The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘Humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. Its brevity is indicated by the way it’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really, it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed. All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive, liberal nirvana.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various impersonal, suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves? Scientists still don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seemed so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with the scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature. You can’t.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and the opportunity to read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and had ‘progressed’, and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is very much not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) and certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies if you put your mind to it.

And as a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, back to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Gray’s approach – it is easy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us an entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all go to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Across the bridge over the Serpentine is the second Serpentine Gallery, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery converted from a 200-year-old former gunpowder store by legendary architect Zaha Hadid. For the time being the Serpentine Gallery seems to be retaining its link with the Sackler family who are under attack in the States for owning one of the largest manufacturers of addictive opioid drugs, although other British galleries are severing their links with the controversial family.

This knowledge adds a pleasing level of irony to the exhibition on show here, for the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is currently hosting a FREE exhibition of work by Patrick Staff (a young British artist born in 1987) which very much focuses on The Body. To quote the gallery introduction:

Through a varied and interdisciplinary body of work, Patrick Staff interrogates notion of discipline, dissent, labour and queer identity. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Staff examines the ways in which history, technology, capitalism and the law have fundamentally transformed the way we regard the body today, with a particular focus on gender, debility and biopolitics.

Oh, I thought, another contemporary artist kvetching about gender.

The corridors

The gunpowder store was originally at the core of the building, protected by double thickness walls, with a square walkway around the two inner, rectangular powder stores, each not much bigger than a long domestic living room.

By far the best thing in this installation is that the walkways around the central rooms have had their floors covered with a yellow metal and the fluorescent lights overhead given a yellowy-green tinge. The effect is to make you feel like you’re walking through the set of a science fiction film or maybe some kind of specialist industrial facility. This is pleasingly freaky.

Installation view of Patrick Staff: On Venus at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Note the two oil drums. Several of these are placed in each of the four corridors. If you look above the head of the woman in my photo you can see a latticework of very small-bore pipes suspended from the ceiling. This network carries on round all the corridors and where they pass over a drum, they have a tap which is set to allow a steady drip-drip of fluids down into each drum. What fluids?

A piping network suspended from the ceiling slowly drips a mixture of natural and synthetic acids into steel barrels, suggestive of sharing intimate fluids, or the trafficking of viruses or data.

It isn’t suggestive of bodily fluids, though, is it? It’s suggestive of offices or factories where the overhead air conditioning or other piping has sprung a leak and facilities management have put in a bucket or other container to catch the drips while they phone a plumber.

The Ian Huntley room

Remember Ian Huntley? He was convicted of murdering two 10-year-old girls in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in August 2002, hence the name the papers gave the case, The Soham Murders, and sentenced to a minimum term of 40 years in prison.

Anyway, in April 2018 the Daily Star newspaper reported that Huntley wanted to transition to a woman, wore a blonde wig in prison and insisted on being called Nicola. The story was picked up by other tabloids with a predictable hurricane of outrage from the highly-paid bigots who write for those papers.

Only nine months later did pressure from Huntley himself force the Star to retract the story and admit that it was entirely false in every detail. This led to a storm of comment from the other side, from queer activists, the Guardian and some left-wing politicians, lamenting the way the story was just one among a steady stream of stories designed to criticise, outlaw and ridicule trans people.

So Patrick Staff has taken front covers from the tabs who published the story, along with some of the later retractions and turned them into detailed etchings on metal, reminiscent to us old guys of the kind of heavy metal type that old-style newspapers were set in before the print revolution of the 1980.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

My reaction to this was:

1. I’m not that thrilled about being reminded of Huntley and his pointless stupid murder of two beautiful young girls and the awful, awful suffering their parents must have gone through, especially as Huntley lied his head off to the investigating police for two long weeks of one of the most intensive searches in British police history.

2. I am a little staggered that a grown man is telling us that tabloid newspapers make things up. I thought that was the most obvious thing about them, that the tabloids make things up and pander to the crudest prejudices and stereotypes, turn the complex world into a series of cartoons and clichés in order to cater to the basest instincts of their badly educated readers. I’ve known that for nearly fifty years.

If they are having a go at transgender people, now, they’re only the latest in a long line of groups who have been victimised and attacked on the basis of their gender (Page 3 girls) or race (blacks) or marital status (single mums) or disabilities (welfare scroungers) and so on. They are a poisonous blight on the country but they cannot be defeated because lots of people identify with their values and way of thinking. And that is because a lot of people in this country are pitifully badly educated, with not only the reading age but the immaturity and general stupidity of a nine-year-old.

Good luck changing that. Millions of left-wing intellectuals, politicians and activists have tried throughout my lifetime. That said, change can be achieved. The Sun in particular was virulently homophobic when I was a young man and nowadays reports on Elton John’s marriage to David Furnish or any other gay or lesbian marriage in more or less factual terms.

Social attitudes can be changed and liberalised. But I’m not sure how much impact an art installation like this can have.

On Venus

The work On Venus is in the other powder room and consists of a screen hanging from the ceiling on which two films are projected.

One consists of scratched, warped and overlapping footage of the most disgusting aspects of factory farming, showing the management of animal commodities such as urine, semen, skins and furs. I glimpsed a few shots of cows in cramped pens having their stretched udders brutally sucked dry by metal pumps so we can have the fresh milk to pour onto our organic porridge every morning.

If you didn’t realise that most livestock farming is disgusting and immoral, you are an idiot. That’s what vegetarians have been saying for fifty years or more, and countless books, articles and documentaries have revealed over and over again, with little practical effect.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

The second film is a poem describing life on the planet Venus, conceived as:

“a state of non-life or near-death, a queer state of being that is volatile and in constant metamorphosis, infused with the violence of pressure and heat, destructive winds and the disorienting lapse of day into night.”

Conclusion

These are big issues he’s taking on. After years and years of political engagement I have reached a stage of exhaustion and complete detachment. Maybe Trump will be re-elected, maybe he won’t. Maybe Boris’s crew will make a go of Brexit, maybe they won’t. So many things have happened during my life, that I have realised a kind of informed, observant detachment is the best way to preserve your sanity.

Otherwise you end up like my left-wing friends and all the columnists and commentators in the Guardian, Independent, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, New Statesman, and all the curators of contemporary art, who ever since the referendum then election of Trump have lived in a state of permanent outrage and anger.

– I support the transgender movement, which has come out of nowhere in the past few years but does appear to be a genuine thing – not least because several of my daughter’s friends, and several of my middle-aged friends’ young adult children, wish to change gender. Fine.

– I support vegetarianism and would support any attempts to make farming less disgusting and less destructive of the environment.

– I’d sort of support banning all the tabloid media and their vicious, immoral, muck-raking, phone-hacking journalism – although that is never going to happen.

But Staff is clearly going beyond these specific topical issues, to ask bigger questions, or make interesting connections, or prompt more lateral thoughts – thoughts which you can sense but are just out of reach of the conscious mind, or the way we usually think about the world.

Something to do with what moral judgments are acceptable and unacceptable. Something to do with the power the tabloids exercise in defining reality for their audiences. But these are just sub-sets of the bigger question of how we define what is human and what is not, and apply treatments which are obviously inhumane and degrading to pretty much every other life form but ourselves – and even to ourselves as well.

How we long for an alien civilisation to come down from the stars and teach us how to live properly and run our societies like decent people. Quite clearly, we’re incapable of doing so ourselves.

Staff may be pushing towards some kind of change of attitudes and culture – but along with John Gray, I’ve come to believe that human nature doesn’t change. Cultural attitudes may, in some places, and for a while, be rerouted and redrawn – but the fundamental attributes of human nature don’t change.

Liberals castigate Trump and Johnson for their alleged racism or misogyny (defined as their supposed hatred of BAME people or women) but you only have to dip a little into left-wing print or social media to find equal or greater levels of anger vented against all conservatives or all republicans or all men or all white people.

Like Gray, I think a kind of informed detachment is the only practical attitude to exercise in our times, the only way to prevent yourself from being drawn into the steaming cesspit of anger which almost all political and public discourse seems to be becoming.

Patrick Staff talks about his Serpentine show

What I learned from Staff’s own introduction was a different take from actually visiting it.

I like his point that everyone lives as though everything is alright with the world when, in fact, it really isn’t. Seen from this perspective the topics he’s chosen here are just some of the things which have upset him or which he thinks lift the veil on our respectable passivity and reveal the intertwined horrors beneath.

Seen in this way, the four elements of the exhibition – factory corridor with leaking fluids, the tabloid lies about Ian Huntley which are also smears on trans people, factory farming, and the queer poem about Venus – become more like personal symbols than political statements – moments of horrified insight, from which he has constructed a personal mythology.

I find this a much more fruitful way of thinking about the installation, because it is the way many poets work, creating a network of everyday imagery which they manage to imbue with supercharged imaginative energy, and mould into a personal mythology.

The question then becomes why didn’t he or the curators explain this a bit more clearly on the one and only wall label by the front door which introduces the show and which was full of the usual curator boilerplate about bodies and gender and made Staff sound just like every other modern artist — when I had already begun to feel – and this video crystallises – the ways in which he’s not, in which he’s distinctive and interesting.

Having thought my way all around the issues and ideas and surrendered to the sensual impact of the installation, I ended up liking it much more than my initial negative impressions.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

All I Know Is What Is On The Internet @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Some exhibitions I respond to personally and emotionally; some I respond to intellectually, picking up on ideas or theories; and some leave me stone cold.

This is the text from the press release for All I Know Is What Is On The Internet.

All I Know Is What Is On The Internet presents the work of 11 contemporary artists and groups seeking to map, visualise and question the cultural dynamics of 21st century image culture.

Importantly, it investigates the systems through which today’s photographic images multiply online and asks what new forms of value, knowledge, meaning and labour arise from this endless (re)circulation of content.

Traditionally, photography has played a central role in documenting the world and helping us understand our place within it. However, in a social media age, the problem of understanding an individual photograph is being overwhelmed by the industrial challenge of processing millions of images within a frantically accelerated timeframe. Visual knowledge and authenticity are now inextricably linked to a ‘like’ economy, subject to the (largely invisible) actions of bots, crowdsourced workers, Western tech companies and ‘intelligent’ machines.

This exhibition focuses on the human labour and technical infrastructure required to sustain the web’s 24/7 content feed. The collected works explore the so-called ‘democratisation’ of information, and ask in whose interest this narrative serves. Paying attention to the neglected corners of digital culture, the artists here reveal the role of content moderators, book scanners, Google Street View photographers and everyday users in keeping images in circulation.

The exhibition considers the changing status of photography, as well as the agency of the photographer and the role of the viewer within this new landscape. The artists involved draw attention to the neglected corners of image production, making visible the vast infrastructure of digital platforms and human labour required to support the endless churn of selfies, cat pics and memes.

Taking its title from a Donald Trump quote, All I Know Is What’s On The Internet considers the digital conditions under which photography is produced , and the bodies and machines which help automate the flow of visual content online. Set against Silicon Valley’s desire to automate the processing of human knowledge, the exhibition seeks to make visible ‘the human in the algorithm’.

All I Know Is What’s On The Internet presents a radical exploration of photography when the boundaries between truth and fiction, machine and human are being increasingly called into question.

#Brigading_Conceit

The enormousness of the subject they’re tackling meant that each exhibit, object or installation required a lot of explanation. Take #Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart.

#Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart. Aluminium, automotive coating, forex, SIM cards, vesa mounts. Courtesy of Upstream Gallery Amsterdam

#Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart. Aluminium, automotive coating, forex, SIM cards, vesa mounts. Courtesy of Upstream Gallery Amsterdam

It’s a very big installation hanging on a wall and looks, to me, like the cover of a laptop computer. In fact:

#Brigading_Conceit uses some of the thousands of SIM cards the artist purchased while building an army of fake followers on Facebook and Instagram. The most valuable fake accounts are PVAs (Phone Verified Accounts) which are registered on phone numbers bought in bulk in multiple countries. After verifying the account via SMS message, the SIM cards are often sold for the scrap value of the gold in the chip. Providing physical evidence of the industrial scale in which fake accounts are made, Dullart embeds these SIMs  in different materials, using arrangements reminiscent of army formations. The resulting compositions are representations of brigades made from artificial identities, a series of ‘standing armies’ to be deployed in ongoing and future information wars. Each image of the work tagged and uploaded to Instagram will attract the attention of Dullart’s army, who will bestow likes and automated comments. The semi-reflective surface reveals the form of each photographer whilst concealing their vanity in the effort of harvesting social feedback.

