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.

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

 

Why ideas matter in a mechanised culture

An idea is the opposite of automatic thinking.

Human beings are clearly more than just higher order apes, and it is our capacity for ideas that helps us rise above the purely instinctual. Ideas are the opposite of inevitability.

The easiest place to see this is in our sexuality. Human sexuality has become so much more sophisticated than procreative instinct. It certainly emerges out of whatever imperatives exist in our biology, but the diversity and confusion, the whole range of sub-cultures from fashion photography to the nudes of Rubens, all the way up to the decadence of Oscar Wilde through to modern transsexuality, reveal that much more is going on than just a quest for survival.

There is something essential about being human that doesn’t fit into a simple reduction to the procreative instinct. There is something unique and beautiful about human beings that marks us out from the instinctual world completely.

Ideas are what create the space between our instinctual imperatives, and our free choices in the world. To create this space, an idea doesn’t need to be philosophical, or literary, or even conceived in language at all. An idea is simply that which stops us being prisoners of inevitability.

Great works of beauty, sweet melodies and even the heartfelt intimacy of a truly loving kiss, all these are forms of ideas, because they convey something to us that stops our instincts in their tracks.

Ideas don’t matter because they perform a function. They are not practical or utilitarian. Ideas matter because they take us out of the trap of automatic, reactive thinking, out of our programming.

To do this, an idea doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t need to be new, it just needs to be fresh, to create that space between you and your instincts. There is no way of preconceiving what such a thing might look like. The only way you can tell a powerful idea from a bad one, or from a lack of ideas completely, is whether or not it frees you from automatic thinking.

When George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, warning of the way political language degrades public dialogue and therefore human potential, he was not being a grammar nazi. Neither was he, as some have mistakenly thought, asking for constant originality in language. All language is a product of other language, just as all culture is a product of yet more culture.

Orwell’s concern in avoiding cliche was not about avoiding what had already been done, so much as avoiding anything that narrowed the scope of human thought, that trained the human mind to reduce the possibilities of individual potential.

Orwell’s project was to encourage fresh thinking, a way of using language that was the opposite of propaganda, or reactive, ideological behaviour.

Advertisers and PR managers and political spin doctors are heavily invested in automatic thinking. Orwell could see the dangers posed in an industrialised society, to language use, critical thinking and private agency – all the things he presumably thought democracy and egalitarianism were supposed to promote.

Today, Orwell’s fears are playing out for us, but not in the fascist nightmare of 1984. Rather, they are being manifest in the erosion of private reason, narrowing the space between our sense of who we are, and our instinctual and automatic biological programming.

Some may respond by saying, ‘of course ideas matter, you are not saying anything new’. But most probably what they mean by ‘ideas’ is just ‘clever solutions’. Ideas have been reduced to problem solving. What is generally meant by a ‘good idea’ in this sense is something like the Iphone, or the Uber taxi app or Elon Musk’s Tesla cars.

These are indeed the products and examples of good ideas, but they don’t embody the whole of what a good idea can be.

Far more powerful examples of ‘good ideas’ are Magna Carta, democratic sovereignty, or the truths conveyed in the famous soliloquy of Hamlet.

These are not necessarily ‘solutions’ in the local, technical sense of helping one get from A to B while overcoming an obstacle. They don’t necessarily offer mind-blowing answers, either.

Magna Carta was a revolutionary idea because it conceived of the state and justice system as more than the mere limbs of sovereign power. In Magna Carta we have the first instance of a state’s power being there to protect the people from the whims of a king, rather than just consolidating the entitlements of that office. This puts a space between the society, and its leader’s personal ambition.

Human instincts and biological programming seem to suggest hierarchies will always be the product of human relationship. Magna Carta marked a shift in human society by freeing us from that inevitability. Human civilisation stopped being the product of instinct, and became a way of distancing ourselves from it.

