Family Britain: A Thicker Cut, 1954-57 by David Kynaston (2009)

This is the second part of the second volume of David Kynaston’s social history of post-war Britain. As usual, it is a dense collage of quotes from the diaries, letters, interviews, surveys and speeches of an enormous range of people from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to vox pops of shoppers in the street via civil servants, actors, coal miners, housewives, writers who were kids at the time recalling their early memories (John Fowles, David Hare, Alan Bennett, Hunter Davies) – all combining to give you a really deeply felt sense of what it was like to live through these years.

Chronological events part one

Thus, without any preliminary introduction the book opens straight into a cabinet meeting discussing the problem of coloured workers, held on Wednesday 3 February 1954: ‘Are we to saddle ourselves with colour problems in the UK?’ Winston Churchill asked, a sentiment which is echoed half a dozen times as the race problem and the ‘colour bar’ are revisited throughout the book, reflecting the rising rate of immigration from the Commonwealth.

This very long book then touches on:

1954

  • the housing problem, the debate about whether to build flats or houses, and whether to shunt people out to the periphery (as believed by ‘dispersionists’) or keep them in high rise inner cities (‘urbanists’)
  • whether to decriminalise homosexuality, specifically in light of the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood, which began in 15 March
  • Billy Graham’s Greater London Crusade starting 1 March
  • the campaign to set up a commercial TV channel to rival the BBC’s monopoly; the canny entrepreneurs lobbying for commercial TV choose Sir Kenneth Clarke as their ultra-respectable front man and he gives a speech supporting it; next time he enters his club, he is roundly booed
  • 5 April Commons debate about the H-bomb, necessary if Britain is to remain ‘a world power’
  • repeated crashes of the British-built Comet airliner result in it being grounded and overtaken by the American Boeing
  • newspapers report on fighting at youth clubs and dance halls involving teenagers with a new look, the Teddy Boys: ‘The effect of the whole décor is thin, mean and sinister, and is obviously meant to be’ (Cyril Dunn in his diary)
  • Doctor in the House starring Dirk Bogarde is the box office smash of 1954
  • 6 May 1954 at Iffley Road track in Oxford, Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile
  • on 27 May, Hungary beat England 7-1 (West Germany go on to beat Hungary in the World Cup Final in July)
  • Iris Murdoch publishes her first novel, Under the Net. She is a committed communist
  • butter comes off the ration
  • June, Benny Hill shoots to TV stardom doing impersonations on Showcase
  • the myxomatosis epidemic among wild rabbits continued, eventually 99% of the population is wiped out
  • refrigerators are beginning to be a sign of status, notes sociologist Phyllis Willmott (p.399); restrictions on hire-purchase are removed for a wide range of consumer goods such as fridges, hoovers, radios, TVs, motorbikes and cars, setting in train the consumer society
  • August – Salad Days is a surprise hit in the theatre, starting a run which continues till 1960
  • Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring published, followed in November by the Two Towers
  • September – the Third Programme’s live broadcast of Benjamin Britten’s new opera, A Turn of the Screw
  • Kidbrook school opens, London’s first purpose-built comprehensive
  • October – an exhibition of paintings by John Bratby leads critic David Sylvester to coin the term ‘kitchen sink’ school, which goes on to be widely applied to theatre and film
  • 2 November – début of Hancock’s Half Hour on BBC radio
  • by the end of the year there are nearly 4 million TV licences

1955

  • January – BBC documentary Has Britain a Colour Bar? to which the answer was emphatically yes
  • February: road traffic has almost doubled since 1938 and so the government publishes a major road expansion plan including the building of two motorways, M1 and M6
  • government also announces plans to build 12 nuclear power stations, the most advanced scheme of nuclear power anywhere in the world
  • January – debut on TV of The Sooty Show and The Benny Hill Show
  • February – debut of Kitchen Magic, presented by Fanny Cradock, first of the celebrity chefs, coinciding with the era of rationing passing into memory i.e. the start of conspicuous consumption
  • March – national newspaper strike
  • 5 April Winston Churchill (aged 80) steps down as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister
  • 6 April replaced by Anthony Eden (Eton and Christ Church, Oxford) who announces a snap general election for 26 May (the voting age was still 21, as it continued to be until 1969)
  • May General Election: Conservatives 321 seats, Labour 277, Liberals 6, the 17 communist candidates polled 33,000 votes between them. Turnout was down from 82 to 76% amid what Kynaston portrays as widespread apathy, the general interpretation being that the economy was booming, rationing was over, consumer goods were becoming widely available, who cares about politics? Hugh Gaitskell, and Kynaston, attribute it to Tory success with housewives.
  • May Day – Stirling Moss became the first British driver to win the Mille Miglia in Italy
  • May – The Dam Busters released, the outstanding British film of the year ‘maybe of the decade’
  • Miners strike, train drivers strike, dockers’ strike
  • 13 July Ruth Ellis hanged for murder, last woman hanged (the last men hanged were executed in August 1964)
  • August – Kingsley Amis’s second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, and publication of the first edition of the Guinness Book of Records
  • September – Henry Fairlie writes an article in the Spectator describing the ‘Establishment’ that runs Britain
  • 22 September – commercial television (ITV) starts broadcasting in the London area
  • October was dominated by controversy among politicians, press and people on the long-running saga about whether young Princess Margaret Rose (25) should or should not marry divorced father-of-two Group-Captain Peter Townsend (30) with whom she was clearly in love. After dividing the nation, she decided not to.