Quite a lot to take in, isn’t it?

And then, having read it all, looking back up at this butterfly made of silver laptop covers… what exactly are you to think? (It crossed my mind that Dullart might be a spoof name: Dull Art.)

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse (2012).

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse (2012)

This is, as you can see, a set of 18 photos arranged in three rows and six columns. As the wall label explains:

Crowdsourcing platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk provide a means for outsourcing small, repetitive tasks (‘micro-tasks’) to a distributed online workforce. These platforms were used by IOCOSE to assemble a crowd which would create its own conspiracy and then protest against its protagonists and effects. Firstly, the artists hired hundreds of anonymous workers to generate a set of symbols, companies, religious groups and mythical creatures. These were combined into a series of slogans and conspiracy theories by another set of workers. In the final stage, further workers photographed themselves taking to the streets protesting against this global conspiracy.

By operating as ‘artificial artificial intelligence’ (as Amazon touts its platform) the workers transform a practice of activism into a mechanical process. The result is a collection of singular, anonymous protests, whose slogans and claims barely makes sense. The workers, and the people around them, appear at the same time as victims and beneficiaries, actors and spectators of network technologies.

Nothing Personal

Or take the wall of the gallery which was completely covered in a ‘wallpaper’ collage of imagery and texts from the brave new digital world, and titled Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski.

Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski

Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski

Apparently,

In the past decade, the industry that satisfies governments’ demands for surveillance of mass communications has skyrocketed, and it is one of today’s most rapidly expanding markets. Most surveillance technologies are produced by American, European and Israeli companies and sold to anonymous clients and law enforcement agencies across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

While most of these products are undetectable by design, the industry has developed a collective corporate aesthetic using detached technical jargon, stock photography and sanitised clip-art. Nothing Personal presents material from over 300 surveillance companies, including fragment of correspondence between their employees and clients the artist found online.

On closer inspection, the people working within these companies – from the spaces they occupy – to the emails they send – seem to match the very image of the ‘enemy’ depicted by their own marketing.

World Brain

World Brain (2015) is an installation of logs of wood, scattered with wood chip surrounded by small piles of books, and video screens on the wall, the work of Degoutin & Wagon.

Installation view of World Brain (2015) by Degoutin & Wagon

Installation view of World Brain (2015) by Degoutin & Wagon

Explanation:

World Brain is a sprawling journey into the architecture of data centres, the collective intelligence of kittens, high-frequency trading and the creation of transhuman rats. Mixing documentary film and fiction, the artists explore the utopian dreams and ideologies which underpin the idea of a worldwide network and the development of collective intelligence.

The film is presented here is the film in two parts, with accompanying literature. Part one (21 mins 8 secs) is a journey into the physical spaces of the Internet exploring the complex structure of global Internet traffic. The second part (51 mins 54 secs) follows the wanderings of a group of researchers who try to survive in the forest using Wikipedia, with the ultimate aim of securing the survival of humankind.

World Brain is also available to watch online at: tpg.org.uk/worldbrain

Ironically, when I tried to access this URL, I found the video is unavailable and got this message:

This video contains content from Arte, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.

Which may, or may not, be part of the work itself. Or an ironic comment on the work. Or the internet. Or something.

So this is an intensely cerebral exhibition, in the sense that you really have to focus on each of the works, read the explanatory text carefully, and then bring quite a lot of intelligence and knowledge of the subject to bear on each piece to assess whether they ‘work’ for you.

A view

I have spent the past eight years working on the intranets and public websites and password-protected portals of four British government departments and agencies.

I have attended countless meetings, seminars and conferences about website design, data management and security, about government usage of social media, about how to convey messages or get users hooked on your website, and so on.

In fact I myself ran a 6-month programme of weekly seminars for the content team of a big government website on subjects like how to use Facebook and the rest of social media to transmit government messages, how to gather data about users, analyse and convey messages better, etc.

And for two years I was a data analyst on the password-protected portal of a major UK government portal, doing elaborate number crunching, producing infographics for all sorts of data, and merrily ‘repositioning’ the numbers to support the ‘official narrative’ put out by our department.

So I have a reasonable grasp of digital issues and I have, from the start, been extremely sceptical about the internet, about social media, and especially about mobile phone technology.

I refuse to own a smartphone because I a) don’t want to become addicted b) I want to relate to the world around me instead of staring at a tiny screen all the time c) I don’t want to be bugged, surveilled, followed and have all my personal data harvested.

All in all, I am confident that I understand the world these artists are portraying and that I understand a lot of the issues they’re addressing. I have grappled in person with some of them, as part of my job.

But I found it hard to get very worked up about any of the actual art on show and went away wondering why.

I think it’s something to do with accessibility. Web accessibility is a subject I’ve worked with personally, trying to present government information more clearly, both visually and textually. Even the dimmest of users must be able to read the text and use the transactions on a government website.

Whereas hardly any of the works on display here seemed very accessible. None of them leapt straight out ans made me think, ‘Yes, that’s the issue, that’s what we need to be saying / exploring / addressing’.

Instead I found it ironic that in the supposed Age of the Image, all of these works and installations required such a lot of text to get their point across.

There were quite a few younger visitors in evidence (unlike most of the ‘traditional’ art exhibitions I visit, which are dominated by old age pensioners).

Maybe this is art for a younger generation than me, accustomed to swiping screens, skimming information, cherry picking text. Maybe a lot of these issues and ideas will be new to them, or they are so accustomed to smartphones and apps and processing information, that the works will leap out and say something meaningful to them.

My over-riding sense of the Digital Age we live in is that most people, by now, know that Amazon, Facebook, twitter, and their phone providers are morally compromised, tax-evading, High Street-destroying, personal-information-harvesting creepy multinational companies, but…

It’s just so handy being able to order something from Amazon Prime, or send messages to your Facebook group, or share photos of your party on Instagram…

And none of the revelations about how smartphones track your movements and your conversations seem to have made the slightest dent in smartphone ownership or usage.

My sense is that most people just don’t care what iniquities these companies carry out, as long as their stuff turns up next day and they can share their photos for free.

It was a brave effort to put on an exhibition like this. I didn’t really like the works on show. Maybe others will.

Participating artists

  • Mari Bastashevski
  • Constant Dullaart
  • IOCOSE
  • Stephanie Kneissl & Max Lackner
  • Eva & Franco Mattes
  • Silvio Lorusso & Sebastian Schmieg
  • Winnie Soon
  • Emilio Vavarella
  • Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon
  • Andrew Norman Wilson
  • Miao Ying

Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire @ the National Gallery

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition on numerous levels. It contains 58 works, the majority on loan from North American collections, focusing on a score of masterpieces by American landscape painter Thomas Cole – making this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of his works together in one place.

It also brings together some enormous paintings by Claude, Constable, Turner and John Martin to show how Cole studied and learned from them.

And, quite apart from the visually stunning impact of many of these huge works, it is rich in thought-provoking issues and ideas.

Four rooms and seven chapters

Thomas Cole is famous in the U.S. as the greatest American landscape artist of his generation, more or less founding the young republic’s tradition of landscape painting.

In fact he was British, born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1801 to a middle class family in reduced circumstances. So reduced that young Thomas was sent out to work while still school age, among other jobs working as an assistant to an engraver.

The story of his life, achievement and influence is told in the four rooms of the National Gallery’s ground Floor Galleries, which have been divided into seven sections or ‘chapters’. There’s also a handy timeline of his life on one wall, to give a sense of the flow and development of his career before he was struck down tragically young, dying aged 47 in 1848.

Chapter 1. Industrial England

Cole was born in Bolton near Manchester as the industrial revolution reached its first flood of development.

The first section includes a vivid depiction of the impact of this new coal and iron technology in Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s painting Coalbrookdale by Night, painted in 1801 the year of Cole’s birth. Note the enormous abandoned cogs and crankshafts at the bottom left and their resemblance to the ruined columns in paintings of Roman and Greek ruins i.e. the way older aesthetic forms lingered on in the new world.

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Not only was the physical landscape being devastated, but so were the people too, the old cottage-based artisan economy eroded by mass production in the new manufactories where people were reduced to ‘hands’, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to serve the machines.

This prompted a backlash. Nearby hangs a contemporary lampoon of a Luddite, one of the gangs of workers who smashed up the machinery in a bid to halt ‘progress’ and to keep work human.

When his father’s business failed, Cole, a sensitive well-educated teenager, was forced to take work engraving printing blocks in a local cotton mill. He had, quite literally, hands-on experience of the way industrial ‘progress’ was making work mechanical and alienating.

In 1817 the family moved to Liverpool where Cole got a job working in an engraver’s shop where he would have seen prints by the leading artists of the day.

Chapter 2. American Wilderness

When he was 17 Cole’s parents decided to emigrate. His family sailed to America and settled in Philadelphia. Cole was now determined to become a painter, borrowing all the textbooks he could find and taking lessons from an itinerant artist. In 1825 he moved to New York City and that summer took a steamboat trip up the Hudson river into the Catskill Mountains.

He made numerous sketches of this picturesque landscape, rich in hills, valleys, small rivers, abundant wildlife and forests stretching as far as the eye could see. Already it was a tourist destination for New Yorkers but Cole removed all human traces from his sketches and especially from the finished paintings he worked up from them, depicting the landscape as a virgin wilderness.

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although there are a few tiny sailboats on the river in the far distance of this painting you’d be forgiven for not seeing them. What you are meant to see is the wild and storm-battered trees and the outcrop of rock, highlighted in the foreground and set against the ominous dark shape of the mountain (Round Top) rising behind it.

In these paintings Cole was seeking, in his own words, ‘a higher style of landscape’. He was influenced by the prints he’d seen of the magnificent sprawling light effects achieved by J.M.W. Turner and the grandiose melodramatic effects of ‘end of the world’ John Martin. What makes this exhibition even more visually stunning than it would have been is the inclusion of some wildly dramatic works by Turner and Martin of the sort which inspired young Cole.

A classic example of Cole’s literary or melodramatic embellishment of landscape is this fantastical scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel of the wilderness north of New York, Last of the Mohicans, published just the year before, in 1826.

The humans are obviously dwarfed by the setting, an improbably fantastical circular ledge of rock on the right of the picture, allowing the left half to reveal a ‘sublime’ receding vista of successive rugged mountains, lakes, and more mountains. The very human passions of Cooper’s novel have been translated into an image of almost cosmic significance.

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

These paintings attracted buyers, and word of mouth led Cole to be taken up by some very wealthy patrons. It was one of these patrons, Luman Reed, who paid for Cole to return to Europe and undertake a tour of Italy in order to improve his technique and his life drawing.

Chapter 3. London – Imperial Metropolis

So at the age of 28 Cole returned to Europe, stopping in London, where he visited the newly opened ‘National Gallery’ to study Old Masters. Here he actually met Constable and Turner. He was invited for a personal tour of the latter’s studio, where he admired the remarkable painting, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

You can see how this kind of thing played to Cole’s interest in depicting absolutely massive natural landscapes, enormous cosmic or geographical motifs which dwarf their puny human characters.

But like everyone else who met him, Cole was disappointed by the contradiction between the sublimity of Turner’s paintings and the man himself, who was dirty, smelly, abrupt and inarticulate, having the appearance and manners, as Cole put it, of ‘the mate of a coasting vessel’.

At the Royal Academy Cole exhibited some of his own landscapes, such as the striking Distant View of Niagara Falls, which he actually completed in London from sketches taken at the scene, and which he deliberately painted with a view to wowing the London public. He was disappointed when they didn’t make much impact.

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Chapter 4. The Grand Tour

Cole travelled quickly through Paris, which held no interest for him, and on to Florence, where he spent eight months getting to know the town’s close-knit artistic community, painting the city and going out into the surrounding countryside to paint landscapes and especially all and any remains of the once-great Roman Empire.

