Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012)

The historical texts need constant rereading as we attempt to understand better the problematic of femininity and the role of images in the social production of meaning. (p.31)

This is a massive, hugely impressive and very useful book, a comprehensive history of women artists from the Middle Ages to the present day, which reincorporates hundreds of women into the canon of Western art, while raising all kinds of issues, not all of them necessarily the ones the author intends to.

Women, Art and Society demands a huge amount of respect and being paid the compliment of being seriously read, analysed, questioned and critiqued.

Expanding the list of women artists

Women, Art and Society is a staggering 552 pages long, including 20 pages of bibliography, notes and references in very small print. It is hugely knowledgeable, scholarly and authoritative.

On the down side it is part of Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series which means that it is on the small side for an art book (20cm by 15cm) and has much more text than illustrations. The illustrations often share pages with text and so are often pretty small – 3 inches by 2 inches is typical – and the majority of them are in black and white. Also, the text refers to hundreds of art works which aren’t included. Nowadays we can look them up online but prior to the internet you had to read sometimes detailed analyses of pictures which you couldn’t see.

Oh well, you can’t have everything. All these disadvantages are outweighed by the book’s enormous achievement which is to hugely expand the number, range, depth, variety and achievement of thousands of women in art, to write them back into the history of Western art and, along the way, to point out again and again how women were deterred, derided, mocked and systematically prevented from making art by a whole web of laws and regulations, institutional barriers and cultural and social norms and expectations.

It is a lot to take in; I’ve reread it twice and should probably do so at least once more, as well as keeping it handy on the shelf as a reference book.

If (like me) you have only a shaky grasp of the (traditional, male) history of Western art and, if pushed, could name barely half a dozen (mostly male) artists for each major style, then this book will vastly expand your knowledge, bringing to light hosts of women who contributed to the art of every era of Western art and, in an astonishing number of cases, were actually leading lights of the time.

In this respect, this book is a massive achievement and an enormous revelation.

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel (1556) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel (1556) by Sofonisba Anguissola

A women’s eye view of the history of Western art

Taken as a basic history, the book gives a thrilling overview of Western art, starting in the Middle Ages with a consideration of women’s roles as producers of then-current types of artistic object (textiles, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts) and then proceeding very thoroughly and systematically, in chronological order, through all the major movements and art styles of Western art, right up to a 2010 work by Pae White (the final artist named in the text).

It has the thrill and the sense of empowerment which really sweeping historical narratives have, as well as the excitement of discovering entirely new aspects of a fairly ‘familiar’ story – not only the wealth of specifically women artists, but also accounts of the movements, exhibitions, networks and organisations which women organised for themselves to promote women’s art.

As one tiny example, take the enormous Women’s Building designed and built specially to hold works of art and craft solely created by women at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Chadwick spends some time explaining how the all-female organisers got into fairly heated debate about whether or not to include any men (No), whether to limit the displays to the ‘fine arts’ or include all creative endeavours women were active in, handicrafts like needlework, tapestries, carpet-making (Yes). If you didn’t know about these debates, you’ll find out about them here – if you did know a little, you’ll be surprised how long some of them have been going on.

I for one was surprised at just how many women’s institutes, women’s art schools and fabric and design and needlework schools, were being set up in the mid-Victorian era, and how well-established feminist artists and authors were by the later 19th century.

Simply by focusing relentlessly on women’s experiences and achievements, Chadwick brings to light all kinds of historical material, debates and discussions which shed light not only on the women’s (and men’s) art of their time, but also makes you reflect on our own values, now, showing you the deep historical origins of many anti-women commonplaces and prejudices which endure to this day.

Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Feminist issues

Liberally sprinkled throughout the factual history, amid her reclaiming of names and dates and works of neglected women artists, is Chadwick’s eloquent interpretation and exposition of the key issues of feminist art criticism. These can be broadly divided into reporting debates among feminists at the time, and reporting debates contemporary feminist art historians and critics have now about interpreting past art.

Historical debates

The 1893 the argument between women about what to include in the Women’s Building is one example of her summaries of historical debate, one among many, many other occasions when women debated among themselves the role of women, or the rights of women, or whether women have a special feminine ‘character’ or whether women’s art is detectably different from men’s art, and so on.

a) The nature of these debates is often fascinating, especially when the arguments on both sides still resonate to this day. (Is there such a thing as ‘the feminine’ in art?)

b) As with another book I have just read, 50 Women Artists You Should Know, it’s quite a revelation to realise just how long many of these debates, complaints, pleas and arguments have been going on for. When you learn that art critics were debating the ‘nature of femininity’ and ‘the role of women’s art’ in the 1750s, or that Mary Wollstonecroft published her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 – 225 years ago – you begin to wonder whether any of these debates will ever be resolved. Maybe they are just discussions which will go on forever, reinvented and reinterpreted in each age, but remaining essentially unanswerable (not least because they are so big and simplistic). Maybe questions like ‘Is there such a thing as women’s art?’, ‘Does women’s art differ in any way from men’s art?’ are now just permanent features of the culture, alongside other old chestnuts like, ‘What is Art?’ ‘What is a work of art?’ ‘What is Beauty?’ and so on. Maybe they’re not meant to be answered – maybe their sociological purpose is to prompt debate, new insights and, very often, new art for each successive generation.

Feminist art history

2. Then there’s Chadwick’s summary of contemporary feminist theories, issues and ideas, which she uses retroactively to analyse the vast terrain she covers. In this respect, the preface to the original 1990 edition of the book (it’s been through five editions) reiterates some basic questions which the feminist art pioneers of the late 1960s and 1970s asked themselves and which form a sort of base camp for what follows:

  • Why did traditional male art historians ignore the work of almost all female artists for so long? (Although anti-women bias existed throughout Western history, the blanking of women artists in art history became really endemic in the Victorian period, reflecting the hardening of gender roles as a result of industrialisation, which crystallised previously quite flexible gender roles into really clear rules about men being the breadwinner and women being the angel in the house, stereotypes which endured well into the 1960s and beyond).
  • Were the successful woman artists who did feature in male histories isolated ‘freaks’, or the tip of a big iceberg of female achievement which had been systematically ignored? (As this book eloquently proves, there has been a vast iceberg of female artistic achievement through the ages.)
  • Did and should female artists lay claim to ‘essential’ gender differences which result in the production of certain kinds of imagery i.e. Is women’s art different from men’s art? (Some women artists and theoreticians have claimed their works were specially ‘feminine’, but in practice it’s impossible to tell from a painting alone whether it was done by a man or a woman – as the jungle of misattributions of paintings from the Renaissance to the 18th century amply demonstrates.)
  • Can works of art be viewed as androgynous or genderless? (Yes)
  • What is the relationship between ‘fine art’ – the ‘serious’ work of painting and sculpture – and the handicrafts which women either chose or were often forced to work in (quilts, needlework, tapestries etc)? Should it all be championed as women’s art or should the distinctiveness of ‘fine art’ be preserved? Or is that a male prejudice, a hangover from five centuries of masculine rhetoric about Great Artists and Old Masters, which we should deconstruct and overthrow? (Tricky: some feminists think craftwork should be included in a much more open definition of ‘art’, widened out to include all kinds of visual, textile creativity, not least because that would also ‘let in’ huge numbers of non-European women artists; others stick to the old definitions of ‘fine art’ as opposed to ‘watercolour’, ‘crafts’, if only for practical purposes of helping contemporary woman artists define what they do, where they should exhibit and so on.)
Still life (1653) by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Still life (1653) by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Fundamental feminist art ideas

So those are some of the big questions which Chadwick’s book raises, and numerous women artists and critics are quoted as discussing.

In a different category are the main feminist ideas, findings or axioms about women’s art and art history, which Chadwick reports and explains. Women theorists, practitioners and historians often disagree about the interpretations of these ideas, because they are now and have always been alive, debated, changing and evolving. But certain basic premises of the feminist position recur again and again and seem to be central. For what it’s worth, here is my attempt to summarise the main ‘findings’ of feminist art theory:

Throughout history art institutions were mostly run by men. Men privileged their own gender and male ways of seeing the world. They privileged genres to do with power and heroism (history paintings), genres which depicted heroic men and which were considered suitable only for male artists. They also created the whole idea of the artist as a ‘hero’, someone gifted with special powers and the unique ability to express the noblest thoughts of the human species – Religious ideas in the Renaissance, the power of Reason during the Enlightenment, Family morality during the 19th century, revolutionary and rebel ideas with the onset of Modernism. Later generations called these earlier pioneers the Old Masters, embedding ideas of masculinity, power, strength and so on into the very definition of art. In a host of ways, big and small, male artists were privileged by writings and ideas and expectations which promoted ‘male’ attributes and achievements.

Women artists were generally defined in contrast to all this, by a male notion of ‘the feminine’ i.e. as the opposite of the ‘male’ characteristics of power and virility. Therefore, if they insisted on working as artists, they were discouraged from working in the top genres like history painting, and instead encouraged to work to their ‘feminine’ strengths by doing portraits, animals, scenes of domestic life and so on.

If women artists were praised, it was generally for their ‘feminine’ attributes, i.e. their work was ‘delicate’, ‘sensitive’, full of ‘feeling’ etc, subtly relegating them to a second division, keeping their work within a supposedly ‘feminine sphere’.

By 1893 radical American women perceived the ideology of separate spheres as a male invention and a male response to feared competition in the workplace. (p.250)

Money plays a role. Men’s art fetched higher prices, therefore everyone involved in selling art had a vested interest in attributing art to famous men. Chadwick gives examples of works by 16th and 17th century women artists which were systematically misattributed to the male heads of their workshops so that they would sell for more, both at the time and later. The net effect of this money motive across the entire history of Western art was to reduce the number of works attributed to women, one more factor making them appear ‘marginal’. (And giving rise to a specialised area of feminist art scholarship which is the reattribution of older art away from men and re-establishing the oeuvres of long-neglected women artists.)

Another way traditional art criticism and history privileges men is in terms of size and scale. Big is best. Works on a ‘monumental’ scale are valued more than smaller works, and there is a long history of regarding women as simply incapable of working on this much vaunted ‘monumental’ scale. Women’s art had to be small and ‘domestic’.

Similarly, artists who are prolific tend to dominate the record e.g. the unstoppable Picasso. This bias doesn’t take account of the way many women artists were deprived of the money or resources to make large works, were ignored when big commissions came round, who chose to work on a smaller scale, or who were often burdened with the responsibilities of child-bearing and child-rearing and so produced significantly less than the child-free men.

Gender A lot of this debate is premised on the axiom that notions of ‘gender’ are entirely socially produced. A long list of feminist writers from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler has insisted that gender is created. As de Beauvoir wrote: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ Obviously, there are undeniable biological differences between boys and girls, men and women. But the cultural and psychological meanings of what it is to be a ‘man’ and what it is to be a ‘woman’ are entirely man-made (literally), are created, are social constructs, are something we are taught, and so can be changed.

The more we study history with this in mind, the more we see how ‘gender roles’ have in fact varied from place to place and time to time. Studying gender role-creation in the past suggests the extent to which gender roles are still socially manufactured and could, conceivably, still be rewritten for the better.

Just how far this process can go, whether 100% identity between men and women (and other genders or transgenders) is possible, remains to be seen / is the subject of ongoing debate and investigation, but this book opens up fascinating vistas, putting on record women and artists who were discussing and addressing these questions centuries ago.

The male gaze I Lots of male art depicts naked women. This is the most blatant example of the ‘male gaze’ i.e. the way men see in ways intimately involved with power, control and predatory sexuality. Tens of thousands of nudes display women in semi-pornographic poses, made ‘available’ to the male viewer, in passive, inactive, submissive stances. For hundreds of years women have tried to produce images of themselves, of the female body, which won’t lend themselves to exploitation by the ‘male gaze’. Is this possible?

For all these reasons and more, quite a few feminist art historians, critics and artists refuse to play the entire game of art history, refuse to take part in male institutions or exhibitions and refuse to contribute to a discourse of criticism and history which they see as hopelessly compromised, inescapably based on overwhelmingly ‘male’ notions of power and dominance. To take one example from hundreds, the notion that there is a ‘canon’ of ‘important’ works: Who says there is a canon? Who defines it? On what criteria?

And lastly, feminism is itself an unstable construct. From the start feminist criticism and history has been attacked from within by black and other ethnic or class-based points of view which point out that the women artists being ‘reclaimed’ and inserted into this male narrative were overwhelmingly white and often themselves very wealthy and privileged. From this perspective, the whole project of rediscovering and reinserting neglected women artists into ‘the canon’, the ‘official histories’, and subjecting them to ‘traditional art criticism’ just ends up reinforcing established (male) notions of race and class and economic privileges.

But, would reply Chadwick, if you don’t make the effort to rehabilitate all these women artists, you leave the male history unchallenged, women artists are lost to history, women’s voices go unheard. Catch-22.

The solution must, then, be to try and reconcile the two imperatives, to engage in a) the rehabilitation project while b) also looking for ways to deconstruct the very notion of a ‘canon’, at the very least to extend it outwards to include non-traditional art and art from other ethnic groups, and to be aware of more marginal, minority, genuinely unprivileged groups.

These, then, are some of the key ‘charges’ made against traditional male art history and criticism, some of the basic ideas which underpin the entire book, and these last couple of paragraphs summarise Chadwick’s position (as I understand it).

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (1788) by Angelica Kauffman

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (1788) by Angelica Kauffman

Some historical learnings

The main learning of the book is quite how many women have been involved in artistic production at all levels for the last 1,000 years (the book starts with nuns and craftswomen creating illuminated manuscripts and textiles from around 900 CE. It includes, for example, a section on the Bayeaux Tapestry c.1080, and on Hildegard of Bingen who flourished in the 1100s.) Hundreds of names which were new to me are given an introduction and analysis.

The second learning is the depth of feminist scholarship about all these artists. Of the hundreds of women artists mentioned here, all have been subject to one or numerous art critical and historical essays written about them by feminist theorists and scholars.

In other words, Women, Art and Society impresses not only by the sheer numbers and achievements of the women artists, but by the parallel numbers and achievements of women art scholars and historians in the modern world. Very sophisticated debates about individual artists, or entire eras, are now possible quoting numerous scholars not a single one of which is a man. Feminist theory, feminist history, feminist art criticism are now enormous fields in their own right.

The ‘male’ Renaissance

Chadwick deepened my understanding of the Renaissance by describing it in feminist terms. The Renaissance foregrounded learning, especially the mathematics which underpinned its astonishing achievements in creating realistic perspective in painting and neo-classical architecture. All the intellectual qualities required for this – maths, geometry, trigonometry, architecture and so on – were characterised as male qualities and women were discouraged or banned from learning them. Women were encouraged to study dress, deportment, morality and the sensitive arts.

This underlying idea of power, the power of the intellect, the forcefulness of monumental buildings in the new style, all rotated round and reinforced gender ideas about masculinity. Power, force and energy are the qualities admired, which climax in the High Renaissance and then drive on into the even more monumental and heavy Baroque.

Chadwick points out that the most influential book of art history ever is Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. It does include some women painters but by privileging ‘male’ concepts of power and mastery it set the tone for a huge amount of the art criticism and history which followed.

Thus Chadwick’s account left me with a deeper understanding of how an anti-women bias was ‘inscribed’ into the founding texts of art history.

Northern versus southern art

It also helped me understand my own taste more. Though it’s heresy to admit it, I don’t much like Renaissance art or architecture – I find it inhumanly imposing, monumental and power-hungry – I much prefer the art and architecture of the Middle Ages (Gothic) and the painting of the so-called Northern Renaissance, a view or prejudice I’ve aired in several reviews:

Chadwick greatly deepened my understanding of the difference between Italian Renaissance and Northern European art. To put it in cartoon form: Italy was ‘male’ and the North (the Low Countries) ‘female’. What I like about Northern painting is that:

a) It is more human, it shows people more realistically, it shows peasants dancing (Breughel), there are hundreds of scenes of winter fairs and people skating on frozen lakes etc, its portraits are realistically plain and often ugly (whereas Renaissance portraits are about Power and Dukes and Popes).
b) It often depicts modest, quiet domestic scenes, flowers, still lives, women quietly working (Vermeer).

Chadwick explores the difference in a number of illuminating ways. I learned from her account that Michelangelo, no less, was quoted at the time giving a detailed account of why he despised and disliked Northern European art, precisely for the aspects I like, for its everyday scenes and understatement. Michelangelo thought it was all very pretty but lacked grandeur and dynamic design and humans (generally men) cast in bold dramatic postures. (p.118)

Italian Renaissance art was born of bragging. Each city state was proud of its artists and its huge buildings (much as northern British cities competed to build the most imposing town hall in the 19th century). The earliest records of individual artists were written to shed honour on their town of birth (or where they worked) and on their splendid sponsor, whoever that might have been, before praising the artist themselves.

Italian Renaissance art is grand, public and aristocratic – its patrons are dukes, cardinals and the Pope. Northern European art was smaller, more intimate and designed to be hung in the homes of the middle classes. Northern European art is more democratic.

Self-Portrait by Judith Leyster (1633)

Self-Portrait by Judith Leyster (1633)

Rococo art

King Louis XIV of France created a vast ideology of royal power based at his enormous palace at Versailles. When he died in 1715 he was succeeded by the boy King Louis XV and the court and all the aristocrats moved back to Paris with a big sigh of relief. Rococo art with its lightness of touch and fanciful subject matter, is:

a) a reaction to the straitjacket of Louis XIV’s power ideology
b) the result of the French aristocracy mingling with the well-to-do Paris bourgeoisie, more relaxed and pleasure-loving
c) the fact that the aristocracy, newly arrived back in Paris after a generation of exile in Versailles, hired or built grand new town houses which needed decorating. Hence an explosion of paintings, sculptures, carvings, mouldings, gildings all designed to enhance and bring out enjoyment of a more domestic, ‘feminine’ space and lifestyle

In fact, the 18th century has been conventionally characterised as a highpoint of ‘feminine’ influence in art and culture, dominated by the salons of powerful Parisian women, visually represented by frivolous and frolicsome subject matter.

As usual, Chadwick challenges this idea, which clashes with modern feminist doctrine denying the existence of a ‘feminine nature’ or ‘feminine attributes or ‘feminine art’ – but she first has to describe the period in traditional art historical terms before deconstructing it, and finds it difficult to avoid the fact that the art of Louis XV, dominated by women’s salons and women aristocrats is indisputably ‘softer’, hazier, more full of pastoral imagery, than the imposing icons of power politics of Louis XIV.

However you resolve that and other debates, the 18th century was indisputably the era of some really important and impressive women artists, Rosalba Carriera, Angelica Kauffmann and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun to pick just a handful among scores.

Self portrait in straw hat (1782) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Self portrait in a straw hat (1782) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Victorian feminists

I had no idea that a large number of American women sculptors moved to Rome and worked there in the 1850s and 1860s, daughters of supportive liberal families. The moved in an extended feminist network, many of them chose not to marry in order to concentrate on their careers, some were lesbians or notably non-conformist (they wore trousers, smoked, rode horses not side-saddle!).

Henry James wrote a satirical essay on them. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a fable/romance set among them, The Marble Faun (1859), and Louisa May Alcott wrote a novella about female friendships among the group, Diana and Persis (1879). It’s a whole community to read about and admire. Probably the most important was Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908).

Zenobia in Chains (1859) by Harriet Hosmer

Zenobia in Chains (1859) by Harriet Hosmer

I was also surprised to learn that so many women’s groups, institutions, art schools, feminist magazines, newspapers, activists and so on, began to flourish so early in the 19th century, in America, Britain and Europe.

From the 1850s onwards the diversity of women’s artists is matched by a steadily increasing diversity of women’s institutes, professional bodies, critics, theorists, writers, patrons and so on.

  • 1825 American National Academy of Design
  • 1844 United States National Woman’s Rights Convention
  • 1854 Cosmopolitan Art Association
  • 1855 Society of Female Artists
  • 1866 modern feminist movement launched in France
  • 1868 The Revolution (women’s rights newspaper)
  • 1876 Philadelphia Exposition featured a Women’s Centennial Executive Committee
  • 1877 Society of Decorative Art of New York
  • 1878 International congress on women’s rights
  • 1881 Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs in France
  • 1894 ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’ by Sarah Grand published in the North American Review crystallises the idea of the New Woman
  • 1897 Millicent Fawcett founds the National Union of Women’s Suffrage

As the book moves onto the turn of the century, there is more of everything: fast-growing populations, new technologies, scientific and medical discoveries, terrible mechanised wars, and a dizzying array of artistic movements – from late Victorian arts and crafts, Aestheticism, Symbolism, through the early 20th century revolutions of Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, on into the Great War with Dada and all the movements which come out of the Russian revolution.

The exponential growth of population and activity (in every field of human endeavour) over the past 150 years is reflected by the way the period from about 1850 to the present day takes up 350 pages (two thirds) of this 520-page book.

And Chadwick is there, reporting on the lead women artists in each of these movements, describing how they tried to navigate fast-moving social and political situations, position themselves in the male art world, and establish their own voices and styles.

It’s a massive story and far too complex to summarise here. Buy the book.

So much for the history. Meanwhile, as I read on and immersed myself more and more in the text, I couldn’t help noticing the intrusive presence of:

  1. the post-modern, feminist critical theory ideas which Chadwick invokes on every page
  2. the post-modern jargon or style which she uses with increasing frequency to describe artists and their works

1. The impact (or not) of post-modern French thinkers

The usual suspects In the preface to the 1990 edition Chadwick invokes the names of all the usual suspects of what was already called Critical Theory when I was an undergraduate in the early 1980s -Saussure (d.1913), Benveniste (d.1976), Marx (d.1883) and Althusser (d.1990), Freud (d.1939) and Lacan (d.1981), Barthes (d.1980), Foucault (d.1984), Derrida (d. 2004).

A lot of dead white men, then. Right at the end of this list she adds the famous French women writers of this ilk, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva. The same names are then all repeated again on page 502. This list of once-fashionable French thinkers effectively book-ends the main text.

This discourse is ageing But the list sounds pretty dated now. The network or matrix of ideas generated by these very influential French theorists was certainly the great new wave of ideas in the 1970s and 1980s, but now feels very passé. Just incanting their names takes me back to my student days in the 1980s, to the era of Reagan and Thatcher and Greenham Common, to the West’s enthusiastic support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan – back to an age now lost in the mists of time.

So I wasn’t surprised when, half way through the book, I googled Whitney Chadwick to discover that she is a 74-year-old white American feminist academic. She was born in the same year (1943) as Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell.

Nothing wrong with being old, we’re all getting old. But her age is an indication of where she is coming from, and explains why so much of her rhetoric dates from the strident and optimistic feminism of the late 1960s and 1970s, the kind of militant rhetoric which spread out of the academy into the wider political world in the 1980s when I was a student – but then evaporated like morning dew in the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the deregulation of financial services, and the universal triumph of consumer capitalism.

Post-modern ideas mostly absent Anyway, Chadwick may well namecheck these French philosophes but – surprisingly – her book rarely uses or incorporates their ideas, above all their profoundly subversive ideas about writing and language, into the actual shape, pattern, flow and style of the text.

In the preface Chadwick briefly (in two sentences, p.12) invokes the idea from Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) that power in modern societies is expressed less by institutions than by the ‘scientific’ or learned discourses which they produce (about medicine, or mental health or sexuality etc).

In six sentences (p.13) she recaps Lacan’s theory that entry to the ‘symbolic order’ of writing and power is through possession of a penis in a phallocentric society, and that, lacking a penis, each woman is ‘constructed’ as a symbolic ‘other’ in the ‘phallocentric’ symbolic order of ‘patriarchal’ society, deprived of power and ‘agency’.

I could do with a bit of clarification on these and related ideas, but this is notable by its absence. That list of Great Thinkers which I mentioned as coming on page 502 is, in its entirety, the statement that postmodernism:

brought to a wider academic and artistic audience new European influences that included Roland Barthes’s use of linguistic models in the interpretation of text and images, Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, Michel Foucault’s analysis of social systems, and Jacques Lacan’s study of the structure of the unconscious. All of these investigations owed much to Marxist models of culture and ideology… (p.502)

And that’s your lot.

Not enough, is it? If these French theories underpin postmodern feminist theory, and that theory underpins and informs every page of this 500-page-long history, then I think the book ought to have started with a good, clear explanation of who the post-modern thinkers were, what their key findings were and how their theories are applied by feminists generally, and by feminist art historians in particular.

But the two places I’ve mentioned are the only places where Chadwick ever actually explains these post-modern ideas – ‘explain’ maybe giving too much credit to what is essentially a glorified list – and there is no one place where she goes into any of them in any kind of detail. My thumbnail sketch would be that the founders of postmodern Critical Theory:

  • question whether it is possible to name and categorise and write history or science or any ‘factual’ discourse without creating new impositions of power and control (Foucault)
  • claim that we can never be confident that an author’s meaning is fixed, stable or read as intended (Barthes)
  • undermine the ability to write anything definitive i.e. whose meaning isn’t sabotaged at every turn by a vast network of linguistic ‘traces’ from the infinity of other writings (Derrida)
  • undermine the whole idea of coherent prose because that very notion, that long tradition, has almost exclusively been a vehicle for masculine power (Cixous)

What all these thinkers have in common is to completely undermine the notion of human beings as stable fixed psychological entities; to undermine the ability of language to ever really convey anything for certain, because of the instability of the relationship between author, text and reader (Barthes) or because language itself isn’t a ‘site’ of authority, but the reverse, a potentially endless play of peripheral traces (according to Derrida).