Sociological studies

About two-thirds of the way through the text it abruptly stops giving a month-by-month overview of political and popular events and turns into an extended consideration of various sociological issues, moving seamlessly through religious belief, attitudes to marriage, sex, homosexuality, unmarried mothers, abortion, prostitution, the role of women, women in the home, women in the workplace and so on.

As usual Kynaston draws evidence from a wide range of sources: from social historians, from the surprising number of surveys and sociological studies carried out at the time, from the diaries or letters of ordinary people and politicians or the autobiographies of writers, from questionnaires carried out by contemporary magazines, from government-sponsored reports, and so on.

Inevitably, in the longish sequence about the social expectations on women in the 1950s, the white, private-school-educated man Kynaston bends over backwards to emphasise his feminist credentials and bring out how lazy and selfish 1950s men were, and the pressure of social expectations on women. There’s a lot less about the social expectations on men – to be financial provider, role model, father, and good companion in marriage.

In fact, although a huge amount of the content is informative and illuminating, not much is very surprising: the four books I’ve read so far tend to confirm everything you already suspected, but just with an awesome range of witnesses and voices adding texture and lived experience to the statistics and stereotypes, making the era really come to life.

Some of the sociological findings do raise a smile for confirming sociology’s tendency to state the bleeding obvious. For example, on pages 576-77 Kynaston quotes several surveys which, after hundreds of interviews and hard work compiling the data, present the dazzling conclusion that, for lots of working women, the main motivation for going out to work was — to earn money! 73% of married women gave ‘financial reasons’ as their main motive for going to work. Not, maybe, earth-shattering news.

This list gives you a sense of the scope and number of surveys Kynaston refers to, as well as indicating the subject matter they address:

  • Brian Abel-Smith and Richard Titmuss study of NHS services underpinned the 1956 Guillebaud Committee report on the NHS which recommended no major changes
  • BBC survey 1955-6 about Britain’s decline (28% thought there’d been a decline in Britain’s economic ranking, blaming the trade unions and strikes)
  • White and Coloured by Michael Banton (p.451) recorded how cities across the UK recruited west Indian bus drivers and conductors through the first half of the 1950s
  • 1956 survey of racial attitudes in Birmingham (two thirds thought coloured people were intrinsically less intelligent than white people)
  • Family and Social Network by Elizabeth Bott (1957), including the Bott hypothesis that the connectedness or the density of a husband’s and wife’s separate social networks is positively associated with marital role segregation
  • Tom Brennan, author of a 1956 study of occupants of the Gorbals and attitudes to redevelopment
  • The Sexual, Marital and Family Relationships of the English Woman (1956) by Eustace Chesser (women look for physical strength in man more than looks; the higher up the social scale the more likely a woman was to experience sexual satisfaction; husband doesn’t pet enough [foreplay]; ‘overwhelmingly it was felt by wives that men wanted sex more frequently than women did’, p.592)
  • Citizens of Tomorrow by a working party of educationalists and sociologists
  • Peter Collison – study of the Cutteslowe Wall in Oxford
  • Professor Kate Fisher, pioneering historian of sex e.g. , Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960 (2007)
  • February 1957 Gallup survey about church going
  • 1954 BBC-commissioned Gallup survey into church attendance
  • anthropologist Frank Girling spent 18 months on a Scottish housing estate studying the unskilled workers and their families (women had a dominant position in the social life of the area and their homes)
  • Social Mobility in Britain by David Glass finding a generally low level of social mobility (p.410)
  • 1951 survey of British life by Geoffrey Gorer
  • Ken Grainger did a study of Herbert’s the machine tool firm in Coventry
  • Natalie Higgins, author of a study of marriage in mid-twentieth century England (women looked for a man who was clean, decent and hard working)
  • Margot Jefferys author of a study of married women working in the civil service
  • Pearl Jephcott investigated youth clubs in London and Nottingham
  • 1956 survey by Joyce Joseph of 600 adolescent girls attending school in the Home Counties and the West Country
  • 1949 Mass-Observation on household income
  • 1951 Mass-Observation survey of 700 working class housewives
  • 1955 Mass-Observation survey into capital punishment
  • 1956 Mass-Observation study of the housewife’s day
  • 1957 Mass-Observation survey on women in work
  • John Barron May’s study of a police division in inner-city Liverpool
  • John Barron May’s 1956 study of Liverpool’s Crown Street area
  • John Mogey’s study of working class life in Oxford
  • 1954 NHS survey of services for the elderly
  • Anthony Richmond author of The Colour Problem
  • Elizabeth Roberts, author of a 1990s oral history of Barrow, Lancaster and Preston – parents became closer to their children, than their own parents had been
  • Women of the Streets (1955) edited by C.H. Rolph
  • English Life and Leisure (1951)  by Rowntree and Lavers
  • Lulie Shaw, author of a study of a working class suburb in the 1950s
  • John Smith in 1955 conducted field work at the Peak Freen biscuit factory in Bermondsey
  • Steven Tolliday’s study of Coventry engineering workers
  • The Family Life of Old People (1957) by Peter Townsend
  • Margaret Williamson – interviews in the ironstone region of Cleveland: post-war fathers more involved and willing to play with their children than pre-war fathers
  • Family and Kinship in East London (1957) by Michael Young and Peter Willmott
  • More About the Sex Factor by Dr Helena Wright (1947)