In 1832 he moved on to Rome itself, studying and sketching all the famous sites and also venturing out into the surrounding countryside, much loved by the French painted Claude Lorraine whose work he had admired in London.

This part of the exhibition displays figure studies Cole did in Italy, as well as oil paintings of Florence and of picturesque Roman ruins embedded in the tranquil Italian countryside.

Chapter 5. The Course of Empire

Cole returned to the States in 1832 and became a citizen in 1834. It was now, after all this training and preparation, that he began work on the ambitious cycle of five massive paintings designed to portray the rise and fall of an imaginary civilisation which he was to call The Course of Empire.

Visually, the ‘civilisation’ – i.e. the buildings, clothes and trappings of all the inhabitants – are based on ancient Rome, with its vast classical buildings, all pillars, porticoes and domes. But the landscape, the natural setting of the rise and fall, are recognisably the America of Cole’s Catskill paintings.

In this, the first of the sequence, a ‘savage’ dressed in a loincloth in the middle foreground on the left is chasing a deer he has wounded with an arrow, at the bottom and slightly to the right of middle. In the distance on the right is a circle of Indian teepees with a fire burning. Looming up out of the John Martin-style, over-arching clouds, is a sloping mountain topped by a distinctive boulder, which appears in all five paintings.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The sequence as a whole can be quickly taken in on Wikipedia.

The five paintings are:

  • The Savage State
  • The Arcadian or Pastoral State
  • The Consummation of Empire
  • Destruction
  • Desolation

As you can see, the paintings combine epic scale and deep perspective with a beguiling attention to minute detail. For example, in the second painting, look for the old man tracing geometric shapes in the sand with a stick, the first tremors of the ‘science’ which will give rise to ‘industry’.

The Consummation of Empire is in some ways the most visually pleasing. It’s physically the biggest of the five, but I think a lot of its success is due to the importance of light in bringing an unexpected sense of air and spaciousness to what ought to be a ridiculously crowded and crammed composition.

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

It adds to your appreciation to learn that the five paintings are conceived of taking place at different times of day: Savage at dawn, Arcadia in mid-morning, Consummation in the full light of a Mediterranean noon, Destruction in the late afternoon, and Desolation at moonrise.

A whole room is devoted to these five enormous paintings (with a handful of works from Italy on other walls so you can see where ideas of perspective, and especially of classical buildings and plant-covered ruins came from). It is a dazzling array of visionary genius.

Chapter 6. Cole’s Manifesto

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, serving from 1829 to 1837, that’s to say at exactly the period when Cole came into his own as a professional artist, travelled to Europe and painted his epic Course of Empire series.

Jackson is controversial nowadays for the politically correct reasons that he was a slave-owner who also took a tough line with native Americans, leading the US Army in the First Seminole War (1814-19), and in 1830 signing an Indian Relocation Act which expelled native Americans from the South to the mid-West of America, causing an immensely destructive uprooting of peoples and cultures in which many died.

But contemporaries like Cole disliked Jackson not for these reasons, but because he was a demagogic populist who appealed over the heads of the Washington establishment to the broader electorate, claiming to speak up for ‘the common man’.

Several art scholars were on hand at the press view I attended and one of them said that Jackson was ‘the Donald Trump of his day’, claiming to stand up for the common man, but in reality paving the way for the spread of industrial capitalism into the West.

He said that if the figure in a red cloak riding in triumph across the viaduct in The Consummation of Empire can be seen as Jackson/Trump, then his empress, seated on a throne at the extreme right and bottom of the picture, must be Melania!

Why did Cole dislike Jackson so much? Because he objected to Jackson forcefully encouraging the opening up of the West for settlement and exploitation.

For Cole is seen by many as not only the first serious painter of landscapes in America, and founder of the Hudson River School of art, but also as one of the first American environmentalists.

Cole was deeply fearful that the Americans were about to repeat the mistakes he had witnessed at first hand in Britain, and were about to destroy their natural landscape in a misguided quest for industrialisation and ‘progress’.

This wasn’t just an opinion he expressed in painting. In 1836, while he was working on the Course of Empire paintings, Cole felt strongly enough about it to write an ‘Essay on American Scenery’ pleading for the preservation of the American wilderness.

Coincidentally and ironically, the same year saw construction begin on the Hudson Valley railway. In the final room, among other works, there’s a pairing of paintings Cole did before and after the railway was built through his beloved Catskill landscape.

View on the Catskill - Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

View on the Catskill – Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

The commentary very usefully pointed out the way Cole uses techniques borrowed from Claude Lorraine, namely the elegant trees framing the view, at the right, and the big eggshell blue sky, to convey a tremendous sense of openness and tranquility, against which his characteristically tiny people are framed.

The ‘after’ painting, made six years later in 1843, hardly depicts the end of the world; the changes are more subtle.

A moment’s attention shows that the trees have gone. The framing pair at the right of the earlier work, and the smaller one on the left, have disappeared, replaced by hacked-down stumps. Worse, where the entire lake was previously lined by an elegant sweep of trees, now these have all gone, replaced by low-growing bushes. Removing the trees eliminates the sense of depth and mystery from the view.

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The railway itself cuts across the middle distance and this also, once you focus on it, has a subtly undermining effect. Previously the view unfolded with a sense of limitless depths, a sense of mystery succeeding wooded mystery. Now, denuded of trees and bisected by this subtle but decisive line, the entire landscape now appears somehow more constrained and controlled.

The highlight of the last room is arguably Cole’s most famous painting into which he poured everything – his management of sheer scale and size, his sense for landscape, everything he had learned from Turner and Constable about clouds – all expressed in yet another realistic painting which lends itself to allegorical interpretation – View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, generally known as The Oxbow.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a huge and hugely enjoyable painting, with much to note and savour. Moving from left to right, up in the sky, we pass from a violent thunderstorm (with forked lightning at the extreme left), to the storm petering out, whiter clouds and then a clear blue sky appearing.

This movement is paralleled on the earth by a movement from violently broken trees in the left foreground and dense virgin brush in the middle-left, suddenly giving way with a great sense of release to a huge vista down over the river valley to the mountains beyond.

And down in the river valley – in striking contrast to the dark, dark green of the wild brush in the left foreground, is the honey yellow of wheatfields in which stand tiny stooks of wheat. Scattered among the orderly yellow and light green fields are occasional settlements of good, honest, horny-handed farmers. Down at the bottom right is a ford with a few horses coming down to it and a raft crossing the river.

This is Cole’s vision of what America should be like, a land of free-living independent yeoman-farmers – the polar opposite of the urbanisation, the galloping desecration of the wilderness, and the encouragement of rapid industrialisation, all of which were taking place under Jackson’s presidency.

It was staring me in the face but I didn’t notice until one of the art historians pointed it out, that the river doesn’t just form a sharp loop – it is in the shape of a question mark. Which future will America choose, a federation of independent farmers, or go down the ruinous path of the Britain which Cole had himself escaped, towards industrialisation, environmental ruination and the transformation of free agricultural workers into a wretched proletariat?

More light-heartedly, Cole has painted himself into his work. At the bottom, just to the right of centre, you can see his head and hat emerging from behind a log. Here I am. I’m painting this beauty. What are you going to make of it?

Detail of the Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

Detail of The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

The Oxbow has never been seen in the UK before. It is just one of about 20 paintings which are normally based in America, are rarely displayed together, and are well worth paying the admission price to see and savour.

Chapter 7. Cole’s Legacy

The final wall in the exhibition shows us the works of some of the painters who inherited Cole’s mantle. He died suddenly aged only 47, but not before he had taught the talented Asher Brown Durand and the exceptional Frederic Edwin Church. They both absorbed Cole’s practice of direct observation of nature, sketching and painting on site in the open air. There are several works by Durand and Church to assess them by.

Ironically, although Cole’s style and approach expanded into an entire ‘school’, almost all of his followers dropped his environmental concerns and adopted the new spirit of the times, the infectious optimism that America’s expansion West, its development and industrialisation, all represented a Manifest Destiny to become God’s Own Country.

Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) was painted in 1853, just five years after Cole’s death, yet it celebrates the nascent taming of the wilderness.

At bottom right some cattle are being rounded up while a wagon is being driven up the road. To its left we can see a canal with a lock in it, over which, a bit further down, what looks like a railway bridge crosses over.

On a spur of land sticking out into the lake, in the distance, is some kind of town with a cluster of chimneys emitting the kind of smoke we saw in the first room of the gallery, denoting the British Industrial revolution. Meanwhile, half hidden among the broken trees to the left, is a group of three native Americans looking on – with awe, with regret, who knows? – but in effect characters made to pose and gaze in wonder at the unstoppable Progress of the White Man.

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand (1853)

Absences and contradictions

There’s no slavery in Cole’s paintings. There are few native Americans. Politically correct curators can point out what – to our enlightened times – are these notable absences.

But then again there are no working poor of any kind. Farms we see, from a great distance, in The Oxbow, but none of the early starts and long days and hard manual labour involved in farming.

In fact people in general are conspicuous by their absence from Cole’s painting. Having never had a formal training, he was self-conscious about his ability to draw bodies and faces and so limited his depictions of people to distant puppets.

In any case, all this was part of his overall strategy, which was to cleanse the landscape of its human inhabitants (white or black or red) in order to present it as a bountiful and idyllic wildscape.

For example, the wall label tells us that there were already tourists at Niagara Falls, roads to bring them there and accommodation for them to stay in. But all of this was omitted from Cole’s primitivising vision of Niagara Falls (above).

The great irony of his career and art is, Who did he produce these visions of a pristine nature for, who did he sell them to?

The answer: to rich patrons in New York and Connecticut who had become rich precisely by laying roads across the wilderness, by selling dry goods to new settlements and, in the case of the New York bankers who patronised Cole, by funding the new railroads and industrial enterprises which were despoiling the very landscapes they paid him to paint.

Cole is praised as a founding environmentalist – but he is just as much a forerunner of that familiar figure, the modern artist who uses art to rail against capitalism, the West, exploitation, poverty and so on but – makes a career by selling their work to rich bankers or to art institutions founded and endowed by rich bankers, the lynchpins of the very system they purport to criticise.

A rapture of beauties

This exhibition would be worth visiting for the Cole alone, but the National Gallery has given us a real embarras de richesses by including masterpieces by the four European painters who most influenced him –

  • the enormous Snowstorm by Turner (Tate)
  • the ludicrously melodramatic Belshazzar’s Feast by John Martin (Yale, USA)
  • as well as five works by John Constable including Hadleigh Castle (Yale, USA) the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Tate) and three beautiful sketches all usually kept at Yale University in the States, including some wonderful sketches of clouds

Cole developed a friendship with Constable and they exchanged letters and sketches. In fact there are a number of studies by Constable and Turner of skies, cloudscapes and so on, to compare and contrast with Cole’s own sketches. Some of the Constable ones are stunningly skilful uses of paint.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

In fact one of the most fascinating snippets or sidelights of the exhibition was being shown the relationship between Cole’s anti-industrialising ethos and Constable’s similar sentiments. I hadn’t noticed before that the south bank of the Thames in the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (at the far right of the painting) is thronged with factory chimneys spewing out toxic smoke. Apparently, in his final years, Constable was depressed at the arrival of industrial blight in the landscape of the south of England.

I last saw The Opening in a large exhibition of Constable and powerfully disliked it. The curator pointed out that so does everyone else, but that was part of its point. It is an English version of Cole’s The Consummation of Empire, showing foolhardy pomp and circumstance while in the background industrialism is beginning to corrupt and destroy the culture.

Last but not least in the room showing enormous paintings which influenced Cole is Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula by Claude Lorraine. You can immediately see how his light-filled combination of water with classical buildings was absorbed and repurposed by Cole for the Course of Empire series, but there are plenty of pleasures to linger and enjoy just in this one painting.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

The point is, this exhibition isn’t just about Cole. If you add in the couple of paintings each by Durand and Church to the Claude, Turner, Constable and Martin, the feeling is of encountering masterpiece after masterpiece in an exhibition which expands your mind and gladdens the heart.