From the feminist point of view, these sustained underminings of traditional notions of reason and authority can be powerfully deployed to criticise and undermine traditional male discourses of power and control – in society at large, but most of all in literature and the arts, which rely most completely on signs and symbols – precisely the areas of concern to the most subversive and disruptive findings of Barthes, Derrida, Cixous and their peers.

It is the complexity of the thinking about how traditional ‘discourse’ is undermined which explains why the writings of these French thinkers is, itself, so often tortuous and barely comprehensible, because they take their own findings about the unreliability of language and meaning at face value and try to write new kinds of prose to accommodate and express these findings.

None of these subversive ideas or disruptive prose strategies have any impact on Chadwick’s actual prose which is – certainly for the first half of the book – mostly indistinguishable from the most traditional style of male art scholarship. Take this passage:

The Birth of the Virgin is closer to a genre scene of family life in Bologna than to its Biblical source, despite its outdoor setting and nocturnal illumination. It balances a sense of monumentality and decorum with a naturalism close to that of the Cremonese school, and was influenced by Anguissola, whose work Fontana knew and admired and who no doubt provided an important model for her. Fontana’s Consecration to the Virgin, originally intended for the Gnetti Chapel in S. Maria dei Servi in Bologna, combines figures elongated according to Mannerist conventions with greater naturalism in the treatment of the children’s figures. Prospero Fontana’s influence continued to be felt in Fontana’s later religious paintings, as did that of Peleotti, for links between the Bishop and the painter’s family remained strong. (p.94)

This could have been written by Kenneth Clark or Ernst Gombrich in the 1950s, and a lot of the book is written in this surprisingly conservative style.

The steady pressure of feminist ideas So, in practice, hardly any of the deeply subversive ideas of the French post-structuralist thinkers are really applied in this plain prose. The reverse: Chadwick’s prose is almost always clear and authoritative (just like her male art historian predecessors) – which is a good thing and makes this a very good introduction to her themes and history.

But all that said, her feminist stance is continuously present throughout the book, in at least two major ways:

1. Not a page goes by without factual reference to the half dozen fundamental feminist ideas which I’ve listed above – that so-and-so was excluded from an academy, encouraged only to paint ‘feminine’ subjects, was marginalised because their work didn’t conform to ‘masculine’ values i.e. big and heroic etc. These were the recurrent experiences of women artists and so they recur in the text. On every page there will be detail of the social, political, legal and professional obstacles put in the way of women, across all the widely varying and changing societies of Western Europe, across the past millennium (it is an enormous topic).

Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849) by Rosa Bonheur

Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849) by Rosa Bonheur

And then, as the story reaches the later nineteenth century, there’s an increase of ideas and strategies and debate among women artists. This is further encouraged by the explosion of modernism in the decade around the Great War – and Chadwick’s prose increasingly reflects the language of women’s rights campaigners and writers, with the slow infiltration into the text of phrases expressing women’s rights, reproductive rights, feminine essence and so on.

But it’s when the book arrives at the 1960s that there is an absolute explosion of ideas, texts, debates, political activitism, philosophy and radical new feminist theories. This happens about page 330 and then dominates the remaining 200 pages of the text. From this point onwards the prose style changes significantly to include more and more of the jargon and clichés of postmodern feminist criticism. This had been sporadically present earlier. Now it becomes the dominant voice. Eventually every single woman artist is defined and summarised (and controlled and categorised) using the same, relatively small vocabulary of this rebarbative academic style.

Let’s look a bit more closely at this professors’ argot.


A Lexicon of Feminist Critical Theory

The following aims to be a deconstruction of Chadwick’s text which reads it not as a consecutive history but as an assemblage of terminologies, a discursive tessellation (‘a pattern of geometric shapes that fit together’).

In other words, I am perfectly well aware that it Women, Art and Society is a chronological history of women artists but, at the same time, the surveys of contemporary women’s art (fascinating and immensely informative as they are) can also be thought of as:

  1. a pretext for the generation of text, a machine for churning out textual phrases and semantic units (because, after all, every ostensible ‘subject’ is merely a pretext for the exercise of writing and reading, which are deeply pleasurable in themselves, regardless of the theme)
  2. elements in a system of meaning and inclusion. What I mean is that the lexicon Chadwick uses not only has an overtly analytical aim, but also amounts to the specialised vocabulary of a sect or group or tribe – the tribe of university-educated feminists – which signals membership of the tribe and offers the psychological reassurance of taking part in shared values and a shared worldview.

Looking at her book like this, as a kind of machine for generating meaning, could itself be divided into two main areas: one bringing out the ‘political’ aspect of the rhetoric (detailing its obsessive repetition and recombination of what amount to a small number of ‘political’ ideas (generally subverting the patriarchy) or the psychological aspect.

Of the two, I choose to investigate the psychological aspect because I think it is wider and deeper.

On this point of view, Women, Art and Society is a discursive machine for the generation of an awesomely long text which is made up of thousands of reiterations and recombinations of a handful of basic words and phrases, the net result of which is to reassure the members of the sect or cult of feminist Critical Theory of their essential virtue, their correctness, their inclusion in an elite group of intellectuals, and the sense that they are engaged in a vast, international political movement which is changing the world for the better.

Members of this élite (having done a university course in feminist theory, critical theory, queer theory etc may make you feel like you’ve entered an entirely new world but does, in fact, put you in a tiny proportion of the general population) signal to each other through this highly mannered prose style because it, like the catchphrases of any religion, is designed more for mutual reassurance, to encourage ‘group think’ and discourage dissent, to bolster the reader’s identity as member of the elect – than for its allegedly logical or intellectual content.

(This possibly explains why she doesn’t feel the need to explain the ideas of Barthes, Foucault, Cixous et al in any detail, because the ideas aren’t important; the recitation of their names alone serves a sociological purpose, as in any other religion which recites the names of its saints and founders to bind together its members.)

With this in mind – focusing not so much on their overt meaning as on their impressive ability to generate apparently limitless permutations in order to spool out webs of reassuring verbiage – here’s an introduction to the key terms and phrases of feminist critical theory.

Key terms of feminist art critical theory

Works are not hung on walls or published; they are ‘positioned’ or ‘located’ or ‘situated’. The actual subjects depicted are not ‘placed’ or ‘set in’ so-and-so location. They are ‘situated’ or ‘sited’.

Mary Bracquemond sited many of her works in the family garden. (p.238)

Spaces The varied and interesting places which you and I go to – home, work, supermarket, cinema, pub, park – are all subsumed into a special terminology which talks about ‘spaces’, particularly the binary opposition of the ‘private space’ and the ‘public space’.

Because it is axiomatic in feminism that women have always been relegated to the domestic ‘space’ (or ‘sphere’), it is always headline news when they make a work, sculpture, painting or publish something which enters ‘the public space’.

Morisot’s and Cassatt’s paintings demarcate the spaces of masculinity and femininity through their spatial compressions and their juxtapositions of differing spatial system. (p.238)

In ‘Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity’, [feminist art scholar Griselda] Pollock maps the new spaces of masculinity and femininity and articulates the differences ‘socially, economically, subjectively’ between being a woman and being a man in Paris at the end of the [nineteenth] century. (p.232)

Subvert Works of art or literature are never made for enjoyment. They always have a political purpose. In the right-on worldview of Critical Theory, this purpose turns out always to be rebellious. What this means is that works ‘perform’ one of the following actions: they ‘subvert’, ‘interrogate’, ‘engage with’, ‘circumvent’, ‘undermine’, ‘question’, ‘contest’, ‘challenge’, ‘confront’, ‘critique’ or ‘disrupt’ social norms, conventions, accepted opinions, stereotypes, patriarchal values, white male narratives, and so on.

Note that these are generally Latinate words – a sure way to impress your reader – often with melodramatic overtones thrown in. A painting ‘interrogates’ assumptions about x, y or z. Makes it sound like a scene from a war movie instead of a flat old painting hanging on a wall.

Barbara Kruger’s (b.1945) blown-up, severely cropped photographs of women, and their short accompanying texts subvert the meanings of both image and text in order to destabilise the positioning of woman as object. (p.382)

Cindy Sherman’s (b.1954) photographs reveal the instability of gender, and challenge the idea that there might be an innate, unmediated female sexuality. (p.383)

Levine’s work not only contests notions of originality and authorship, but it situates those ideas within the premises of patriarchy. (p.384)

Mary Kelly (b.1941), an American who lived in London during the 1980s, also refused the direct representation of women in her work in order to subvert the use of the female image as object and spectacle … Post Partum Document… addressed the positioning of women in patriarchal culture… [It also] deconstructed psychoanalytical discourses on femininity… in order to articulate… the child’s insertion into the patriarchal order as a gendered (male) subject. (pp.403-404)

Later works by Kelly, as well as by the American artists Martha Rosler and Carrie Mae Weems also interrogate the ways that women’s roles are formed within the family and in society. (p.404)

Messager’s Story of dresses examines and critiques Western cultural representations of female identity, intimate relations, sexuality and power. (p.410)

Other women use humour and irony to challenge social constructions of gender. Irish artist Dorothy Cross’s (b.1956) installation The Power House (1991) addressed issues of class and the gendered division of labour and space. (p.411)

Walker’s work confounds the visual codes though which race, gender, sexuality, and the history of slaves in the American South have been presented. (p.492)

Transgress With tedious predictability, feminist works of art ‘transgress’ this, that or the other social norms, conventions, boundaries and so on.

Catherine Opie (b.1961) has also benefited from the spaces opened up by the transgressive photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. (p.396)

Articulate Works of art don’t express feelings or ideas. They ‘articulate’ issues or ‘mediate’ narratives.

Millie Wilson’s work articulates the historical inaccuracy, often absurdity, of social constructions of lesbianism within dominant heterosexual discourse. (p.396)

Through performing the piece [Wake and resurrection of the bicentennial Negro], Ringgold articulated a specific story of family tragedy, loss and redemption. (p.362)

Sexuality, class, race, and ethnicity mediated women’s attempts to define what it meant to be a woman, to experience life from within a woman’s body and to understand one’s subjectivity as feminine. (p.367)

Address Works of art are no longer designed to please the eye, be beautiful or entertaining (how crude, how passé!). Their sole purpose is to address issues and themes. In exactly the way that your local council says it is addressing the issue of parking spaces or bin collection.

During the 1980s Hiller produced several multimedia installations that address issues of language and silence. (p.400)

Kelly’s photo/text installation Corpus (1985)… explores femininity and representation by addressing the issue of aging… (p.405)

Many art exhibitions these days aren’t organised in order to display works of art; they are organised in order to address issues. This is particularly true of Tate Britain which has had a long run of issue-based shows (Queer art (overlooked), British Empire art (restoring native peoples to imperial narratives), Folk art (too often ignored) and so on). Issues can also be tackled. Though Chadwick prefers them to be addressed.

Ines Garrido (b.1966) in El secreto de Duchamp tackled issues of gender. In a nearby gallery, Magaly Reyes (b.1968) exhibited a group of colourful and quirky self-portraits in the manner of Frida Kahlo that addressed social issues through questions of her own identity. (p.429)

Issues Whatever the precise verb used, contemporary art is all about issues. In this respect a lot of modern art is barely ‘art’ at all, but more plausibly a colourful extension of sociology or anthropology.

  • The 1997 Johannesburg Biennale ‘dealt explicitly with issues of colonisation, race relations and identity in South Africa…’
  • Lucy Orta (b.1966) addresses ‘issues of class’
  • Tracey Moffatt ‘addresses issues of cultural identity’
  • contemporary women artists from developing countries address ‘issues of displacement, imperialism, economic colonisation, sexuality and identity’
  • Salcedo’s contribution to the 1993 Venice biennale addressed ‘issues of representation’
  • The Australian Aboriginal Campfire Group speak to issues of cultural hybridity and displacement (p.452)
  • Kimsooja’s work addresses ‘issues of nomadism, migration, displacement, the body, and history.’ (p.485)
  • Contemporary women artists engage ‘issues of personal and historical memory’ (p.492)
  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

Discourse What works of art are usually interrogating is ‘traditional’ assumptions, customs, traditions etc. That sounds a bit obvious, so it’s better to use the buzzword ‘discourse’. This is a blanket term covering books, essays, lectures, articles, speeches, a society’s entire collection of ways of communicating.

Women’s positions in relation to imperialist discourse were seldom fixed … (p.199)

Each era has an official ‘discourse’ which is – it goes without saying – deeply sexist. Therefore, feminist theory prefers (or foregrounds or privileges) the kind of works which ‘subvert’, ‘interrogate’, ‘engage with’, ‘circumvent’, ‘undermine’, ‘question’ or ‘challenge’ the ruling ‘discourse’.

Inscribe New ideas aren’t taken up or incorporated; they are ‘inscribed’ or ‘reinscribed’ into the ruling discourse.

Narrative The ruling discourse is always male or masculine. All writing about anything before about 1970 was written by men for men. This masculinist ‘discourse’ ‘prescribes’ (like a doctor) or ‘constructs’ (like a builder) a ‘masculinist’ view of the world. The ruling discourse is made up of ‘narratives’. Again ‘narrative’ doesn’t refer to a specific work but to the general story an age tells itself, in effect its values. You often read about ‘Western imperial narratives’.

Hegemony is a term adapted by the Italian communist philosopher Gramsci in the 1930s to describe the across-the-board control of all aspects of society by nasty capitalists. Although Marxism is dead, Critical Theory has extended the term to refer to the ‘hegemony’ white people or men or heterosexuals (depending on which group you are ‘subverting’, ‘interrogating’ or ‘questioning’).

Thus subversive works try to ‘undermine’ or ‘engage with’ or ‘interrogate’ male ‘discourse’ or ‘narratives’ or ‘hegemony’. (Hopefully, you can see that, by mastering just a few basic phrases you can begin to build up impressive-sounding sentences of your own. It’s a bit like Lego.)

As [the 1980s] progressed an international group of younger artists… emerged to rework the feminist implications of materials into complex challenges to hegemonic movements in Western European and North American modernism. (p.503)

Code has two meanings. First, the usual one of codes of conduct:

In demanding access to art training and life classes women were not only challenging codes of feminine propriety and sexual conduct; they were also claiming the right to see and represent actively the world around them, and to command genius as their own. (p.178)

Encode/decode But works of literature or art are often said to contain secret ‘codes’. These difficult ‘codes’ (i.e. secret messages like ‘Men are Best’, and ‘Women are crap’) are ‘encoded’ in ‘texts’, ‘discourses’ or ‘representation’, and have to be ‘decoded’ by experts. For example, Harriet Powers (1837-1911) a black woman born into slavery in Georgia, went on to make story quilts. They were displayed at an 1886 exhibition.

Powers herself produced the detailed descriptions of each scene that enabled subsequent generations to decode its complex iconography. (p.21)

I’m not questioning this moving story. Just the way that previous generations would have written ‘read’ or ‘interpret’, but we write ‘decode’. The characteristic feminist theory tactic of combining the scientific-sounding (as in computer code) with a dash of melodrama ( James Bond secret codes).

Signifier is a technical term originating in linguistics and incorporated into semiotics, or the study of signs. Ferdinande de Saussure revolutionised linguistics by theorising that language is made up of signs which always consist of two parts – the signifier and the signified i.e. a sign’s physical form (such as a sound, printed word, or image) and its meaning, the thing signified or referred to. In Critical Theory this has been removed from its specific context in linguistics, and watered down to mean ‘representing’ or ‘standing for’ or ‘symbolising’. But, importantly, it retains the cachet of sounding scientific and serious.

By 1913, the Italian Futurists were exploring the idea of clothing as a signifier for revolutionary modernism. (p.262)

Competing ideologies began to use images of the body as signifiers for other kinds of social meanings. (p.274)

It is the images produced by modernists like Delaunay and the Russian artists which became the basis of a modern ideology in which the commodified image of woman signifies her expanded role as a consumer. (p.277)

‘Mark of’, ‘sign of’, ‘indication of’, ‘symptom of’, ‘representative of’, lots of more ordinary words would mean the same. But ‘signifier’ has the cachet of the difficult specialism of linguistics and the cool, newish (in the 1970s) discipline of semiotics.

Practices Artists don’t have techniques or styles or methods but instead the much more scientific or sociological term, ‘practices’ (like doctors and solicitors). This word ‘practice’ can be widely used. Critics don’t write criticism they ‘engage in a critical practice’. An art work doesn’t subvert the hegemony, it subverts the ‘hegemonic practices’ (of a particular era or society). After the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism emerged as

the dominant practice in American modern art (p.319)

Not style, kind, form, vein, strain, type, trend or technique. Practice.

Projects Alongside ‘practices’ goes the word ‘projects’. In general, it is nations that have ‘projects’ and it is most often used to describe European imperialism or, more correctly, ‘the European imperial project’. Having read quite a few histories of imperialism, it’s hard not to conclude that reducing the incredibly complicated history of imperial acquisition and conquest and the bewildering variety of nations, peoples and territories involved and the vast range of economic, strategic and military impulses at work, down to one little phrase, is hugely reductive.

In fact, it’s striking that Critical Theory, although it talks a good game about diversity and multiple points of view, in practice holds just one point of view and arguably a very narrow, repetitive one – hence, perhaps, its popularity.

The representational and discursive strategies that created the imperial nation as masculine, and the conquered, colonised and imperialised as feminine, implicate both race and gender in colonialist projects. (p.199)

Read that sentence carefully. Issues of race and gender were ‘implicated’ in imperialism.

The primary sense of ‘implicate’ is ‘to show or suggest that someone was involved in a crime’. It’s quite a dramatic word, most commonly used in connection with police investigations and lawyers in court.

But does ‘implicate’ here mean much more than ‘involved’? The sentence could be translated into something like: ‘Pictures and texts which depicted imperialism as essentially male and the conquered native peoples as feminine…. involved race and gender.’

This comes close to pure tautology, or repetition: ‘Pictures and texts which depicted imperialism as masculine and conquered native people as feminine involved ideas of race and gender.’

Isn’t that obvious? Isn’t the second half essentially repeating what the first half said? Interpreted harshly, the sentence doesn’t add anything to your factual understanding, it just summarises an attitude.

What it is really saying is: ‘You know I’m always telling you that all history represents a battlefield between men and women; you know I’m always telling you that race and gender are key ‘issues’ that recur throughout history and that’s why they’re so prevalent in contemporary art; well, by depicting themselves as male conquerors and native peoples as helpless and female, needing to be guided and tutored, imperial discourse does exactly what I’m always telling you it does. See? I was right. We are right. These issues are everywhere.’

The only real ‘information’ conveyed by the second half of the sentence comes from the melodramatic overtones of the word ‘implicate’. It is emotional or psychological information, rather than logical or historical information. ‘Implicate’ gives the mind a frisson and a thrill – God, yes, implicate – someone somewhere must be guilty, sooooo guilty.

To summarise: sentences like this (and there are thousands of them in the second half of the book):

  • Are essentially tautologous – the second part tells you what the first part has already told you, but uses bombastic rhetoric to make it seem like some really important new information has been conveyed. The sentence can be boiled right down to saying: ‘the imperialist strategies which cast race in terms of gender (male European good, female native bad) used race and gender’. A = A.
  • Are serving the far more important function of confirming the reader’s (and author’s) prejudices, and reinforcing the feminist theory worldview: Imperialist propaganda used issues of race and gender; See! I told you so! Issues of race and gender are everywhere, just like we teach you.

When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote about her travels in Turkey, she couldn’t escape the fact that she was a rich Westerner, or, to put it in femtheoryspeak:

even as she portrayed their clothing as more ‘natural’ than that of European women, and life in the harem as offering positive benefits to women, she remained complicit in the European imperial project of constructing the Orient, and conflating it with Oriental women. (p.199)

Aha, ‘complicit’, another threat word.

The primary meaning of complicit is ‘to be involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong.’ Thus femtheoryspeak claims that any writings undertaken during the imperial period implicates its author – that anybody who did anything during the imperial period was complicit in this enormous crime.

This is reminiscent of the language of Stalin’s show trials in the Soviet Union. The language of crime is used to smear and defame people who can’t talk back. Without bringing forth much actual evidence (as historians, for example, are compelled to), this rhetoric, through sheer repetition, builds up the sense of an enormous criminal conspiracy involving the whole of Western civilisation.

And, like all conspiracy theories, the psychological effect is to make the reader feel threatened on all sides, to circle the wagons, to believe all the more fervently in the great teachers and leaders of feminist theory. Only they can save us from the patriarchy. It’s not saying this on a rational overt level, nobody involved is children. But the emotional, psychological pressure to believe in the conspiracy is present in almost every word and phrase of a lexicon which (implicitly, through its choice of lexicon) claims scientific authority to highlight the heinous crimes being committed all around us by the patriarchy. Beware, sisters!

Anyway, back the lexicon, ‘project’ is interchangeable with ‘imperative’.

In 1863 Baudelaire situated fashion at the heart of the modernist imperative… (p.252)

Like ‘project’, the word ‘imperative’ makes a bunch of run-of-the-mill ideas, and a very shaky grasp of history, sound authoritative, urgent and thrusting – by virtue of both its Latinate origin and its overt meaning (‘an essential or urgent thing’) giving the impression that people just had to do it, to be modernists, chuck figuratism, use bright colours and abstract patterns. It was imperative.

Male gaze II Apart from obvious restrictions on what women could wear or do or go, male art always privileges the ‘male gaze’. This is the way women have been visualised and depicted for millennia as objects, to be savoured, visually enjoyed and (in the imagination, in the male mind’s eye) undressed and sexually possessed.

Feminist theory has often held to the premise that the viewing field is organised for the male subject who exercises power through looking, and in this way asserting visual control over the objects of his desire. (p.214)

I’ve always found it difficult not to have a male gaze, being a man who likes looking. I go to an art gallery with a female partner. If her gaze is meant to be so radically, drastically different from mine…. isn’t that somehow enshrining the very sexual difference we have been warned against? To claim that men and women see things in fundamentally different ways…. is that not an extremely gendered way of thinking about humans? Could a claim really be more gendered?

But it is a persistent thread:

The subject of the nude in art brings together discourses of representation, morality and female sexuality, but the persistent presentation of the nude female body as a site of male viewing pleasure, a commodified image of exchange, and a fetishised defence against the fear of castration has left little place for the explorations of female subjectivity, knowledge and experience. (p.282)

I’ve never understood why, if the naked female body is such an intense ‘site’ for male gaze, control, lust, othering, commodification and so on – that so very many contemporary women artists obsessively strip, photograph, paint, display and video their own naked bodies for all the world to see – half of the world being those very men whose wicked, wicked gaze we all know about it.

That’s why I like women artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Riley, Rachel Whiteread, Sonia Delaunay, to name a few, women who discovered new languages and new ways of seeing, instead of returning obsessively to the scene of the old, old crime of judging, assessing, defining and thinking about women in terms of their bodies.

Hon (1966) by Niki de Saint Phalle

Hon (1966) by Niki de Saint Phalle

Produce Anyway, all works of art, paintings and sculptures, are ‘produced’, making artists sound awfully grown-up, like proletarians working 8 hour days in a factory, not layabouts in a studio. And so artists are referred to as ‘producers’, their works are ‘products’, and workshops are ‘sites’ or ‘locations’ of ‘cultural production’ or display.

By 1997, international biennials provided key sites at which to consider the tremendous diversity of practices that had emerged among women artists worldwide. (p.442)

Sites can be not just physical places but metaphorical places within ‘discourse’ where meaning is ‘produced’ or (as you might expect) ‘resisted’ and ‘subverted’. Thus the lesbian feminist artist Harmony Hammond is quoted as saying:

‘I see art-making, especially that which comes from the margins of the mainstream, as a site of resistance.’ (p.13)

In the early 18th century:

The Salons of Julie de Lespinasse, Germaine Necker de Stael, Madame du Deffand, Madame de la Fayette, Madame de Sevigny, Madame du Chatelet and others became famous as sites of artistic, philosophical and intellectual discourse. (p.144)

More up to date:

In 1990, social historian Janet Woolf published an essay entitled ‘Reinstating Corporeality: Feminism and Body Politics’, in which she argued for the female body as a legitimate site of cultural politics. (p.407)

The body as a site for ideologically based inscriptions continues to play a significant role in the work of women artists. (p.508)

[Wanchegi] Mutu is not alone in focusing on the female body as site of political and social action. (p.513)

Map All these sites and locations need maps. More precisely, ‘map’, and especially ‘map onto’, have come to be jargon terms which indicate how one set of issues or ideas is combined with others, especially (with its original meaning in mind) ideas of place.

Zittel’s relationship to the California desert maps the personal present onto the historical past and structures her subjective experience of place through her interactions with loss and destruction as well as presence. (p.487)

Construct Linked to works of art being ‘products’ ‘produced’ at ‘sites’ of ‘artistic production’, is use of the word ‘construct’. Ideas are no longer developed, they are ‘constructed’, like bridges. Berthe Morisot’s paintings pay:

attention to the attitudes and rituals that mark the social construction of femininity. (p.300)

Surrealism constructed women as magic objects and sites on which to project male erotic desire. (p. 313)

The fact that, in this jargon, ideas, narratives, values or discourses are constructed means that they can also, of course, be ‘deconstructed’.

A number of women in Britain and the United States have adopted deconstructive strategies as a means of exposing the assumptions underlying cultural constructions of gender, race and sexuality. (p.393)

Negotiate You or I have to manage relationships or handle them or juggle commitments or navigate the obstacles of life. All these activities and more are subsumed under the Critical Theory verb ‘negotiate’ which, as usual, manages to sound both very serious (negotiate a peace deal) and filmic (The Negotiator).