The single finding I found most interesting was the notion that the extended kinship system Young and Willmott found in the East End (grandparents and siblings living nearby and able to babysit and do errands) disappeared as young couples moved out to housing estates on the edge of town, and to new towns. Being isolated and thrown back on their own resources coincided or led to a) families being smaller (two children) and b) a greater sharing of household work and parenting, more involvement by dads i.e. the loss of an extended family network was compensated by more ‘modern’ gender roles. Although it did also just lead to lots of lonely, isolated mums.

Chronological events part two

1955

  • October 15 Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets enters the Billboard Top 20
  • November: Cabinet decided not to support the Home Secretary’s plan for legislation to limit immigration from the Commonwealth
  • books of the year: The Cruel Sea, Reach for the Sky, HMS Ulysses
  • Christmas Day: Somerset Maugham published an attack on Kingsley Amis’s characters, calling them ‘scum’
  • December Clement Attlee stands down as leader of the Labour Party, replaced by Hugh Gaitskell (aged 49, educated at Winchester Public School and New College, Oxford)

1956

  • January – a concert by young turks Harrison Birtwhistle and Peter Maxwell Davies
  • February – London Transport starts to recruit staff from Barbados, followed by Trinidad and Jamaica
  • high prices bring discontent, complaints about Eden’s premiership, and worries about growing manufacturing competition from Germany and Japan
  • March – politicians and commentators react to news of Nikita Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin and his crimes – a number of intellectuals quit the communist party and were to form the nucleus of the New Left which flourished in the 1960s
  • April – release of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier amid an orgy of merchandising
  • April – Khrushchev and Soviet premier Bulganin visit Britain, attending a race meeting, tea with the Queen, lunch at the House of Commons, and questions at the Oxford Union
  • 8 May – first night of Look Back In Anger by John Osborne divides the critics
  • 19 May – Elvis Presley entered the British charts for the first time with Heartbreak Hotel
  • May – opening of the This is Tomorrow art exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, including Richard Hamilton’s iconic collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing, the earliest example of Pop Art
Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

  • 12 June – bulldozers start clearing hedgerows for the building of the M6, Britain’s first motorway (opened in 1958, the M1 was opened in 1959)
  • winter, spring and summer dominated by strikes, strident speeches by trade union leaders and complaints from the media about their selfishness
  • October – Tommy Steele enters the top 20 with Rock with the Caveman becoming Britain’s first rock’n’roll star
  • 17 October Windscale nuclear power station became the first nuclear power plant to feed electricity into a national grid anywhere in the world
  • November – Post Office Premium Bonds launched

1957

  • Wednesday 9 January – Sir Anthony Eden resigns as Tory leader and Prime Minister on grounds of ill health
  • Thursday 10 January – replaced by Harold Macmillan (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford)

Suez and Hungary

Traditional history of the 1950s focus on the Suez Crisis as a symptom of the end of Britain’s role as a genuine global power. Characteristically Kynaston reserves it for almost an afterthought in the last fifteen or so pages of the book, and even then his account is interspersed with references to Elvis Presley, Fanny Cradock and petrol prices, and he doesn’t concern himself with the military or geopolitical issues, but focuses on how the unfolding crisis was received by his usual cast of diarists – Nella Last, Anthony Heap and so on – as well as the diary entries of Prime Minister Eden’s wife and the private thoughts of other politicians. Two things come over:

  • I hadn’t realised that the Anglo-French invasion of Suez and the Soviet tanks rukbling in to suppress the Hungarian Uprising were so closely synchronised – the first shots fired by the Hungarian security forces on protesters were on 23 October, the next day Soviet tanks occupied Budapest. On 29 October Israeli jets attacked Egyptian positions and on 31 October the British and French began bombing Egyptian positions on 31 October. Part of what made liberals so angry about Suez was that it was an illegal unilateral action not sanctioned by the UN. At a stroke this removed the moral superiority or ability of the West to criticise the Soviets. If there had been no Suez the West would have been infinitely better placed to protest the Soviet invasion and sanction the USSR.
  • I knew that Suez divided the nation but Kynaston’s strength, here as everywhere else in the book, is to use diaries, letters, speeches, memoirs to really bring home the virulent anger on both sides. As families and husbands and wives and generations bitterly fell out over the best course of action, it’s impossible not to see the parallels with Brexit.

Class

Of the Conservative Party’s 600 candidates in the 1955 general election, 80% went to private school, and 80 had gone to Eton. Ten of Anthony Eden’s 18-strong cabinet went to Eton, five of whom also went on to Christ Church, Oxford (‘the House’, as it is known). Small world, the ruling class.

The education dilemma

Nearly seventy years after the debates about education which Kynaston quotes so extensively in his book, we:

  • still have an extensive network of private schools, whose alumni continue to dominate all aspects of public and economic life
  • are still agonising and hand-wringing about whether selection at age 11, the 11-plus, and grammar schools are a good or a bad thing

Examples of such agonising and debating:

Why are the basic facts about education i.e. what works best for individuals and for society as a whole, still not definitely known? What have all those educationalists and university departments of education and educational psychologists and all the rest of them been doing for the past 65 years?

Consumer society

My impression of British history over the past 70 years is that people wanted more stuff.

Governments came and went, politicians agonised over the precise wording of manifestos and speeches, clever Oxbridge graduates devised wizard wheezes (the poll tax, universal credit) but Kynaston’s approach to history makes it crystal clear that most people don’t give a stuff about politics – again and again disillusioned politicians find themselves speaking to tiny audiences in the rain, or surveys show that half the people surveyed have never even heard the phrase ‘welfare state’, let alone have sophisticated ideas about how to fund it.

What comes over strongly – especially in the recurrent thread about housing, slum clearance, the creation of flats and so on – is that people want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Again and again we read that people want to live in houses because of the privacy and don’t want to live in flats because of the lack of privacy.

And all through the book there is a massive disconnect between the university-educated politicians and theorists and writers and planners and activators and sociologists and anthropologists who agonise about definitions of ‘community’ and the ‘working class’ and the ‘proletariat’ — and the people living in Coventry or Birmingham or Glasgow (the most rundown city in Britain) who want: a clean home, hot water, a sink, a bathroom, an inside toilet.

And once they’ve got that, they want one of those TV sets that everyone is talking about, and one of the new line of fridges in which they can put the new range of frozen foods which were just being launched in the mid-1950s, led by Birds Eye fish fingers, they want instant coffee and tinned beer they can bring home to sup as they watch Fabian of the Yard or Variety Hour..

An indication of how things were changing was Elizabeth David’s comment in the preface to the 1956 edition of A Book of Mediterranean Food that the food situation was ‘startlingly different’ to how it had been just two years before. Vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridge freezers, convenience foods, formica table and work tops, affordable eating out (Berni Inns opened in 1954 with their trademark meal of rump steak, chips and peas, a roll and butter and pudding for just 7/6d). Local traders were closing down while Marks and Spencer opened stores throughout the country. Tesco opened its first true supermarket (entirely self-service) in Maldon in 1956.

And the age of DIY was dawning, with cheap and effective Dulux paint going on sale in 1953 while Black and Decker decided to enter the domestic market in 1954, selling drills and lathes and saws, and the first DIY magazine, Practical Householder, was launched in October 1955.

While Doris Lessing was writing articles in praise of Stalin and E.P. Thompson was agonising about whether to leave the communist party over Hungary – precisely the type of upper-middle-class university-educated people and highfalutin’ issues that upper-middle-class university-educated historians usually focus on in their highfalutin’ histories – the people, the ‘masses’ who they so fatuously claimed to be speaking for – were going shopping, collecting the new green shield stamps and buying a new Morris Minor on the never-never.

