claims of warmongers to stand alongside Winston Churchill as one of history’s just warriors.

We must not be cowed by accusations of racism, or feelings of white guilt. A free society depends on its citizens feeling empowered to protest the protestor, to dissent against the dissenters. This right is the foundation of creative freedom, and the only thing that stands between civilisation and rapacious philistinism.

Why Jim Morrison was a true poet

Whether we consider Jim Morrison a poet or a rock star, his real art was as a vocalist. This was a form that he mastered, and studied, and took very seriously.

Look at the Hollywood Bowl concert, or listen to his poetry recordings, and you will start to understand his prowess in vocal phrasing, his sense of timing and feel, his complete lack of hackery and automatic recital. Morrison never phrased the same thing the same way twice. He relished the possibilities in the rhythms each word presented, the way you could rearrange conversational cliches to make poetry.

The word ‘spontaneity’ is obviously overused to the point of being meaningless, but in Morrison’s case it is a practical description of his approach to vocal performance.

The Doors

At the very least, the common image of Morrison as a buffoon pretending to be Byron doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, when you study him as a vocalist. He sounds like no one else, but you can hear echoes of Billy Holiday, Sinatra and Johnny Cash. He is versatile, can go from lyrical whisper to a gasoline growl in an instant, and had a Brando-esque ability to balance the violence and the tender with a Shakespearean command.

The charge of pretentiousness relies on the iconic image of him as a mere stream-of-consciousness garbler, a man who made theatrical use of his babbling narcissism.

When you listen to LA Woman, whatever limitations you may or may not find in the writing, the performance, the timing and ironic sense of feel, the playfulness of his delivery, show an artist who considered the effect of his work very deeply. There is a self-awareness and sensitivity to his audience that is overlooked with an almost ideological fervour by his critics. It suits everyone to dismiss Morrison as a cavorting fake, because to admit any level of craftsmanship would be to admit that a beautiful, sexually dangerous drunk had greater talents than oneself. An unconscionable proposition.

At the very worst, The Doors could be shambling, disordered and masturbatory. However, their characteristic style was progressive and dangerous, and very much centred around playful rhythm.

This playfulness extended to Morrison’s verse, which no one can argue is Milton or Donne, but is far better than is usually given credit for.

Morrison wrote in moving images. If we can say that the Ezra Pound imagism of the early twentieth century was a response to photography, Morrison’s great innovation was to write in dynamic images, as a response to cinema.

Without this understanding of Morrison, and without putting two and two together with his background in film and his love of Brechtian theatre, the poetry will inevitably seem meaningless and contrived.

In its proper context, it can be seen as an attempt to make poetry come off like film, to communicate via images and internal dialogue, rather than sculpted lyric for the page.

A perfect example is LA Woman, the song. We are placed in a revving car on the Sunset Strip, images of topless bars and drunks flashing past us, and a girl’s hair streaming in the flying air.

The song is all about creating a sense of movement, and we don’t get this just from Densmore’s drumming or Krieger’s hysteric runs.

‘I see your hair is burnin’
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar
Drivin’ down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars,
The topless bars
Never saw a woman…
So alone, so alone
So alone, so alone’

‘Midnight alleys roam’. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense, grammatically. But imagistically, it makes perfect sense. It’s language as cinema.

The language is forced and contorted to meet the stretched activity of the moving thought being communicated.

Morrison was a master of this. In Texas Radio And The Big Beat, the phrase, ‘soft, driven, slow and mad, like some new language,’ captures perfectly the swampy, overwhelming and dreadful creative possibilities that the young poet felt in confrontation with the blues and rock and roll music of his youth. The words don’t make sense the way a WH Auden poem makes sense. This stuff won’t pass the test of literary society.

A pretentious person wants to be accepted, to be part of the cool crew. Morrison sang the blues as himself, not in impersonation of anyone. In this sense, he’s easily a better vocalist than Mick Jagger. No cultural appropriation here, sorry.

Morrison’s style is his own, it’s the growling, theatrical, ironic intellectual outburst of a damaged, middle-class and mercurial boy. His soul is as expansive as the western desert, everything from barren sands to sweltering suburbs. It’s both apocalyptic and a celebration of the human spirit.

The strongest argument for calling Morrison a true poet lies in John Densmore’s creative reaction to his words. Densmore said himself that on first hearing:

‘You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Try to run, try to hide
Break on through to the other side’

…he heard rhythms, his jazz instrumentalist’s brain was awakened to the possibilities of song dynamics in such subtle and joyful interchange between rhythm and image.

Densmore is a consummate percussionist, one of the great underrated heroes of modern music, a true innovator in combing jazz music with rock and roll, something which has never been achieved since, without seeming bloated and tiresome.

The test of a poet should never be if another poet likes it. It should never be a decision for the critic. But when a drummer, himself admired by the likes of jazz genius Elvin Jones, says he can’t help playing along to your words, then you know are onto something.

People say such and such a thing is pretentious because their own relationship with their subconscious is thwarted. Their own creative energy feels like a threat, rather than a strange friend. In a word, they have failed to break on through.

You create movement, by creating friction. And Morrison’s poetry gets its energy not from established meters, or from mimicking an accepted style, but from innovating a new way of combining words and rhythms that clash and seem incongruous.

This is deliberate, just as his suspenseful phrasing and ability to goad and provoke a crowd were deliberate. Whatever you think of Morrison as a poet, claiming that he is a stoned idiot jacking himself off, is a clear sign of ignorance, not just of his music, but of the history of poetry itself.