Morisot and Cassatt’s ability to sustain professional lives and negotiate relationships of some parity with their male colleagues was class specific. (p.235)

Male gaze III In art criticism this relates to whether you get the sense that women in paintings are conceived of being able to do anything, or whether they are just passive objects for ‘the male gaze’. If a woman is painted naked by a man it is exploitation and objectification; if a woman is painted naked by a woman, chances are she is given ‘agency’ and is not just the passive victim of the male gaze. If a modern artist takes photographs of herself naked, stripping, in suggestive poses, sucking a lollypop or displaying her genitals this all, apparently, disarms the male gaze, because the woman in question is choosing to do it.

(Agency means the quality of being able to do something. Women do or (more often) do not have ‘agency’; yes if they’re asserting their identity and contesting patriarchal norms; no, if they’re victims of the male gaze.)

Thus feminist art criticism is as alert as a traffic warden to signs of whether women depicted in paintings are a) victims of the male gaze, or are subtly subverting it; b) as a result, do or do not have agency.

This is a responsible job. Gauguin’s women have a downturned gaze; they are victims; they lack agency.

Also, the male fantasy female nude tends to be voluptuous, plump and fertile. This was brought into relief by comparison with the paintings of the 20th century lesbian artist Romaine Brooks. Here, Chadwick claims, we can tell that the naked women are not victims of the male gaze because a) we know Brooks was a lesbian who – by definition – can’t have the male gaze b) they are slender and not plump c) they are not facing the viewer pouting or turning down their eyes on coquettish invitation; their gaze is independent, free spirited, off elsewhere.

White Azaleas (1910) by Romaine Brooks

White Azaleas (1910) by Romaine Brooks

Brooks’s paintings admittedly eroticise the female body (oh dear) but ‘in the context of a lesbian spectatorship’ (phew). This is the longest discussion of the male gaze and leads up to the notion that in her famous self-portrait, ‘the gaze is watchful’ (p.301).

Sexual difference refers to in any way noticing or highlighting the alleged differences between the sexes. This is a very bad thing.

Art history has never separated the question of artistic style from the inscription of sexual difference in representation. (p.25)

(Representation here means any form of representative art. As in all these examples, the technique – How to Talk Critical Theory – is to take a common or garden idea and describe it with a generalised abstract noun which immediately makes it sound more scientific and precise. It makes as if you have grasped an entire subject down to its finest details across an entire society or historical period.)

If you make any reference whatsoever to any differences between men and women you are not only a sexist (obviously) but you are making ‘gendered’ statements, analogies, comparisons and soon.

Such gendered analogies make it difficult to visualise distinctions of paint handling without thinking in terms of sexual difference. (p.26)

Basically any thought or idea which in any way compares and contrasts men and women as somehow definable entities with definable characteristics, is frowned on.

Krasner and other women Abstract Expressionists were well aware of the operations of sexual difference within artistic practice. (p.323)

Other women shared her [Lee Krasner’s] awareness of the deep divisions in the play of sexual difference within social ideology and artistic practice. (p.328)

The Other Look out for opportunities to use the ominous and meaningful-sounding phrase ‘the Other’. Generally ‘the Other’ is what the group which you are describing defines itself against, the negative which helps it create its own positive view of itself, whose (often made-up and falsely perceived) ‘inferiority’ is used to bolster our own right to rule and govern.

Since Critical Theory is generally attacking white men and their sexist gendered discourse, it will, for example, describe the way white imperialist discourse defined itself against ‘the other’ of the native peoples they were oppressing; the way white people defined themselves against ‘the other’ of black people; or the way men defined women as ‘the other’, loading them with an array of negative qualities against which to define their own rationality, responsibility and right to rule.

Thus, of Victorian women travellers, Chadwick writes:

They shared with their male contemporaries the need to claim and construct the Orient as a European ‘Other’ in their writings… (p.201)

Or:

The works of male Surrealists are dominated by the presence of a mythical Other onto whom their romantic, sexual and erotic desire is projected. (p.310)

Or:

The siting of woman as ‘other’ has taken place in societies that have rationalised both sexual and cultural oppression. (p.386)

Gauguin’s nudes are reprehensible because they are doubly patronising, not only deploying the ‘male gaze’ to control women’s bodies, but doing it in a contrived ‘exotic’ location which also essentialises, objectifies and degrades ‘native’ women. Double whammy:

Gauguin’s nudes recline in states of dreamy reverie or emerge from the imagery of an exoticised otherness (i.e. the Tahitian landscape constructed as ‘feminine’ through an over-emphasis on its exoticism, bounteousness, and ‘primitivism’ in relation to Western cultural norms) … (p.289)

Naughty, naughty Gauguin.

By reducing the vast complexity of all human history and culture, and the infinitely complex and multifarious human interactions between races, peoples, nations, groups, classes, and hundreds of millions of individuals, to a handful of basic binary opposites, the notion of ‘the Other’ could hardly be a more primitive, simplistic and reductionist idea.

As feminist theory morphed into the wider category of identity politics (i.e. taking in complaint by gays, lesbians and blacks) ‘the Other’ has found new applications for its simple-minded binary way of thinking. Since a 1984 New York art show about primitivism and modernism

postmodernist theory has examined constructions of ‘otherness’ in several overlapping forms, including the feminine Other of sexual difference, and the Other of discourses of the Third World and/or cultural diaspora. (p.386)

Something which is ‘other’ obviously possesses the quality of ‘otherness’, thus:

The place assigned woman by Lacan is one of absence, of ‘otherness’. (p.13)

And consigning something (generally the victims of cruel imperial men, such as colonised natives or women) to the category of ‘the other’, is known as ‘othering’.

Attentive We must all be ‘more attentive’ to the ever changing, ever more complex issues of gender identity and difference. You must. I must. We all must.

Lists Where possible use lists of high-sounding issues to appear earnest, committed and clever, in sentences like, ‘O’Keeffe’s practice addresses issues of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and class’. No one will ask if you have any understanding of these ‘issues’ of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or class. Just reciting them is like a magic spell which conveys special powers and prestige on the reciter.

All the above contribute to ‘the social construction of femininity’, the idea that there is nothing particularly ‘feminine’ about women because ‘femininity’ is an entirely social construction, the creation of all-pervading ‘patriarchy’ which defines ‘the feminine’ in order to limit, control and repress women.

The patriarchy “Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property.” (Wikipedia). All feminists spend their lives fighting or trying to deconstruct the patriarchy with all its insidious tentacles of power.

During the late 1970s and the 1980s, a growing number of artists, male and female, worked to decentre language within the patriarchal order, exposing the ways that images are culturally coded, and renegotiating the position of women and minorities as ‘other’ in patriarchal culture. (p.382)

Refusing the image of woman as ‘sign’ within the patriarchal order, these artists have chosen to work with an existing repertoire of cultural images because, they insist, feminine sexuality is always constituted in representation and as a representation of difference. (p.400)

Perez Bravo, like so many modern women artists, took photos of her body to subvert the patriarchy.

Her photographs bypass ritual and essentialised representations of female power in order to explore feminine identity and the conditions of being female in ways that counter patriarchally constructed stereotypes of womanhood. (p.428)

Patriarchy is taken to be everywhere, responsible for all institutions, languages, codes and conventions, for the law, for all medical and scientific discourse, for all art and visual language.

Conclusion of feminist theory

Thus women are confronted every waking moment with ‘the problematic of femininity’ because their minds and personalities, their attitudes to their own bodies, and even the language they use to think with, are all hopelessly compromised by words, ideas, laws, institutions, religions, and cultural artefacts all created by ‘the patriarchy’ and designed to define ‘femininity’ in order to limit, control and repress women.

Medea (1889) by Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

Medea (1889) by Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

Reflections on post-structuralist rhetoric

These fifty or so key words and phrases can be endlessly recombined and recycled to produce a deceptively large number of sentences which all say more or less the same thing. Take one sentence from thousands:

Foucault’s analysis of how power is exercised has raised many questions about the function of visual culture as a defining and regulating practice. (p.12)

Has it now? And does the text go on to list and explain those questions? Nope. But it makes the reader feel as if they partake of some of Foucault’s searching (and usually quite difficult) analyses of key social institutions (the madhouse, the prison, the hospital) and somehow understand his insights about how power is ‘inscribed’ in ‘institutional discourses’ (even thought this has barely been explained).

It doesn’t matter. The key function of this rhetoric is that you, the reader, can ‘decode’ this jargon and so confirm yourself as are part of the Elect which really truly understands what is going on in Western society and is working to make the world a better, fairer place.

Why post-modern rhetoric is so widespread

I suggest that the jargon-heavy style of Anglo-Saxon, postmodern critical and feminist theory has become so widespread in modern writing in the humanities – art, literature, film studies, cultural studies, gender studies, post-colonial studies and so on – for a number of reasons:

a) because it sounds so intellectually impressive without, in fact, requiring too much thought
b) because it sounds so professional, not just anybody can talk and write like this, it needs years of practice
c) because it sounds so radical, so right-on, so politically committed without, actually, requiring you to take part in any particular political activity

A lot of the terms are borrowed from sociology which, back in the utopian 1960s, hoped to become a new scientific analysis of every aspect of society which, as its investigations progressed, would help to analyse out and solve pressing social problems.

Presenting these problems reconstituted as ‘issues’ and ‘problematics’ described in a deliberately objectifying would-be scientific jargon would – it was hoped – force readers and citizens to question previously held prejudices and assumptions, to overthrow them, to change society for the better.

It’s silly to be too dismissive because lots of social and cultural improvements have indisputably taken place in the language we use in subjects around sex, women and ethnic groups. Attitudes and expectations to all sorts of groups, not just to women and ethnic minorities and other sexualities, but to the disabled or mentally ill, are vastly more egalitarian and respectful than they were when Chadwick was first writing this book in the 1980s. It would be stupid to underplay the vast progress that has been made towards more equality and better life expectations for millions of people because of these cultural changes.

Nonetheless, my interest is in language and its rhetorics i.e. how language is used to argue, persuade and influence people (including, quite often, the writers themselves). And I find the ubiquitous post-modern rhetoric of Critical Theory to be:

  1. Closed It is a specialist jargon which in practice excludes almost the entire population of the country, and is only really accessible to a tiny minority of university lecturers and students. Ironic given its supposedly ‘democratic’ and ‘subversive’ intentions.
  2. Pretentious In the literal sense, it is designed to give the impression of profound thought while very often amounting to nothing but an iteration of what are, by now, well-worn clichés. This happens to every new style: it is developed by radical pioneers, it is bold and innovative, it helps people think and see in new ways, it finds proponents in the academy, it is formatted into term-long courses and topics, it becomes regularised and routinised so it can be taught and examined and marked, not only to students but to A-level schoolchildren, it becomes the accepted jargon of the times, it becomes the new orthodoxy. When a subject is being taught to a nation’s schoolchildren it is no longer subversive: it has become the opposite of subversive.
  3. Repetitive In at least three senses:
    1. The lexicon of post-modern or post-structuralist thought, the actual working vocabulary of Critical theory, is surprisingly small. There are maybe fifty words and phrases which are endlessly recycled and repeated. I list many of them below. Once you’ve grasped their general intention it becomes possible to combine and recombine them in sentences which essentially say the same thing, but sound impressive and clever. After a few hundred pages of reading the same words combined in slightly varying combinations, the reader develops a strong dense of déjà vu and repetition.
    2. Once something is being taught it is, by definition, being repeated: authors write it, lecturers speak it, students make notes, write exams and theses – this rhetoric is repeated. Repetition of any language tends to empty it of meaning: repeat the same word again and again and you experience the dizzy feeling of forgetting what it means, tending to prove Wittgenstein or Derrida’s ideas that language only works while it is in play, quick and dirty, moved around between text and reader, reconfigured on each reading. Repeated in the same way, in the same flat tone, hundreds of times, it becomes empty. So in a very basic sense, reading the same phrases and the same recombinations of phrases over and over and over again eventually makes your mind glaze over. They become invisible – at least to the fully adult mind.
    3. However, as Freud suggested over 120 years ago (yawn) our minds contain any number of ‘minds’. We aren’t single, unified, rational entities, quite the opposite, all kinds of people and age groups are competing in the battlefield of our consciousnesses. Among these is the child mind, still very present in all of us. And children like repetition. In her first book, The Sculptor’s Daughter, the Finnish author Tove Jannson describes the adult world from the point of view of a very small child, maybe 4 or 5 years-old. Something which comes over very strongly in these stories is the child’s need for a safe space, for reassurance, for repeated rituals and habits which create a sense of familiarity and security. Tea-time, bath-time, bed-time. And a bed-time story. And, with her usual acuity, Jannson points out that the bed-time stories must always start the same way (‘Once upon a time’) and, if they’re familiar, they must be told the same way, the same events in the same order, ideally in the same words.

I find in the endless repetition of the same fifty or so phrases of the Critical Theory lexicon the same sense of childhood reassurance. After a page of purely factual history, Chadwick will add a sentence or two of critical commentary – and the ardent young feminist will be back in her comfort zone, among talk of ‘discourses’ and ‘sites of production’ and ‘gender separation’ and ‘sexual difference’ and, of course, the most reassuring presence of all, the big, bad Daddy of ‘the Patriarchy’ – paradoxically reassuring in the way the Big Bad Wolf is in the fairy story, because the reader knows that the Patriarchy, just like the wolf, will be defeated in the end.

The language of post-structuralist or post-modern Critical Theory – in the way it is now universal in the teaching of the humanities, in gender studies and cultural studies and queer studies and film studies and literary studies – has become the opposite of disruptive and subversive; it has itself become a kind of safe space.

The Roll Call (1874) by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler

The Roll Call (1874) by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler

A pragmatic question

Leaving aside whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ prose style, or whether my interpretation of it as a form of semantic reassurance is correct or not — the only really important consideration is does it teach you anything, does it convey new information?

And my answer is a straightforward ‘No’.

This jargon rarely adds much to what the factual elements of the text haven’t already told you. To be told that Artemisia Gentileschi was forbidden membership of so-and-so academy but forged an immensely successful career through cultivating royal patrons – this tells you a lot, makes you admire and respect her achievement. To then be told that, in so doing, she ‘circumvented patriarchal narratives of feminine norms’ or ‘used her art to interrogate masculine ideas of a feminine “essence”‘, tells you a lot less. In fact it really only tells you about the worldview of the author, and encourages you to sign up to her worldview.

Partly because:

  • this kind of post-structuralist discourse is so generic, because it repeats the same handful of terms with monotonous predictability (negotiate, subvert, interrogate – discourses, narratives – in the public space, the private sphere – interrogating the feminist problematic, and so on)
  • and because Chadwick applies the same terminology to wildly different artists, working in wildly different times, places and cultures (both Artemisia Gentileschi and Georgia O’Keeffe ‘question masculine assumptions about ‘”feminine” art’)

the tendency is for your mind to switch off every time you come to another stretch of PoMo FemCrit and skip forward to the next bit of factual information.

It’s rather like driving at night and hitting a patch of black ice, skidding for a second or two, and then feeling the tyres getting a grip back on the proper road surface.

Feeding the swans (1889) by Edith Hayllar

Feeding the swans (1889) by Edith Hayllar

(Most of the explicitly feminist commentary on the hundreds of paintings included in the book make little or no contribution to one’s understanding. But I did like the observation that the innocuous painting above, portrays the Five Stages of Woman’s life – toddler, teenager, young lady, wife and granny – against the backdrop of what the critic calls the very ‘male’ ordering of the classical columns, symbolising the rigid rules and control of a patriarchal society.)


Chadwick’s last word on feminist theory

This book was published in 1990, so is quite obviously a summary of the feminist theory and rhetoric up to that time, the theory of the 60s, 70s and 80s. From before the Yugoslav civil wars, the Rwanda genocide, 9/11, the American invasion of Iraq, and so on. From before the internet, mobile phones, Facebook, snapchat and the entire realm of digital technology.

To give it credit, the book does address its own profound out-of-dateness in two places. There’s a final chapter which describes the ongoing production of women artists through the 90s and noughties (the kind of brief catch-up chapter you often see in books like this which have been in print for some time. I was a little awed by the way she makes no analysis of the impact o 9/11 or the Iraq War on feminist artists; maybe they didn’t notice.)

But more interesting is the second preface, right at the start. The book opens with the preface to the original 1990 edition which, as indicated, goes heavy on the feminist discoveries of the 1960s and 1970s, giving you a strong flavour of where Chadwick is coming from, and her continuing emotional allegiance to the revolutionary feminist fervour of that era.

But then, on page 16, there’s a brief preface to the current, fifth, edition of the book, published in 2012.

It’s less than a page long but in a way it’s the most interesting part of the book, because it consists of a potent recantation of a lot of the ideas which underpin the 500-page-long text. In this brief preface Chadwick concedes that, since the book’s original publication in 1990, ‘the art world has changed dramatically’ and that it is:

less dominated by discussions of postmodern theory and more attuned to the realities of global instability, less comfortable with the rhetoric of ‘women’s liberation’ and more concerned with changing economic and social conditions…

… artists and art historians must rethink issues of marginalisation not just in terms of gender, but also in relation to culture, race, geography and class…

… the idea of a universal ‘women’s movement has given way to new configurations that include ‘eco-feminist-artist collectives’ and ‘techno-savvy feminist groups’, the naming of sexual identities has expanded from ‘heterosexual/homosexual’ to ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bi’, and ‘transsexual’.

All true enough. Her concluding sentence, the summary of all her thinking in this area, the summarising thought for a book which must have taken some years to write and which she has lived with, pondered and updated several times in its 27-year existence, is:

The feminist rhetoric of the 1970s may no longer be relevant to the global realities of the twenty-first century, but feminism as a political ideology and a call to action continues to leave its mark on art and its history. (p.16)

‘The feminist rhetoric of the 1970s may no longer be relevant to the global realities of the twenty-first century…’

Quite a massive thing to write, don’t you think

None of this invalidates the scale and scope of her history of women artists, the way it pulls together and summarises the efforts of hundreds and hundreds of feminist scholars and art historians, its depth and range and formidable learning, nor the ideas and issues it raises on every page. But it’s still quite a bombshell to admit that this entire text, kick-started as it is on early feminist rhetoric and outdated theory, itself needs to be somehow thoroughly overhauled and dragged into the 21st century.

I wonder if somebody’s done it, written a 21st century post-feminist history of women’s art?

Boating (1910) by Gabriele Münter

Boating (1910) by Gabriele Münter


Modern challenges to the idea of Great Art

Just to complete this line of thought, what I’d like to read is a book which steps right back and explains why anyone in 2017 should give a damn about the ‘Great Canon of Western Art’, or ‘Western Art’ at all.

1. The death of High Culture

When Chadwick started writing, ‘Art’ was seen as a key achievement of the ‘High Culture’ of the Western World and it stood to reason, and made sense to her and her generation, that women artists should be reinstated in this canon and should be written about and understood on their own terms, not in the words, concepts and ideas of patronising men. Fine.

But in the last thirty years the whole notion of a Canon of Western Art has been pulled apart, undermined, or discredited. This was happening as she wrote, with the whole postmodern impulse of the later 1980s and 90s to equate all art, all images, all visual input, to value and assess them all on the same level, to cease privileging ‘high’ art, to follow through on Roland Barthes’ idea that a bus ticket tells you as much about a culture as its most famous painting. Mickey Mouse and Michelangelo were discussed in the same way on The Late Show.

So it feels like, while Chadwick spent a career disputing the way older male historians wrote about Western Art, the entire concept of what is and is not ‘Art’ and the importance and meaning of ‘Western Art’, have seismically shifted around her.

And with the advent of digital art and phones with high-powered cameras in the last 10 years or so, the entire world of what images mean, how they are produced and consumed and valued, has been thrown high in the air. Who knows where it will all land.

Sonia Delaunay, Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939)

Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939) by Sonia Delaunay

2. Art as investment/commodity in a hyper-capitalist world

The second thing which has worked to undermine any sense of the special spiritual or religious or moral or imaginative value of ‘Art’ is the way that, over the past thirty years since the end of communism, the world has become dominated by a uniform brand of neo-liberal or finance capitalism. This has generated huge surpluses of capital for billionaires in Russia or China or America, who regard ‘Art’ as an investment vehicle on a par with stocks and shares, property or gold.

Although she mentions Marx and the French Marxist Althusser on page 11 there is rarely any sense in her text of an even mildly socialist, yet alone full-blown Marxist critique of the historic association between artists and money and power, of the complex layers of exploitation on which art was built, or of the drastic effect of the contemporary monetisation of art and the art world.

Just as the past 40 years of feminist activism and scholarship enable us to look back at the past with new eyes, from a new, women’s, perspective, so the absolute triumph of finance capitalism should made us think anew about the role of MONEY in art, for Art always was (and is now more than ever) about money.

This vital strand in Art’s meaning is occasionally nodded to in the text (with occasional mention of wealthy patrons or, at the other end of the scale, in the Victorian era, the poor working conditions of women factory workers) but nowhere is it directly addressed as a fundamental condition for the commissioning, production, consumption and commodification of Art. 

At the time of writing the largest amount paid for a painting by a woman artist is the $44.4 million commanded by Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1932 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1.

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) by Georgia O'Keeffe

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Then again, Chadwick is American and America has never had much of a radical tradition – I mean there has never been a real threat of a communist revolution there, as there was in all of Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Which is maybe why American academics have taken so completely to indulging in pseudo-Marxist, semi-subversive PoMo rhetorics. because they know, deep down, how utterly irrelevant they are to the political realities of their great nation.

As PoMo pseudo-Marxism, Critical theory, feminist theory and all the rest spread throughout university humanities departments – the country was ruled by Ronald Reagan, George Bush, George Dubya Bush and Donald Trump. Some subversion.

3. Women artists supporting the patriarchy

For Art, whether High Renaissance art or 21st century rebel art, has always been commissioned and bought by the richest people in a society. Because she’s batting for the women’s team, Chadwick task is to promote knowledge about the careers of Artemisia Gentileschi and hundreds of other 16th, 17th and 18th century women artists, but she glosses over quite a major point – that all these successful women artists worked for dukes and kings and emperors.

She likes to portray her women artists as rebels against masculine discourse and ‘interrogating’ ‘heteronormative’ assumptions and ‘circumventing’ the ‘male gaze’ and so on – while all the time missing an obvious point – that these women artists could hardly have been more the willing tools of the people at the very top of the patriarchal systems which Chadwick devotes her book to criticising.

It’s the equivalent of praising artists who worked for Hitler or Goebbels as being ‘subversive’. These successful 17th and 18th century women artists worked directly for kings and emperors. They were right at the heart of the patriarchal system. They were working directly for the patriarchs themselves, helping to create icons and images of male power, along with coins, medals, media of royal male control.

They weren’t subverting power. They were serving it.

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, king of Poland (1797) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, King of Poland (1797) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

4. Imperialism and colonialism, the absence of

When Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) goes to work for the King of Spain, Chadwick sees this as a fabulous thing, proof that women could succeed in a man’s world. But where did the King of Spain get the money he paid Anguissola with? From the silver mines of the Spanish Empire where native Americans were worked to death in appalling conditions. And the slave plantations in the Caribbean. And from the output of feudal labourers on the king’s vast estates.

The slave labour on which the wealth of Europe was based, which generated the money which allowed the kings and emperors to commission lavish paintings and sculptures from these plucky women artists, is invisible, unmentioned – written out of this account in exactly the same way that Chadwick is so upset that women artists were written out of art history in previous generations.

In the first, pre-modern, half of the book, there is nothing about the wretches who died to produce the wealth which was celebrated by women artists. Just more descriptions of the lavish furs, sumptuous silks and rich jewellery of Anguissola’s portraits.

The longest consideration of colonialism is in the section on lady Victorian painters and travellers and then the short section about Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women.

In the final chapters about today’s multicultural art scene, Chadwick ropes ‘colonial oppression’ in as a new bogeyman alongside the patriarchy, without showing much interest in the actual dynamics of the European empires, or in the violent independence movements which ended them.

All of that is transmuted into just another bloodless ‘issue’ for modern artists to tackle, address, mediate and negotiate. The entire history of European imperialism becomes just another item on the feminist critic’s shopping list.

This stunning painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist is not mentioned in the book.

Portrait of a Negress (1800) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist

Portrait of a Negress (1800) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist

5. A complete, fully political history of Western Art

A full history of this subject would contain the same basic narrative (the list of women painters remaining essentially unchanged) but would ‘situate’ their works in a much more sophisticated political narrative which took more account of the basically problematic basis of all Art, and quite a bit more account of the guilt, the inescapably compromised nature of all Western culture, tainted by its centuries-long history of oppressing, enslaving, murdering and working to death countless tens of millions of native peoples.

Compared to the scale of those horrors, the fact that a rival (male) painter spread rumours about Properzia de’ Rossi to spoil her career as a sculptor, or that no woman became a full member of the Royal Academy of the Arts until 1933, although obviously unfair, although obviously shocking, in the great scale of things just doesn’t get me so worked up.

It’s a question of perspective and morality.

Chadwick’s history is one in which we are invited to pour our hearts out for a relatively small number of well-off and often very wealthy or fabulously-rewarded artists working at the centres of European power and currying favour with kings and popes. And, in the present, we are meant to get worked up about debates currently going on among a predominantly white, middle-aged, academic elite of Western universities.

Royal women painters from the 17th century. Rich white American women’s righter from the 1870s. Prize-winning and grant-funded feminist artists at the Venice Biennale. Their names and achievements are recorded, memorialised, championed and promoted in countless articles, books like these, galleries and exhibitions.