They knew who the future belonged to – and it wasn’t Comrade Khrushchev.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

Age of Terror: Art since 9/11 @ Imperial War Museum London

This is the UK’s first major exhibition to bring together a broad range of artists’ responses to the age of war and conflict which we’ve lived in since 9/11. It features some 50 works of art by over 40 artists, and so – quite apart from the fascinating subject matter – represents an interesting overview of the contemporary art world, from international superstars like Ai Weiwei and British national treasure Grayson Perry, to a raft of Middle Eastern artists who are exhibiting in Britain for the first time.

The exhibition also showcases an impressive diversity of artistic media including painting, film, sculpture, installations, photography, tapestry and ceramics.

A very brief history

The exhibition is based on the premise that the world changed on the morning of 11 September 2001, when al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes, flew two of them into the World Trade Centre towers in New York, and also attacked the Pentagon building.

The exhibition kicks off with the events themselves being depicted in a 57-minute-long video by Tony Oursler. Oursler was in his apartment just blocks from the World Trade Centre when the first plane struck. He grabbed his camera to shoot footage of the burning building and continued to record as the second tower was hit. He went out onto the street to capture the responses of New Yorkers  on that morning and over the following days.

Image result for 9/11 newspaper

A few days later President George W. Bush declared an all-out ‘War on Terror’.

A month later, on October 7, 2001, America invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government which had refused to hand over the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, who had claimed responsibility for the attacks, and ran training camps in the country for his terrorist network. The Taliban government was swiftly overthrown by Western forces, but bin Laden wasn’t captured. (He wasn’t tracked down and killed until 2 May 2011 when United States Navy SEALs stormed his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.)

Eighteen months later, after a prolonged standoff over the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction, in March 2003 the United States invaded Iraq to overthrow long-standing enemy President Saddam Hussein. the invasion swiftly led to looting and widespread chaos. Within a few months reports began to emerge of American guards carrying out human rights abuses on Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. The U.S. Army instituted its own investigation which ended up detailing the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, and was accompanied by photos of naked and tortured Iraqis which were reproduced around the world and became a rallying point for anti-Western anger.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq turned into a disaster which led to a prolonged civil war in which new Islamist groups emerged, not least the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS). ISIS took advantage of the final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011 to expand into a swathe of territory across northern Iraq and into Syria, itself the victim of a prolonged civil war.

Saddam is Here by Jamal Penjweny (2009–10) Courtesy The Artist and Ruya Foundation

Saddam is Here by Jamal Penjweny (2009–10) Courtesy The Artist and Ruya Foundation

In the years since 2001 there have been numerous further Islamist terrorist attacks in America itself and across Europe (there was one in the South of France on the day I wrote this post). They have become a fact of life in the modern world.

Set down briefly like this, these facts make a devastating and depressing narrative. But do they mean that we now live in an ‘Age of Terror’? And to what extent can works of art answer that question or explain the situation?

Themes

The exhibition is divided into themes including:

  • 9/11
  • Surveillance
  • Prisoner abuse
  • State control
  • Weapons
  • Home

To be honest, although the treatment was sometimes interesting, I found the choice and explanation of some of these themes a bit obvious.

‘9/11’

As well as Tony Oursler’s video, the 9/11 attacks are marked by a number of works. A long room/corridor contains no fewer than 150 front pages of newspapers from around the world which reported the attacks, gathered together in a ‘work’ by Hans-Peter Feldman titled Front Page. Like a lot of conceptual art, this is really a one-trick pony. You could, if you want to, examine every single front page to see how the selection and cropping of pictures and the use of headline text varies from country to country. In the event what this big display shows is how remarkably little variation there was between countries. The 9/11 attack was front page news and so… it made a lot of front pages. It would have been a bit more teasing and unexpected to make a collection of newspapers which didn’t lead with the attacks as their main story (if any).

A whole room was devoted to an installation, The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro, a spooky work which uses mirrors and lights to give the sense of a limitless hole extending infinitely down into the floor. As it happens, I myself visited Ground Zero in New York a few years ago and saw the enormous square fountains created around the base of each fallen building as a memorial. (In fact I visited the Twin Towers themselves back in the 1980s and took the superfast elevator to the viewing platform.) Navarro’s work is interesting but I found it clinical and clever rather than moving.

The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

Gerhard Richter is a German painter well known for creating large canvases of smeared paint. He was on a plane heading towards New York on that fateful morning which was diverted. He later created a characteristic smear painting which he later – according to the wall label – had second thoughts about whether to display or not. But he did. Here it is.

There’s a video of a piece of performance art, where an actor wore a dust-covered suit, as if he was a survivor of the attacks, and walked or stood at locations around the city a year or so later. The suit is hanging up next to it.

Video artist Kerry Tribe placed an advert in a Hollywood actors magazine for a role she described as ‘potential terrorist’. She then shot silent minute-long profiles of the men who replied, splicing them together into a 30-minute video, Potential Terrorist. Well, they all look a little sinister, given that the context, title and purpose of the film have put you in that paranoid frame of mind.