While the rational mind is processing a raft of issues and ideas, the eyes are surfeited with quite rapturous beauty.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Other posts about American history

The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33 by John Willett (1978)

Willett was born in 1917. He attended Winchester public school and then Christ Church, Oxford (the grandest and poshest of all the Oxford colleges). He was just beginning a career in set design when the Second World War came along. He served in British Intelligence. After the war he worked at the Manchester Guardian, before becoming assistant to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, writing scores of reviews and articles, until he went freelance in 1967.

He had travelled to Germany just before the war and become fascinated by its culture. He met and befriended Bertolt Brecht whose plays he later translated into English. As a freelance writer Willett authored two books about the Weimar period. This is the first of the pair, published by the well-known art publisher Thames and Hudson. Like most T&H art books it has the advantage of lots of illustrations (216 in this case) and the disadvantage that most of them (in this case, all of them) are in black and white.

The New Sobriety is divided into 22 shortish chapters, followed by a 30-page-long, highly detailed Chronological Table, and a shorter bibliography. There’s also a couple of stylish one-page diagrams showing the interconnection of all the arts across Europe during the period.

Several points:

  • Though it has ‘Weimar’ in the title, the text is only partly about the Weimar Republic. It also contains lots about art in revolutionary Russia, as well as Switzerland and France. At this point you realise that the title says the Weimar Period.
  • The period covered is given as starting in 1917, but that’s not strictly true: the early chapters start with Expressionism and Fauvism and Futurism which were all established before 1910, followed by a section dealing with the original Swiss Dada, which started around 1915.

Cool and left wing

The real point to make about this book is that it reflects Willett’s own interest in the avant-garde movements all across Europe of the period, and especially in the politically committed ones. At several points he claims that all the different trends come together into a kind of Gestalt, to form the promise of a new ‘civilisation’.

It was during the second half of the 1920s that the threads which we have followed were drawn together to form something very like a new civilisation… (p.95)

The core of the book is a fantastically detailed account of the cross-fertilisation of trends in fine art, theatre, photography, graphic design, film and architecture between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany.

In the introduction Willett confesses that he would love to see a really thorough study which related the arts to the main political and philosophical and cultural ideas of the era, but that he personally is not capable of it (p.11). Instead, his book will be:

a largely personal attempt to make sense of those mid-European works of art, in many fields and media, which came into being between the end of the First War and the start of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933. It is neither an art-historical study of movements and artistic innovations, nor a general cultural history of the Weimar Republic, but a more selective account which picks up on those aspects of the period which the writer feels to be at once the most original and the most clearly interrelated, and tries to see how and why they came about. (p.10)

‘Selective’ and ‘interrelated’ – they’re the key ideas.

When I was a student I loved this book because it opened my eyes to the extraordinary range of new avant-garde movements of the period: Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and then the burst of new ideas in theatre, graphic design, magazines, poetry and architecture which are still influential to this day.

Although Willett doesn’t come across as particularly left wing himself, the focus on the ‘radical’ innovations of Brecht and Piscator in Germany, or of Proletkult and Agitprop in Soviet Russia, give the whole book a fashionable, cool, left-wing vibe. And if you don’t know much about the period it is an eye-opening experience.

But now, as a middle-aged man, I have all kinds of reservations.

1. Willett’s account is biased and partial

As long as you remember that it is a ‘personal’ view, deliberately bringing together the most avant-garde artists of the time and showing the extraordinary interconnectedness (directors, playwrights, film-makers travelling back and forth between Germany and Russia, bringing with them new books, new magazines, new ideas) it is fine. But it isn’t the whole story. I’m glad I read Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture just before this, because Laqueur’s account is much more complete and more balanced.

For example, Laqueur’s book included a lot about the right-wing thought of the period. It’s not that I’m sympathetic to those beliefs, but that otherwise the rise of Hitler seems inexplicable, like a tsunami coming out of nowhere. Laqueur’s book makes it very clear that all kinds of cultural and intellectual strongholds never ceased to be nationalistic, militaristic, anti-democratic and anti-the Weimar Republic.

Laqueur’s book also plays to my middle-aged and realistic (or tired and jaundiced) opinion that all these fancy left-wing experiments in theatre (in particular), the arty provocations by Dada, the experimental films and so on, were in fact only ever seen by a vanishingly small percentage of the population, and most of them were (ironically) wealthy and bourgeois enough to afford theatre tickets or know about avant-garde art exhibitions.

Laqueur makes the common-sense point that a lot of the books, plays and films which really characterise the period were the popular, accessible works which sold well at the time but have mostly sunk into oblivion. It’s only in retrospect and fired up by the political radicalism of the 1960s, that latterday academics and historians select from the wide range of intellectual and artistic activity of the period those strands which appeal to them in a more modern context.

2. Willett’s modernism versus Art Deco and Surrealism

You realise how selective and partial his point of view is on the rare occasions when the wider world intrudes. Because of Willett’s compelling enthusiasm for ‘the impersonal utilitarian design’ of the Bauhaus or Russian collectivism, because of his praise of Gropius or Le Corbusier, it is easy to forget that all these ideas were in a notable minority during the period.

Thus it came as a genuine shock to me when Willett devotes half a chapter to slagging off Art Deco and Surrealism, because I’d almost forgotten they existed during this period, so narrow is his focus.

It is amusing, and significant, how much he despises both of them. The chapter (18) is called ‘Retrograde symptoms: modishness in France’ and goes on to describe the ‘capitulation and compromise’ of the French avant-garde in the mid-1920s. 1925 in particular was ‘a year of retreat all down the line’, epitomised by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes exhibition which gave its name to the style of applied arts of the period, Art Deco.

Willett is disgusted that dressmakers sat on the selecting committees ‘alongside obscure establishment architects and rubbishy artists like Jean-Gabriel Domergue’. Not a single German artist or designer was featured (it was a patriotic French affair after all) and Theo van Doesberg’s avant-garde movement, de Stijl, was not even represented in the Dutch stand.

Willet hates all this soft luxury Frenchy stuff, this ‘wishy-washy extremely mondain setting’ which was the milieu of gifted amateurs and dilettantes. It was a hateful commercialisation of cubism and fauvism, it was skin-deep modernism.

What took place here was a diffusing of the modern movement for the benefit not of the less well-off but of the luxury consumer. (p.170)

It’s only because I happen to have recently read Andrew Duncan’s encyclopedic book about Art Deco that I know that there was a vast, a truly huge world of visual arts completely separate from the avant-garde Willett is championing – a world of architects, designers and craftsmen who built buildings, designed the interiors of shops and homes, created fixtures and fittings, lamps and tables and chairs and beds and curtains and wallpapers, all in the luxury, colourful style we now refer to as Art Deco.

Thousands of people bought the stylish originals and millions of people bought the affordable copies of all kinds of objects in this style.

So who is right?

When I was a student I also was on the side of the radical left, excited by Willett’s portrait of a world of hard-headed, functional design in homes and household goods, of agit-prop theatre and experimental film, all designed to mobilise the workers to overthrow the ruling classes and create a perfect world. Indeed the same chapter which dismisses French culture and opens with photos of elegantly-titled French aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons, ends with a photo of a parade by the Communist Roterfront in 1926. That’s the real people, you see, that’s real commitment for you!

But therein lies the rub. The radical, anti-traditionalist, anti-bourgeois, up-the-workers movement in architecture, design, film and theatre which Willett loves did not usher in a new workers’ paradise, a new age of peace and equality – the exact opposite.

The sustained left-wing attacks on the status quo in Germany had the net effect of helping to undermine the Weimar Republic and making the advent of Hitler easier. All the funky film innovations of Eisenstein and the theatrical novelties of Meyerhold failed to create an educated, informed and critical working class in Russia, failed to establish new standards of political and social discourse – instead the extreme cliquishness of its exponents made it all the easier to round them up and control (or just execute) them, as Stalin slowly accumulated power from 1928 onwards.

Older and a bit less naive than I used to be, I am also more relaxed about political ‘commitment’. I have learned what I consider to be the big lesson in life which is that – There are a lot of people in the world. Which means a lot of people who disagree – profoundly and completely disagree – with your own beliefs, ideas and convictions. Disagree with everything you and all your friends and your favourite magazines and newspapers and TV shows and movies think. And that they have as much right to live and think and talk and meet and discuss their stuff, as you do. And so democracy is the permanently messy, impure task of creating a public, political, cultural and artistic space in which all kinds of beliefs and ideas can rub along.

Willett exemplifies what I take to be the central idea of Modernism: that there is only one narrative, one avant-garde, one movement: you have to be on the bus. He identifies his Weimar Germany-Soviet Russia axis as the movement. The French weren’t signed up to it. So he despises the French.

But we now, in 2018, live in a thoroughly post-Modernist world and the best explanation I’ve heard of the difference between modernism and post-modernism is that, in the latter, we no longer believe there is only one narrative, One Movement which you simply must, must, must belong to. There are thousands of movements. There are all types of music, looks, fashions and lifestyles.

Willett’s division of the cultural world of the 1920s into Modernist (his Bauhaus-Constructivist heroes) versus the Rest (wishy-washy, degenerate French fashion) itself seems part of the problem. It’s the same insistence on binary extremes which underlay the mentality of a Hitler or a Stalin (either you are for the Great Leader or against him). And it was the same need to push political opinions and movements to extremes which undermined the centre and led to dictatorship.

By contrast the fashionably arty French world (let alone the philistine, public school world of English culture) was simply more relaxed, less extreme. They had more shopping in them. The Art Deco world which Willett despises was the world of visual and applied art which most people, most shoppers, and most of the rich and the aspiring middle classes would have known about. (And I learned from Duncan’s book that Art Deco really was about shops, about Tiffany’s and Liberty’s and Lalique’s and the design and the shop windows of these top boutiques.)

On the evidence of Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture and Duncan’s account of the Art Deco world, I now see Willett’s world of Bauhaus and Constructivism – which I once considered the be-all and end-all of 1920s art – as only one strand, just one part of a much bigger artistic and decorative universe.

Same goes for Willett’s couple of pages about Surrealism. Boy, he despises those guys. Again it was a bit of a shock to snap out of Willett’s wonderworld of Bauhaus-Constructivism to remember that there was this whole separate and different art movement afoot. Reading Ruth Brandon’s book, Surreal Lives would lead you to believe that it, Surrealism, was the big anti-bourgeois artistic movement of the day. Yet, from Willett’s point of view, focused on the Germany-Russia axis, Surrealism comes over as pitifully superficial froggy play acting.

He says it was unclear throughout the 1920s whether Surrealism even existed outside a handful of books made with ‘automatic writing’. When Hans Arp or Max Ernst went over to the Surrealist camp their work had nothing to tell the German avant-garde. They were German, so it was more a case of the German avant-garde coming to the rescue of a pitifully under-resourced French movement.

There was in fact something slightly factitious about the very idea of Surrealist painting right up to the point when Dali arrived with his distinctively creepy academicism. (p.172)

Surrealism’s moving force, the dominating poet André Breton, is contrasted with Willett’s heroes.

Breton’s romantic irrationalism, his belief in mysterious forces and the quasi-mediumistic use of the imagination could scarcely have been more opposed to the open-eyed utilitarianism of the younger Germans, with their respect for objective facts. (p.172)

I was pleased to read that Willett, like me, finds the Surrealists ‘anti-bourgeois’ antics simply stupid schoolboy posturing.

As for his group’s aggressive public gestures, like Georges Sadoul’s insulting postcard to a Saint-Cyr colonel or the wanton breaking-up of a nightclub that dared to call itself after Les Chants de Maldoror, one of their cult books, these were bound to seem trivial to anyone who had experienced serious political violence. (p.172)

Although the Surrealists bandied around the term ‘revolution’ they didn’t know what it meant, they had no idea what it was like to live through the revolutionary turmoil of Soviet Russia or the troubled years 1918 to 1923 in post-war Germany which saw repeated attempts at communist coups in Munich and Berlin, accompanied by savage street fighting between left and right.

Although the Surrealists pretentiously incorporated the world ‘revolution’ into the title of their magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, none of them knew what a revolution really entailed, and

Breton, Aragon and Eluard remained none the less bourgeois in their life styles and their concern with bella figura. (p.172)

There were no massacres in the streets of comfortable Paris, and certainly nothing to disturb the salon of the Princess Edmond de Polignac, who subsidised the first performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or to upset the Comtesse de Noailles, who commissioned Léger to decorate her villa at Hyères and later underwrote the ‘daring’ Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Age d’Or (1930).