The dangers of a technologically driven society are that automation becomes not just function the culture, but the desirable end of it. Technology helps us satisfy our basic needs in constantly revolutionary ways. However, we forget that a great part of human progress is not just the fulfilment of our desires, but our ability to be free from them.

Ideas are not a form of technology. They are ways in which we create space between our evolutionary needs and our higher-order culture. If human life was about survival only, we would not have created religious culture, democratic societies and any heritage of beauty and art. We would not be obsessed with making a meaningful life, only a long one.

The dogma of the day is that humans are merely sophisticated apes, and our programming is so strong that we are bound to destroy ourselves; the cruel irony of our survival instincts being that they conflict with each other, and our desire for survival leads to a desire for power, which leads to a desire to destroy.

This view of human nature fits conveniently into the ideology of technology, because it means that a culture of automation is not foreign to us, it’s not troubling or dangerous, because our whole instinct is towards automation and complex problem solving. Technology is just the advancement of our instincts by other means.

Viewing ideas and civilisation in the way being laid out here, however, disturbs the convenience and comfort of this modern ideology.

The aim of human life is not to fulfil our animal needs, but to rise above them. Instinct and survival programming are strong, but this is not the complete picture of what humanity is, or is capable of.

Consumerism, technological thinking, marketing, Public Relations and political propaganda, are all mechanisms of automatic thinking. They are the enemies of ideas. So it follows that much of what we call modern culture is also the enemy of ideas. Much of what we see in the public sphere, from textureless glass-box buildings to monotonous popular music and simplistic debate in online media, reflect this anti-idea culture.

The way to fight this, is to insists on creative thinking, in constantly refreshing our capacity for ideas, clearing a space between our instinctual programming and our dreams for ourselves and each other. Technology is great, only if it is matched with equally strident experimentation and advancement in ideas.

If technology advances faster than our capacity for ideas, or worse, if it actively erodes our ability to develop them, then the Darwinist nihilists will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We fight this by resisting automation, inevitability and capitulation to instinct. This resistance is the secret behind the achievements of Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Steve Jobs. It’s also the secret to becoming a truly free human.

 

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

 

 

 

Michelangelo: His Epic Life (book review)

The greatest strength of Michelangelo: His Epic Life, by Martin Gayford is the way that Gayford distills the sweeping genius of Michelangelo into accessible, journalistic prose, a style of writing directed at the curious layman, rather than the pontificating specialist.

Like all young artists, Michelangelo faced severe, sometimes, physical resistance to his choice of career from his family the Buonarotti. Gayford demonstrates the timeless struggle of artist versus bourgeois security in a clear and contemporary way.

‘We read about the ‘rise of the artist’ in Renaissance Italy, but of course such changes are not homogenous, any more than the causes of racial and gender equality have been in our own times…. Not everyone was so admiring of artists and the arts. The Buonarotti brothers, it seems, saw nothing but painful social slippage. A clever boy who might have become a bishop was determined instead to become an artisan who worked with hands. They probably felt it was their duty to try to beat it out of him.’ (pg45)

Gayford is an aproachable storyteller, able to get out out of the way of the story, while at the same time succinctly brief us on the context and background of the drama of Renaissance life.

He brilliantly sets up Michelangelo’s place in his time, capturing the way the man was both a product of the society into which he was born, but how he fought against these circumstances. It is this paradox of inheriting the ambitions of his forerunners and his patrons, but not being content to follow their script that makes Michelangelo worth returning to for biographers.

‘One day when he was high up in the mountains above the town of Carrara, looking down at the peaks and valleys below and the Mediterranean in the distance beyond, “he formed the wish to make a colossus that would be visible to mariners from a afar.” In other words, Michelangelo wanted to carve a chunk of mountain into a human figure. One guesses, though the subject is not described, that he had in mind a naked male body.’ (pg 211)

Storytelling clarity and accessibility are pre-eminent in Gayford’s short discussion of Michelangelo’s early painting copy of an engraving by Martin Schongauer – The Temptation of St Anthony.