Grayson Perry was working on a large vase about the power station at Dungeness when he heard about the attacks. He modified the design to include crashing planes and terrified civilians.

Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001 by Grayson Perry (2001) © Grayson Perry / Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo by Stephen Brayne

Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001 by Grayson Perry (2001) © Grayson Perry / Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo by Stephen Brayne

‘Surveillance’

The room on ‘Surveillance’ explains the way we citizens of the West World are now more intensively surveilled and monitored than ever before. It contains arguably the two best works in the show – Jitish Kallat’s comical series of Action Man-sized models of people being searched and frisked at airport security; and Ai Weiwei’s brilliant marble statue of a CCTV camera on a plinth.

Surveillance Camera with Plinth by Ai Weiwei (2015) © Ai Weiwei Studio; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Surveillance Camera with Plinth by Ai Weiwei (2015) © Ai Weiwei Studio; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

‘Iraq’

Peter Kennard has been making fiercely political photomontages made from press photographs since the 1980s. (The IWM hosted an impressive retrospective of his work in 2015.) His contribution here is an enormous collage made in collaboration with Cat Phillipps, and using newspapers and black ink.

The basic image is a blown-up photo of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who decided to support George Bush in the American invasion of Iraq, against the wishes of a huge number of British citizens.

Head of State by Kennardphillipps (2007)

Head of State by Kennardphillipps (2007)

Since about 2010 American artist Jenny Holzer has been working on a series titled Redaction paintings. She uses official documents about the attacks and the two invasions, which have been released to the public but with sections blacked out or ‘redacted’, to indicate the scale of what is still kept back from the public, from us, the people who pay the wages of politicians and civil servants and armies.

In a corridor between rooms hang ribbons of black bunting, a work titled Black Bunting by Fiona Banner.

‘Prisoner abuse’

Rachel Howard has done a painted version of the iconic photograph of the Iraqi prisoner being tortured which went viral after its release in 2004. His name is Ali Shallal al-Qaisi.

DHC 6765, Study by Rachel Howard (2005) © The Artist / Photo Prudence Cuming Associates

DHC 6765, Study by Rachel Howard (2005) © The Artist. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates

Nearby is a room in which a 59-minute-long video titled Operation Atropos 2006 by Cuban-American director Coco Fusco is screened. Fusco worked with retired U.S. Army interrogators who, at her request, subjected a group of volunteer women students to simulations of POW experiences in order to show them what hostile interrogations can be like and how members of the U.S. military are taught to resist them. The documentary includes interviews with the interrogators that shed light on how they read personalities, evaluate an interrogatee’s reliability, and use the imposition of physical and mental stress strategically. It’s violent and distressing stuff but then… what did you expect an interrogation to be like?

Operation Atropos directed by Coco Fusco (2006) Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York / © Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Operation Atropos directed by Coco Fusco (2006) Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York / © Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Nearby is a painting, Bound by John Keane, depicting a figure in an orange jump suit against a stark black background and with no head, representing the civilians and prisoners which various Islamist groups have executed on camera and posted online over the past 17 years.

‘Home’

This part of the exhibition consists of four rooms containing works mostly by Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian artists. The idea is to reflect how the disastrous conflicts in their countries have shattered traditional ideas of a safe, secure ‘home’.

They include a work which is like an enormous tapestry made of cardboard egg cartons spliced together and which tumbles down the wall and onto the floor, Floodland by Walid Siti. Dominating one wall is My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah, made up of layers of burnt canvas arranged to create a tattered and scorched map of the Middle East, with only a few vivid highlights of colour.

My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah (2008) © Courtesy The Park Gallery & Roger Fawcett-Tang

My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah (2008) © Courtesy The Park Gallery & Roger Fawcett-Tang

There are a lot of videos in this section including one by the Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian which shows a scale model he made of the apartment block in Damascus where his family lived till he fled the city. The video then shows the artist smashing the model to pieces with a big hammer – Homesick, 11 minutes long.

Elsewhere White House is a video by Afghan artist Lida Abdul which shows a woman painting whitewash with a big housepainting brush onto the ruins of a palace in post-Saddam Iraq.

‘Weapons’

There are several pieces meditating on the rise of drone warfare. The first ever drone strike was launched from an unmanned and weaponised Predator aircraft on 7 October 2001. One of the most striking pieces in the show is a site-specific installation made by James Bridle. He was allowed to paint the full-scale outline of a predator drone onto the floor of the main atrium of the War Museum in a piece titled Drone shadow. Watching people walk across it, mostly unaware of its significance, is spooky.