In this, as in so many other things, French intellectuals come across as stylish poseurs performing for impeccably aristocratic patrons.

3. Willett’s account is clotted and cluttered

The text is clotted with names, absolutely stuffed. To give two symptoms, each chapter begins with a paragraph-long summary of its content, which is itself often quite exhausting to read; and then the text itself suffers from being rammed full of as many names as Willett can squeeze in.

Almost every sentence has at least one if not more subordinate clauses which add in details about the subject’s other activities, or another organisation they were part of, or a list of other people they were connected to, or examples of other artists doing the same kind of thing.

Here’s a typical chapter summary, of ‘Chapter 16 Theatre for the machine age: Piscator, Brecht, the Bauhaus, agitprop‘:

Middlebrow entertainment and the revaluation of the classics. The challenge of cinema. Piscator’s first political productions and his development of documentary theatre; splitting of the Volksbühne and formation of his own company; his historic productions of 1927-8 with their use of machinery and film. The new dramaturgy and the problem of suitable plays. Brecht’s reflection of technology, notably in Mann ist Mann; his collaboration with Kurt Weill and the success of the Threepenny Opera; epic theatre and the collective approach. Boom of ‘the theatre of the times’ in 1928-9. Experiments at the Bauhaus: Schlemmer, Moholy, Nagy, Gropius’s ‘Totaltheater’ etc;. The Communist agitprop movement. Parallel developments in Russia: Meyerhold, TRAM, Tretiakoff.

Quite tiring to read, isn’t it? And that’s before you get to the actual text itself.

So Eisenstein could legitimately adopt circus techniques, just as Grosz and Mehring could appear in cabaret and Brecht before leaving Munich worked on the stage and film sketches of that great comic Karl Valentin. In 1925 a certain Walter von Hollander proposed what he called ‘education by revue’, the recruiting of writers like Mehring, Tucholsky and Weinert to ‘fill the marvellous revue form with the wit and vigour of our time’. This form was itself a kind of montage, and Reinhardt seems to have planned a ‘Revue for the Ruhr’ to which Brecht would contribute – ‘A workers’ revue’ was the critic Herbert Ihering’s description – while Piscator too hoped to open his first season with his own company in 1927 by a revue drawing on the mixed talents of his new ‘dramaturgical collective’. This scheme came to nothing, though Piscator’s earlier ‘red Revue’ – the Revue roter Rummel of 1924 – became important for the travelling agit-prop groups which various communist bodies now began forming on the model of the Soviet ‘Blue Blouses’. (p.110)

Breathless long sentences packed with names and works ranging across places and people and theatres and countries, all about everything. This is because Willett is at pains to convey his one big idea – the astonishing interconnectedness of the world of the 1920s European avant-garde – at every possible opportunity, and so embodies it in the chapter summaries, in his diagrams of interconnectedness, extending it even down to the level of individual sentences.

The tendency to prose overstuffed with facts is not helped by another key aspect of the subject matter which was the proliferation of acronyms and initialisms. For example the tendency of left-wing organisations to endlessly fragment and reorganise, especially in Russia where, as revolutionary excitement slowly morphed into totalitarian bureaucracy, there was no stopping the endless setting up of organisations and departments.

Becher, Anor Gabór and the Young Communist functionary Alfred Kurella, who that autumn [of 1927] were part of a delegation to the tenth anniversary celebrations [of the October Revolution] in Moscow, also attended the IBRL’s foundation meeting and undertook to form a German section of the body. Simultaneously some of the surviving adherents of the earlier Red Group decided to set up a sister organisation which would correspond to the Association of Artists of the Russian Revolution, an essentially academic body now posing as Proletarian. Both plans materialised in the following year, when the new German Revolutionary Artists Association (or ARBKD) was founded in March and the Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers’ League (BPRS) in October. (p.173)

Every paragraph is like that.

4. Very historical

Willett’s approach is very historical. As a student I found it thrilling the way he relates the evolving ideas of his galaxy of avant-garde writers, artists and architects – Grosz and Dix, Gropius and Le Corbusier, Moholy-Nagy and Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Eistenstein, Piscator and Brecht – to the fast-changing political situations in Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, which, being equally ignorant of, I also found a revelation.

Now, more familiar with this sorry history, I found the book a little obviously chronological. Thus:

  • Chapter six – Revolution and the arts: Germany 1918-20, from Arbeitsrat to Dada
  • Chapter seven – Paris postwar: Dada, Les Six, the Swedish ballet, Le Corbusier
  • Chapter eight – The crucial period 1921-3; international relations and development of the media; Lenin and the New Economic Policy; Stresemann and German stabilisation

It proceeds with very much the straightforward chronology of a school textbook.

5. Not very analytical

The helter-skelter of fraught political developments in both countries – the long lists of names, their interconnections emphasised at every opportunity – these give a tremendous sense of excitement to his account, a sense that scores of exciting artists were involved in all these fast-moving and radically experimental movements.

But, at the end of the day, I didn’t come away with any new ideas or sense of enlightenment. All the avant-garde artists he describes were responding to two basic impulses:

  1. The advent of the Machine Age (meaning gramophone, cars, airplanes, cruise ships, portable cameras, film) which prompted experiments in all the new media and the sense that all previous art was redundant.
  2. The Bolshevik Revolution – which inspired far-left opinions among the artists he deals with and inspired, most obviously, the agitprop experiments in Russia and Piscator and Brecht’s experiments in Germany – theatre in the round, with few if any props, the projection onto the walls of moving pictures or graphs or newspaper headlines – all designed to make the audience think (i.e. agree with the playwright and the director’s communist views).

But we sort of know about these already. From Peter Gay’s book, and then even more so Walter Laqueur’s book, I came away with a strong sense of the achievement and importance of particular individuals, and their distinctive ideas. Thomas Mann emerges as the representative novelist of the period and Laqueur’s book gives you a sense of the development of his political or social thought (the way he slowly came round to support the Republic) and of his works, especially the complex of currents found in his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain.

Willett just doesn’t give himself the space or time to do that. In the relentless blizzard of lists and connections only relatively superficial aspects of the countless works referenced are ever mentioned. Thus Piscator’s main theatrical innovation was to project moving pictures, graphs and statistics onto the backdrops of the stage, accompanying or counter-pointing the action. That’s it. We nowhere get a sense of the specific images or facts used in any one production, rather a quick list of the productions, of the involvement of Brecht or whoever in the writing, of Weill or Eisler in the music, before Willett is off comparing it with similar productions by Meyerhold in Moscow. Always he is hurrying off to make comparisons and links.

Thus there is:

6. Very little analysis of specific works

I think the book would have benefited from slowing down and studying half a dozen key works in a little more detail. Given the funky design of the book into pages with double columns of text, with each chapter introduced by a functionalist summary in bold black type, it wouldn’t have been going much further to insert page-long special features on, say, The Threepenny Opera (1928) or Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof Estate housing in Stuttgart (1927).

Just some concrete examples of what the style was about, how it worked, and what kind of legacy it left would have significantly lifted the book and left the reader with concrete, specific instances. As it is the blizzard of names, acronyms and historical events is overwhelming and, ultimately, numbing.

The Wall Street Crash leads to the end of the Weimar experiment

In the last chapters Willett, as per his basic chronological structure, deals with the end of the Weimar Republic.

America started it, by having the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. American banks were plunged into crisis and clawed back all their outstanding loans in order to stay solvent. Businesses all across America went bankrupt, but America had also been the main lender to the German government during the reconstruction years after the War.

It had been an American, Charles G. Dawes, who chaired the committee which came up with the Dawes Plan of 1924. This arranged for loans to be made to the German government, which it would invest to boost industry, which would increase the tax revenue, which it would then use to pay off the punishing reparations which France demanded at the end of the war. And these reparations France would use to pay off the large debts to America which France had incurred during the war.

It was the guarantee of American money which stabilised the German currency after the hyper-inflation crisis of 1923, and enabled the five years of economic and social stability which followed, 1924-29, the high point for Willett of the Republic’s artistic and cultural output. All funded, let it be remembered, by capitalist America’s money.

The Wall Street Crash ended that. American banks demanded their loans back. German industry collapsed. Unemployment shot up from a few hundred thousand to six million at the point where Hitler took power. Six million! People voted, logically enough, for the man who promised economic and national salvation.

In this respect, the failure of American capitalism, which the crash represented, directly led to the rise of Hitler, to the Second World War, to the invasion of Russia, the partition of Europe and the Cold War. No Wall Street Crash, none of that would have happened.

A closed worldview leads to failure

Anyway, given that all this is relatively well known (it was all taught to my kids for their history GCSEs) what Willett’s account brings out is the short-sighted stupidity of the Communist Party of Germany and their Soviet masters.

Right up till the end of the Weimar Republic, the Communists (the KPD) refused to co-operate with the more centrist socialists (the SPD) in forming a government, and often campaigned against them. Willett quotes a contemporary communist paper saying an SPD government and a disunited working class would be a vastly worse evil than a fascist government and a unified working class. Well, they got the fascist government they hoped for.

In fact, the communists wanted a Big Crisis to come because they were convinced that it would bring about the German Revolution (which would itself trigger revolution across Europe and the triumph of communism).

How could they have been so stupid?

Because they lived in a bubble of self-reaffirming views. I thought this passage was eerily relevant to discussions today about people’s use of the internet, about modern digital citizens tending to select the news media, journalism and art and movies and so on, which reinforce their views and convince them that everyone thinks like them.

To some extent the extreme unreality of this attitude, with its deceptive aura of do-or-die militancy, sprang from the old left-wing tendency to underrate the non-urban population, which is where the Nazis had so much of their strength. At the same time it reflects a certain social and cultural isolation which sprang from the KPD’s own successes. For the German Communists lived in a world of their own, where the party catered for every interest. Once committed to the movement you not only read AIZ and the party political press: your literary tastes were catered for by the Büchergilde Gutenberg and the Malik-Verlag and corrected by Die Linkskurve; your entertainment was provided by Piscator’s and other collectives, by the agitprop groups, the Soviet cinema, the Lehrstück and the music of Eisler and Weill; your ideology was formed by Radványi’s MASch or Marxist Workers’ School; your visual standards by Grosz and Kollwitz and the CIAM; your view of Russia by the IAH. If you were a photographer, you joined a Workers-Photographers’ group; if a sportsman, some kind of Workers’ Sports Association; whatever your special interests Münzenberg [the German communist publisher and propagandist] had a journal for you. You followed the same issues, you lobbied for the same causes. (p.204)

And you failed. Your cause failed and everyone you knew was arrested, murdered or fled abroad.

A worldview which is based on a self-confirming bubble of like-minded information is proto-totalitarian, inevitably seeks to ban or suppress any opposing points of view, and is doomed to fail in an ever-changing world where people with views unlike yours outnumber you.

A democratic culture is one where people acknowledge the utter difference of other people’s views, no matter how vile and distasteful, and commit to argument, debate and so on, but also to conceding the point where the opponents are, quite simply, in the majority. You can’t always win, no matter how God-given you think your views of the world. But you can’t even hope to win unless you concede that your opponents are people, too, with deeply held views. Just calling them ‘social-fascists’ (as the KPD called the SPD) or ‘racists’ or ‘sexists’ (as bienpensant liberals call anyone who opposes them today) won’t change anything. You don’t stand a chance of prevailing unless you listen to, learn from, and sympathise with, the beliefs of people you profoundly oppose.

A third of the German population voted for Hitler in 1932 and the majority switched to Führer worship once he came to power. The avant-garde artists Willett catalogues in such mind-numbing profusion pioneered techniques of design and architecture, theatre production and photography, which still seem astonishingly modern to us today. But theirs was an entirely urban movement created among a hard core of like-minded bohemians. They didn’t even reach out to university students (as Laqueur’s chapter on universities makes abundantly clear), let alone the majority of Germany’s population, which didn’t live in fashionable cities.

Over the three days it took to read this book, I’ve also read newspapers packed with stories about Donald Trump and listened to radio features about Trump’s first year in office, so it’s been difficult not to draw the obvious comparisons between Willett’s right-thinking urban artists who failed to stop Hitler and the American urban liberals who failed to stop Trump.