‘Schongauer’s St Anthony was a powerful example of a new medium which some people were probably already hanging on their walls as an affordable substitute for a picture. The thirteen-or-fourteen-year-old Michelangelo was therefore doing something shrewd and timely by transposing it into colour. It was also a bizarre phantasmagoria of an image which it is easy imagining appealing to a teenager. In modern terms, as art historian Keith Christiansen has put it, this is “a Star Wars picture.” “…a fastidious sense of line and form, a willingness to work ferociously hard to produce as sharply telling as possible and an overpowering urge to compete.”‘ (pg 59 and pg 61)

Michelangelo comes across as exactly the temperamental genius we always assume him to be. However, his irascibility, his grumpy egotism and aggressive ambitions, don’t take away from the essential lovability of the man. Gayford calls him a ‘….hugely talented, neurotic, complicated, curmudgeonly but ultimately engaging man…’

Gayford is never shy of demonstrating the man’s limitations emotionally, nor his lack of hygiene and his manifestly anti-social character. What’s strange, though, is that the overall result of Gayford’s portrait is not an artist whose arrogance and violent moods make us hate him, but a brilliant and sometimes unstable genius whose volatility was necessary to his achievements.

‘[Ascanio] Condivi reported some thoroughly insanitary habits: “When he was more robust he often slept in his clothes and in the boots he had always worn for reason of cramp, from which he has continually suffered, as much as for anything else. And sometimes he has been so long in taking them off that subsequently along with his boots he sloughed off his skin, like a snake’s.’ Vasari had little more information on that last, revolting, point. The buskins were dog skin, worn next to the skin, with which they bonded.’’’ (pg228)

Gayford points out that the more Michelangelo complained and threw tantrums against his family, friends and even his patrons, the more brilliant and historic the work he must have been working on.

This offers a point worth considering. Mood swings and aggressive paranoia do not, as we often lazily suppose, go hand in hand with creative ability. There are plenty of stable, compliant and socially adaptive people who are creative, and man great artists who are too.

However, visionary power, the ability and proclivity to see beyond your times, to entertain impossible feats and to have the obsessive, arrogant and hubristic determination to carry them out – these qualities seem necessary linked to some kind of peculiarly neurotic genius. Civilisation comes at a cost, and that cost is very often an epic and violent discontent, both within the artist, and his surroundings.

Michelangelo was a malcontent, oblivious social norms, gentilisms and social expectations. His only considerations of class seem purely egotistical, given his desire to elevate the status of his family name through his achievements.

Gayford illustrates this brilliantly by contrasting Michelangelo with Raphael:

‘Raphael’s art projected just this sense of mastery with ease, whereas Michelangelo expressed heroic effort and passionate vehemence. A sixteenth century critic observed that Raphael painted gentlemen but Michelangelo’s figures looked like porters. Clearly, Raphael had the manners of a courier himself. It was rumoured that Leo X intended to make him a cardinal, but was prevented by Raphael’s early death. This, too, emphasizes the contrast: it is impossible to imagine Michelangelo as a prince of the Church – a hermit or a mystic, perhaps, but not a cardinal.’ (pg 257)
One of the mysteries of Michelangelo is how he was able to sustain his characteristic levels of physical and mental concentration. From an angle of pure physical labour, the Sistine Chapel is a superhuman accomplishment. And that’s before we consider the grandeur of the aesthetic achievement.

The decision by Michelangelo to include scenes from the gospel that had not been covered by the existing frescoes on the lower walls of the chapel, is probably the key to what makes the work truly great, rather than just a work of genius. As a simple depiction of the Apostles, the project could have had no particular interest to Michelangelo, it was a decorative assignment. But with a multidimensional creative design, suddenly the rolling and shifting challenges of cramming so much poetry into the limited designs of the architecture of the ceiling, must have given Michelangelo enough sense of shifting possibilities, to make it worth the blood and the sweat.

