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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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.

The joys of obscurity

‘Society,’ wrote Oscar Wilde, ‘often forgives a criminal; it never forgives a dreamer.’ To live the artistic life is to shun what is sensible, for the promise of what is possible. When you reject people’s ideals of success, they resent you. They take it personally. They love to celebrate artists by making them rich, turning them into one of them. being an unknown bohemian, however, is not just scorned, it is actively hated. It’s a threat.

Artists have always risked poverty and uncertainty to pursue their work. Today, in the age of democratised distribution, the artist risks something more terrifying and ignoble than poverty: obscurity.

Most artists are driven by some need to communicate, whether it is to an immediate circle, as with John Donne and his celebrated love poems, or to stadiums of global fans, as with the songs of Bruce Springsteen.

The demand for creative work, entertainment and new ideas has been undoubtedly helped by the internet. The need for beauty, as much as the ability to distribute it, is a welcome feature of our world’s global connectedness.

However, as much as this demand is ever increasing, there remains a widening gap between the supply and the demand. In short, supply is far greater than demand. And even if demand were to increase with every advance in technology, that demand would, as always, converge on established artists, or on new work filtered through friends, favourite websites and the imperishable voices of criticism.

The democratisation of internet means it is easier than it ever has been to become unknown. As a result, on top of the prohibitive odds artists have always faced in poverty and uncertainty, the almost guaranteed prospect of obscurity means choosing this life is not just impractical, it’s almost ridiculous. The idea that you can expect to make a living, never mind become rich, from living a creative life, is, at least on paper, fantastical.

Thankfully, ‘the odds’ have never persuaded the dedicated artist about anything, and today’s overwhelming odds are unlikely to convince a true creative soul that they should become an accountant instead. But the brutal facts about the unlikeliness of success are an welcome addition to the worries and neurosis of the creative mind.

In a TV interview in 1987, Bob Dylan said that fame was not what he, or anyone he knew who was successful, had ever set out to achieve. The desire communicate, to build an audience of like-minds, is not, despite their frequent conflation, the same as a desire for fame.

Fame for an artist is often just as bad as being ignored. Both involve being misunderstood, and both have little to do with the quality of your actual work.

Remembering his mentor and friend John Lennon, David Bowie once said that he and Lennon had bonded over the trials of fame. Both agreed that you spend the first half of your life trying to get it, and the second half trying to undo it.

All the while, your art gets lost in the noise. The very thing you set out to do, is obscured, whether by lack of interest, or too much interest in the wrong direction. The goal of living an authentic life, being true to who you are and the spirit of your sense of purpose, becomes irrelevant, in fame as much as in obscurity.

‘Businessmen, they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth/None of them along the line, know what any of it is worth.’ Dylan’s line is as true for the hounded rockstar as it is for the painter sharing her work to the world only to get three likes on Instagram.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that forgetting the fruits of his work is the route to God. The spiritual path does not require renunciation, and neither does it come from earthly glory.

He says: ‘You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.’

It is difficult for the modern mind to see beyond the opposites here. Surely, forgetting about rewards and results is a form of renunciation? Why would I work for no reward? What is the point in doing one’s duty if the consequences of that duty are irrelevant?

We are here to do good work. The fruits of our efforts are none of our business, just as the origin of the inspiration is none of our business.

Samurai warriors, confronted with the inevitable death and the terror of war, realised the only way to face their fate was to manifest the highest virtue in the performance of each movement, each cut of the blade. Winning or losing became irrelevant, the only thing they knew they could control was right action. In doing so, they manifested self-transcendence, they turned the degradation of man’s inhumanity to man, into the highest form of devotion.

The artist is here to do justice to the fire inside of her. The idea that people may or may not pay attention to that fire is a depressing distraction from the task at hand. History abounds with examples of poets and artists who received no acclaim in their own lifetime. The fact that they kept going regardless of their isolation and obscurity, adds a spiritual power to the legacies of their scorned genius.

Think of Robert Johnson taking a selfie in a Mississippi photo booth, only for it to become the Platonic form for every future album cover in rock and roll. Think of Keats, spluttering blood on his pillow in Rome in a small, hot and dank little room by the Spanish Steps. He was convinced his name would be ‘writ on water’, but it is now irrevocably etched on the face of literature alongside Shakespeare.

That said, obscurity is painful. Van Gogh, writing to his brother, who was also his patron, bemoaned the suffering of being dedicated but unknown.

He wrote: ‘[D]oes what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?’

If the work is not good for its own sake, it’s not one’s proper work. The hardest job an artist ever has to do is face the doubts that come from living in a world of prudential value. The second hardest job is summoning the courage to reject the sound advice of the sensible.

Obscurity is its own reward, because creativity is its own reward. Being an artist requires faith. The odds are always against you, and that’s part of the fun. The joy of obscurity lies in its freedom. You no longer need to relinquish your creativity to the authority of the group, or the accolades of critics.

Mark Twain famously said, ‘Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. It owes you nothing. It was here before you.’

Musicians are particularly resentful these days about how hard it is to make money doing what they love. They should talk more to journalists, or better, to the poets. Lack of recognition comes with the territory, always has, and is now the very nature of any artistic industry. Those who bitch about this generally seem to be the ones who are not doing their art for the love of it, but for the glory and power it promises them.

The true artists knows there is a flip-side to Twain’s admonition. Just as the world owes you nothing, the artist too owes nothing to the world. And this is the greatest joy of obscurity.