I prefer to keep my sympathy for the vast numbers of nameless poor of both sexes who lived short, illiterate, poverty-stricken lives, not in white America but in Europe and Asia, or were worked to death in distant colonies, to produce the obscene wealth which 17th and 18th century artists were squabbling to secure – and for the modern-day slaves, for the forced labourers, and labouring poor all around the world who’ve never heard of Mary Cassatt or Judy Chicago.

It would have been preferable if women artists hadn’t faced so many handicaps and obstacles for centuries but, like the Great War or the Holocaust, the past is gone. All we can do is try to remove all such obstacles to women artists and academics today.

Chadwick’s book is a massive and major contribution to that process, to the rewriting of art history and to the rehabilitation of hundreds of women artists to their rightful place in that history. In terms of its contribution to academic curricula, to the writing and understanding of art history, and to increasing the understanding and enjoyment of the minority of the population who go to art galleries and are interested in art, it is a major scholarly and revisionist achievement, and a massive enrichment of our knowledge and pleasure.

But in terms of memorials and remembrance – it’s the anonymous labouring poor of all the ages who have my sympathy.

6. Making America great again

But by the end of the book I was sick of America and heartily sick of New York. It’s not so much that Chadwick is a white American, or that her history of the 19th century, and early feminism, and 1960s feminism, is almost entirely set in America, quotes American feminists and privileges mostly white American feminist art – but that time after time, hundreds of times, she will take American feminists, and American politics and American art movements as central, defining and paradigmatic of how all other women around the world should think.

Chadwick writes at length about what a hard time the women members of Abstract Expressionism had competing with the men, but it goes without comment that American Abstract Expressionism was the most important art movement of the period. Just as American Pop Art, minimalism and so on turn out to be the defining movements of theirs.

All the while she is championing the subversion and questioning of patriarchal narratives, the more basic narrative of American cultural supremacy goes unchallenged and unexamined.

For the most irritating thing about American cultural imperialism is that Americans don’t realise they’re doing it. They just take it for granted that American art is the best – like American cars and American technology and American democracy and American movies are the best in their fields.

And that New York is just, well, shucks, the most exciting city in the world. Which is why the final chapters of the book refer to contemporary women artists and again and again and again and again and again, they turn out to be based in New York New York, that wonderful town.

  • Shahzia Sikander was born in Pakistan but now lives and works in New York (p.445)
  • Mariko Mori was born in Japan but now lives and works in New York (p.457)
  • Non Hendratmo was one of a number of Indonesian artists who relocated to New York after the Jakarta riots of 1998. (p.461)
  • Kimsooja was born in South Korea but now lives and works in New York (p.463)
  • Ghada Amer was born in Egypt but now lives and works in New York (p.469)
  • Shirin Neshat was born in Iran but now lives and works in New York City (p.481)

When, of all the works by Palestinian artist Emily Jacir, Chadwick selects Ramallah/New York your heart just sinks into your boots. Really? New York? Again?

When she finally gets round to using this new-fangled internet thingy, Chadwick googles the year ‘1990’ and discovers that the key moments of that year were the publication of her book in New York, the publication of American philosopher Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble, the swearing-in of the first female American Surgeon General and Jenny Holzer being the first women to have a solo exhibition in the America pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

America America America America.

I dislike the American supremacism which oozes from these pages (not overtly – on the surface it is all multiculturalism and new artists in developing countries). It’s just that they all come to New York to live and work and sell their art, an art which again and again is described as ‘subverting’ white Western stereotypes and ‘interrogating’ Western culture and ‘questioning’ Western capitalism etc, but which – it turns out  – is utterly dependent on Western art markets, Western art galleries and Western art magazines for its very existence.

And also on the vast sums of money managed by the Western financial system which is based in Wall Street, New York, a tiny fraction of which is siphoned off to fund the museums and galleries and biennials and expositions and exhibitions where feminist artists fondly display works of art which they think are subverting the system. No.

They are in fact part of this global system of capitalist commodification and consumer culture. As a visit to the bookshop of any art gallery, no matter how ‘radical’, instantly proves.

Why are they all in New York? They would say because it is a vibrant melting pot of culture and ideas. But in fact, it’s because that’s where the money is.

When Chadwick comes to do a thumbnail review of the last fifty years she thinks immediately of American artist Rachel Harrison, New York Times critic Holland Cotter, American scholar Linda Nochlin, the founding of Ms magazine in New York and goes on to generalise that:

American artists in particular explored formal, conceptual, and political issues related to materials, languages of form, and their hierarchical classifications. They incorporated personal and cultural histories in narrative and autobiographical art; they explored sexuality, gender, class, race and ethnicity in works that redefined modern art’s assumed hierarchies and relationships between form and content; they performed their bodies and their sexual identity in new ways…. (p.500)

Go USA!!

In a way, Chadwick’s book is a good example of Donald Trump’s policy of putting ‘America first’. Maybe he should give her a medal. God, I’d pay money to watch that award ceremony!

Untitled (1960) by Lee Bontecou

Untitled (1960) by Lee Bontecou

P.S. Has this rhetoric worked?

Chadwick’s history of women artists sees almost all women’s art works in terms of ‘projects’ and ‘strategies’ which have been designed to interrogate, subvert and challenge stereotypical ideas of ‘the feminine’, to contest and critique all notions of ‘sexual difference’ and – Project Number One – to undermine and overthrow the patriarchy.

If modern feminist theory began in the late 1960s we’ve had just about 50 years of it by now. In that period tens of thousands of feminist artists, sculptors, painters, installationists, gallerists, curators, critics, writers, philosophers and theorists have given all their time, energy, lives and efforts into eradicating sexist stereotypes and overthrowing the patriarchy.

It is not unreasonable to ask – Has it worked?

Well, in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, 53% of the voters – a clear majority – were women. That’s a good thing, right? If reality lived up to feminist theory about ‘all women’ wanting radical change, then you’d expect to see a drastic vote in favour of women’s causes and for the woman candidate, right?

And yet who did this 53% help elect? President Donald Trump.

It’s true that, overall, more men than women voted for Trump, and yet – in a key statistic for feminists – 53% of American white women the majority of white American women – voted for Donald Trump.

The majority of white American women voted for Donald Trump, the racist sexist pussy-grabber.

After 50 years of the best-organised, best-run and most advanced feminist movement on the planet, producing countless tens of thousands of art works, installations, happenings, posters, books, articles, learned papers, conferences and art exhibition excoriating sexism, challenging all notions of sexual difference and subverting the patriarchy – the majority of white women in America voted for Donald Trump.

Take a moment to let the implications of this startling fact really sink right in.

How do you account for the massive discrepancy between what these women artists and feminist critics think they’re doing (challenging, subverting mobilising, raising awareness etc etc) and what actually happens in the real world?

As a left-wing person who dissents from political correctness, I think it’s in part because modern feminism, with its impenetrable academic jargon and its incredibly narrow range of issues, almost systematically, almost deliberately goes out of its way to ignore the issues which most women (and men) face in today’s society: Will I ever have a stable job? Will I ever have a career? Will I ever pay off my student loan? Will I ever be able to afford a home of my own? How can I get affordable child care? Where is the next meal coming from? Are my kids going to be worse off than me? Who can help with my teenagers’ opioid addiction? How can I afford health insurance? What happened to my pension? Will I be able to afford a decent care home in my old age?

Contemporary feminist artists and curators and critics have collaborated to create a mystique, a jargon, and a terminology about their ‘practice’ which effectively seals modern art off from the modern world.

In the safe spaces of the international biennales and contemporary art galleries, in the world centres of art, in university courses on culture studies, on queer studies, film studies and the rest of it, members of this cult talk to each other in their arcane language, like medieval alchemists convinced that at any moment one of them will discover the philosopher’s stone which will transmute the base metal of the actual existing world into the gold of postmodern theory – a genderless world where the male gaze and sexual difference have been abolished and everyone celebrates difference and diversity.

But, unfortunately, from time to time society lines up to be counted, to give its opinion, to elect representatives on the basis of what it thinks is important – and on this simple, easy-to-grasp metric, the achievement of five decades of feminist analysis and postmodern critical theory unremittingly aimed at a radical and thorough-going transformation of society must be judged, as my teenage daughter would put it – an epic fail.

I like Rachel Whiteread’s work, I loved her concrete sculpture House. But I also know that the East End locals where it was located, hated it, sprayed graffiti on it and lobbied the local council to get it demolished. This stands for a symbol of contemporary art.

A peasant would have understood the Palace of Versailles and a portrait of King Louis XIV, both of which shouted: ‘I’m the boss’. But in my experience plenty of well-educated modern people hate contemporary art, don’t understand a word, think it’s all crap.

In fact contemporary ‘art’ is probably more disconnected from the lives and concerns of ‘ordinary people’ than ever before in human history. If the notion of ‘art’ contains some element of the idea of being accessible to a reasonable number of the people of its times, it’s questionable whether modern art even is ‘art’.

`House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

But meanwhile, back in international artworld, unbowed by recent batterings from reality, the comedy continues, the same writers and critics use the same words, the same ideas, the same lexicon, to describe the same artists, addressing the same issues, deploying the same strategies, going round and round in circles:

Women artists’ contribution to major international exhibitions – from biennials to recent museum-sponsored exhibitions like ‘Without Boundary (2006) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York – are shaping today’s visual culture worldwide. Redressing social inequalities, negotiating change, redrawing spatial, social, and subjective boundaries, women artists are challenging the so-called ‘alternative canon’ of earlier feminist art without abandoning the issues, practices, and processes through which sexuality, gender, and difference are articulated visually. (p.495)

Fine words, as my mother used to say, butter no parsnips.

To make it as simple as possible:

Feminist theorists kid themselves that they are ‘political’

But in a democracy political means communicating to a mass audience to persuade them to vote for your policies

Whereas, by virtue of its hermetic jargon and of deliberately outrageous behaviour, which is incomprehensible to all but initiates, the art world does the exact opposite of reaching out to a mass audience. Contemporary art concerns itself with a tiny globalised elite of artists, dealers, galleries and clients – virtually guaranteeing the failure of its ideas.

That these artists and their artworld critics and scholars imagine that they influence or change anything out in the real world just shows you how deluded and out of touch they have become.

To anyone who has actually been involved in politics, or engaged with a mass audience via television or the internet, and who knows the challenges of communicating to and influencing the largest possible audience, the isolation and ineffectualness of contemporary artists (male or female) and their artworld supporters, could hardly be more complete.

In fact, by diverting attention away from the real bread-and-butter issues which the great majority of the populations of modern, post-industrial countries face, if they have any impact at all with their endless wailing about gender and the body, it might that contemporary artists have helped to create precisely the popular image of a self-obsessed, out-of-touch, metropolitan elite which helped to alienate the majority of voters from what they perceived to be this elite’s cosmopolitan values, its support of sexual anarchy and unrestricted multiculturalism, and mobilised them into mass protest votes against the liberal status quo.

Hence Trump. Hence Brexit. Hence the ADF. Hence the exact opposite of everything which Chadwick and her artworld colleagues and critics stand for.

Elke Ekrystufek undermining the male gaze and subverting the patriarchy

Elke Ekrystufek undermining the male gaze and subverting the patriarchy

Disclaimer

Just to be crystal clear, I am myself left-wing. I support all the legal and social aims of feminism. But I think that the ‘practice’ of many feminist artists, and the accompanying prose of many feminist critics and theorists, has painted them into a corner and cut off all connection with the practical pursuit of power in democratic countries.

Chadwick’s book is immense and important (the grotesque length of this blog post is tribute to the wealth of ideas it contains and debate it stimulates). But the time has come for a new generation of women artists to figure out genuinely effective ways of lobbying for political change.

Taking photos of yourself naked in your bedroom is not going to overthrow the patriarchy. The patriarchy has heard all about feminist art. In fact, it sponsors and buys feminist art. Feminist art is, in a simple financial sense, one of the many faces of patriarchal capitalism.

Time for a change.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists

Reviews of general exhibitions which included women artists

From time to time Chadwick says some of her feminist women artists use humour in their practice. I didn’t see any sign of that anywhere. Not a laugh in the whole book (except the unintentional humour of some particularly fatuous piece of practice, or of particularly dumb-ass phraseology).

So if you’ve made it this far, you probably deserve a reward. Here’s a clip of some 1970s performance artists interrogating narratives of authority and contesting the construction of woman as ‘other’ under the patriarchy. A least I think that’s what Terry Jones is doing in this clip.

Women artists in the 20th and 21st century ed. Uta Grosenick (2003)

Taschen is an art book publisher founded in 1980 by Benedikt Taschen in Cologne, Germany. They specialise in publishing art books about less well-covered topics including queer, fetish and erotic art. This relatively small-format (15.3 x 20 cm), high-gloss art book does what it says on the tin and features four-page spreads on 46 women artists of the 20th and 21st centuries – each gets two pages of text about them facing two pages of representative images, whether paintings, sculptures, photos of installations or performances etc.

German

The text is sourced from a range of experts on the various artists, but they and the introduction by Ute Grosenick, are all translated from the German. The resulting prose often feels heavy, in fact is sometimes incomprehensible – and is not helped by the liberal use of the kind of artbollocks which is required to explain and make sense of most of the artists from the 1960s onwards.

Wordy yet uninformative

Here’s the opening of the article about Andrea Zittel.

An inundation of stimuli and pressure to consume are two of the operative terms continually used with regard to the influence of mass culture on the individual. The former supposedly leads to distraction and nervous overloading, the latter to an awakening of futile needs, prestige thinking, and meaningless superficiality. Andreas Zittel’s blithe ‘applied art’, at first glance ascetic but in fact quite sensuous, can be interpreted against the background of this discussion. She stands, as it were, on the other shore and her mundane ‘art world’ lacks every form of moralising attack, overhasty critique, or complaining cultural pessimism. Rather, the lifestyle she offers is rife with both pragmatic and utopian aspects, and upholds the dignity of the individual within mass culture without losing sight of the factor of desire. (p.186)

On the basis of this passage what do you think Zittel’s art consists of or looks like? Would you expect to see paintings, installations, sculptures, film or video?

For me the key word in this verbose, pseudo-intellectual but strangely prim (‘with regard to’) and ultimately uninformative style is ‘supposedly’. The use of this word in the second sentence undermines the whole of the remainder of the paragraph. It indicates that the writer (Raimar Stange) is hedging their bets. Mass culture and consumer culture ‘supposedly’ lead to nervous overload and superficiality.

Stange invokes these concepts (which are key to understanding Zittel’s resistance to them) but is anxious to emphasise that she is not so naive as to actually ‘believe’ in them. No, that ‘supposedly’ indicates that she is dealing with ideas which may satisfy the mainstream media and uneducated plebs, but that you and I – who have read our Foucault and Lacan and Barthes and Derrida and Deleuze – always use with forceps – even if we are forced – alas and alack – by the demands of publishing and writing for morons – to base our entire analysis of a living artist on them.

She wants to use pretty straightforward banal truisms of our time to explain Zittel’s work – but she is painfully aware that the ideas she’s invoking are, well, pretty commonplace, and so writes supposedly just to let us know that she’s cleverer than that. She’s having her cake and eating it.

(If you want to understand what Zittel’s very distinctive ‘art’ is like and how it ‘lacks every form of moralising attack, overhasty critique, or complaining cultural pessimism [but ] rather …. offers a lifestyle rife with both pragmatic and utopian aspects, and upholds the dignity of the individual within mass culture without losing sight of the factor of desire’ check out her Wikipedia page, where you will discover that some of those descriptions are actually very accurate – once her project has actually been explained a bit.)

Clichés

Alternatively, the writers resort to clichés and truisms. Admittedly, writing about art is difficult. Having read all the introductions and all the wall labels for over 100 exhibitions over the past five years I am all-too-aware of how you have to say something, and so there is a terrible temptation to just fill up the space with plausible-sounding padding. Still, there’s no excuse for just writing empty clichés.

Which artist would you say this is describing?

This is an art on a continual search for the meaning and possibility of personal identity, which both emotionally appeals to and intellectually challenges the viewer. (p.44)

It could be quite literally about any artist, ever.

Alphabetic order

The artists are arranged in alphabetical order, which is one way to do it. But an unintended consequence is that the first 40 or 50 pages are of modern artists, whose work, dating from the 1960s and afterwards, tends to be highly experimental, with lots of installations, photos of performances, film and video and so on.

Women’s bodies / sex

Also women artists from this era often depicted the naked female body in ways designed to subvert the way it’s depicted in ‘traditional’ male art, undermine ‘the male gaze’ and so on. But the unintended cumulative effect is of lots of chaotic scenes and naked women. The Vanessa Beecroft entry features 16 colour photographs of extremely attractive naked or scantily clad woman. We’re still on B and this tends to set the tone for the way we read – and see the images of women in – the rest of the book.

Take, for example, the work of Viennese artist Elke Krystufek (b.1970). Her entry begins by describing  how, at a 1994 group exhibition JETZTZEIT, she bared her breasts and masturbated in a mock-up of a comfortable bathroom in front of gallery guests, starting with her hand and progressing to using a dildo and vibrator. After she climaxed in front of everyone, she got into the bathwater and relaxed.

As in many of Krystufek’s works, the performance addressed the interrelationship between (male) gaze and (auto)erotic pleasure, as well as the interplay between artistically staged identity, feminist emancipation, and the female body. What at first sight may seem like a crude and narcissistic provocation, brusquely ignoring the distinction between the public and private spheres, turns out in the end to be a deliberate game in which social orders and their unconscious normative ascription – intent on authoritatively determining all expressions of sexuality – are consciously subverted. (p.116)

I know plenty of men who’d love to have watched their ‘unconscious normative ascriptions’ being subverted in this way. I wonder if she videoed it? Can’t find it on YouTube, but there is this work, which, I think you’ll agree, pretty much annihilates the Male Gaze.

Here’s another ‘subversive’ work by Marlene Dumas.

‘Because the images are culled from porn magazines, sex in Dumas’ paintings is stripped of its erotic charge’. Got that? These images have no erotic content whatsoever.

Phallocentrism and the castrated woman

In  a 1973 essay titled ‘Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, the film director, scholar and feminist Laura Mulvey examined the relationship between the patriarchal unconscious, the pleasure derived from looking , and the conventional image of woman in cinema and society. Male phallocentrism, Mulvey observed, has defined woman’s role in society as ‘an image of the castrated woman.’ In order to ‘arrive at a new language of desire’, this definition must first be analysed, after which the (visual) pleasure derived from perceiving these images should be destroyed. (p.116)

44 years later I wonder how the project to destroy the visual pleasure to be derived from viewing ‘the conventional image of woman in cinema and society’ is getting on. Maybe it will take a few years more. Or decades. Or centuries.

Traditional art

Away from hard core sexual imagery, ‘traditional’ art – in the form of oil painting – is relatively rare in this book. The names which stand out are Sonia Delaunay, Natalia Goncharova, Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, Tamara de Lempicka, Georgia O’Keeffe and Bridget Riley, with Barbara Hepworth as a ‘traditional’ Modernist sculptor. Reading their entries is a relief because there is a lot less about masturbation, sex, vaginas, gender and identity.

Also their work, being so traditionally restricted to painting and sculpture, has been thoroughly assimilated and so is easy and so is a ‘pleasure’ to read.

Middle way

But there is another group, a sort of middle way of plenty of women artists who don’t feel the need to masturbate in public, paint themselves or other women naked or generally harp on about female sexuality. There are plenty of strange and interesting women artists.

Hanne Darboven’s obsession with numbers which seems to have led to walls covered with sheets of papers with various mathematical formulae or combinations of numbers all over them – Wunschkonzert (1984)

Isa Genzken’s abstract sculptures – Guardini (1987)

Mona Hatoum’s cool detached sculptural objects – Kapan (2012). She is now widely acknowledged as one of the leading living artists in the world.

Eva Hesse’s minimalist sculptures – Right After (1969)

Rebecca Horn – admittedly more naked women, but in a genuinely beautiful, aesthetic way – Unicorn (1969), and the later work seems entirely abstract – High Noon (1991)

Kiki Smith – disturbing installations featuring animals and birds – Jersey Crows (1995)

The list of artists

I’ve read criticism saying there’s a bias in the artists selected towards German and European artists, though the bias I noticed was towards American artists. A third of them are or were based in New York, testimony to the centrality of that city – centre of global capitalism, awash with bankers’ money – to the post-war art world.

Here’s the full list. I indicate country of origin and country where they ended up working, link off to some works, and link their names to reviews of exhibitions about or featuring them:

  1. Marina Abramovic – b. 1946 birthplace Yugoslavia, Workplace Amsterdam – Performances
  2. Eija-Liisa Ahtila – b.1959 Finland, Finland – The House (2002) 14 min DVD
  3. Laurie Anderson – b.1947 Chicago, New YorkHome of the brave
  4. Vanessa Beecroft – b.1969 Italy, New York – VB45 (2001)
  5. Louise Bourgeois – b.1911 Paris, New YorkCell
  6. Lygia Clark – b.1920 Brazil, Brazil – A Morte do Plano (1960)
  7. Hanne Darboven – b.1941 Germany, New York
  8. Sonia Delaunay – b.1885 Ukraine, Paris
  9. Rineke Dijkstra – b.1959 Netherlands, Netherlands
  10. Marlene Dumas – b.1953 South Africa, Amsterdam
  11. Tracey Emin – b.1963 England, London
  12. VALIE EXPORT – b.1940 Austria, Cologne – Action Pants, Genital Panic (1969)
  13. Sylvie Fleury – b. 1961 Geneva, Geneva
  14. Isa Genzken – b.1948 Germany, Germany
  15. Nan Goldin – b.1953 Washington, New York
  16. Natalia Goncharova – b.1881 Russia, Paris
  17. Guerilla Girls –
  18. Mona Hatoum – b.1952 Beirut, London
  19. Barbara Hepworth – b.1903 Yorkshire, St Ives
  20. Eva Hesse – b.1936 Hamburg, New York
  21. Hannah Höch – b.1889 Germany, Berlin
  22. Candida Höfer – b.1944 Germany, Germany
  23. Jenny Holzer – b.1950 Ohio, New York
  24. Rebecca Horn – b.1944 Germany, Germany
  25. Frida Kahlo – b.1907 Mexico, Mexico
  26. Lee Krasner – b. 1908 New York, New York
  27. Barbara Kruger – b.1945 New Jersey, New York
  28. Elke Krystufek – b.1970 Vienna, Vienna
  29. Tamara de Lempicka – b.1898 Warsaw, Mexico
  30. Sarah Lucas – b.1962 London, London
  31. Annette Messager – b.1943 France, Paris
  32. Mariko Mori – b.1967 Tokyo, New York
  33. Shirin Neshat – b.1957 Iran, New York
  34. Louise Nevelson – b.1899 Kiev, New York
  35. Georgia O’Keeffe – b.1887 Wisconsin, Santa Fe
  36. Meret Oppenheim – b.1913 Berlin, Basle
  37. Elizabeth Peyton – b.1965 Connecticut, New York
  38. Adrian Piper – b.1948 New York, Cape Cod
  39. Bridget Riley – b.1931 London, London
  40. Pipilotti Rist – b.1962 Switzerland, Switzerland
  41. Niki de Saint Phalle – b.1930 France, California
  42. Cindy Sherman – b.1954 New Jersey, New York
  43. Kiki Smith – b.1954 Nuremberg, New York
  44. Rosemarie Trockel – b.1952 Germany, Germany
  45. Rachel Whiteread – b.1963 London, London – House (1993)
  46. Andrea Zittel – b. 1965 California, New YorkA-Z

Insights from Ute Grosenick’s introduction

In the second paragraph of the introduction Ute Grosenick says there is a ‘gender war’ going on. Alright. It does seem likely when you read any academic work about modern art or any newspaper.

It’s interesting to learn that the first women-only exhibition was held in Amsterdam in 1884. Women-only exhibitions were held in Paris in 1908 and 1918. But there were few female art teachers, women members of national art academies, women art dealers networking among women artists, as well as bans on women attending some or all classes in most art schools.

Grosenick gives the impression that there were two great boom periods in 20th century art:

  • The decade from just before to just after the Great War saw Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Vorticism, Constructivism, Dada, Abstract Art, Neue Sachlichkeit and Surrealism.
  • The decade from the mid-60s to the mid-70s saw an explosion in the possibilities and definitions of art, exemplified by Pop Art, Op Art, Conceptual Art, Land Art, Fluxus, Arte Povera, Happenings, Performance Art, Body Art and Minimalism.

She says the 1980s were ‘a decade of disillusionment for most women artists’.

She says that the rise of gender studies in universities reflects the way ‘the critical examination of the significance of one’s own and other people’s gender… is becoming ever more central to art’. In my experience of recent exhibitions, I would say that gender and identity are becoming almost the only way in which gallerists and curators can now relate to art.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists I’ve been to

The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953)

In the people’s democracies, a battle is being waged for mastery over the human spirit. Man must be made to understand, for then he will accept. (p.191)

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was a Polish poet, essayist and diplomat. He worked for the state radio company before the war and went underground in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. After Poland’s ‘liberation’ by the Red Army in 1944, Miłosz was initially sympathetic to the communist regime and served as Polish cultural attaché in Paris and Washington, D.C. But in 1951 he defected and spent the rest of his life in the West, teaching in American universities and, in 1970, became a U.S. citizen.

He wrote a lot. The Penguin edition of his collected poems runs to 800 pages. And this poetic output ran alongside numerous essays of literary criticism. In 1980 Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Captive Mind

Miłosz wrote The Captive Mind in Paris after his defection, in the years 1951 and 1952. As he explains in the preface, French intellectuals of the post-war period were bitterly resentful of America for liberating them and turned to the Soviet Union as a model for post-war society. He aimed to set them straight on the reality of life under a communist regime.