Drone shadow by James Bridle

Drone shadow by James Bridle

There’s a dark room devoted to a 30-minute-long video of an interview with a now-retired ‘pilot’ of one of these drones, Omer Fast’s 5,000 feet is best. I was very disappointed when I discovered that the nervy unshaven dude in the film is in fact an actor. (The devastating power of these weapons, as well as the difficulties of using them without causing collateral damage, is the subject of the 2015 movie Eye in the Sky.)

There’s another video showing Afghan soldiers and civilians stripping, cleaning and rebuilding automatic weapons. The sound of the metallic clicks becomes steadily more oppressive the longer you watch, and follows you as you walk into other rooms – click, click, click…

Media

As well as by subject matter, the exhibits can also be divided by media:

  • painting
  • sculpture
  • photography
  • photomontage
  • video
  • rugs and tapestries
  • ceramics

The most unusual artefact is probably Grayson Perry’s big vase. A vase commemorating 9/11. OK.

I was also surprised at the half a dozen so rugs and tapestries made by different artists, some using tradition Afghan methods and motifs, others more overtly depicting automatic rifles or the 9/11 attacks themselves.

Some of the paintings are powerful, for example of the tortured Abu Ghraib man and the Gerhard Richter smear.

But two things struck me about the exhibition as a whole:

How many videos there were and how long they were. Tony Oursler’s eye witness account is nearly an hour long, the drone pilot is half an hour, the students being shouted at in the Atropos film is an hour long – that’s two and a half hours you’d have to spend in the exhibition just to see these three pieces. But in addition there’s also the stripping guns film, the man smashing a model of his house film, the woman painting a palace film: three hours minimum.

The best pieces were sculptures: the Ai Weiwei camera, a scary model by Jake & Dinos Chapman of small bodies accumulated into two great mounds of corpses (one for each tower) and Jitish Kallat’s toy people being searched.

Circadian Rhyme 1 by Jitish Kallat (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

Circadian Rhyme 1 by Jitish Kallat (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

And also a brilliant piece in the ‘Weapons’ section, a cabinet full of model hand grenades made in the kind of coloured glass that Christmas tree decorations are made from, by Mona Hatoum.

Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet) by Mona Hatoum (2012) © Mona Hatoum / Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet) by Mona Hatoum (2012) © Mona Hatoum / Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Thoughts

1. The new normal

I found a lot of the show a little boring. None of it moved me. 9/11 is pretty old news now. I was very moved by visiting the actual Ground Zero in New York, but not by seeing a wall of old newspapers about it, or even the clever piece by Iván Navarro. Similarly, a big photomontage of Tony Blair as hate figure is pretty old news now, as is the image of the man from Abu Ghraib. 14 years old.

2. Has modern warfare really changed all that much?

Similarly, when the exhibition claims that the nature of modern warfare has changed decisively, I don’t think that’s really true. What was striking about the war in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and latterly in Syria is how very conventional they have been – after the ‘shock and awe’ bombing, it still boils down to our guys going in and shooting their guys and their guys trying to blow up our guys. The misery of house to house fighting through densely packed towns and cities which was a feature of fighting in the Second World War (if not before) was also a feature of the fighting in Falluja and is still taking place in eastern Ghouta and other urban centres in Syria.

Atom bombs, neutron bombs, smart bombs – all the science fiction weapons of my boyhood turn out to be completely irrelevant in modern warfare. It involves air strikes like World War Two, and sometimes artillery bombardments like World War One, but always ends up with bloody street fighting – witness the numerous accounts of British soldiers patrolling Helmand or Baghdad and getting sniped at and blown up by improvised explosive devices, witness movies like American Sniper or The Hurt Locker.

The only real innovation seems to be unarmed drones, which are guided by controllers thousands of miles away in the States. This is new for the people doing it, but the result is pretty familiar – bombs fall out of the sky, sometimes on valid military targets, often on civilian bystanders, as they have since the First World War (as vividly described in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Mary Postgate).

3. Art in the internet age

What is nowhere mentioned is that the Age of Terror has coincided, more or less, with the Digital Age, the Age of the Internet.

This means lots of things (al-Qaeda posted their videos on YouTube, ISIS has an effective social media presence, terrorists embedded in the West can contact each other digitally without even meeting). But in the realm of aesthetics it means that we are even more totally saturated with imagery and news than ever before.

In my opinion, this has had a seismic and catastrophic impact on art. After all, why care very much about ‘art’ images, displayed in ‘art galleries’, when there is such a bombardment of interesting, funny, shocking, comic, tragic, diverting and exciting imagery to be found all the time, everywhere else?

Most of the artworks in this exhibition are very slow. Very old school. Oil painting? Like Rembrandt and Turner did? Why on earth make oil paintings about the surveillance society or the war in Iraq? What on earth has painting to do with a world of suicide bombers and drone attacks?