Gayford’s Michelangelo is gruff, anti-social, cruel and egotistical. Yes, he’s a product of his times. Yes, he’s a deranged genius. Yes, he’s a self-mythologiser, and all the things we have come to associate with the self-aggrandising Renaissance man. However, the sincerity of the man, and the limitless poetic ambition of imagination are what redeem him, and it is this crucial element in the Renaissance and in Michelangelo, that is often forgotten in the impersonal, critical hindsight art history that seeks to reduce individual greatness to impersonal forces.

Michelangelo: His Epic Life by Martin Gayford (Penguin) is available on Amazon

 

Sovereignty and the EU: Some thoughts on constitutional values

Sovereignty is about more than just power. It is the agency and moral purpose of a culture.

Just as a human being needs a sense of meaning to survive, nations and societies need a sense of sovereignty to survive. And if we are to feel safe and flourish within a stable community, we all need to be part of a nation or a society.

Some associate the word ‘sovereignty’ with the ‘divine right of kings’, or with tyrannical rule, or they look at society and say that any idea of a common purpose must be a myth, a propaganda tool for the many vested interests that exploit the needs and desires of the common people.

There is no doubt that sovereignty has been used for these purposes throughout the centuries, and vested interests continue to make a mockery of the idea of a common social purpose and meaning. But the existence of transgressions against an ideal does not render that ideal empty and immoral.

Part of the reason we know that the Iraq war was wrong, or that the 2008 crash was a violation of social values, is because these things failed to live up to a sense of common duty about what our society means and should be aspiring to.

Though history is full of examples of abuse of authority, this does not mean that the office of authority is inherently corrupt. Part of the heritage of British constitutional development, for example, is the way that competing interests have amended public government over centuries to ensure that the various parts of society are represented.

From Magna Carta down through the reform acts and the women’s suffrage movement, society has evolved so that the constitution and the office of sovereignty is both broad enough to represent the diversity of citizens, and specific enough to ensure that certain tangible rights exist for everyone regardless of identity.

To say that the British constitution is a product of imperialism is simply ignorant. In fact, one of the tensions that brought an end to imperialism was the grassroots movement on home soil against what was clearly a form of hypocrisy about democracy and the rule of law. At home, every citizen had the same rights in terms of right to trial and a right to vote. However, in the colonies, the model government was tyrannical and in most cases proudly undemocratic.

As citizens at home started to claim their rights, expanding suffrage and ensuring access to health and education, the disparity of citizenship between colonial subjects and native Brits became untenable. It started to make a mockery citizenship itself.

Though the collapse of the British empire was complex and involved the domestic politics of subjected nations across the world, one thing that helped us to dismantle it, was the knowledge that claiming democratic rights at home while disregarding them abroad was devaluing the very moral value of society, and the authority that kept our justice system alive.

Sovereignty is the common purpose which binds the largest possible group of people together. When is a heap a heap? When is a society a society? There is no scientific answer.

There is however, a spiritual one. The office of sovereignty creates a symbolic representation of national values. This is something that has been degraded and scoffed at since the end of the Second World War. People blame the very idea of sovereignty and nationhood for the abuses of power that existed in Hitler and Stalin, and for the exploitative abuses at the hands of imperial ambition.

However, we cannot make the worst case scenario the test of nationhood. The practical truth of the matter is that we must live in community with each other, and there is a point at which a community becomes too big, or too inclusive to have a sense of common purpose and meaning.

Society has shown us that sovereignty can be expanded, that we need not depend on the tyrannical will of one man. However, history also shows that sovereignty has its limits. It needs boundaries to exist.

It is this tension between limits and inclusiveness that characterise democratic nations.

The most concrete example of this broad but well defined common national purpose can be seen in the American constitution. The very existence of it, regardless of what can be debated over its amendments, is a demonstration of common purpose.

The idea of a constitution is the idea that government should be limited, that the society exists for the flourishing of the individual. America’s Bill of Rights, states that all men are equal, and that citizenship exists in ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
This is a notion that goes back to Aristotle, who believed that the health of the state is intimately related to the health and privileges of the citizen.