The result is a long, often circuitous, but in the end comprehensive and compelling description of the mentality, the climate of thought, the experiences and mind-set of intellectuals in Poland and the surrounding countries as they emerged from the ruinous Second World War and found their nations and cultures slowly taken over by Russian communism, forcing them to decide whether to collaborate, acquiesce or – eventually – defect, as Miłosz did.

Literary comparisons

Miłosz is a poet not a political analyst, and the early chapters use some pretty roundabout methods to make their point.

For example, the first chapter takes a detour through Insatiability, an avant-garde novel by pre-war Polish writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz which describes a decadent, faithless, modern society being menaced by an approaching Asiatic army. This army is fortified by the philosophy of Murti-Bing, a Mongolian philosopher who preached acceptance of life and whose beliefs, through the wonders of modern science, can now be replicated by taking Murti-Bing pills.

As the army approaches, an advance guard of peddlers starts hawking the pills of Murti-Bing to the inhabitants of the decadent society and everyone who takes one suddenly forgets all their troubles, all the questions about life which were making them anxious, becoming calm and accepting. Outcome: the Eastern hordes conquer the country and impose Murti-Bingism on the population; everyone takes Murti-Bing pills and becomes happy but, deep down, still feel an unappeasable unease. Miłosz uses this story as an analogy for the way communism invaded and converted his people, and strings the analogy out for an entire chapter.

The third chapter focuses on ‘Ketman’, a concept Miłosz came across in a book written by the French novelist, diplomat and travel writer, Arthur Comte de Gobineau – namely his Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia. According to Gobineau, Ketman is a protective attitude of silence and opaqueness adopted by men living in Muslim-dominated lands who are not themselves Muslims, a way of keeping your most personal beliefs to yourself. There are several pages of direct quotation from Gobineau and explications of Ketman, before Miłosz goes on to apply this idea to people living under Soviet rule who conform but don’t believe. Because under a communist regime, everyone is an actor. Everyone acts all the time till it becomes second nature. Everyone lies, deceives, keeps their thoughts to themselves.

As these examples suggest, The Captive Mind is a very literary book, the opposite of a history or sociology or philosophical analysis. It covers numerous issues and ideas around the fatal allure of communist belief, but by way of thoughts and feelings, personal stories, anecdotes and insights, more than structured argument.

Four portraits

The central 100 pages of the book are made up of four portraits of Polish writers who Miłosz knew when they were youths together, and who each capitulated, in different ways, to the demands of the Communist state. They are given abstract names –

  • Alpha, the Moralist
  • Beta, The Disappointed Lover
  • Gamma, the Slave of History
  • Delta, the Troubadour

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, a moment’s search reveals them to be, respectively:

  • the Catholic novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski (b.1909) who, in this telling, is argued round into submission to communism and writes a lengthy self-criticism of his previous objections to the system
  • the poet and short story writer Tadeusz Borowski (b.1922) who experiences two years in Auschwitz and emerges bitter and angry, before throwing his nihilistic flame into the service of the party
  • the poet, novelist and politician Jerzy Putrament (b.1910) of rough peasant stock, whose sojourn in Russia leads him after many tribulations to become a cultural supremo, controller of magazines and publishers, with the fate of scores of other writers in his gift
  • the absurdist poet Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński (b.1905), a wonderfully eccentric-sounding man whose carefree imagination was crushed by the system

I vaguely remember that, when I first read this book in the late 1980s, I was disappointed with the psychological aspect, the literariness of these portraits because I was looking for political argument and debating points. Now, rereading them, I am really impressed by the depth of insight and sympathy he shows for these talismanic members of his generation, and his feel for the terrible things they lived through and the fateful choices they made.

His portrait of Tadeusz Borowski, a scornful young poet who survived two years in Auschwitz and wrote pitilessly accurate stories about it, before deciding to return to Poland and become a journalist writing increasingly hectic and vitriolic articles against the West and its corruption, before committing suicide at the age of 28 – is particularly haunting and terrifying.

Also, because each writer’s biography passes through the same walls of fire – the Russian invasion of 1939, the German invasion of 1941, the Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising, the Red Army liberation and then the slow strangling of civil life by the New Faith – it is like seeing the same scenes through different windows, or captured by different photographers, retold from different points of view. Taken together – and because each portrait itself references the subject’s other friends and colleagues, wives, lovers or children – the four portraits build up into an insightful and terribly moving portrait of an entire generation.


The appeal of communism

So rather than follow the ‘argument’, it might be better to pick out key points which emerge from the text. Here are some of the key reasons Miłosz describes as explaining the victory of communism in Eastern Europe and its strong appeal to people of all classes.

Revulsion from fascism The pre-war period was dominated by extreme right-wing parties whose main policy was anti-Semitism. Society was visibly unjust with huge discrepancies in wealth. Land ownership, in particular, was flagrantly unfair. Therefore, like many other educated young people, Miłosz thought only leaders true to a socialist programme would be able to rebuild Poland in such a way as to abolish the obvious unfairnesses.

The destruction of liberal values The Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe devastated existing values. Westerners, particularly Americans, simply can’t conceive what it is like to have your city divided into sections, each to be inhabited by different races, one of which is randomly shot in the streets, packed in cattle cars and taken off to be incinerated, while anyone who complains or even makes the wrong facial expression, can be arrested and tortured to death. Streets full of ruined houses, the inhabitants reduced to scrambling for mouldy bread in the ruins. People taking false names, going underground, while neighbours disappear without explanation. The complete abolition of all the fixed points of civil society which those in peaceful societies, or the West, take for granted.

But the New Faith stood the test of this destruction. It encountered and prevailed against the most nihilistic ideology in history. Its true believers organised and survived even the worst atrocities. Communism seemed to be an earthy, practical politics, which taught how to organise and fight back. The Nazis created a devastated environment which went a long way to destroying bourgeois liberal ideals, and preparing the ground for the communist takeover.

Stealthy takeover But, Miłosz says it’s important to realise that, even under these circumstances, the post-war communist takeover didn’t happen all at once, but proceeded by slow steps. Initially, social democrats and peasant parties were allowed to take part in government and everyone thought there would be true democracy.

The wish to fit in Intellectuals and Western commentators underestimate the basis human wish fit in. ‘There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness’ (p.6) in most people. Once the New Faith gains ground, many people go with it in order to conform, to be happy. They’re not particularly afraid, they just don’t want to stand out.

Communism as an alternative religion For centuries, the highest and lowest in the land, intellectuals and peasants, kings and carpenters, shared the same belief system and so felt united, joined, linked, at home, shared a common faith and language of symbols, and rituals. The death of God not only plunges intellectuals into crisis but deprives an entire people of their cultural unity. Communism restores this: everyone in a communist society reads the same books, thinks the same thoughts, reveres the same symbols. Many rebelled from the start and many came to see them as a stupid sham – but many, many people were deeply nostalgic for that ideological unity and wanted to feel part of a movement whose language and beliefs could be understood by illiterate peasants and the most sophisticated intellectuals. The solidarity of belief offered a refuge from the miserable alienation of so many between-the-wars intellectuals, so many of whom fantasised about becoming one with ‘the masses’, throwing in their lot with the workers etc. But it wasn’t just them: communism offered a mental home to everyone.

(This prompts the thought, What unifies us, now, today in 2017, if we don’t have religion or communism? How come we aren’t all stricken with the alienation and angst that the writers of the 30s, 40s and 50s went on about so?  I would hazard a guess that it’s consumerism. From kings to carpenters, peasants to princes, we are all united in our worship of mobile phones, cars, TVs and trainers. Consumerism has been the religion of the West for some time, maybe since the 1950s, and, with the advent of digital devices, shows no sign of going away, in fact is invading every aspect of our lives. What else unites rich and poor, black and white, in such a shared set of values and symbols?)

The importance of writers More than giving them a new sense of meaning and purpose, communism also gave far more respect to writers, artists and composers than the pre-war regimes, which by and large ignored them. That’s because the Soviet programme of re-engineering society requires constant propaganda and it is writers, artists and composers who must perform this propaganda role. Big rewards for those who comply – prison or exile for those who don’t.

Revenge But Miłosz also points out the pleasures of revenge offered by the triumph of communism. Pre-war artists were despised by the bourgeoisie. Under the New Faith these same writers were praised while the bourgeoisie who had once looked down on them, was arrested. Ha ha ha. And of course it goes much wider than artists. All kinds of people who were despised and humiliated in bourgeois society, now triumph – workers and peasants lord it over factory owners and aristocrats. Communism catered to a very human appetite for revenge.

Socialist realism Unfortunately, it took a while for these artists to realise that the doctrine of Socialist Realism runs directly counter to the role of the artist through the ages, at least a Miłosz defines it. Miłosz thinks the role of the artist is ‘to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, and to tell the truth as he sees it’. Many sincerely thought they needed to repress this bourgeois subjectivity in order to join the March of History. The four portraits of Polish communist writers each indicate the price they had to pay for obeising themselves to the new regime’s demand for Socialist Realism.

Significance Tied to the psychological issue of conquering absurdity and finding meaning in life, is the related idea that most artists, writers etc not only want to write and publish, they wish their work to mean something: to have significance. In the communist states they could either soldier on, producing their own individualist ‘visions’ against the increasingly monolithic state culture; or they could join ‘the March of History’ and all their work would, at a stroke, become validated and meaningful.

The West Some Eastern writers and artists looked to the West for inspiration or alternative paths, but most saw – with disgust – that art and culture in the West was carrying on as if nothing had happened, no Holocaust, no extermination of peoples or destruction of cities or undermining of all bourgeois values. They carried on churning out glamorous movies and high fashion and decorative art for the rich. Disgusting! Communist ideology not only supplied objective reasons to justify the disgust of many Easterners for Western ignorance, but had the additional bonus that communism predicted the West would, in due course, also go through the fire and brimstone of revolution. In other words, communist ideology encouraged Eastern writers and artists to feel not only morally superior to their silly bourgeois counterparts in the West, but to consider themselves pioneers, way ahead of the West in experience and social development

Hence, Miłosz laments, the attitude of the Eastern intellectual to the West is that of a disappointed lover. He wishes the West were better. He wishes the West used its freedoms and technological superiority to better purpose. He wishes the West was free for something useful, noble and uplifting, instead of shiny vulgar consumerism.

Snobbery For Eastern communism also offered a simple appeal to snobbery. Eastern intellectuals were encouraged to feel superior to the shocking ‘vulgarity’ of Western culture: Hollywood movies, chewing gum, popcorn, fast cars, jeans, sneakers – what shallow, vulgar materialists! From Paris via Berlin to Moscow, adherents of communist ideology were convinced that the New Society would produce, alongside a superior economy, a superior culture, a culture proclaiming the New Socialist Man and a New Socialist Society of freedom and equality.

This was to be their weakest point. It turns out that, whatever ‘intellectuals’ might say, everyone else in the world does want to wear jeans and shades, to own cars, fridges and televisions which work (unlike the awful, malfunctioning communist products), to own the latest mobile phone.

Informers The ‘new socialist man’ is an informer. Snoops thrive, the more cunning and duplicitous the better, leading to a constant but unspoken war of all against all and ‘the survival of the craftiest’ (p.76). Everyone is watched, or suspects they are being watched. The result is that, in absolutely every social encounter, everyone must act – act a part, act a role, stop yourself saying what you think, run it past your inner censor to see if it could be interpreted as being against the Party, against Russia, against the Leader.

The state which, according to Lenin, was supposed to wither away gradually is now all-powerful. It holds a sword over the head of every citizen; it punishes him for every careless word. (p.219)

The failure of communism

The two long final chapters are devastating indictments of life under Russian communism. The first one gives a searing analysis of how the different classes in Poland have responded to the imposition of Russian-style communism. What came home to me most was the way that any kind of personal initiative whatsoever was not just banned but punished. Sell off a few eggs from your hen – you are a ‘speculator’, 5 years in a labour camp. Organise a strike – ‘bourgeois reactionary’, off to labour camp. Set up a youth group without permission – ‘subversive’, labour camp.

You can at least see the logic, according to their own lights, of punishing the bourgeois and the speculator. But the really unbearable irony of the communist system was that the whole grim repressive set-up was supposed to exist for the sake of ‘the workers’ and yet it was the workers who were most dissatisfied with it. The much-vaunted proletariat ended up having to work in the same factories, having ever-increasing demands for productivity imposed on them, with anyone speaking out of turn being arrested and sent to Siberia. And all for worse pay with which they could no longer buy half the things they needed, products which, under the inefficient communist system, were either no longer available or of shockingly bad quality.

Miłosz shows how this inefficiency was the inevitable result of having to factor into the cost of production – whether of agricultural products or factory outputs – the enormous bureaucracy which now infested every level of the communist economy: the huge number of middle managers who counted and tallied every input and output, measuring it all against the Five Year Plan. And the immense cost of the secret police, the state police and the huge army.

All of this was paid for by the sweat of the workers who found their living standard under communism actually declining. No wonder it was workers who led the spontaneous strikes and demonstrations which broke out all across East Germany in 1953.

Russia

Another reason for discontent was the unavoidable fact that the sort of communism they were being forced to submit to was unmistakably Russian in origin and technique, with all that that implied for East Europeans from Warsaw to Berlin, namely that it was backward, crude, unsophisticated, brutal and stupid. Here are some of Miłosz’s references to the wonderful Motherland.

  • It isn’t pleasant to submit to the hegemony of a nation which is still wild and primitive. (p.19)
  • …the Russian inferiority complex… (p.35)
  • Russia has always hated and despised the West, for its prosperity and decadence. (p.43)
  • Russia’s inferiority complex leads her to demand constant homage and assurances of her unquestionable superiority… (p.45)
  • One has but to read Tolstoy’s What Is Art? to get a picture of the scorn for Western sophistication that is so typical of the Russians. (p.47)
  • Russians, who do not possess the virtue of moderation… (p.51)
  • … a nation which has never known how to rule itself, and which in all its history has never known prosperity or freedom. (p.52)
  • The chief characteristic of the people who practice National Ketman is an unbounded contempt for Russia as a barbaric country. (p.61)
  • The New Faith is a Russian creation, and the Russian intelligentsia which shaped it had developed the deepest contempt for all art that does not serve social ends directly. (p.74)

Communist crimes The result of a failed system imposed by crude barbarians was:

  • Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups… (p.63)

The Terror And so, the grand result of all these factors, is that an inefficient and unpopular system can only possibly be kept in place by the rigorous suppression of all opposition, indeed of all free thought. Insofar as the slightest deviant thought or the slightest outbreak of selling things for a profit contain the germ of the resurgence of hated capitalism, everyone must be spied on and listened to, no heretical thought or word dare go unpunished. The result?

  • When one considers the matter logically, it becomes obvious that intellectual terror is a principle Leninism-Stalinism can never forsake, eve if it should achieve victory on a world scale. The enemy, in a potential form, will always be there… (p.214)

The Baltic states

The final chapter is an essay on the horrible post-war fate of the Baltic states i.e. complete absorption into communist Russia, the collectivisation of their agriculture, the lowering of living standards, the mass deportations to Siberia, the colonisation by Russian civilians, the imposition of Russian culture and language. Because Miłosz was born in Lithuania and later in life insisted on being thought of as a Lithuanian rather than a Polish writer, he is particularly heart-broken by this devastation of his homeland.

The manifold humiliations of the Balts, and the casual references he makes to living under a state of permanent terror, of the liquidation of entire classes and peoples (e.g. the Crimean Tartars), the falsification of culture, the lies about industrial production, the waves of purges and mass arrests, the way everyone is forced to play act and lie, even to themselves, due to the ubiquity of spies and informers – it all builds up to a horrific vision of life in hell and a hell which, amazingly, many leading intellectuals in the West wanted to import into their countries, too. And here he returns to his stated aim of lifting the scales from the eyes of the idiotic pro-communist sympathisers in the West.

Western communists

  • The writer, in his fury and frustration, turn his thoughts to Western communists. What fools they are. He can forgive their oratory if it is necessary as propaganda. But they believe most of what they proclaim about the sacred Centre, and that is unforgivable. Nothing can compare to the contempt he feels for these sentimental fools. (p.20)

Credit

Zniewolony umysł by Czesław Miłosz was published in Polish in Paris by the Instytut Literacki in 1953. This translation into English by Jane Zielonko was published in 1953 by Secker and Warburg. Page references are to the 1985 King Penguin paperback edition.

The translation is excellent. Having waded through the terrible Penguin translations of Albert Camus into stilted, unidiomatic English, it is a joy to read Zielonko’s graceful, clear and compelling prose.

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The Rebel by Albert Camus (1951)

The logic of the rebel is to want to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase the universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness. (p.248)

Camus was already one of the leading writers of his day when he published his long philosophical essay, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, in 1951. Many critics consider it his best and most important book. At 270 pages in this Penguin translation, The Rebel is well over twice the length of his previous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. It is a very long recapitulation of the history of political violence from the French Revolution to Stalin’s show trials, designed to refute arguments for revolutionary violence or state terror, and to affirm positive, humanistic values.

But because it comes out of the French tradition it takes a long time to do all this, in sentences often convoluted with philosophical attitudinising and verbal paradox. It gives a lot more credence and leeway to the exponents of political violence than you’d expect – as the French left-wing tradition generally does.

Above all, it is framed in terms of Camus’s own rather personal ‘philosophy’ or vision or worldview of the Absurd. It attempts – despite what often seem like long detours into the works of Hegel or the meaning of the contemporary novel – to create one continuous logical argument which starts in Camus’s vision of the Absurd and ends with an (admittedly embattled) affirmation of humanism.

The Rebel’s place in Camus’s works

One of the introductions to Camus explains that while still in his twenties, he developed a Grand Plan for his writing career. He would consecutively address major topics or issues of the day – and depict each one via the differing formats of a novel, an essay and a play.

The first topic was his early philosophy of the Absurd, his semi-nihilistic belief in the absurdity of human existence which he developed during the late 1930s. The resulting ‘cycle of the Absurd’, the works which define and explore all its implications, are the essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the play Caligula and the novel The Outsider, all written about 1940.

10 years later, in his introduction to The Rebel, Camus is able to look back and describe The Myth of Sisyphus as being very much a response to its time, which he calls the ‘Age of Negation’. Not being a historian he doesn’t give precise dates but is presumably referring to the period between the wars with its pessimistic and even nihilistic political and philosophical culture – Spengler, Heidegger and so on. For Camus the central question of this period of ‘humiliated thought’ was whether life was worth living at all in a ‘godless universe’, epitomised in the issue of suicide. If there is no God, and life is meaningless, why go on? This is the central subject of the Myth of Sisyphus.

At the start of The Rebel, Camus says that now, in 1951, he and his readers are living in a new era, the post-Second World War era which he describes as ‘the Age of Ideologies’, an era which has seen the uprooting, enslavement and murder of some seventy million human beings, an era of:

slave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropy or by a taste for the superhuman… (p.12)

Things have moved on from worrying about suicide. Now the central question of the day is whether we – whether anyone – has the right to murder their opponents. Is the widespread culture of political murder at all justified – because it is certainly the political culture of Europe.

Every dawn, masked assassins slip into some cell: murder is the problem today. (p.12)

Why murder?

How does that follow? Why is murder, and specifically political murder, worth writing a 270-page long essay?

Because in 1951 many leading intellectuals of the day, and organised workers’ parties all across Europe, saw the communist party as the only way out of the dead-end of failed capitalism, the only alternative to the bankrupt bourgeois values which had characterised the 1930s and which had been shattered to pieces during the unspeakable catastrophe of the world war.

Many intellectuals and a huge number of the working class joined the communist party and voted communist despite knowing that the revolution it calls for entails violence, suffering and death – in short, for political murder. Political murder is at the core of the communist revolution which so many of Camus’s contemporaries were calling for – so it really was a central and very pressing question: Can political murder ever be justified?

Camus’s answer is ‘No’. He reaches this conclusion through two routes: a purely philosophical argument about the nature of human existence, and via his long historical review which is designed to bring out the nihilism and murderous tendencies of all totalising revolutions, which he opposes to his own person concept of revolt or rebellion.

1. The philosophy of the Absurd validates all human life

To take the philosophical argument first, Camus sets out to make a philosophical case against political murder and for the sanctity of human life. To follow it we have to go back to his reflections on suicide, which he recaps early in The Rebel.

Camus’s notion of ‘the Absurd’ – that the universe is blankly indifferent to our longing for meaning and consolation – logically requires two components: the subjectivity which wishes for meaning, and the universe which is indifferent to it. Like two plus two makes four, both parts must be present for the equation to exist.

1. Now, to commit suicide would be irrational because it would remove part of the Absurd equation.

The final conclusion of absurdist reasoning is, in fact, the repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe. Suicide would mean the end of this encounter, and absurdist reasoning considers that it could not consent to this without negating its own premises.

To say that life is absurd – one must first be alive.

Absurd reasoning thus recognises life, human life, as an irreplaceable component of the Absurd equation. Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd requires human life for it to exist. Human life is an irreducible requirement of Absurdity. You have to fully accept and buy into this premise to follow what comes next.

2. Because the moment it recognises this basic premise, Absurd reasoning also recognises the importance of all human life.

The moment life is recognised as a necessary good, it becomes so for all men…

Absurd reasoning validates all human lives.

3. Then Camus takes a big leap –

Murder and suicide are the same thing; one must accept them both or reject them both. (p.14)

His Absurd philosophy of revolt embraces all life. He is vehemently opposed to nihilistic thought because it not only tempts people to suicide – but by denying the importance of life it simultaneously tempts people to murder. If life has absolutely no meaning, not only suicide is possible, but murder, too.

You can see what he’s trying to do here – build the validation of all human life up from the pit of despair.

Going down into the depths of psychological anguish, into the blackest pit of suicidal misery, Camus grapples with the apparent ‘solution’ of suicide and rejects it – because suicide destroys the premise of the worldview which drove you to suicide in the first place. Committing suicide because of your sense of the Absurd would destroy the Absurd. It would be logically self-contradictory. And by recognising that life, human existence, is a vital component of the philosophy of the Absurd, you recognise that value for everyone – you acknowledge that all human life is vital.

And if you reject suicide – one form of the denial of life – you must also reject its fellow, its partner, its equal in denying the value of life. You must reject any form of murder.

(In the kind of tangential insight with which the book abounds, Camus points out that history provides many examples of the intimate link between suicide and mass murder. The example fresh in everyone’s minds in the post-war era was the way the mass murder of the Nazis culminated in the mass suicide of the Nazi leadership, huddled in their bunker, passing out the cyanide pills. Suicide and murder both stem from a profound negation of all human values. In the German language the connection is more obvious – the word for suicide is Selbstmord, literally meaning ‘self-murder’But Camus’s insight also made me think of all those people in our time who go on a killing spree at their local high school or shopping mall before turning their guns on themselves. Or the men who kill their wives and children and then themselves. Yes, many suicides may be solitary acts, but a certain number do seem to involve the nihilist deciding that they will – that they must – take out as many other people as possible before killing themselves.)

If Camus’s argument is a little hard to follow I think it’s because it is in many places more willed than really argued or thoroughly proved. But by repeating it again and again Camus wants to make it so, and it was only by reading it again and again, in numerous reformulations, that I began to accede to its emotional logic.

To repeat: The entire book is devoted to showing that from the ruins of a post-theological waste land, bereft of God or any transcendental source of moral values, Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd offers a reasoned, logical set of steps to help people affirm the value of their own lives – and then of everyone’s lives – and then to create a morality based on self-knowledge and a realistic assessment of the limits of human freedom and power.

2. A historical review of revolutionary nihilism

This philosophical argument is most clearly spelled out in the book’s first 20 pages (though he then invokes it repeatedly at key points throughout the text).

The next 250 pages are mostly devoted to a historical account designed to show how the revolutionary absolutism which stems from the Enlightenment – by overthrowing God and by claiming no limits to abstract ideas of human freedom, human virtue, human achievement or whatever – unwittingly undermine the practical freedoms of real flesh and blood people in the here and now. Camus goes back to the 18th century to examine the thought of a succession of European writers – thinkers as diverse as Hegel, Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche – having dispensed with God, struggled to identify an alternative source of ‘values’, and to define the nature of man’s freedom.

Camus’s review shows how, for thinker after thinker, this meant freedom from all restraints. But he shows how freedom from all restraints, a purely abstract and total concept of human freedom, tends to lead to freedom from respecting other people’s freedom. Ignoring the autonomy or rights of other people. It ends in tyranny.

Thus the Marquis de Sade takes the theory of personal sexual freedom to the limits and beyond, but discovers that his untamed appetites require an infinite number of men to torture and kill and women to use and destroy.

Similarly, Camus shows how the revolutionary Virtue of Saint-Just, the outspoken apologist for the French Revolutionary Terror, defeats itself. The Jacobins demanded an impossible level of ‘revolutionary’ purity from the people but instead found weakness and treachery everywhere, and was led to an downward spiral of violence, guillotining criminals and counter-revolutionaries by the cartload, in what became known as The Terror, until the people – or at least their political representatives – overthrew the Government of the Virtuous in the name of government of the practical – and the exponents of state execution – Saint-Just, Robespierre and their colleagues – were themselves executed by the unforgiving state they had created.

150 years later the Bolsheviks asserted that the proletariat must be led to freedom by a communist party, stripped of any sentimentality or bourgeois morality, which reserves the right to punish anyone hesitating or questioning its right to rule and lead humanity to its promised utopia. By identifying itself with the unstoppable force of History, the Party claims total control of human reality. Anyone questioning it must, of course, be eliminated.