American liberals – middle class, mainly confined to the big cities, convinced of the rightness of their virtuous views on sexism and racism – snobbishly dismissing Trump as a flashy businessman with a weird haircut who never got a degree, throwing up their hands in horror at his racist, sexist remarks. And utterly failing to realise that these were all precisely the tokens which made him appeal to non-urban, non-university-educated, non-middle class, and economically suffering, small-town populations.

Also, as in Weimar, the left devoted so much energy to tearing itself apart – Hillary versus Sanders – that it only woke up to the threat from the right-wing contender too late.

Ditto Brexit in Britain. The liberal elite (Guardian, BBC) based in London just couldn’t believe it could happen, led as it was by obvious buffoons like Farage and Johnson, people who make ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ comments and so, therefore, obviously didn’t count and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Because only people who talk like us, think like us, are politically correct like us, can possibly count or matter.

Well, they were proved wrong. In a democracy everyone’s vote counts as precisely ‘1’, no matter whether they’re a professor of gender studies at Cambridge (which had the highest Remain vote) or a drug dealer in Middlesborough (which had the highest Leave vote).

Dismissing Farage and Johnson as idiots, and anyone who voted Leave as a racist, was simply a way of avoiding looking into and trying to address the profound social and economic issues which drove the vote.

Well, the extremely clever sophisticates of Berlin also thought Hitler was a provincial bumpkin, a ludicrous loudmouth spouting absurd opinions about Jews which no sensible person could believe, who didn’t stand a chance of gaining power. And by focusing on the (ridiculous little) man they consistently failed to address the vast economic and social crisis which underpinned his support and brought him to power. Ditto Trump. Ditto Brexit.

Some optimists believe the reason for studying history is so we can learn from it. But my impression is that the key lesson of history is that – people never learn from history.


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Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Every year the National Portrait Gallery holds an exhibition displaying the 60 or so photographs which made the shortlist for the international Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, a leading international photographic portrait competition.

5,717 photos were entered for the 2017 competition, from a total of 2,423 photographers, based in 66 countries. The exhibition of this top 60 opened in mid-November and continues until 8 February.

A first, second and third prize are awarded, along with the John Kobel prize for best work by a photographer aged under 35.

This is the third year when they’ve also had an ‘In Focus’ feature, profiling a specific photographer. This year it is Todd Hido, an American photographer represented by four big studio shots of women.

I guess there are several ways to approach an exhibition like this. Since it happens every year, you could compare it with last year’s and the year before’s exhibitions with a view to spotting changing trends and developments. Alas, I don’t have a firm enough grasp of previous years to do that.

If you’re a photography buff you will be interested in technique or device, for example the use of digital versus film photography, or the use of new lenses, maybe new ways of using light and shadow, of composition etc. Alas, I know next to nothing about cameras. But also, the information panels next to each photo, often four or five paragraphs long, give little or no technical information but instead focus on the psychology, the mood and feel of the photos, and often discuss the ‘issues’ they raise or ‘investigate’.

You can just saunter round seeing what takes your fancy – which plenty of people were doing on the day I visited, including a gaggle of junior school children who were having a great time being asked by their teachers what they liked and why.

Or you could regard it as what Roland Barthes called a corpus, a body of work to be analysed, a set of 60 photographs to be analysed as a group or cohort, finding themes and patterns in it, maybe hazarding a guess at how it indicates ‘signs of the times’ and the ‘Zeitgeist’.

In this respect, it was notable that two of the three prizewinning photos addressed the issue of refugees and war.

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

First prize went to César Dezfuli for his portrait of a migrant rescued in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. His photo is of Amadou Sumaila, a sixteen-year-old from Mali, who’s just been plucked from a refugee boat by an Italian rescue vessel and is looking understandably troubled. César received £15,000 for his photograph, I wonder how much Amadou got.

Second prize (£3,000) went to Abbie Trayler-Smith for her photograph of a girl fleeing ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. Abbie, a former BBC producer, was working for Oxfam at the Hasan Sham displaced persons camp in Iraq, documenting the charity’s work helping people fleeing ISIS. A bus was bringing in people who had, only hours earlier, been in a battle zone. For me this was probably the best photo in the show, in the sense of the deepest and most haunting image, the streaks of sand left by rainwater trickling down the bus window contrasting with the detached beauty of the woman’s face.

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

But these two were the exceptions – there weren’t many other photos from combat zones, trouble spots or areas of distress e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen or Bangladesh. Periodically I flick through the couple of books I have by war photographer Don McCullin. There was nothing that intense or first hand here. Surfing through the websites of the featured photographers I came across some tough images by Adam Hinton of street gangs in El Salvador and the ruins of Kiev. There was nothing that gritty on display here.

Also, I happen to have recently visited the Tate Modern exhibition about Russian revolutionary art, a lot of which – films, photos and posters – depicts the proletariat and peasants at work, in fields, in factories, driving combine harvesters or sweating near blast furnaces. In this whole exhibition I think there was only one photograph of a person actually working, a black guy in South Africa holding a garden strimmer.

And despite two shots of boys in football strip, there were no shots of sports actually taking place, or in fact of any activities at all. A guy washing his feet in a sink. A mother in a natural pool with her baby and son. Four ladies holding floats in a swimming pool. That’s about as energetic as it got.

Maybe portraits have to be static. But can’t you have portraits of people doing something? Most of the photos here seemed posed and passive, exuding calm and poise. Take the third prize, which went to Maija Tammi from Finland for her portrait of a Japanese android called Erica. Android!? Yes, Erica is a robot made by Japanese scientists. Tammi had half an hour in the lab with Erica and one of her designers to take photos of the (disturbingly lifelike) android. The curators claim the photo ‘addresses issues’ of human versus robot etc, but for me, as an image, its main quality is its supreme calm and placidness.

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

Static

Quite a few of the photos just showed people in static positions, posed face-on to the camera or only slightly turned and positioned. Take, for example, the two photos from Owen Harvey’s series of Skins and Suedes. This one combines teenage surliness (‘Who you lookin’ at?’) with vulnerability, a kind of tough helplessness. Fine – except that quite a few of the other photos in the exhibition use exactly the same pose and approach.

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London, from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Some of them were very static indeed, posed with a kind of deliberately geometric sterility.

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

The overwhelming vibe of the show was of this placid, sterile, posed, numb effect. Maybe this is a ‘sign of the times’.

American dominance

This latter photo brings us to the issue of America’s representation in the show.

Since the introduction makes much of numbers –  5,717 photos submitted etc – I did a little counting of my own. Of the 60 or so photos on display, no fewer than 22 are from or about America – starting with Todd Hido’s four studio portraits.

There’s a whole wall of six or so American political photos, including ones of Trump, Obama and Hillary Clinton – the latter a worryingly big close-up of the lady in full campaign mode, reminding us of her hawkish foreign policy record, and that she is 70 years old (albeit younger than Trump, 71, or Bernie Saunders, 76: America the Gerontocracy).

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

These figures of power were placed next to a pair of photos of poor women taken against, or rather through, the metal grilles of part of the wall between the US and Mexico, as well as shots of blue collar Trump supporters, a teenage American gun fan, and so on.

The very first photo in the exhibition is by an American of a classic American subject – two drum majorettes caught in a casual moment. There’s a shot of a young black guy posed on a horse, a stylishly dressed black girl on Venice beach, the naked mum in a pool in Idaho. There, in other words, are lots of Yanks in this show.

This latter photo (below) is striking because it is, for this show, an unusually dynamic composition, the outstretched arm and leg making striking diagonal lines and the swimming boy nearly making three sides of an X shape. It is a rare example of a relatively unposed photo, the woman reaching for her glasses (are they glasses) giving it an air of precariousness and risk missing from almost all the other works here.

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water's Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water’s Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Having brought up two children since they were babies, I wasn’t charmed by this image of primal innocence (if that’s the intention): I was mainly worried about the safety of the baby!

Anyway, health and safety aside, my point is: how come so many Americans?

The US population is 323 million, just 4.25% of the global population of 7.6 billion. Why, then, were over 30% of the photos in this international competition by or about Americans?

Maybe because we in Britain are so drenched in Americana, through movies, TV shows, pop and rock and country music and so on, through the voices of academics and journalists on radio and TV, that we half believe these images and icons are ours. We somehow believe that we have a special claim on, or connection with, American culture. Maybe this is why British intellectuals get so very cross about Donald Trump almost as if he’s president of our country, and we hear so much about American domestic policy, about its race relations, or its abortion clinics, or the endless coverage of every new scandal from Hollywood, as if it directly affects us in Clapham and Cleethorpes and Clovelly.

Or maybe America is just so big and rich that it has a disproportionately large number of well-educated graduates of art and photography courses, plus an enormous network of magazines of all shapes and sizes and styles, and competitions and prizes and money – an entire ecosystem which can sustain tens of thousands of photographers. And so the quality of the best American photographers just is among the best in the world, and so they just deserve to dominate every international photography competition.

George S. Texas 2016 from the series "Age of Innocence" Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

George S. Texas 2016 from the series Age of Innocence: Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

Having counted the number of photos with American subject matter, I then turned to examine the list of photographers. I counted 51 photographers, responsible for 62 photographs (see below for a complete list of photographers and how many photos they have in the show). Of those 51 photographers, 31 are British and 9 are American. I.e. 40 out of the 51 photographers in the exhibition (78%) are British or American.

This is a bit disappointing. What about China (pop. 1.4 billion), India (pop. 1.3 billion), Indonesia or Brazil? And although it’s less populous (144 million), I always wish there was more coverage of Russia in shows like this, Russia being the largest country in the world, with its vast Siberian hinterland occupied by all sorts of interesting tribes and ethnic groups.

Considering that China will become the economic powerhouse of the world, and Putin’s Russia presents a distinct threat to the West, in both military and digital terms, I think the more we see and understand about these countries and their people the better; and so – fairly or unfairly – I can’t help thinking that supposedly ‘global’ competitions which don’t adequately represent them are missing a trick.

Maybe the disproportionately high number of British and American entrants is for the simple reason that the competition is well publicised in these countries, which after all have a large cultural overlap. Maybe the competition is just not very well promoted in other countries (even in other Anglo countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, which didn’t have any representatives here). Maybe the Anglo bias of the show reflects the difficulty of publicising it elsewhere.

All I know for sure is that, against this Anglocentric backdrop, the handful of colourfully non-Anglo subjects really stood out.

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Cool photo. By an American, though.

Humour

Not many people in these photos are smiling let alone laughing. Just like in last year’s BP Portrait Award show (for painted portraits), happiness seems to be verboten. Maybe it’s a function of the highly posed nature of most of the photos: the subjects obviously felt they had to be on their best behaviour.

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Having recently read a few books about Surrealism my head is also full of bizarre images created by yoking together unexpected juxtapositions, as in the numerous cutouts and collages of Max Ernst.

Only one photo of the 60 or so here really played at all with these possibilities of photography as a medium. Typically, it was not only a) American but b) very earnest.

It represents the experience of Swedish photographer Alice Schoolcraft who visited her American relatives only to discover that they were Bible-thumping, gun-toting Republicans, and particularly fond of their German Shepherd dog. Hence this photomontage which, I felt, was neither as weird or as convincingly photoshopped as it ought to be.

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Women’s bodies

Women appear to be much more interested in their bodies than men are in theirs, as facts and figures from GPs, hospitals, pharmacies, the fashion and beauty industries, and anecdotal evidence suggest. Probably because women’s bodies are so much more interesting than men’s bodies, dominated as they are by the great central Fact of childbirth, which overshadows their lives – from the advent of menstruation to the onset of the menopause, via a lifetime worrying about contraception, with maybe one or more pregnancies to live through, babies to deliver in agony, and then the long, wearing years of child rearing.

All this to cope with before you even consider the non-stop pestering and objectifying by boys and men, and the great weight of social pressure to conform, be polite and submissive, dress well and look good at all times. What a nightmare!

These thoughts were prompted by the fact that buried in the show is an unobtrusive strand about girlhood, womanhood, motherhood and old age. I wonder if the organisers knew it was there – it would be nice to think it was a very subtle piece of thematic planning. But deliberate or not, ten or so of the pictures could be arranged to form a kind of ‘life cycle of a woman’. They kick off with this graphic photo of childbirth.

