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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Biased journalism doesn’t have to mean low standard reporting

Journalism is the recording of stories and facts that people don’t want recorded. At least, that’s what it used to be.

Today, journalism has become either activism or infotainment. Online new media tends to veer towards advocacy, while the big, old fashioned media companies compete for the public’s outrage and compulsive curiosity.

Journalism is not dead, but the idea of telling stories that people want suppressed, is increasingly unsexy. The very people who don’t want certain stories recorded, tend to be the same interest groups that have a command of the media.

In the last few days a debate has sprung up online about the difference between activism and journalism. Of course, this debate presupposes a distinction between recording facts, and having a reason to record them. There is rarely such a clear distinction.

The concept of a purely ‘objective’ journalism has always been a kind of veneer for consensus reporting, whereby large interest groups maintain a limited scope for civic curiosity by commanding the boundaries of public debate. This is the very reason there is such a thing as ‘the mainstream media’.

Lauren Southern is a commentator who formerly worked for Rebel Media, a conservative, and nationalist, online media channel in Canada. She now runs her own independent channel, and is famous for a stunty kind of activism, and unapologetically advancing a nationalist, right wing view of current affairs.

She recently posted a video in which she called into question not just the existence of objectivity in the media, but the possibility of it, and even the desirability of it.

In another video published almost simultaneously, left libertarian skate-boarding reporter Tim Pool spoke about the dangers of activism creeping into journalism, and his own experiences at left-leaning companies where trendy narratives and grievances are stressed in order to drive traffic to their sites.

Pool is a new breed of journalist who appears to reclaim the old-fashioned desire for independent reporting that seeks to record the ‘best version of the truth’ (as Watergate newsman Carl Bernstein once put it), while embracing new technology and online media.

Pool has experience in Vice and similar organisations, and made his name reporting on the Occupy Wallstreet march.

Both sides of the story seem to have a point. Objectivity is a false ideal, and can have its own dangers in that helps to foster consensus, which itself helps to suppress the most pertinent stories.

However, the growing trend for activist journalism and blogging threatens to erode the standards of rigour and fastidious method that characterise the best and most revolutionary stories such as Watergate or the British expenses scandal.

Tim Pool and Lauren Southern actually met recently and recorded a short discussion about these issues, and though both take a different view, there seemed to be an agreement about the importance of this question, and a shared disdain for the Vice-type advocacy journalism that dominates online media.

However, it seems that both commentators might be missing something. There’s a conflation here between truth without a perspective, and truth without a standard.

Journalists need to have a moral conviction to drive their work, or else they become simply machines processing information. Too often the greatest threat to hard-hitting reporting is not corporate bias, but a careerist malaise whereby the rigour of method gives way to an uncritical organisation of mere facts. For this reason, Lauren Southern has more than a small point in her criticism of ‘objectivity’ as a standard.

The test of a good story is now simply what makes a good headline. Whereas the true test of a story should be the nature of the vested interests who don’t want it to break and the lengths to which they will go to suppress it. The more extreme these factors are, the better the story.

A sense of moral conviction is key to this news sense, and such stories will completely pass by jobbing reporters who hide their lazy resignation behind the excuse of remaining objective. It’s a little like refusing to denounce honour killings for fear of being ‘Islamaphobic’. They use virtue to justify moral apathy.

No reportage is without bias or perspective, but that doesn’t mean that reporting is by nature purely subjective and can’t be trusted. True journalists need their critical self-awareness and rigour not as ways to guarantee objectivity, but as tried and tested ways of offsetting their own limitations.

Moral conviction is part and parcel of good news sense. Rigorous standards of reporting are matters of how you deliver the story you are pursuing.

You can have a conviction, as long as you seek to get the best version of the facts that you possibly can. Simply having a perspective doesn’t discredit the journalism. It’s the rigour of your process that determines the credibility, not your bias.

The crime of modern advocacy media is not that they have a bias or a perspective or a moral cause to press. The crime is having sloppy methods of information gathering. In leftwing journalism especially, having the ‘right’ moral view, compensates for having a lack of rigour, and makes writers think that they don’t need it.

We depend upon journalists to spot the stories that major interests go out of their way to keep from the public eye. This requires a balance between moral conviction and critical method. It’s okay to have a bias, as long as that bias does not compromise a commitment to truth.

The mere existence of a bias, does not necessarily mean a lack of standards.

You can follow Tim Pool on @TimCast and Lauren Southern on @Lauren_Southern