And so his historical survey shows that:

All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State. 1789 brings Napoleon; 1848, Napoleon III; 1917, Stalin; the Italian disturbances of the twenties, Mussolini; the Weimar Republic, Hitler. (p.146)

The same logic which drives Stalinism, also drove Hitlerism – it is the attempt to place every single individual in a society under the control of one totalising value (History, the proletariat, the Volk, whatever).

The book really lifts off when it gives a long explanation of the preposterous totalising ambitions of the German philosopher Hegel – and then takes this criticism on into a devastating critique of Karl Marx and the Communist Parties he inspired.

This anti-Marx section is full of all sorts of insights and angles – I was particularly struck by the way Camus claims that lots of Marx’s insights were the common currency of his time: the economic analysis of capitalism had already been established by the bourgeois economist Ricardo; the appalling conditions of the industrial proletariat were copied from British Government reports; a blind belief in the power of an ever-improving science and technology to transform humanity was a truism among bourgeois propagandists of his day.

For Camus, Marx’s great failure was his vagueness, his changing opinions, his contradictory statements about the single most important element of his vast political philosophy – just how and when the dictatorship of the proletariat would end and the utopia of the classless society begin.

The lack of any definition on this crucial point in effect gives carte blanche to the communist party which leads the ‘revolution’ to rule forever. Also since – as he shows – almost all revolutionary regimes provoke or are subject to war (the French Revolutionary regime declared war on all the kings f Europe, the Commune of 1870 only occurred because of the Franco-Prussian War, the Russian Revolutionaries called for world revolution), they almost inevitably rule under the embattled conditions of wartime, which justify them in taking the most drastic security measures necessary. Forever.

Camus is echoing George Orwell’s vision of the totalitarian party of the future with its jackboot crushing a human face. Forever.

3. Camus opposes tyrannical revolution with his own idea of limited rebellion

Is there an alternative? Yes. For as the book progresses, in each of the detailed analyses of European thinkers, Camus distinguishes between the post-theological revolution, in the name of some Absolute Value, like Virtue or History or Das Volk, which is always bound to fail and end in repression – and his own, much more personal notion of revolt or rebellion against man’s fate, against the human condition and so on but which – crucially – respects the limits of the humanly possible.

If rebellion could found a philosophy it would be a philosophy of limits, of calculated ignorance, and of risk. (p.253)

Rebellion, by virtue of the way Camus has defined it, must acknowledge its limits and respect the freedom of others. Rebellion cannot give itself to any totalising ideology because it is a permanent tension, a permanent opposition to human fate and destiny, which also opposes all impositions on the human spirit.

Absolute revolution supposes the absolute malleability of human nature and its possible reduction to the condition of a historical force. But rebellion, in man, is the refusal to be treated as an object and to be reduced to simple historical terms. It is the affirmation of a nature common to all men, which eludes the world of power. History, undoubtedly, is one of the limits of man’s experience; in this sense the revolutionaries are right. But man, by rebelling, imposes in his turn a limit to history, and at this limit the promise of a value is born. It is the birth of this value that the Caesarian [i.e. communist] revolution implacably combats today because it presages its final defeat and the obligation to renounce its principles. The fate of the world is not being played out at present, as it seemed it would be, in the struggle between bourgeois production and revolutionary production; their end results will be the same. It is being played out between the forces of rebellion and those of the Caesarian revolution. The triumphant revolution must prove by means of its police, its trials, and its excommunications that there is no such thing as human nature. Humiliated rebellion, by its contradictions, its sufferings, its continuous defeats, and its inexhaustible pride, must give its content of hope and suffering to this nature. (p.216)

There are lots of ways of parsing this fundamental dichotomy (and Camus works through them with fascinating and sometimes bewildering thoroughness).

One key aspect, mentioned in the excerpt above, is that the totalitarians believe there is no such thing as human nature – that human beings are infinitely malleable and so can be turned into Model Workers (which Camus interprets as Unquestioning Slaves). By contrast, Camus asserts that there is such a thing as human nature and that at its core is revolt, revolt against the apparent futility of human destiny, against the apparent meaningless of life in a godless universe, revolt in favour of life.

(You can see how this would have alienated Camus’s ‘frenemy’, Jean-Paul Sartre, whose existentialism is based on exactly the opposite premise – that there is no human nature and that, as a result, everyone is ‘condemned’ to absolute freedom and that we all create ourselves with our free choices. We cannot blame any pre-existing human nature for limiting our decisions: our decisions are ours and ours alone to justify and bear.)

Camus continues that this personal revolt against death translates into the social value of rebellion, rebellion against any one totalising ideology which is imposed on it, and – consistent with its origin in the Absurd – rebellion against death in all its forms. Rebellion into life, if you like.

Another way of thinking about it is to address that old chestnut: Do the ends (a communist utopia in some remote future) justify the means (terrorising society in the here and now)?

As you might expect by now, Camus’s answer is a resolute No. He goes to great lengths in the long sections on Hegel and then Marx to demonstrate that both these German thinkers take the Absolute Value formerly attributed to Christian theology and reassign it to new entities: to the progress of the World Spirit in Hegel, or to Marx’s concept of History conceived of as an unstoppable machine moving through successive stages of social relationships up until the advent of capitalist society which will itself, with unstoppable inevitability, give rise to the revolution, the triumph of the proletariat and the End of History coinciding with Paradise for All.

The mistake of both of them, according to Camus, is to preserve the Totalising and Transcendent Value derived from Christianity and attribute it to utterly abstract, inhuman Ideas. With hideous inevitability, you end up sacrificing real people to an unreal inhuman Idea, an Idea (the end of history) which can never be attained because it isn’t real. This is another way of saying that communist repression would be, potentially, forever, because it is based on working towards an impossible Ideal which will never arrive.

Instead, argues Camus, you must start from a realistic assessment of fragile, limited, actual human nature which – for him – has at its irreducible core, this one notion, this movement, this gesture, this impulse, to revolt, to rebel against death in favour of life, to cling on, to survive, to battle and overcome.

A realistic political programme can only be based on this vision of mediating between countless conflicting wills. (Though he doesn’t say it explicitly, this is obviously a philosophical underpinning for the idea of democracy).

Back to ends and means. Camus very neatly says the question isn’t, ‘Does the end justify the means?’ Given that there is in fact no end – there is no ‘end of history’, no final revolution, no paradise and no utopia – the real question is, ‘Do the means justify the end?’

In other words, you should judge the (purely notional and maybe unattainable) outcomes of a political system by its effects here and now. In which case, the permanent terror state and political murder practiced by all the communist regimes is quite clearly the exact opposite of the freedom, peace, security and justice which they preach. Judged by their means – by the methods they are using, the values they are putting in practice in the here and now – whatever ‘end’ they claim to be holding on for cannot possibly be justified.

When the end is absolute, historically speaking, and when it is believed certain of realization, it is possible to go so far as to sacrifice others. When it is not, only oneself can be sacrificed, in the hazards of a struggle for the common dignity of man. Does the end justify the means? That is possible. But what will justify the end? To that question, which historical thought [communist theory] leaves pending, rebellion [Camus’s philosophy] replies: the means.

Reversing the usual order, Camus says the end itself – if deprived of some kind of supernatural underpinning, if deprived of the German ideological conviction that the end is the guaranteed moment when History comes to an end in the triumph of the World Spirit (Hegel) or the classless society (Marx) – if there is never in fact going to be an end — then all you are left with is the means. And if the means – the entire methodology of political murder and state terrorism – are rotten, then so are the ends.

He doesn’t say this but it occurs to me that the means are the ends, because there are no ends. History will never ‘end’. There will be no classless society or reign of the Just. It’ll just carry on in the same kind of way. Meanwhile, all we have is the means. The means is how we will be judged.

Conclusion of Camus’s argument against political murder

Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd insists on the value of human life. The individual’s revolt against the absurdity of the human condition transfers, on a social level, into men’s general rebellion against nihilistic systems of thought and against the vicious oppression which follows in their train.

History testifies, in fact, to the irreducible human spirit of rebellion throughout the ages.

But where this rebellion has turned into, or been commandeered by, the totalising and nihilistic values of revolution, it always ends in disaster – in war, state terror, torture and mass murder – in repressive regimes worse than the ones the revolutionaries set out to overthrow.

The philosophy of the Absurd – and the act of rebellion – by their very nature are against murder and political murder. They are not only for human life, they logically require human life to exist and to be respected.

Thus, via both his philosophical argument and his long review of European history, Camus hopes to demonstrate that human nature, and human values, will always revolt against the totalising oppression – and political terrorism – entailed by the inhuman absolutism of ideologically-driven ‘revolution’.

Although it begins as an ostensible investigation of the problem of political murder, this is where The Rebel ends up – as an impassioned defense of the fundamental human act of revolt against individual destiny and against social oppression. And this explains and justifies the title – L’Homme révolté.

(It’s a shame the force and power of the phrase L’Homme révolté is not really captured in the English translation of The Rebel. The literal translation of ‘The Revolted Man’ means something quite different. Revolutionary Man is the extreme opposite of what is intended, since the values of ‘revolution’ are portrayed throughout the book as the ultimate betrayal of humanity. Some editions of the book have a sub-title, Man in Revolt, which seems better to me than the nominal title.)

Earning the right

From our Anglo-Saxon point of view, it takes Camus 270 pages to arrive at a version of liberal humanism with a respect for universal human rights which many other people (for example, most Americans) never questioned to begin with.

So where’s the achievement?

Well, what made the book so important in its time was that it started out from absolutely nothing, from a crushing sense of the absurd meaninglessness of life – from the place of profound depression and moral devastation which afflicted many millions of Europeans after the horrors of the Second World War – and also takes account of the very real threat of the communist party, not only in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe but in the West, in Italy and France in particular, imposing its rule by terror and political violence – it starts in a stricken and embattled place which is difficult for British and American readers to really appreciate — and then it claws its way on a long, difficult odyssey upwards, through the long litany of betrayal by European thinkers and revolutionaries, before finally arriving at these hard-won conclusions.

We believe that the truth of this age can be found only by living through the drama of it to the very end. If the epoch has suffered from nihilism, we cannot remain ignorant of nihilism and still achieve the moral code we need. No, everything is not summed up in negation and absurdity. We know this. But we must first posit negation and absurdity because they are what our generation has encountered and what we must take into account. (Resistance, Rebellion and Death, page 59)

The Rebel isn’t complacent. It earns its arrival at a morality of common decency. It has worked its passage.

Thus, although many readers may have fallen asleep during the detailed analyses of de Sade or Dostoyevsky, of the Russian Nihilists or Hegel’s theory of the Master and Slave – if they managed to make it to the end of the book they would be aware that they had been on a long journey across 200 years of nihilistic thought – but a journey of hope, a journey which assured them that common decency can be justified and established in the godless universe of the Absurd, in the post-war rubble, amid the clash of homicidal ideologies.

And so, despite its longueurs and its frequently impenetrable phraseology, The Rebel is a really moving and stirring call to human dignity and morality in a world seemingly hell-bent on destroying both.

Helen’s Exile

It is useful to read alongside The Rebel the essay Helen’s Exile, which is included in the Penguin edition of The Myth of Sisyphus. Written in 1948, Helen’s Exile gives a much pithier version of the central idea of The Rebel but starting from a different place, starting from a consideration of ancient Greek culture.

Camus points out that central to Greek thought was the idea of human limits: the Greek myths and legends are packed with cautionary tales of people who ignore or overstep these human limitations and are savagely punished for their hubris.

It is this self-knowledge of the Greeks, of the necessity of limiting our wishes, our freedoms and our actions in line with the recognised limits of human nature – contrary to the totalising tendency of modern ideologies which assert that human nature is a blank sheet to be written on at will by revolutionary dictators – which Camus thinks we have lost and must regain.

Admission of ignorance, rejection of fanaticism, the limits of the world and of man, the beloved face, and finally beauty – this is where we shall be on the side of the Greeks.


Discussion – a fragile argument

The entire argument, although it ranges widely over European philosophy and art of the last 200 years, is framed within the constraints of Camus’s own peculiar and very narrow theory of the Absurd. The crucial logic, the key explanation, is all dealt with in the first twenty pages or so:

The Absurd point of view logically leads to the rejection of suicide, because suicide negates the Absurd equation. Since suicide and murder are two sides of the same coin, rejection of suicide means rejection of murder. This rejection of suicide/murder is the bedrock of man’s revolt against the Absurd condition of life. And it is not only a NO to the godless universe but implies some kind of positive value in favour of which one is revolting/rebelling. Because as soon as one rebels against the Absurd condition – rejects suicide/murder and chooses life – one affirms the value of all human life.

Thus: Man’s Revolt against suicide/death is an affirmation of all human life everywhere.

And this revolt which is at the core of man’s being can never acquiesce in totalising revolutions which practice political murder in the name of abstract ideologies which claim to be able to erase and rewrite human nature. Human nature will always rebel.

Out of the depths of the Absurd comes an irrefutable affirmation of human life and a vehement rejection of any theory which denies it.

Good. Fine.

But all this is built on the idea that you accept Camus’s highly specific and, in the end, highly personal definitions of ‘the Absurd’ and of ‘Revolt’; and that you can follow the ‘logic’ of the arguments he extracts from them.

a) It’s unlikely that many, if any, of his readers really genuinely accept his very specific premises.
b) Every time I’ve reread and summarised the key passages in the book I’ve been very aware that several steps in the argument are willed rather than convincingly argued.

Possibly that’s why he made the book so long – because he hoped that by reiterating and rephrasing his claims, in the detailed analyses of a succession of great writers and of historical events, he would achieve by sheer repetition what he was uneasily aware was logically very fragile if stated clearly and briefly.

The sheer weight of text, its length, its numerous repetitions, and the repeated rephrasings of his humanist conclusions certainly do make for a stirring and inspiring read.

But beneath all the rhetoric, the philosophical analyses and the literary criticism, the fundamental, founding idea that suicide must be rejected because it negates one half of the Absurd equation (living human + indifferent universe = the Absurd), that murder is the same as suicide and so must similarly be rejected because it is illogical for a believer in the philosophy of the Absurd (and in ‘rebellion’) to abolish a key ground of their beliefs — these form an abstract, academic and very fragile basis on which to base an entire worldview and a complete political morality.


Reception

Although like-minded liberals warmly welcomed this elaborate endorsement of their views, the powerful mouthpieces of the French communist party, as well as many professional philosophers and intellectuals, came down on it like a ton of bricks. This was mostly because the book amounts to a sustained attack on communism and most French intellectuals of the time flirted with or became communists. But they were also able to focus their attacks on the fragility of its ‘philosophising’.

Camus had hoped to create a philosophical argument strong enough to lift Europe out of its despair; but the unrelentingly negative reactions to the book from the French intellectual élite, and their demolition of his philosophical arguments, plunged Camus into a personal depression. He never again tried to write a ‘philosophical’ work.

Only a few years later, in 1954, the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Camus found the well-spring of his creativity – his love for the harsh sensual beauty of his homeland – threatened in a new and unexpected way. The oppressed ‘natives’ of his homeland were enacting his narrative of revolt in a way he had completely missed from his long analysis of the contemporary political scene.

So, while the Paris intellectuals attacked his intellectual shortcomings, the Algerian revolutionaries undermined the basis of his creative vision: Camus was embattled from all sides. In the circumstances it is amazing that he managed to go on writing, creating the foggy allegory of The Fall and then the suite of passionate short stories collected in Exile and the Kingdom, as well as returning to his first love, the theatre, where passion and feeling are more important than clarity or logic.

Thus, amid very difficult political and personal circumstances, Camus did his best to explain and defend human freedom and dignity. It feels like a heroic achievement.

At the very end of The Rebel Camus’s argumentation gives way to the high poetic lyricism, to the sensuous imagery of fierce Mediterranean sunlight and the warm blue sea which are always lurking just beneath the surface of his writing. And to ancient Greece, where men knew the limits of themselves and their societies, and so were genuinely free.

At this meridian of thought, the rebel thus rejects divinity in order to share in the struggles and destiny of all men. We shall choose Ithaca, the faithful land, frugal and audacious thought, lucid action, and the generosity of the man who understands. In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time. On the sorrowing earth it is the unresting thorn, the bitter brew, the harsh wind off the sea, the old and the new dawn. With this joy, through long struggle, we shall remake the soul of our time… (p.270)

(Amusingly, Conor Cruise O’Brien chooses just this quote as an example of ‘Camus’s most lamentable Mediterranean-solar-myth vein’ [Camus: Modern Masters p.56].)


Credit

L’Homme révolté by Albert Camus was published in France in 1951. This translation by Anthony Bower was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1953. All quotes & references are to the 1971 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)

Koestler biography

Born in Hungary in 1905, of Jewish parents, Arthur Koestler joined the German Communist party in 1931 and worked as a freelance journalist across Europe in the 1930s. Like many Communist Party members, Koestler was shocked and disillusioned by Stalin’s show trials, held in Moscow from 1936 to 1938. He knew personally some of the senior Bolshevik figures who were made to confess a litany of improbable crimes and humiliate themselves at their public trials, before being carted off to be executed. Very obviously Stalin was getting rid of the ‘old guard’ of the Party, eliminating rivals and consolidating his grip on power.

As a result Koestler quit the Communist Party in 1938 and began writing Darkness at Noon. The novel is an imagining of the interrogation of a fictional figure, Rubashov, an old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the Bolshevik government that he had helped to create.

Translated from German

Koestler wrote the novel in German and it was translated into English by his lover, the sculptor Daphne Hardy. The phrasing frequently betrays its German origin. For example, when the two men from the Commissariat of the Interior arrive to arrest Rubashov and bang on the door of his apartment in the middle of the night, a woman downstairs yells at them to shut up, at which Vasily, the building’s porter, shouts back:

‘Be quiet,’ shouted Vasily. ‘Here is authority.’ (p.13)

No English person ever used that wording.

  • He sniffed and noticed that for some time already he had the scent of Arlova in his nostrils.
  • For a whole while No. 402 did not answer.

Maybe it is deliberately cast in unEnglish English in order to emphasise the unEnglish setting and the unEnglish mind-set of the story.

The fear

Darkness at Noon terrified me when I read it as a teenager in the 1970s, when the Soviet dictatorship still dominated Eastern Europe, routinely arresting and imprisoning its dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. The scenes it described still seemed possible and had a horrifying compulsion about them, like the terrifying scenes depicted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels a generation later. (Somehow the atmosphere changed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and very visibly got bogged down in an unwinnable war. Their mystique of omnipotence was punctured.)

Darkness at Noon

Rereading Darkness at Noon now, it seems almost gentle next to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Rubashov is depicted as calmly accepting his fate – he has been in many prisons before, he knows the ropes, how to preserve food, how to contact the prisoner in the neighbouring cell by tapping messages out on the pipes and so on. And he is interrogated first by a former friend and colleague, Ivanov, who is unwisely considerate to his prisoner until he himself is arrested and hauled off to be shot. Ivanov is replaced by his more ruthless and hard-headed subordinate, Gletkin, his head shaved to reveal a harsh scar, always impeccably dressed and rigid in his interrogator’s chair – Rubashov calls him a Neanderthal to his face. He is the stony-hearted generation the Revolution has produced.

And yet neither interrogator lays a finger on him. They keep him readily supplied with cigarettes. Gletkin’s interrogation ‘technique’ amounts to carrying out long sessions before a blindingly bright desk-top light and only allowing Rubashov two hours sleep before waking him and bringing him back for more questioning.

Rather than physical violence or even threat, Rubashov is broken down cleverly by the interrogator pointing out a series of encounters and conversations Rubashov had with various figures in the past – during the time he was posted abroad as a trade delegate, or in other episodes, earlier in his career, when he worked undercover in Germany. Also by the treacherous affair he had with his bovine secretary, Arlova.

Under questioning Rubashov admits that he is cynical about ‘the leader’ of the Revolution (universally referred to in the book, not as Stalin, but as ‘Number 1’). As a result he is forced to confess that when, a few years earlier, he had returned from imprisonment in Germany and staunchly declared his support for Number 1, he must have been lying. When he allowed Arlova to be arrested, denounced and executed a year or so later, the interrogator points out that Rubashov could – if he had wanted to – have stood up in her defence. He didn’t. Now though – as Gletka points out in his unrelenting, logical way – Rubashov admits he knew she was innocent of all charges. In other words, he sacrificed his lover to save his own skin. Is he really such a noble hero of conscience? Is he not in reality a weak old man who is putting personal pride above the future of his Nation?

Thus the ‘interrogation’ is entirely psychological, wearing down Rubashov’s sense of himself as someone special, making him feel guilty, making him realise he is a selfish liar, and so on. This is drastically different from the harrowing interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eight-Four, where Winston Smith is injected with drugs and repeatedly electrocuted, causing his body to arch and spasm in unbearable pain.

Slowly a web is spun round Rubashov from casual conversations, comments and actions raked up from throughout his career, which are twisted in such a way as to fully justify the accusation that he is guilty of cynicism and mockery towards Number 1 and the Party, guilty of counter-revolutionary thoughts.

And slowly Rubashov himself comes to realise that he really is guilty, that he really has drifted away from the Party, that he really would join any available opposition and would, if the opportunity presented itself, help to assassinate Number 1. It doesn’t really matter that there is no organised opposition; it doesn’t really matter that there was never a plot to poison Number 1. He would have done all those things. He is guilty as charged.

To give an example: in one scene Rubashov is confronted with the son of a former friend who he met when he was posted abroad, and is reminded of a long-forgotten conversation between all three of them about what they would do if they had the (purely theoretical) opportunity to change the direction of the Revolution, to bring it back in a more humane direction.

Rubashov has frequently seen this young man in the bleak exercise yard where he and other prisoners are taken and had nicknamed ‘Harelip’ from his appearance. Now, confronted with him in the interrogation room, Rubashov realises that Harelip has himself been beaten, starved and demoralised into numbly declaring to his face that Rubashov commissioned him to poison Number 1.

Rubashov knows the accusation that there was ever a concrete assassination plan is nonsense – but he did have dissident conversations with the boy and his father, they did discuss whether the Revolution might be made to take a different turn, they did speculate what would happen if Number 1 could be got rid of. Slowly, through incidents like this, the interrogator brings Rubashov to see that, even if he didn’t plan any of the ridiculous charges pressed against him – he might haveHe could have. Objectively, from the Party’s point of view, he is guilty as charged.

Moreover, Rubashov himself in his revolutionary prime, earlier in the 1930s, had been just as cruel and unflinching as Gletkin. He himself had sacrificed members of a Communist cell in Germany because, after the Nazis came to power and arrested many of them, the survivors said they needed to adopt new tactics. Rubashov, as representative of the Comintern, disagreed, disciplined them, and ultimately denounced them to the Nazi authorities. On another occasion he got to know Little Loewy, a cripple working for the Party in a North European port who had organised fervent Communist Party activism across the docks – and had had to explain to him and his colleagues – who had been carrying out a strict and honourable boycott of foreign goods arriving at the port – that the Soviet Union had now completely changed its approach, and wanted to sell vital raw materials to the Nazi regime. If they didn’t someone else would, and the Nation desperately needs the cash to carry out its own industrialisation, to make itself strong enough to resist attack. Some of the dockers Rubashov explains this to leave the room in disgust. Little Loewy agrees without hesitation, but later hangs himself.

Koestler shows us Rubashov haunted by memories like this, some in dreams, some in daylight remembrance, being forced to review his hard-hearted career, analysing his behaviour, and slowly acknowledging that Ivanov, and then Gletkin, are only being as thorough and logical and dispassionate as he was in his prime. The Revolution cannot afford bourgeois sentimentality. He is brought to see that, yes, his own self-sacrifice is the logical step. He must submit.

Nineteen Eighty-Four describes the events of a few days in Winston Smith’s life. By contrast Darkness at Noon uses Rubashov’s memories and musings, as he lies on his prison bunk, to range far and wide over Communist Party activities and Soviet policy throughout the 1930s, as epitomised by Rubashov’s career.

Darkness at Noon feels on the one hand wider and richer than Orwell’s novel, because it covers a longer period and with more complex relationships with a bigger cast of characters – but at the same time is significantly less intense, because Rubashov meets and interacts with a large number of people out there in the real world, with all its colour and smells and sights and distractions – whereas Winston Smith cannot escape anywhere from the nightmarish gaze of the telescreen, Big Brother and his own terrified claustrophobic thoughts.

Dreams and issues

Darkness at Noon also feels softer in the sense that many of Rubashov’s memories are mixed up with dreams: he relives the same events over and over – his meeting with nervous Peter the German cell-leader, his friendship and then betrayal of Little Loewy, his nights in bed with his supine mistress, Arlova – all these are recalled in great physical and sensual detail, and recur again and again as in a dream. Sometimes Rubashov has trouble knowing whether he’s sleeping or waking.

Similarly, many of the exchanges between Rubashov and his two interrogators are rather poetic and philosophical, in a dreamy European kind of way. Where Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien discuss the nature of power in a ruthless, logical way, O’Brien’s relentless logic of power bearing down on Smith like a nightmare which the reader shares, by contrast Ivanov is given to poetic flights of fancy.

For example, at one stage Ivanov launches out on a long disquisition about God and Satan, bringing these Christian characters up to date to apply to the present European situation. Ivanov says all this while pouring himself and Rubashov glasses of brandy. It could almost come from a bourgeois 19th century ‘novel of ideas’, the characters sitting in front of a roaring fire in the drawing room of a grand house, swirling brandy round their glasses, puffing on cigars.