Sophie's first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

Sophie’s first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

I’ve referred to the photo of the mum swimming with a baby, above, which stands for babies and toddlers. Next in this ‘life cycle’ would come photos showing:

  • a pre-pubescent girl in a swimsuit in a poolside shower
  • a clutch of sulky punk girls from London’s streets (the third photo in this review)
  • the stylish young black woman in torn jeans posing on Venice beach

Then there’s another medical shot, focusing on a specifically female condition – a photo of a woman’s stomach indicating operations resulting from her endemetriosis. In fact it’s the photographer’s own body, Georgie Wileman having suffered from this horrible condition and turned her plight into a photographic project.

Early in my career I produced and directed a dozen medical videos which involved researching some pretty horrible conditions, looking at hundreds of photos of disfigured bodies, and filming a number of surgical procedures (the operation to treat piles was probably the most gruesome). This disabused me of any naive innocence about the human body. All of us, no matter how young and beautiful, are medical patients in waiting.

2014 - 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

2014 – 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

In terms of thinking about themes and trends, this photo made me realise that there is probably a whole modern genre here, the ‘Woman’s body as a medical battlefield’ genre. In the past people wrote books about ‘The Nude’. Nowadays you could fill a book with art photos of women’s bodies after mastectomies, caesarian sections and so on.

Further on in the exhibition, a photo of a family picnic on Southwold beach can be taken as symbolising motherhood and middle age, all making sandwiches and the school run.

And, to complete the cycle, tucked away among other, brasher photos, is an unobtrusive but moving picture of an old woman dying.

I found this hard to look at since it reminded me too much of holding my own mother’s hand as she passed away in a cold, white hospital room. The lifeless white hair. The skin like parchment.

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Once I’d noticed this women’s life cycle – almost like one of Hogarth’s moral tales – the many photos of lads and men alongside them seemed callow and trite by comparison. Maybe these reflect the way many boy’s and men’s lives are indeed a succession of shallow thrill-seeking, dares and accidents. Fast cars, football and fags.

A number of the photographers here seemed to have had the idea of focusing on teenage boys, hanging out, smoking tabs, wondering how much that camera’s worth. I grew up among lads like this, so I liked this strand. ‘Oi mate, want some blow?’ Is he a nice boy who loves his Mum – or is he about to stab you? ‘Teenagers’ was another noticeable theme of the exhibition.

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Artists

And smoking brings us neatly to a little suite of photos of creative types. To be precise, there are photos of two artists and a writer in the show:

The Sunday Times columnist A.A. Gill is photographed in his Chelsea garden in the advanced stages of the cancer that was shortly to kill him. He was a recovering alcoholic who, at one point, smoked 60 tabs a day. He died of lung cancer.

The popular but critically slated painter Jack Vettriano is photographed looking grey-haired and gaunt in his home in Battersea having only recently, the wall label tells us, recovered from his chronic alcoholism. Also a heavy smoker.

But my favourite was a cracking photo of artist Maggi Hambling CBE, aged 72 and still smoking like a trooper. Here she is in the garden of her home in Suffolk. She insisted on smoking throughout the shoot and, apparently, got through a pack and a half of fags before the photographer had the bright idea of setting up a smoke machine to give the surreal impression that her ciggies are blotting out the entire landscape. Maybe I liked it because it’s virtually the only humorous photo in the show.

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

I was mildly interested to read who the judges were:

  • Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Chair (Director, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Dr David Campany (Writer, Curator and Artist)
  • Tim Eyles, Managing Partner, Taylor Wessing LLP
  • Dr Sabina Jaskot-Gill (Associate Curator, Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Fiona Shields (Head of Photography, The Guardian)
  • Gillian Wearing (Artist)

50% women – but no black or Asian judges. Blackness is seen via white photographers selected by white judges. But then that does seem to be par for the course for London galleries (see my blog post on Women and ethnic minorities in the art world).

Conclusion

If you’re interested in photography this is an excellent snapshot of work from around the world (well, by Americans and Brits who travel round the world).

All of the photos are technically very finished, well lit, focused, clear and crisp.

A handful (the winners) are really stunning.

I found the American presence oppressive, maybe other people will like it.

I detected a hidden theme of womanhood; maybe other visitors will find other themes. (The winning photo of César Dezfuli suggests the theme of migrants, emigrants and refugees, with quite a few shots of British or American blacks and Asians finding their place in the predominantly white culture and – on the anti-immigrant side – photos of Trump and his supporters – there’s enough material here to write an essay just on this very timely theme – but this review is long enough already).

If my review comes over as dismissive, I don’t intend it to be: I found the show fascinating in all kinds of ways and, more tellingly, I’ve found its effects lingering on. Following up the three prize winners and some of the others via the internet has opened my eyes to the dazzling world of contemporary photography. In this respect the exhibition can be used as a valuable gateway, as an introduction and incitement to explore further.

Having looked, read and thought carefully about all 61 photos, maybe the biggest take-home message is:

Smoking is really, really bad for you 🙂


List of photographers

  • Abbie Trayler-Smith, UK (1 photo)
  • Adam Hinton, UK (2)
  • Alan Mozes, USA (2)
  • Alejandro Cartagena, Mexico (2)
  • Alice Schoolcraft, Sweden/USA (1)
  • Alva White, UK (1)
  • Alys Tomlinson, UK (1)
  • Anna Boyiazis, USA (1)
  • Baud Postma, UK (1)
  • Benjamin Rasmussen, USA (1)
  • Camille Mack, UK (1)
  • Catherine Hyland, UK (2)
  • César Dezfuli, Spain (1)
  • Charlie Bibby, UK (1)
  • Charlie Clift, UK (1)
  • Cian Oba-Smith, UK (1)
  • Cig Harvey, UK (1)
  • Craig Bernard, UK (1)
  • Craig Easton, UK (2)
  • Danny North, UK (2)
  • Davey James Clarke, UK (1)
  • David Vintiner, UK (1)
  • Debbie Naylor, UK (1)
  • Georgie Wileman, UK (1)
  • Hania Farrell, Lebanon/UK (1)
  • Harry Cory Wright, UK (1)
  • Ian McIlgorm, UK (1)
  • Joel Redman, UK (1)
  • Jon Tonks, UK (1)
  • Keith Bernstein, South Africa (1)
  • Kurt Hörbst, Germany (2)
  • Laurence Cartwright, UK (1)
  • Laurent Elie Badessi, France (1)
  • Mahtab Hussain, UK (1)
  • Maija Tammi, Finland (1)
  • Matthew Finn, UK (1)
  • Matthew Hamon, USA (1)
  • Mitchell Moreno, UK (2)
  • Monika Merva, USA (1)
  • Nancy Newberry, USA (1)
  • Natasta Alipour-Faridani, UK (1)
  • Owen Harvey, UK (2)
  • Paola Serino, Italy (1)
  • R. J. Kern, USA (1)
  • Richard Beaven, USA (1)
  • Sean Smith, UK (1)
  • Simon Urwin, UK (1)
  • Thom Pierce, UK (1)
  • Todd Hido, USA (4)
  • Tom Craig, UK (1)
  • Tommy Hatwell, UK (1)

Caveats

1. This list is taken from promotional material given out by the NPG press office; it may not be 100% complete. 2. Nationalities are as per the photographers’ entries on the internet; some of these, again, may not be 100% accurate (i.e. someone might have been born in one country and changed nationality). I apologise for any errors and will correct any, if pointed out to me.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

People Power: Fighting for Peace @ Imperial War Museum London

O silly and unlucky are the brave,
Who tilt against the world’s enormous wrong.
Their serious little efforts will not save
Themselves or us. The enemy is strong.
O silly and unlucky are the brave. (W.H. Auden, 1937)

It’s the centenary of the Imperial War Museum, set up in the same year as the Battle of Passchendaele and the Russian Revolution. 100 years of terrifying conflict, warfare, worldwide destruction and incomprehensible hecatombs of violent death. To mark the hundred years since its founding IWM London is mounting an exhibition chronicling the history of protest against war and its mad destruction.

People Power: Fighting for Peace presents a panorama of British protest across the past decades, bringing together about three hundred items – paintings, works of literature, posters, banners, badges and music – along with film and TV news footage, and audio clips from contemporaries, to review the growth and evolution of protest against war.

The exhibition very much focuses on the common people, with lots of diaries, letters and photos from ordinary men and women who protested against war or refused to go to war, alongside some, deliberately limited, examples from better-known writers and artists.

The show is in four sections:

First World War and 1920s

Having finished reading most of Kipling recently, I have a sense of how tremendously popular the Boer War (1899 to 1902) was in Britain. If there was an outburst of creativity it was in the name of raising money for the soldiers and their families, and commemorating ‘victories’ like Mafeking on mugs and tea towels. I am still struck by the vast success of Kipling’s charity poem, the Absent-Minded Beggar (1899).

12 years later the Great War prompted the same outpourings of patriotic fervour in the first year or so. But then the lack of progress and the appalling levels of casualties began to take their toll. From the first there had been pacifists and conscientious objectors, Fabian socialists like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, or the Bloomsbury Circle with its attendant vegetarians, naturists and exponents of free love (as documented in the current exhibition of art by Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and hilariously satirised by John Buchan in his gung-ho adventure story, Mr Standfast). 

The exhibition features personal items and letters revealing the harrowing experiences of Conscientious Objectors who faced non-combatant service, forced labour, imprisonment and hostility from wider society. (Conscription of all unmarried men between 18 and 41 was only brought in in March 1916 when the supply of volunteers dried up.)

In fact the first half of the show very much focuses on the ordeals and changing treatment of Conscientious Objectors, because both the First and Second Wars featured conscription, forcing some men to make very difficult choices. In the Great War there were 16,000 COs; in the Second War 60,000.

The show brings out the principled stand of Quakers, religious non-conformists with absolute pacifist principles, who had been persecuted ever since their foundation in the turmoil of the Civil Wars. The Quakers set up the Friends Ambulance Unit, and there is a display case showing photos, letters from the founders and so on.

One of the Great War artists, CRW Nevinson, served with the unit from October 1914 to January 1915 and two of his oil paintings are here. Neither is as good as the full flood of his Futurist style as exemplified in La Mitrailleuse (1915) – like many of the violent modernists his aggression was tempered and softened by the reality of slaughter. His later war paintings are spirited works of propaganda, but not so thrilling as works of art:

The exhibition displays here, and throughout, the special tone that women anti-war protestors brought to their activities. Many suffragettes became ardent supporters of the war and there is on display the kind of hand-written abuse and a white feather which women handed out to able-bodied men in the street who weren’t in uniform. There is fascinating footage of a rally of Edwardian women demanding to be able to work – and of course tens of thousands ended up working in munitions factories and in countless other capacities.

The millions of voiceless common soldiers were joined by growing numbers of disillusioned soldiers and especially their officers, who had the contacts and connections to make their views known. Siegfried Sassoon is probably the most famous example of a serving officer who declared his disgust at the monstrous loss of life, the mismanagement of the war, and revulsion at the fortunes being made in the arms industry by profiteers.

There’s a copy of the letter of protest Sassoon wrote to his commanding officer in 1917 and which ended up being read out in the House of Commons, a photo of him hobnobbing with grand Lady Garsington and a manuscript of one of the no-nonsense poems Sassoon published while the war was still massacring the youth of Europe (in Counter-Attack 1918):

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Fascinatingly, the hand-written text here has Sassoon’s original, much blunter, angrier version.

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he murdered them both by his plan of attack.

The recent exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain explored how the blasphemous ruination of the natural landscape by ceaseless bombardment affected this sensitive painter. This exhibition shows some of the Nash works that IWM owns. Nash went on to have a nervous breakdown in the early 1920s.

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

1930s and Second World War

Throughout what W.H. Auden famously called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s the memory of the Great War made pacifism and anti-war views much more widespread and intellectually and socially acceptable. Even the most jingoistic of soldiers remembered the horror of the trenches. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been directly involved in the Great War government and this experience was part of his motivation in going the extra mile to try and appease Hitler at the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938.