Though Aristotle would not have put a primacy on individual rights, and his concept of citizenship was infamously limited to a select group of wealthy men, the birth of an ideal exists that far back. The ideal being that citizenship is the means by which humans become truly human, and that citizenship must allow the flourishing of the individual if the existence of the state is to fully justify itself.

Sovereignty, then, does not represent mere power. It represents the ideals of citizenship, and the authority by which that citizenship is granted. The Queen’s recent visit to Manchester to visit the survivors of the bomb attack, and to commend the men and women who cared for those victims, is a perfect example of the spiritual values of sovereignty in action.

The Queen understood that these people had embodied the very best of what she exists to represent herself. Courage, love of fellow man, sacrifice and above all, endurance, the sustaining of human life through correct action.

In short, sovereignty is a matter of collective experience, cultural heritage and common values, all thrown into one. Sovereignty is strongest when it emerges over time, through the constitutional adaptation over time.

Critics might point to the rather top-down nature of the nature of American constitutional values, that the country was birthed by a document written by a select group of ‘white men’ and that it did not emerge from centuries of cultivation.

Perhaps that is true, but American independence could not be said to be ‘nation-building’ in the sense of the European Union, or the many neo-conservative failures in recent decades. What came first were the values, and the American constitution was created so that amendments and adaptations could be made, and they are in fact encouraged, by the inherent structure of it. The values are secure, but the way those values can be embodied is always open to dialogue and dispute.

Sovereignty is the authority of the ages. It is the legitimacy of power, as well just the mechanism of power.

The American constitution gets its legitimacy because it offers the most basic human needs as its fundamental value system. Its failure to live up to those values might erode the faith people have that the system has their best interests at heart, but it does not erode the legitimacy of those values themselves. That was what the Civil Rights Movement was all about. Salvaging the values of the constitution, from those who abuse it.

What’s wrong with the EU

In both the American constitution, and the British constitution, it is important to notice that economics did not create the country, however much economic interests powered the energy of change that helped those constitutions to emerge. Rather, the values, and the desire for the largest amount of peace for the largest amount people, were the main drivers in creating sovereign societies.

The core problem with the European Union is that it seeks to create a state, a very large, and comparatively centralised one, out of nothing but trade deals. It is nation-building at the hands of economists.

As opposed to the ideal embodied in Magna Carta, the 1688 Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Arbroath, and the American constitution, the European Union is a state built on economic ideology, rather than commonly held values.

You could argue that the European Human Rights Declaration acts a document of commonly held values. However, that document is the not the chief constitutional document. It exists separately from the EU. And as the disputes over the Lisbon Treaty proved, the apparatus of state legitimacy is an ongoing post-hoc activity. First came trade deals, second came the values of statehood.

Why is this a problem? Because the citizen is of secondary importance at best, to the economic ideology that happens to govern the foundational trade agreements. If a society exists for trade agreements first and citizens second, how can you say that there is a binding set of values and common interests?

What we saw with Greece, was the imposition of economic interests, and financial ideologies, over and above the needs to citizenship. For those who wish to the defend the legitimacy of the EU, they will have to accept that citizenship is not the chief concern, but trade.

If they admit to that, and they really must, then they cannot claim that the EU places a fundamental value in human life, but only in wealth creation.

 

One of the chief problems in putting this criticism forward is that most people regard harping on about citizenship and sovereignty as archaic, unrealistic, anachronistic even. Economics, says the over-educated mob, has always been the driving force of society. Citizenship and constitutions, we are told, have always been the propaganda of the bourgeois.

Even conservatives will use this kind of line of argument, not realising that they are simply regurgitating oversimplified Marxism and class conflict theory.
Perhaps it is time for a refreshed idea of what a society really is, and the mechanism that keeps it together. It is time to see economics as part of a wider evolution of social values, not the other way round.