‘I would like to write a Passion play in which God and the Devil dispute for the soul of Saint Rubashov. After a life of sin, he has turned to God – to a God with the double chin of industrial liberalism and the charity of the Salvation Army soups. Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it – an abstract and geometric love. Apage Satanas! Comrade Rubashov prefers to become a martyr. The columnists of the liberal Press, who hated him during his lifetime, will sanctify him after his death. He has discovered a conscience, and a conscience renders one as unfit for the revolution as a double chin. Conscience eats through the brain like a cancer, until the whole of the grey matter is devoured. Satan is beaten and withdraws – but don’t imagine that he grinds his teeth and spits fire in his fury. He shrugs his shoulders; he is thin and ascetic; he has seen many weaken and creep out of his ranks with
pompous pretexts…’
Ivanov paused and poured himself another glass of brandy. Rubashov walked up and down in front of the window.

This is typical of the frequent long, rather wordy and metaphorical debates the characters have. It could come from a George Bernard Shaw play, or maybe a Chekhov story. And it’s what I mean by ‘softer’ or ‘more relaxing’ than the Orwell: many passages feature long-winded chatty discussions which rather inevitably refer to the ‘great’ European classics like Dostoyevsky or Don Quixote.

On the other hand, these passages often snap back out of their amiable doze into the harsh light of the present and snap the reader back to the 1930s, to the era of totalitarianism, to the prison cell and the interrogation room.

In another long passage Ivanov gives the rationale for all the brutality of the Soviet regime during the 1930s. Koestler makes it a handy summary of the Soviet Union’s crimes and this long passage must have scandalised loyal Communist Party members and fellow-travellers in the West.

Ivanov explains that the Party has had only decades, only a few years, to try and catch up with the advances the capitalist West has had 150 years to make – no wonder they have to be ruthless: ‘it is to ensure the Revolution survives; it is to ensure the peace and happiness of a future generation, that we must be brutal, now.’ At which Rubashov finally lets rip a long stream of the crimes of the Soviet regime.

Rubashov rubbed his pince-nez on his sleeve, and looked at him short-sightedly. ‘What a mess,’ he said, ‘what a mess we have made of our golden age.’

Ivanov smiled. ‘Maybe,’ he said happily. ‘Look at the Gracchi and Saint Just and the Commune of Paris. Up to now, all revolutions have been made by moralizing dilettantes. They were always in good faith and perished because of their dilettantism. We for the first time are consequent…’

‘Yes,’ said Rubashov. ‘So consequent; that in the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in our administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down
to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national Institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see. For the energies of this generation are exhausted; they were spent in the Revolution; for this generation is bled white and there is nothing left of it but a moaning, numbed, apathetic lump of sacrificial flesh. … Those are the consequences of our consequentialness. You called it vivisection morality. To me it sometimes seems as though the experimenters had torn the skin off the victim and left it standing with bared tissues, muscles and nerves. …’

‘Well, and what of it?’ said Ivanov happily. ‘Don’t you find it wonderful? Has anything more wonderful ever happened in history? We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one. That is not an occupation for people with weak nerves; but there was once a time when it filled you with enthusiasm. What has so changed you that you are now as pernickety as an old maid?’

This long passage gives a good feel of the book, the way it boils down, ultimately, to a dialogue between two interpretations of Communist history – both coming from within the Party, both using the terminology and worldview of the Party – but fundamentally opposed about the tactics and consequences of 20 years of Bolshevik rule.

Climax

Eventually, Rubashov is worn down by sleeplessness and the relentlessness of the interrogation, to not only confess, but to agree to take part in a show trial at which he will abase himself, grovel and admit to all kinds of crimes. Gletkin has convinced him that the Party needs unity, it needs a strong leader, it needs to nip all opposition in the bud, and it needs to demonstrate the futility of the slightest hint of opposition.

And that all these things must be made screamingly obvious to the most illiterate and stupid peasant. The show trials aren’t for the intelligentsia (though they scare the daylights out of them), they are for the vast majority of Russian’s poorly educated, mostly illiterate, peasant population. That is why they are shows. That is why they have as much in common with traditional village puppet entertainments as with Western notions of ‘justice’. Their message must resonate to, must be heard about and discussed and convey the right message to, the remotest poverty-stricken villages in Siberia or in Central Asia.

Gletkin successfully persuades Rubashov that his last great service to the party he has served all his life will be to repress his egotism, to suppress his own bourgeois sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, to sacrifice himself for the good of the Party and for the future of his country.

And so, in the short final chapter of the book, we read excerpts from Rubashov’s show trial where he does just that, admits to all the charges, humiliates himself, praises the Great Leader to the skies – all in the name of the Perfect Future which the Party will deliver.

The perfect future

By the 1970s the Soviet economy was visibly failing, only surviving through the complex network of unofficial deals between managers of the epically mismanaged state industries. The decade-long war in Afghanistan (1979-89) widely discredited the regime in the eyes of the population. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he unleashed forces of dissatisfaction he could not control.

In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and the entire 70 year-long Communist experiment was revealed for not only the prolonged crime against humanity which it was, but also to have been completely futile. Did 70 years of communism build a better life for Russians? No. They led to Putin and his new Russian nationalism, the obscene wealth of the oligarchs contrasted with the poor quality of life of the majority, a Russia characterised by state control of the media, the assassination of troublesome journalists, a terrifying mafia, epic alcoholism and the lowest life expectancy in the industrialised world (65 years for men).

For some time now the problems Russia faces internally, and the military threat it presents to Europe, have far outweighed this old stuff about the darkest days of its communist regime. Darkness at Noon is a densely imagined, psychologically rich and well-argued portrait of a long-vanished era, an age which is rapidly fading into the mists of history.

Related links

George Orwell in Barcelona

In chapter 10 of Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes how street fighting broke out in Barcelona in 1937. I happen to have been in Barcelona recently and so used Orwell’s account to track down and photograph the buildings he describes.

Background

On 18 July 1936 generals in the Spanish army mounted a military coup against the democratically elected left-wing government. This sounds like a simple case of right and wrong but early 20th century Spain had had a troubled history. It only became a republic when King Alfonso XIII fled the country in 1931. Spain was deeply polarised between the forces of reaction – powerful landowners, the Catholic church, the police and army – and of the republic – the urban working class, some peasants. There had been an attempt to mount a left-wing revolution in 1934, which was repressed but left all sides convinced the other side was planning huge conspiracies.

In July 1936 the generals had planned and hoped that their coup would take the entire country. But the uprising failed in barracks in the major cities (Madrid and Barcelona) and in the east generally, and in the two provinces of Spain which have always prized their independence, the Basque country in the north-west and Catalonia in the north-east.

Both sides took steps to round up and disarm opponents in their part of the country, often with bloodshed. Thousands died in the early days and it was in these early days that the trade unions acted with decisiveness to raise huge militias. They begged the cautious government for arms and just about managed to put enough troops in the field to stall the nationalists’ advance. By September both sides – generally referred to as nationalists and republicans – were looking abroad for help. The nationalists quickly gained support from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The republicans were subject to a (controversial) arms embargo by France and Britain and forced to rely entirely on arms and advisors from Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Within a few months sympathisers in the democracies began to volunteer to fight for the republic (and a handful for the nationalists). For many idealistic young men and women in Britain, France, America and elsewhere, the outbreak of the war in Spain represented a tipping point in history, the moment when fascist forces came out into the open and had to be defeated. If Spain fell to fascism, went the argument, with Italy and Germany already fascist and Fascist parties powerful or in power in many east European countries, then France and Britain would be next.

Among the many volunteers from Britain was George Orwell, author up to that point of three novels and his documentary books, Down and out in Paris and London and The Road To Wigan Pier. Orwell approached the British communist party but they were (rightly, as it turned out) suspicious of his independent attitude, so he ended up wangling an introduction to the Independent Labour Party representative in Barcelona, John McNair. Having travelled across France and crossed the border into Spain, Orwell arrived in Barcelona, and was channeled away from the Overseas Volunteers – the International Brigades which were being administered by communists – and into the militia of the anti-communist revolutionary party, the POUM (the Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista).

Orwell writes vividly of the egalitarian atmosphere in Barcelona when he arrived in december 1936: everyone dressed in workers’ clothes, prostitution, begging and tipping had been banned, revolutionary banners hung from all the buildings and from passing lorries full of cheering militia.

After some primitive training and armed with antique rifles without much ammunition, Orwell was despatched to the ‘front’. He sat out the winter in the freezing trenches, opposite Fascist ones 1,000 yards away and, with one or two exceptions, was rarely involved in any fighting. He was at the front for 115 days solidly and eventually given leave to return to Barcelona to meet his wife – who had by this stage also come to Barcelona – in late April.

He was shocked to find the atmosphere of the city completely transformed. The bourgeoisie had emerged from hiding, luxury restaurants had opened up, bootblacks and tipping were again in evidence. More oppressively, though, was the atmosphere of tension and suppressed violence. In his absence the relatively small Spanish communist party had lost no time imposing its influence on the central government and in all the republican areas. they were able to do this because Stalin was now the only outside power supplying the government with arms and ammunition. And with advisors. Not only military advisors but political advisors who, not surprisingly, advised the government that they could never win with a hodge-podge of voluntary militias raised from a kaleidoscope of different unions and parties. All of them must come under one central dominant control – Comrade Stalin said so.

From the start the republican side was riven by factions and feuds. the Civil Guard, who continued to police the republican areas, had long been the traditional enemy of the working class. The republican government was an uneasy alliance of anarchists, socialists and communists. In Catalonia especially, the working class was represented by anarchist trade unions who advocated the worker takeover of the means of production and distribution, but via decentralised federations – the opposite of the centralised Stalinist model.

If Stalin, through his commissars and advisors was just imposing one model instead of another it would have been one thing. But there was worse. Stalin, looking at the map of Europe, with a central band of antagonistic Fascist powers, and Spain now at risk of going Fascist, realised that he must make allies with the French and, hopefully, with the more reluctant British. If war was to break out he desperately needed all the allies he could get. But what would scare Briain and France away from him and into the arms of the anti-Bolshevik Fascists faster than anything else? A full-scale workers revolution in Spain. Therefore, Stalin instructed his advisors and commissars, as they infiltrated themselves further into government departments and into every level of the republican administration – to repress the genuinely revolutionary instincts and achievements of the anarchists and the other non-Stalinist communist parties.

It was this rolling back of the revolution, and the slow insidious propaganda which criticised and blamed the anarchists for every military defeat – in other words, the same techniques of insulting, vilifying and outlawing your opponents that Stalin was using at the very same time in Russia – that Orwell got back from the trenches to find being used in Barcelona. Nobody knew who would attack whom first but the atmosphere was heavy with violence.

The May fighting

On 3 May Orwell was crossing the foyer of his hotel when a friend told him ‘it’ had started. the Catalan government had sent Civil Guards to take control of the Telephone Exchange in the Plaza de Cataluna, and the anarchists who controlled it had fired back. I looked long and hard in the modern-day Catalonia Square but couldn’t identify the Telephone Exchange.

That afternoon, between three and four, I was half-way down the Ramblas when I heard several rifle-shots behind me. I turned round and saw some youths, with rifles in their hands and the red and black handkerchiefs of the Anarchists round their throats, edging up a side – street that ran off the Ramblas northward. They were evidently exchanging shots with someone in a tall octagonal tower – a church, I think – that commanded the side-street.

I’m not sure but this church, Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, is half way down the Ramblas, has an octagonal tower and is opposite an alley running off the other side of the Ramplas.

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Then:

At this moment an American doctor who had been with us at the front ran up to me and grabbed me by the arm. He was greatly excited. ‘Come on, we must get down to the Hotel Falcon.’ (The Hotel Falcon was a sort of boarding-house maintained by the P.O.U.M. and used chiefly by militiamen on leave.) ‘The P.O.U.M. chaps will be meeting there. The trouble’s starting. We must hang together.’

The Hotel Falcon is down towards the sea end of the Ramblas. It is now a library, named after the anarchist leader Andreu Nin.

Biblioteca Gòtic - Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Biblioteca Gòtic – Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Here’s the precise Google maps location.

With some kind of historical irony, I found three or four derelicts sleeping in the ground floor window alcoves, while the hordes of rich tourists hurried by on their way top spend money at the monster shopping centre on the seafront.

Orwell went across the Ramblas to the building opposite, a disused cabaret theatre which had been taken over by the POUM. He spent hours with a colleague exploring it and also looking for arms, eventually spending the night there rolled up in a curtain he tore down for the purpose. The building is still there and is now the Teatre Principal. 

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Next morning POUM and their associated trade union, the CNT, start building barricades outside the Hotel Falcon and the theatre. Orwell nips up the Ramblas to the Hotel Continental where his wife is staying, dropping in on the moasly closed market to buy some cheese. This covered market is very much still there and very popular with tourists.

Orwell then walked a hundred yards or so to the POUM Executive Building. This is now the Hotel Rivoli at number 128 Ramblas. He’s inside when he hears firing nearby and discovers that the Café Moka next door had been seized the day before by 20 or 30 Civil Guards.

Next door to the P.O.U.M. building there was a cafe with a hotel above it, called the Cafe Moka. The day before twenty or thirty armed Civil Guards had entered the cafe and then, when the fighting started, had suddenly seized the building and barricaded themselves in. Presumably they had been ordered to seize the cafe as a preliminary to attacking the P.O.U.M. offices later. Early in the morning they had attempted to come out, shots had been exchanged, and one Shock Trooper was badly wounded and a Civil Guard killed. The Civil Guards had fled back into the cafe…

But when an American tourist walked down the street they had opened fire. Both sides now erect barriers outside their buildings and have an armed stand-off. Eventually Orwell’s commandant in the POUM militia, the Belgian George Kopp, bravely organises a truce. Both Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka are still there side by side. It is a little hard to conceive how either side could have built a barricade outside without being riddled with bullets from their opponents.

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

The Cafe Moka, captured by Civil Guards in May 1937.

Naturally they had looted everything drinkable the cafe possessed, and they made Kopp a present of fifteen bottles of beer. In return Kopp had actually given them one of our rifles to make up for one they had somehow lost on the previous day.

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Immediately opposite there was a cinematograph, called the Poliorama, with a museum above it, and at the top, high above the general level of the roofs, a small observatory with twin domes. The domes commanded the street, and a few men posted up there with rifles could prevent any attack on the P.O.U.M. buildings. The caretakers at the cinema were C.N.T. members and would let us come and go… There were generally about six of us up there. We placed a man on guard in each of the observatory towers, and the rest of us sat on the lead roof below, where there was no cover except a stone palisade.

This building is still there, along with its two domes. Difficult imagining being up there with a couple of comrades and some rifles, ready to snipe at any Civil Guards who fire at you.

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

By the Thursday the Catalan government – the Generalite – was trying top patch things up. Nobody wanted a civil war within a civil war. The CNT and POUM wanted the Civil Guard to retreat from the Plaza de Catalunia and lay down their weapons. Their newspaper advised peace and taking down the barricades. Orwell’s mood going into that Thursday night was one of frustration, disgust and extreme hunger. On the Friday the barricades began to be dismantled,. the Civil Guards in the cafe Moka came out to sit in the sunshine dandling their rifles on their knees.

Peace had sort of broken out. That night the city was flooded by Assault Guards who were meant to be a neutral force between the anarchists and the Civil Guards, and the next day they are patrolling the city in squads, reassuring the population and all the political factions. Orwell is most impressed by their shiny new rifles, far better than anything he or his comrades have at the front. The May fighting had profound consequences. it marked the triumph of the central government – backed up by Stalin’s communists – over the truly revolutionary forces of the POUM and its trade union, the CNT.

The Barcelona fighting had given the Valencia Government the long — wanted excuse to assume fuller control of Catalonia. The workers’ militias were to be broken’ up and redistributed among the Popular Army. The Spanish Republican flag was flying all over Barcelona — the first time I had seen it, I think, except over a Fascist trench. In the working-class quarters the barricades were being pulled down, rather fragmentarily, for it is a lot easier to build a barricade than to put the stones back. Outside the P.S.U.C. buildings the barricades were allowed to remain standing, and indeed many were standing as late as June. The Civil Guards were still occupying strategic points. Huge seizures of arms were being made from C.N.T. strongholds, though I have no doubt a good many escaped seizure. La Batalla was still appearing, but it was censored until the front page was almost completely blank. The P.S.U.C. papers were un-censored and were publishing inflammatory articles demanding the suppression of the P.O.U.M. The P.O.U.M. was declared to be a disguised Fascist organization, and a cartoon representing the P.O.U.M. as a figure slipping off” a mask marked with the hammer and sickle and revealing a hideous, maniacal face marked with the swastika, was being circulated all over the town by P.S.U.C. agents. Evidently the official version of the Barcelona fighting was already fixed upon: it was to be represented as a ‘fifth column’ Fascist rising engineered solely by the P.O.U.M.

From now on the POUM would be blamed for everything, for every military failure and political setback. He heard stories of POUM officials being snatched in midnight raids, of secret prisons being created and quickly filling up with ‘Fascist saboteurs’. Orwell returned reluctantly to the front, but was wounded four weeks later, shot in the throat. He was treated at several hospitals before finally being returned to Barcelona in mid-June and being reunited with his distraught wife.

After only a few days they were both horrified when the logic of the May Fighting came to its logical conclusion and on 16 June 1937 the POUM was banned for being a traitorous organisation. Orwell has to go on the run, sleeping rough at nights and hanging out in obscure parts of town by day, until his wife can make the arrangements to have them both smuggled across the border into France. His brave commander, Kopp, was in prison. Andreu Nin and almost the entire POUM leadership was arrested and tortured. Nin was executed.

As soon as he was back in England Orwell began writing Homage to Catalonia, the eye-witness account of his experiences at white-hot speed. It was published in April 1938 and was a commercial flop. More than that, it was solidly attacked in Britain’s communist-sympathetic press for defending ‘Trotskyite saboteurs’ etc etc.

The entire experience opened Orwell’s eyes about a) the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism; it made him realise it was just a national totalitarian party which used the communist parties of other countries simply as extensions of its entirely self-interested foreign policy. And b) it showed him at close quarters how political and military events could be completely distorted and ‘history’ rewritten to suit the interests of a totalitarian government which controlled all the organs of communication.

This, of course, was to be Orwell’s most central theme in the war years and afterwards, finding its apotheosis in the nightmare vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Away from the Ramblas, which is where Orwell’s eye-witness account of the May Fighting mostly takes place, there is a sweet little square in Barcelona named after him

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell

It is home to vegetarian restaurants, bars and boutiques. the bar which we ate at had an Orwell-themed menu with 1984 pizza and an Animal Farm fry-up. I modestly suggested that they should add Victory Gin to their menu.

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (The Prevention of Literature)

Orwell wrote hundreds of essays, reviews and articles which, since his death in 1950, have been repackaged in a number of formats. This selection dates from 1957 and contains some of his greatest hits. It’s notable that most of these come from the war years. By this stage, after a decade of writing so-so novels and the three great works of reportage (Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia) he had found his voice and writing style – a frank, common sense left-wing persona conveyed in attractively straightforward prose.

Orwell wrote a staggering number of book reviews, theatre reviews, film reviews, as well as a large number of opinion pieces, besides his long works of reportage and the novels. For decades after his premature death in 1950 various selections of these essays have been gathered. When I was a boy in the 1970s Penguin published four volumes of the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, comprising:

  • Volume 1: An Age Like This, 1920-1940
  • Volume 2: My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943
  • Volume 3: As I Please, 1943-1945
  • Volume 4: In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950

They seemed expensive (and big) to me at the time so I never bought them which I now regret. Penguin also offered two shorter paperback collections, Inside The Whale and Other Essays and The Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays.

In the 1990s all these collections were rendered obsolete by the publication of the heroic lifework of Orwell scholar Peter Davison – no fewer than 20 volumes of the Complete Works of George Orwell. The first ten or so contain the novels and other book-length works – the remaining 10 volumes collect not only every known essay, but all the poems, all the letters and all the diary entries for each of the two or three-year periods they cover. If you have these books, you have everything. And each one is around 600 pages long. Orwell wrote a lot.

Inside the Whale is a much shorter, simpler selection of just nine essays which was originally published in 1957 and reissued by Penguin in 1962, a nifty 200 pages long.

It contains excerpts from two longer works – from the documentary reportage The Road To Wigan Pier and the political tract The Lion and The Unicorn – along with seven other stand-alone essays, as follows:

Inside the Whale

This is a long review of the novel Tropic of Cancer, published in 1935 the by American writer Henry Miller. It’s the largely autobiographical ‘story’ of a penniless American author in Paris, living from hand to mouth in a milieu of brothels, cheap bars and other cadgers and chancers. It was banned when Orwell reviewed it because its pages are stuffed with (then banned) swearwords as well as obscenely graphic descriptions of sex. Surprisingly, the highly political Orwell declares the irresponsibly hedonist Tropic of Cancer an important book which everyone should read. In order to explain why, Orwell has to step back and give a brief overview of the development of English literature in the previous 40 years or so.

First the Edwardian era, which he sees as being dominated by ‘beer-and-nature’ writers, the Georgian poets, John Masefield, Edward Thomas and so on. (Orwell gives no sociological explanation for this ‘movement’, though my understanding is that the trend towards English nature writing in the first decade of the 20th century was a backlash against the very urban decadence, the Yellow Book atmosphere and the Oscar Wilde trial of the 1890s.) As his exemplar Orwell gives a long summary of the timeless appeal of the Shropshire Lad poems of A.E. Housman.

Post Great War, Orwell here – as in many places – emphasises the extraordinary bitterness between the generations, the older generation still puffing on about Empire and honour, the younger generation bitterly disillusioned by what they’d seen. The movement’ of the 1920s consisted of startling individuals – Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Wyndham, Lewis, Aldous Huxley. If one thing characterised this disparate group it was pessimism combined with highly experimental technique – itself a sort of embodiment of the collapse of traditional forms.

They dominated the 1920s. Then, very abruptly, after the Wall Street Crash, there emerged a completely new generation of young poets and novelists, dominated by the energetic socially conscious poetry of W.H. Auden. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, all close friends who reviewed each other’s works, the Auden gang reverted to traditional forms, easily understandable diction, and the conviction that literature must be engaged and purposeful – they were all left-wing and some toyed with communist beliefs.

This sweeping overview of the literary scene is firm, confident and helps you grasp the basic outline of the decades since 1900 – but it also leaves you, as with so much Orwell, with the feeling that he’s simplifying things and leaving things out. You don’t have to be a feminist to feel he’s left out any women writers, chief of whom should be Virginia Woolf. And he mentions other Edwardian writers – Moore, Conrad, Bennett, Wells, Norman Douglas – simply to say they’d shot their bolt before the war began. Probably. And doesn’t mention Rudyard Kipling whose personality – from everything I read – dominated the Edwardian era. Or John Galsworthy who was writing his long series The Forsyte Saga from 1906 onwards, and was so esteemed as a writer that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Anyway, having given an entertaining caricature of the literature of the 1920s and 30s Orwell gets back to the point. He confidently states that the coming war will tear to pieces western civilisation. This is a feeling which dominates his 1939 novel Coming Up For Air. But it is not just the war that worries him, it is what will happen after the war, which he fears will see a revolution and maybe the advent of some kind of totalitarian society. This fear is based on the existence of totalitarian states in Russia and Germany, the feeling that many aspects of a mechanised society call for strong centralised authority, and the tendencies he sees around him in contemporary England. In this scenario, it is unlikely that the ‘liberal’ literature of his day will survive.

Back to the Miller novel: Orwell praises Tropic of Cancer because it honestly describes the squalid everyday thoughts in most people’s head, the everyday worries and fidgets, without any glamour, without any political purpose. Its protagonist spends his time cadging money, getting drunk, smoking fags, scrounging for food. Thus the novel stands completely outside the trend for highly politicised poems and novels of the 1930s, even in America it stands apart from the politicised novels of John Dos Passos and so on. It comes from a writer who accepts that civilisation is ending and doesn’t care. Acceptance of life as it is for most people – dirty, cheap, sordid, sex, defecating, scrounging money, setting people up – this is the everyday concern of his ‘hero’, and screw the rest.

Orwell then pauses his analysis to invoke the Bible story of Jonah in the whale (it isn’t a whale in the Bible, it is simply referred to as a fish). In Orwell’s reading this legend is so popular because the whale represents the womb. Maybe this is why the story has such a fairy tale feel and has endured so long, stripped of all religious meaning. It is a symbol of the womb, safe and warm and secure.

Bringing all these strands together, Orwell concludes that Miller is inside the whale – he accepts the decline and fall of the West and he doesn’t give a damn, he just describes life the way it is experienced by millions of average non-intellectual people. In its lack of highbrow content, in its lack of political engagement, in its lack of liberal worry and concern, in its avoidance of everything which obsesses the ‘responsible’ literature of the 1930s, Tropic of Cancer may well be, says Orwell, a harbinger of the literature of the future. A novel of proletarian acceptance and passivity.

Thoughts Orwell’s sweeping generalisations about the Modernist generation and then about the Auden generation are confident and compelling and contain loads of insights. But the fundamental premise of this and so much of Orwell’s writing – that western capitalism is crumbling before our eyes, that it is finished, that it must and will be overthrown and replaced with some form of socialism – turned out to be deeply and profoundly untrue. Sure the post-war Attlee government nationalised medicine and other key industries, but after six exhausting years the British people threw them out and elected the usual parade of public schoolboys. The banks weren’t nationalised. The Stock Exchange stands where it’s always been. All the public schools remained, churning out pukka chaps to run government, ministries, the army and the British Empire for another generation.