All sorts of organisations organised and lobbied against the looming menace of war. In 1935 the Peace Pledge Union was founded. The exhibition shows black and white film footage of self-consciously working class, Labour and communist marches against war. Nevinson is represented by a (very poor) pacifist painting – The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice (1934). There is the fascinating titbit that Winnie the Pooh novelist A.A. Milne published a 1934 pacifist pamphlet titled Peace With Honour. But like many others he later changed his mind, a change recorded in letters here: the rise of fascist Germany was just too evil to be wished away.

The exhibition includes diaries, letters and photography which shed light on the personal struggles faced by these anti-war campaigners – but nothing any of these high-minded spirits did prevented the worst cataclysm in human history breaking out. The thread of conscientious objectors is picked up again – there were some 62,000 COs in the second war, compared to 16,000 in the first, and letters, diaries, photographs of individuals and CO Tribunals give a thorough sense of the process involved, the forms of alternative work available, as well as punishments for ‘absolutists’ – those who refused to work on anything even remotely connected with the war.

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

The single most inspiring story in the exhibition, for me, was that of John Bridge, a convinced pacifist and physics teacher, who nonetheless volunteered to train as a bomb disposal expert. He has a display case to himself which shows photos, letters and so on, and gives a detailed account of his war time service in a succession of conflict zones, along with the actual fuses of several of the bombs he defused, and the rack of medals he won for outstanding bravery. In serving his country but in such a clear-cut non-aggressive, life-saving role, I was shaken by both his integrity and tremendous bravery.

Cold War

The largest section of the exhibition explores the 45-year stand-off between the two superpowers which emerged from the rubble of the Second World War – the USA and the USSR – which was quickly dubbed ‘the Cold War’. Having recently read John Lewis Gaddis’s History of the Cold War, I tend to think of the period diving into three parts:

1. The early years recorded in black-and-white TV footage characterised by both sides testing their atom and then hydrogen bombs, and leading to the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The exhibition commemorates the many mass marches from the centre of London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at RAF Aldermaston in Berkshire about thirty miles away. Interestingly, it includes some of the early designs for a logo for the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (founded in 1958). These various drafts were made by artist and designer Gerald Holtom, before he settled on the logo familiar to all of us now. This, it turns out, is a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters ‘N’ and ‘D’.

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

Although Holtom is also quoted as saying it draws something from the spread arms of the peasant about to be executed in the Spanish painter Goya’s masterpiece, The Third of May 1808.

2. The Cuban crisis shook the leadership of both nuclear powers and led to a range of failsafe arrangements, not least the connection of a hotline between the US President and the Russian Premier. I always wondered what happened to the whole Aldermaston March culture with its earnest young men and women in black-and-white footage carrying banners against the bomb. The exhibition explains that a 1963 Test Ban treaty between the superpowers took a lot of the threat out of nuclear weapons. It also coincides (in my mind anyway) with Bob Dylan abandoning folk music and going electric in 1965. Suddenly everything seems to be in colour and about the Vietnam War.

This was because the Cold War, doused in Europe, morphed into a host of proxy wars fought in Third World countries, the most notable being the Vietnam War (additionally complicated by the fact that communist China was the main superpower opponent).

The same year Dylan went electric, and TV news is all suddenly in colour, the U.S. massively increased its military presence in Vietnam and began ‘Operation Thunder’, the strategy of bombing North Vietnam. Both these led in just a few years to the explosion of the ‘counter-culture’ and there’s a section here which includes a mass of ephemera from 1960s pop culture – flyers, badges, t-shirts etc emblazoned with the CND symbol amid hundreds of other slogans and logos, and references to the concerts for peace and tunes by the likes of Joan Baez and John Lennon.

Reviled though he usually is, it was actually Republican President Nixon who was elected on a promise to bring the Vietnam War to an end. Nixon also instituted the policy of détente, basically seeking ways for the superpowers to work together, find common interests and avoid conflicts. This policy was taken up by his successor Gerald Ford and continued by the Democrat Jimmy Carter, and led to a series of treaties designed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on both sides and ease tensions.

3. Détente was running out of steam when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and a year later the tough-talking Republican President Ronald Reagan was elected US President. Reagan’s more confrontational anti-communist line was accompanied by the development of a new generation of long-range missiles. When the British government of Mrs Thatcher agreed to the deployment of these cruise missiles at RAF Greenham in Berkshire, it inaugurated a new generation of direct protest which grew into a cultural phenomenon – a permanent camp of entirely female protesters who undertook a range of anti-nuke protests amid wide publicity.

The Greenham camp began in September 1981 after a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrived to protest the arrival of the cruise missiles, and continued for an impressive 19 years until it was disbanded in 2000.

The exhibition includes lots of memorabilia from the camp including a recreation of part of the perimeter fence of the base – and provides ribbons for us to tie onto the metal wire, like the Greenham women did, but with our own modern-day messages. And this impressive banner made by Thalia Campbell, one of the original 36 women to protest at Greenham Common.

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Peter Kennard is very much the visual artist of this era, with his angry, vivid, innovative photo-montages. I remembered the IWM exhibition devoted entirely to his shocking striking powerful black-and-white posters and pamphlets.

Modern Era

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 (and Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher left power, 1989 and 1990 respectively), many pundits and commentators promised that the world would benefit from a huge ‘peace dividend’. Frances Fukuyama published his influential essay The End of History – which just go to show how stupid clever people can be.

In fact, the fall of communism was followed in short order by the first Gulf War (1990-91), the Balkan Wars (1991-5), civil war in Somalia, the war in Afghanistan (2001-2014), the war in Iraq (2003-2011), and then the Arab Spring, which has led to ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya. In all of these conflicts Western forces played a role.

Obviously the 9/11 attacks on New York ushered in a new era in which radical Islam has emerged as the self-declared enemy of the West. It is an age which feels somehow more hopeless and depressed than before. The Aldermaston marchers, the peaceniks of the 1960s, the Greenham grannies (as they were nicknamed) clung to an optimistic and apparently viable vision of a peaceful world.

9/11 and then the ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with the financial crash of 2008 and the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, along with the permanent sense of threat from Islamic terrorism, somehow make this an era without realistic alternatives. Financial institutions rule the world and are above the law. Appalling terrorist acts can happen anywhere, at any moment.

Protest has had more channels than ever before to vent itself, with the advent of the internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s and yet, somehow… never has the will of the bienpensant, liberal, cosmopolitan part of the population seemed so powerless. A sense that the tide is somehow against the high-minded idealism of the educated bourgeoisie was crystalised by the Brexit vote of June 2016 and then the (unbelievable) election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.

This final section of the exhibition includes a world of artefacts from this last 28 years or so – the era of Post-Communism.

In terms of anti-war protest it overwhelmingly showcases the numerous protests which have taken place against Western interference in and invasions of Arab countries. It includes a big display case on Brian Haw’s protest camp in Parliament Square (2001-2011).

There’s a wall of the original ‘blood splat’ artwork and posters created by David Gentleman for the Stop the War Coalition, including his ‘No More Lies’ and ‘Bliar’ designs, as well as his original designs for the largest protest in British history, when up to 2 million people protested in London on 15 February 2003 against the Iraq War.

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

The exhibition also features a kind of continual aural soundscape in that there are well-amplified sounds of chants and protests from the different eras and installations washing & overlapping over each other, as you progress through it. In addition, there are also headphone posts where you can slip headphones on and listen to a selection of voices from the respective era (1930s, 1950s, 1980s).

Effectiveness

Did it work? Any of it? Did Sassoon’s poems stop the Great War a day earlier? Did all the political activism of the 1930s prevent the Second World War? Did the Greenham Women force the cruise missiles to be removed? Did anything anyone painted, carried, did or said, stop Bush and Blair from invading Iraq?

On the face of it – No.

This uncomfortable question is addressed in the final room (more accurately an alcove or bay) where a large TV screen shows a series of interviews with current luminaries of protest such as Mark Rylance (actor), Kate Hudson (General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), Vanessa Redgrave (actor), Lindsey German (convenor of the Stop the War Coalition), David Gentleman (artist associated with Stop the War).

From these fascinating interviews there emerge, I think, three points:

1. To the Big Question the answer is No – All the marches, banners, posters and activism never prevented or stopped a single war.

2. But, on the plus side, very large protests can influence the culture. There is now probably a widespread feeling across most of British society that British troops must not be sent to invade another foreign country, certainly not another Middle Eastern country, ever again. This helped decide the vote in August 2013 in which MPs voted against David Cameron’s proposal to allow RAF planes to join other NATO allies in attacking ISIS forces inside Syria. But was this due to any of the protests, or simply due to the long drawn-out mismanagement of the war which so obviously led to bloody chaos in Iraq, and the loss of lots of British troops and – for what?

And the protests didn’t create a culture of total pacifism, far from it – In December 2015, MPs voted in favour of allowing RAF Typhoons to join in attacks on ISIS in Syria i.e. for Britain to be involved in military operations in the Middle East. Again.

So none of the interviewees can give any concrete evidence of any government decisions or military activity being at all influenced by any mass protest of the past 100 years.

3. Community

But instead, they all testified to the psychological and sociological benefits of protest – of the act of joining others, sometimes a lot of others, and coming together in a virtuous cause.

For Mark Rylance joining protests helped him lance ‘toxic’ feelings of impotent anger. One of the other interviewees mentioned that marching and protesting is a kind of therapy. It makes you feel part of a wider community, a big family. It helps you not to feel alone and powerless. Lindsey German said it was exciting, empowering and liberating to transform London for one day, when the largest protest in British history took place on 15 February 2003 against the prospect of the invasion of Iraq.

This made me reflect on the huge numbers of women who took part in the marches against Donald Trump in January 2017, not just in Washington DC but across the USA and in other countries too. Obviously, they didn’t remove him from power. But:

  • they made their views felt, they let legislators know there is sizeable active opposition to his policies
  • many if not most will have experienced that sense of community and togetherness which the interviewees mention, personally rewarding and healing
  • and they will have made contacts, exchanged ideas and maybe returned to their communities empowered to organise at a grass-roots level, to resist and counter the policies they oppose

Vietnam

The one war in the past century which you can argue was ended by protests in a Western country was the Vietnam War. By 1968 the U.S. government – and President Lyndon Johnson in particular – realised he couldn’t continue the war in face of the nationwide scale of the protests against it. In March 1968 Johnson announced he wouldn’t be standing for re-election and declared a winding-down of U.S. troop involvement, a policy followed through by his successor, Nixon.

But:

a) Handing over the people of South Vietnam to a generation of tyranny under the North Vietnamese communist party was hardly a noble and uplifting thing to do.

b) In the longer term, the debacle of the Vietnam War showed American and NATO leaders how all future conflicts needed to be handled for domestic consumption i.e very carefully. Wars in future:

  • would need to be quick and focused, employing overwhelming force, the so-called ‘shock and awe’ tactic
  • the number of troops required should never get anywhere near requiring the introduction of conscription or the draft, with the concomitant widespread opposition
  • the media must be kept under tight control

This latter is certainly a take-home message from the three books by war photographer Don McCullin, which I’ve read recently. During the Vietnam War he and the hundreds of other reporters and photographers could hitch lifts on helicopters more or less at will, go anywhere, interview everyone, capture the chaos, confusion, demoralisation and butchery of war with complete freedom. Many generals think the unlimited reporting of the media lost them the war in Vietnam (as opposed to the more obvious conclusion that the North Vietnamese won it).

The result was that after Vietnam, Western war ministries clamped down on media coverage of their wars. In McCullin’s case this meant that he was actively prevented from going to the Falklands War (April to June 1982), something which has caused him great personal regret but which typifies, on a wider level, the way that that War was reported in a very controlled way, so that there’s been an enduring deficit in records about it.

From the First Gulf War (1990-91) onwards, war ministries in all NATO countries have insisted on ’embedding’ journalists with specific units where they have to stay and can be controlled.

Like the twentieth century itself, this exhibition is sprawling, wide-ranging, and perplexing – sparking all sorts of ideas, feelings and emotions which are difficult to reconcile and assimilate, since its central questions – Is war ever morally justified? If so, why and when and how should it be fought? – remain as difficult to answer as they were a hundred years ago – as they always have been.

The video


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

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