EXHIBITION REVIEW: Sixty Years at Tate Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

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.

NETFLIX REVIEW: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)

From the opening, dreary and drizzled scene at Checkpoint Charlie, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold creates an atmosphere of muffled, bureaucratic routine. Like all wars, the Cold War was characterised by constant waiting, a meandering sense of paranoia and anticipation, before the inevitability of cruelty and death.

The first time we see Richard Burton, we don’t confront the the Hamlet-like handsomeness of his presence, but rather his back, a rain-stained trench coat of a man in a lifeless booth, pouring whisky into his coffee. The almost contemplative, lingering shots of Burton’s concentrated gaze are then punctuated violently by a spy being gunned down after trying to sneak through the checkpoint.

Burton’s character Alec Leamas is everything James Bond is not. He manifests the strained brow and air of degeneration of the post-war British man, a rotting soul kept alive by a residual, near-forgotten sense of duty. His job is to lie and charm his way through the underworld, to forget himself, to be become a nihilistic foot-soldier, to kill, drink, abuse and deceive, all for Queen and country.

The scenes in the purlieus of Hammersmith and South Kensington are beautifully dreich, the landscape of dusty libraries, secretary’s offices, cold bus stops, dull and silent grocer shops and the Labour Exchange. Burton scowls and hunches his way through this atmosphere with a tensed, terrified glare in his eyes, the ragged emotions of a man clinging to himself.

The spies who surround Leamas are equally strained and disillusioned. ‘Control’, played with diffident subtlety by Cyril Cusack, is not the M of Ian Fleming, a far cry from the clipped, decisive, self-assured British Colonel type. Rather, you get a sense right away of a glorified clerk, a functionary, someone who is not really in control at all, but equally as beholden to murky, unspoken agendas as Leamas.

This is a theme through the whole chain of espionage. As Burton’s character travels further into the bowels of Communist Europe, he meets a string of sophisticated-seeming spies and goons, each of which turns out to be another lost soul, patronised by the next, higher-ranking link in the chain of command. The fetish of rank, and the pettiness of superiority is a subtext throughout the plot.

As a love interest, Nan Perry, played by Claire Bloom, is the only character who seems to capture anything of the idealism of the sixties. This reveals the fact that the nostalgia we have for the cultural revolution suffers from an amnesia about the boredom and ennui most people seemed to feel in that time. The Britain we see in this 1960s classic is more 1950s-kitchen-sink than the swinging London of Antonioni’s Blow Up, which came out only a year or so later.

Perry’s character is brimming with intelligence and hope, and a worldly sexuality brought to the role by Bloom saves it from sentimentality. Bloom’s kindness and womanly affection for Burton are indeed the result of an aloneness and desire for emotional adventure, and the fact that Leamas is equally drawn to her reveals the remaining streak of humanity in Burton’s otherwise tormented and condemned cynicism.

Oskar Werner plays Fiedler, in some sense Leamas’s nemesis. Werner plays what could have been a very routine and stereotype Communist flunky, as a deeply human, confused, determined and vulnerable man. He is ambitious and cruel, but Werner gives the character a positive charge, not loveable, but accessible and sympathetic. You can tell that affection for Leamas and the sense of duty that drives his own machinations are both real and rooted in a sincere vision of life. Fiedler, is far more than a product of his ideology or social conditioning.

The film is a brilliant spy movie, and a captivating example of British noir. But it is also a spiritual portrait of a society hollowed out by the collapse of empire and the punishing consequences of war. The result is a panorama of thwarted, depressed individuals who struggle to navigate a grey, prosaic Britain stripped of pretension and romance.