Orwell’s comments and insights into contemporary writers have a kind of sixth-form brilliance but tend to remind you of what you already knew; or, on closer examination, turn out to gloss over all kinds of exceptions and complexities (all the writers he leaves out in order to make his generational point); or are telling enough, but belong to the world of 80 years ago, a world as remote, to all practical purposes as Dickens’s London.

Down the Mine (1937)

This is an excerpt from chapter two of Orwell’s 1937 work of reportage, The Road to Wigan Pier, in which he summarises the experience of going down a coalmine, the collation of Orwell’s visits to three different northern coalmines in February 1937.

The whole chapter opens with a typically ringing Orwell statement –

Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.

None of this is true any more. Our civilisation is built on oil, extracted and refined in faraway countries, notably the Middle East where we are doomed to be embroiled for the foreseeable future.

Hard and grim reading though the chapter is, it is of purely historical interest, like a description of a Victorian cotton factory, or of life in the trenches, or onboard a slave ship.

England Your England (1941)

This is section one of the long political essay The Lion and The Unicorn, which Orwell wrote as the Second World War got underway and which was published in 1941. The aim of the book was to show that a socialist revolution was not only an option but vital to winning the war because Hitler and Stalin’s totalitarianisms had shown how effective strong, centrally planned economies are at waging war – the only hope for Britain to fight back was for us also to create a strong centrally planned economy and the only way that could happen was if there was some kind of socialist revolution.

Here, as in all his predictions, Orwell was dead wrong. Sure, production in a whole range of British industries was redirected by the wartime coalition into a centrally co-ordinated war effort. But it was all done without the government actually taking over any of these concerns and it was all done under a profoundly reactionary Conservative Prime Minister.

These political ideas are argued through in parts two and three of the essay and their demonstrable falseness is part of the reason they are rarely reprinted. The aim of part one was to establish the nature of the English character as a starting block before going on to explain why the English revolution would take place with English characteristics.

These thirty or so pages are, then, a preliminary to the book’s central argument and consist of a loving and nostalgic summary of all aspects of the English character. It is a very forgiving portrait. The main drift is that, although Orwell claims the law is rotten and ‘democracy’ is a sham and capitalism is coming to an end – in fact, when you look at it, the law is not completely – not as corrupt as in a dictatorship; in fact the law still plays a central life of even the lowest crook – a sharp contrast with the totalitarian states where there is, in effect, no law.

Similarly, he repeats the standard left-wing view that the newspapers are the voice-pieces for their capitalist owners, but he is forced to admit that they don’t actually take bribes. He contrasts the relative honesty of serious English newspapers with the French press, which he says was openly bought and sold in the 1930s.

The standout passages are where Orwell lauds numerous aspects of English culture in a fondly critical way – our philistinism, lack of philosophical thought, our poor records in the arts (especially music), the refusal of the English to learn other languages, our fondness for hobbies especially gardening, and so on. Though hedged with barbs and criticisms, this long essay is in effect a wide-ranging and forcefully expressed love letter to England and that is why it has proved so popular.

Late in the essay he develops a theory about why England’s recent leaders have been so rubbish – the English upper classes have simply refused to see that times have changed: if they did they would realise that they have to change too; they would realise the social and economic conditions which supported a landed aristocracy in the 1850s or 60s have simply ceased to exist.

Instead the English ruling class retreated into stupidity, the stupidity of the upper class idiots who ran the First World War, the captains of industry who didn’t know how to modernise in the 1920s, the buffoons who let the largest empire the world has ever seen drift rudderless between the wars, and the half-treacherous politicians who prostrated themselves before Hitler. Chaps like Lord Halifax (Eton and Oxford) or Neville Chamberlain (Rugby) didn’t know what to do with Hitler because he wasn’t a chap from a nice public school like them. He represented the revolutionary aspects of the modern world which were precisely what the English upper classes had taught themselves not to acknowledge or understand.

This is plausible and darkly funny; like so much of Orwell’s essays it contains dazzling generalisations, biting criticism and an underlying current of ironic amusement. But, of course, every single one of its modern readers reads it with a condescending smile. Nobody alive today identifies with this poncey upper class. Like so much satire, nobody applies it to themselves.

Thus, the essay’s barbs about the English character can be shrugged aside by most readers: as the political analysis a) doesn’t apply to me b) was all 80 years ago — all that remains is the love letter – and hence its enduring popularity among nostalgic readers of all stripes.

Shooting an Elephant (1936)

A short account of an incident during Orwell’s time as an officer in the Indian Police stationed in Burma. An elephant goes rogue, rampaging through the market and killing a native. Orwell is compelled to do something and sends for a rifle to protect himself. But his presence, and even more the arrival of the gun, help draw a huge crowd and then create an enormous sense of expectation.

And all of a sudden Orwell feels a fool and a fake. Thousands of natives are watching him expecting him to do something decisive. And Orwell feels as never before that the imperialist, the sahib, is compelled into this absurd role.

I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at. (p.96)

So, despite not wanting to do it with every nerve in his body, Orwell ends up shooting the elephant so as not to be ridiculed, to keep the British end up, to play the good sahib. What makes it infinitely worse is that the elephant proves horribly resilient and even after Orwell has emptied the rifle into it, plus a load of revolver bullets, still takes half an hour to painfully die.

Leaving Orwell revolted with himself, his cowardice and the absurd system which placed him in such a ridiculous situation.

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool (1947)

Towards the end of his life, in 1903 the famous Russian novelist and spiritual writer Leo Tolstoy wrote an essay summarising a lifelong dislike for Shakespeare. (Like so many writers and critics he doesn’t let it lie with a personal dislike, but goes on to assert why everyone must dislike Shakespeare, because he is naturally bad. In fact he calls Shakespeare evil.)

Orwell is struck by the way Tolstoy singles out King Lear as the focus of his attack, giving a misleading and crude summary of the plot in order to support his claims that Lear – and Shakespeare – are

stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevancies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic.

Psychological Orwell draws attention to the parallels between Lear and Tolstoy himself who, famously, gave away his land, money, the copyrights in his writings and tried to get closer to God by living the simple life of a peasant. In the event, his renunciation didn’t bring him freedom as he continued to be harried and nagged by those around him to carry out his duties (and keep his money). Shakespeare’s play is remarkably similar in outline, describing King Lear’s attempt to give away his royal power which leads to humiliation and degradation – rubbed home by various other characters in the play, not least the Fool. Lear’s story, in other words, tends to undermine the central moral act of Tolstoy’s life: it attacks Tolstoy at his most sensitive spot.

(This is an unusually psychological approach for Orwell, whose criticism is usually characterised by a political, semi-Marxist approach i.e. the importance of economics and class as determining factors in an author’s work).

The Christian versus humanist worldview The essay goes on to draw a general contrast between Tolstoy’s born-again Christian viewpoint and Shakespeare’s broad humanism. After his conversion Tolstoy thought that he (and all mankind) ought to narrow down their lives to the single aim of striving to live the good, holy life of simplicity and devotion to God.

His [Tolstoy’s] main aim, in his later years, was to narrow the range of human consciousness. One’s interests, one’s points of attachment to the physical world and the day-to-day struggle, must be as few and not as many as possible. Literature must consist of parables, stripped of detail and almost independent of language. (p.109)

His later writings in this vein amount to a kind of ‘spiritual bullying’.

Shakespeare, by contrast, is fascinated by the teeming profusion of life. Shakespeare may or may not have been a Christian – it’s impossible to tell from either the plays or the Sonnets – but his writing is characterised by an astonishing curiosity about all aspects of human life and experience expressed in a fantastic profusion of language.

If one has once read Shakespeare with attention, it is not easy to go a day without quoting him, because there are not many subjects of major importance that he does not discuss or at least mention somewhere or other, in his unsystematic but illuminating way. Even the irrelevancies that litter every one of his plays – the puns and riddles, the lists of names, the scraps of ‘reportage’ like the conversation of the carriers in Henry IV the bawdy jokes, the rescued fragments of forgotten ballads – are merely the products of excessive vitality.

The clash between Shakespeare’s worldly profusion, its ‘irreligious, earthbound nature’ and Tolstoy’s vehement rejection of the world – this world against the next – is the eternal clash between the religious worldview and the humanist worldview.

Orwell finishes with some sentiments which anticipate Nineteen Eighty-Four – that it wasn’t enough for Tolstoy to dislike Shakespeare; he had to concoct the most powerful case possible against him, he had to get inside the minds of Shakespeare devotees and do as much damage to him as possible.

He will do dirt on Shakespeare, if he can. He will try to get inside the mind of every lover of Shakespeare and kill his enjoyment by every trick he can think of, including—as I have shown in my summary of his pamphlet—arguments which are self-contradictory or even doubtfully honest. (p.119)

Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels (1946)

This is a fascinating essay flowing with insights into Swift’s politics and personality as revealed by a close reading of Gulliver’s Travels. There is no doubt Swift was a reactionary and a misanthrope, but Orwell has found himself coming back to Gullivers Travels again and again, and partly the essay is an exploration of why he is so beguiled by an author who, on paper, he ought to disagree with.

For a start Orwell identifies Swift as a religious reactionary, and defines the type as:

people who defend an unjust order of Society by claiming that this world cannot be substantially improved and only the ‘next world’ matters.

This arises after a lengthy consideration of Swift’s dislike of the contemporary world of his day (the early 1700s), his contempt for contemporary politicians and his especial hatred of ‘science’ which he regards as completely useless.

Orwell entertainingly points out the similarity between Swift’s anti-science and the attitude of religious writers of the 1940s. A tactic of religious writers through the ages is to say that experts in other (scientific) fields shouldn’t meddle in theology e.g. Richard Dawkins may know all about evolution but his views on religion are worthless; he shouldn’t meddle in areas where he isn’t an expert. Orwell brings out the implication of this line of argument which is that the ‘theology’ which religious writers practice and preach is as solidly factual and undisputed as, say, chemistry or physics – when it very obviously isn’t.

This, Orwell comments, is:

the note of the popular Catholic apologists who profess to be astonished when a scientist utters an opinion on such questions as the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. The scientist, we are told, is an expert only in one restricted field: why should his opinions be of value in any other? The implication is that theology is just as much an exact science as, for instance, chemistry, and that the priest is also an expert whose conclusions on certain subjects must be accepted.

After many scattered insights into Swift’s personality and writings, this essay – like so many of Orwell’s – veers round to finally focus on Orwell’s Number One Obsession – the totalitarian state. Orwell makes the surprising suggestion that Gulliver’s Travels contains uncanny predictions of the essential qualities of totalitarianism:

Swift’s greatest contribution to political thought in the narrower sense of the words, is his attack, especially in Part III, on what would now be called totalitarianism. He has an extraordinarily clear prevision of the spy-haunted ‘police State’, with its endless heresy-hunts and treason trials, all really designed to neutralize popular discontent by changing it into war hysteria.

In Orwell’s view, Swift anticipated the notion that, in a pacifist or anarchist society, with few if any laws, there is a tyranny of public opinion. Everyone believes X and huge psychological and/or emotional pressure is brought on you to believe X, too. Anyone not believing X hasn’t broken any laws, because there are no laws. He or she is just excommunicated from society. Thus the Houyhnhnms, the horse-like ideal creatures of part IV of Gulliver’s Travels:

had reached, in fact, the highest stage of totalitarian organization, the stage when conformity has become so general that there is no need for a police force.

Finally, Orwell returns to where he started: Why, if Swift’s vision is so nihilistic and reactionary, does he still love him so much? Orwell concludes that even if you profoundly disagree with a writer’s worldview, as long as they are not actually mad, and are capable of continuous i.e coherent thought – then the key criterion is conviction. Conviction and sincerity in a writer can often make the unappealing or antipathetic, strangely powerful and appealing.

His attitude is in effect the Christian attitude, minus the bribe of a ‘next world’ – which, however, probably has less hold upon the minds of believers than the conviction that this world is a vale of tears and the grave is a place of rest. It is, I am certain, a wrong attitude, and one which could have harmful effects upon behaviour; but something in us responds to it, as it responds to the gloomy words of the burial service and the sweetish smell of corpses in a country church…

The views that a writer holds must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power of continuous thought: beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is probably another name for conviction. Swift did not possess ordinary wisdom, but he did possess a terrible intensity of vision, capable of picking out a single hidden truth and then magnifying it and distorting it.

Having just read Peter Davison’s selection of Orwell’s journalism, Seeing Things As They Are, I know that this is a criterion Orwell returns to again and again – personal conviction is the fundamental bedrock of a ‘good’ writer: even if you completely disagree with their worldview or politics, the sincerity of their writings can still win your admiration.

Politics and the English Language (1946)

Orwell starts from the premise that western civilisation is going down the tube and part of that decadence is the decline of the English language. Well, that was eighty years ago and we’re still here and managing to write books and talk to each other. A certain type of person is always lamenting the death of English, conservatives with a small c.

Orwell gives five examples of terrible writing from his day, and then gives a handy list of the bad techniques they use:

  1. Dying metaphors. New metaphors make us see the world anew, but dead metaphors give the impression of imagination or perceptiveness while in fact remaining inert.
  2. Operators or verbal false limbs: replacing simple verbs with verb phrases such as ‘render inoperative’, ‘militate against’, ‘prove unacceptable’, ‘make contact with’, ‘be subjected to’ and so on. In addition, the number of verbs is being reduced – by using the passive over the active voice, using noun constructions instead of gerunds (‘by examination of’ instead of ‘by examining’ – sounds more scientific) and so on. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as ‘with respect to’, ‘having regard to’, ‘the fact that’, ‘in view of’ etc. The ends of sentences are saved from anti-climax by resounding commonplaces like ‘greatly to be desired’, ‘cannot be left out of account’. In our own time I reach for my gun every time someone says ‘going forward’.
  3. Pretentious diction:
    1. Verbs like ‘exploit’, ‘utilize’, ‘eliminate’ are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.
    2. Adjectives like ‘epoch-making’, ‘historic’, ‘triumphant’ are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics.
    3. Foreign words and expressions such as ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, are used to give an air of culture and elegance.
  4. Meaningless words: Orwell singles out art criticism for its vague emptiness, but also key political terms which have become almost meaningless, like ‘fascist’, ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’.

These trends can be summarised.

The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. (p.150)

People use longer words and ready-made phrases because they sound grand. Also you don’t have to think about them so much. Modern discourse is full of identikit elements. Modern

prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. (p.145)

The more examples he gives us the more it becomes clear Orwell’s critique is targeted mainly at the grandiose verbosity of the Soviet Union and its communist defenders in the West – with some side dishes knocking the mealy-mouthed euphemisms used to conceal the brutality of the British Empire or – a new appearance in his list of enemies – the American use of atomic bombs on Japan.

Then he gives us his set of six rules which will help us purify our writing style and our thinking:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Comments As usual with Orwell you get the feeling that he is an amateur trespassing into a vast and specialised field: linguistics, psychology, brain science, communication theory and much more have grown up since his day. It may be true that bad style corrupts language and that this damages thought, but it is a typically sweeping generalisation that actually raises far more issues than it settles.

Although the article starts out appearing to be about language in general, it soon becomes clear that Orwell is thinking of political journalism, reporting and speech-making and, even more specifically, is criticising the obfuscations of the hard-left defenders of the Soviet Union in particular.

His claim is that most contemporary political discourse is designed to hide things.

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

I’m not saying this isn’t true, just wondering when it has ever not been true? Political speeches and writings of the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries, were they all better expressed and therefore more honest? As usual, Orwell’s points are interesting, thought-provoking and forcefully expressed – but leave you suspecting they are a gross simplification of extremely complex ideas and issues.

The Prevention of Literature (1946)

Like so many of Orwell’s later essays, this reads like a kind of offcut from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell attends a meeting of P.E.N. ostensibly devoted to ‘freedom of the press’ but is appalled at the mealy-mouthed lack of conviction among the speakers. Indeed he is disgusted to find so many British ‘intellectuals’ defending the USSR and Stalinist communism.

This begins his argument with the proposition that imaginative literature needs to rebel, to be heterodox, to say no to authority.

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (p.168)

But instead of speaking truth to power, a worrying number of the intellectuals he sees around him censor themselves, refusing to tell the truth about the Spanish Civil War (Stalin’s communist party sabotaged the republican side), Russia’s treatment of Poland (Stalin deliberately tried to exterminate its intelligentsia) the Ukraine famine (millions died as a result of Stalin’s obsession with ‘collectivising’ agriculture) and so on.

This leads him to a consideration of how a totalitarian state requires not just total submission in the present, but requires that the past lines up to support the present ‘line’. And this leads to a paragraph which could have come straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revelation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth. (p.164)

Exactly the situation described in the novel. This leads him on to even wilder speculation about what might be the fate of ‘literature’ in a state which was truly totalitarian over many generations. It would eventually be created by committee, or even by machines, to fulfil the iron requirements of ideology.

It is probably in some such way that the literature of a totalitarian society would be produced, if literature were still felt to be necessary. Imagination — even consciousness, so far as possible — would be eliminated from the process of writing. Books would be planned in their broad lines by bureaucrats, and would pass through so many hands that when finished they would be no more an individual product than a Ford car at the end of the assembly line. It goes without saying that anything so produced would be rubbish; but anything that was not rubbish would endanger the structure of the state. As for the surviving literature of the past, it would have to be suppressed or at least elaborately rewritten. (p.172)

Already, he says with a ghoulish shiver, modern films, radio programmes and the newfangled television are being produced by such committees – and gives the terrifying example of the Disney films.

A sort of mechanizing process can already be seen at work in the film and radio, in publicity and propaganda, and in the lower reaches of journalism. The Disney films, for instance, are produced by what is essentially a factory process, the work being done partly mechanically and partly by teams of artists who have to subordinate their individual style. (p.171)

Yes. Bambi (1942) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – terrifying harbingers of a totalitarian future 🙂

In Orwell’s later essays there are countless stretches which remind you of Nineteen Eighty-Four and if you read Nineteen Eighty-Four there are countless passages which remind you of passages in the essays: between the two they build up into a stiflingly self-reinforcing universe, a bubble of Orwell’s paranoid obsessions. The essay ends with a characteristically spine-chilling note of doom:

At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity. Any writer or journalist who denies that fact – and nearly all the current praise of the Soviet Union contains or implies such a denial – is, in effect, demanding his own destruction. (p.174)

He makes it sound as if the entire class of contemporary writers is rushing pell-mell into self-created gulags – and yet who were the authors of the 1930s?

Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, Robert Graves, T.H. White, Virginia Woolf, Stella Gibbons, Dorothy L. Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Willie Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell and many others. None of them seem quite so terrified of the present or future as Orwell. All of them got on with writing novels for the most part untouched by the claustrophobic throbbing of Orwell’s feverish fantasies.

Boys’ Weeklies (1940)

Orwell in English nostalgia mode gives a surprisingly long and thorough review of the boys’ comics of his day which, seeing as many of them had been going for decades, were also the comics of his own boyhood. Some of the ones he mentions – Hotspur and Wizard – were (I think) still going when I was a boy in the 1960s. There are roughly two types, those for 12 and 13 year-olds, and those for slightly older boys.

He lingers longest over Gem and Magnet, which both contain stories set in public school and featuring stereotype characters (school hero, school bully, school swot, Indian rajah’s son). He repeats three of four times the idea that these stories contain no reference to the real contemporary world – the slump, unemployment, strikes, trade unions, the Russian Revolution, Hitler or Fascism.

He then points out that all these comics are published by big publishing combines which also include, for example, The Times and The Daily Telegraph – right-wing publishers, in other words.

And he concludes his syllogism by concluding that these comics probably play a larger part in forming the mentality and attitudes of boys than people like to admit. And their influence is overwhelmingly on the side of the status quo – supporting the British Empire, dismissing foreigners as ludicrous, ignoring all the social issues of the day which threaten to undermine the current (capitalist) system.

a) I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing this was quite a pioneering essay, to give such length and analysis to twopenny comics. I shouldn’t be surprised if this kind of thing is used to position Orwell as godfather to modern media studies, semiology and so on.
b) Like a lot of media studies it seems grindingly obvious and trite, alongside other shock-horror revelations such as that adverts are designed to manipulate their audiences, Hollywood happy endings ignore the complex realities of life, the news in papers or on TV is actually manufactured – chosen and written and presented from artificial, non-neutral points of view. Golly.

The essay seems to me a long exercise in English nostalgia which I think is Orwell’s predominant mood or feeling. He is not very optimistic about the future and so doesn’t give you the kind of socialist uplift his ostensibly left-wing views might suggest. Instead, like his novels, many of his essays give the impression of being horrified by the modern world and wishing, at numerous levels, to be able to go back to simpler, more bucolic Edwardian times.

Founding text of media studies it may or may not be – but it is certainly of a piece with the man who wrote the long love letter to the English character excerpted above, England Your England.

Conclusion

Many of the essays are now so dated that they are period pieces, but I think the forthright, confident and very persuasive style of Orwell’s essays deludes many of his fans into thinking they have more contemporary relevance than they actually do.

Far from being political analyses which we can apply to our own situation, now, in 2017, most of these essays evince a strong nostalgia for a lost Edwardian England, of boys’ comics and maiden aunts cycling to church, of common decency and the rule of law.

In turn they themselves are objects of our own nostalgia for the 1930s – nostalgia for a period when political issues seemed to be much clearer and unmistakable, when the plight of coal miners was an obvious scandal, when the threat from Hitler was real and apparent, when intellectual life seemed much simpler. And also for the rather stylised picture he paints of the 1930s, for for the quaint world of pigeon fancying, stamp collecting and all the other aspects of ‘the English character’ which Orwell so lovingly describes in England your England – for the gentleness and above all the decency Orwell which repeatedly singles out as the main quality of English life.

And then I think there is a kind of nostalgia for the figure of Orwell himself, for the persona he crafted, for the plain-speaking chap who could tackle a wide variety of subjects in clear, informative prose without any special philosophical or economic understanding, who wrote about literature without invoking any literary or cultural theory – an honest plain straightforward decent man speaking to plain decent readers. How we wish we lived in that world.

But I’m afraid I think it is a world that never was. It is a world conjured up by Orwell’s mastery of rhetoric, a world powered by the rather compelling generalisations he makes and the confident assertions, the broad brush approach to history or society which persuades you you’re in the presence of a man who really understands what’s going on and is really telling it like it is.

The trouble is that, beneath the straight-talking manly prose and the often sweeping generalisations – when the dust dies down – the take-home messages of many of these essays are not that shattering: ideas like, political language ought to be clearer so politicians so politicians can’t get away with lying, or that Shakespeare was a humanist which is why the religious fanatic Tolstoy hated him; that the British Empire was a hollow charade which enforced ghastly conformity from its sahibs, or that totalitarianism will always crush the imaginative writer.

Orwell is never less than interesting and is always highly readable – but a couple of hours later I often have trouble remembering what any particular one of the essays is actually about.


Credit

Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell was published as Selected Essays in 1957 and republished with its current title in 1962. All references are to the 1975 Penguin paperback edition.

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
2014 – Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings of George Orwell

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

Animal Farm: A Fairy Story must be one of the most famous novellas in the world.

It is the story of Manor Farm whose animals rise up and throw off the repressive rule of Jones the farmer, write a set of revolutionary rules, write a revolutionary anthem (Beasts of England), create a flag for the coming Republic of Animals when all humans had been overthrown, and try to institute animal utopia and live according the doctrines of ‘animalism’.

But slowly this ‘revolution’ is co-opted by the clever calculating pigs, who roll back the liberating effects of the revolution one step at a time, until at the fable’s climax, the animals look into the house to see old Jones dining with the now thoroughly corrupt pigs and can see no difference between them. Their new revolutionary master is identical to their old reactionary master.

The animals rise up against Farmer Jones - illustration by Ralph Steadman

The animals rise up against Farmer Jones – illustration by Ralph Steadman

Animal Farm is a naked satire on the corruption of the Russian revolution which went from genuine egalitarian idealism to brutal dictatorship in under 20 years.

The specific prompt for the book was Orwell’s nausea at the way British official channels swung 180 degrees from anti-Soviet propaganda while Stalin was an ally to Hitler (September 1939 to June 1941) to sudden support for our gallant ally, Uncle Joe, once he was fighting on our side i.e. against Hitler.

Orwell had never deviated from the hatred of Stalin’s murderous regime which he saw working at first hand during the Spanish Civil War. Confirming his worst fears of British culture’s craven submission to pro-Stalin influences, the book was turned down by a succession of publishers, some on the direct advice of the Ministry of Information, which was tasked with repressing criticism of our gallant Soviet ally.

The fable is alive with brilliant touches. At first the victorious pigs write out a set of revolutionary rules, the seventh and most important is of which is ‘All animals are equal’. It was a brilliant idea to have the clever pigs simplify this for the dimmer animals (the sheep, hens and ducks) into the motto ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’. But it was a real stroke of genius for Orwell to later have the pigs amending these rules, most notoriously amending rule seven to become ‘All animals are equal – but some are more equal than others’. This says something so profound about human beings and our laws and rules that it can be applied anywhere where laws are corrupted and distorted by the powerful.

A drunk pig rewrites the rules of the revolution - ilustration by Ralph Steadman

Squealer falls off the ladder while rewriting the rules of the revolution – illustration by Ralph Steadman

Like all fables it endures not just because it skewers the Stalinist tyranny so well – but because it brings out really deep, profound truths about human nature, our sometime strengths and our all-too-human weaknesses, the readiness not only of the unscrupulous to rule corruptly by terror, but the far worse readiness of their aides and lickspittles to help them and, worst of all, the willingness of so many of us sheep to let them.

The 1954 adaptation

There have been countless adaptations. Maybe the most atmospheric, because made during the bitter Cold War, is this 1954 cartoon adaptation.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

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