A lot of the artworks here are conceptual in the sense that they are based on an idea which you either ‘get’ or don’t ‘get’ in much the same way that you ‘get’ a joke.

  • 150 newspaper front pages about 9/11.
  • Painting redacted documents.
  • Interview with a drone operator.
  • Jamal Penjweny’s idea to get normal citizens of Iraq to hold a photo of Saddam in front of their faces, photograph them and create a portfolio titled Saddam is here.
  • Painted versions of the photographs of prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib.

One-idea gags. They are a kind of intellectual embellishment of the perplexingly complicated historical, political and military events out there in the real world. None of them adds a lot to your understanding of the causes and effects of 9/11 and Iraq. They are another – admittedly sometimes rather demanding – form of entertainment in a world drowning in visual entertainment.

I think this helps explain the impact of the sculptures, the way they emerge as (I think) the strongest pieces. The most impactful three – the Chapman brothers’ piles of bodies, Ai Weiwei’s CCTV camera, Jitish Kallat’s searched action figures – all of them have an instant and powerful visual and conceptual hit.

The Chapmans came to fame in the 1997 Sensation exhibition of works collected by famous advertising tycoon, Charles Saatchi. Just about every critic of the time made the connection between Saatchi’s day job selecting instantaneously powerful images which pack a punch (the pregnant man poster, the Labour isn’t working poster) and his taste for the ‘shocking’ and immediate works of Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin or the Chapmans or Marcus Harvey or Marc Quinn.

I think Ai Weiwei’s work is smack bang in this tradition. He has mastered the skill of applying the ‘instant recognition’ techniques of advertising, to works of ‘art’. It is no surprise that the sculpture of the security camera on a plinth was chosen for the posters and adverts for the exhibition. Like Charles Saatchi Ai has a perfect eye for the iconic image. He is the leading examplar of the way the events of the last 17 years or so can be pillaged for images and icons which can be turned into ‘art’ and form the basis of a lucrative career.

But giving you a better understanding of the world we live in?

4. Understanding issues

No one in their right mind should go to a work of art to ‘understand an issue’. You should read a book, articles, journalism, cuttings and speak to experts in order to ‘understand an issue’. You should research and analyse an ‘issue’.

The commentary asks, ‘Does art have a place in helping to understand terror?’ to which the simple answer is, ‘No, not in the slightest’. What does Ai Weiwei’s stone camera or Mona Hatoum’s glass hand grenades add to your understanding of the causes and consequences of Islamic terrorism? Nothing. They decorate it.

Art is a luxury product, designed to enhance the lives of the rich, or be added to well-funded public collections – it is not history or sociology or anthropology. It is not the study of geopolitics or international affairs or military strategy or state security.

Turn the question round: which work of art has helped you understand the Syrian Civil War best? (Not to understand that war is horrible and violent and people get killed in it – any child knows that, though gruesome photos of victims being dragged from bombed buildings always ram it home. But they don’t help anyone to understand anythingmore than that people suffer and die in war.)

Which work of art has helped you understand why the people of Syria rose up against Bashar-al-Assad in 2011, helped you understand why Syria split up into different geographic units, helped you understand the mosaic of religious and ethnic groups which make up the Syrian population, helped you understand why the West was reluctant to send in troops or commit militarily to the war, helped you understand why Vladimir Putin stepped in and made Russia the main external player in Syria, helped you understand why – lacking Western support – the anti-government forces were soon outstripped by better-funded militant and Islamist groups, helped you understand why U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011 creating a vacuum into which ISIS quickly spread? Helped you understand why, after seven years of agony for the people of Syria, the chances are Bashar-al-Assad will probably stay in power?

Not only does no work of art do this, but no work of art could do this. Only a carefully researched factual account, in fact numerous such accounts, in-depth information about the country’s history and culture and religious and ethnic composition, a good grasp of the geopolitical interests of the local powers (Iran and Saudi Arabia) and the international powers (Russia, America), and a knowledge of the political and military strategy of the United States in neighbouring Iraq could even begin to help you understand the situation.

A painting won’t do that. A sculpture is no replacement for that. Even a video can’t convey that depth and clarity of information required for such a complicated subject. A woman painting a ruined palace is a good gag, a memorable riff, a nifty concept which can be worked up into a ‘piece of art’ which can be sold on to a willing gallery. But it is no replacement for sober, thorough and intelligent analysis.

If the community of galleries, curators, art schools and artists decide that art can be made from subjects, ideas and images in the news, that’s one thing. But pretending that art helps us to ‘understand’ social and political issues is a fond and futile delusion of the art-making and art-consuming classes.

Featured artists

Lida Abdul, Khaled Abdul Wahed, Francis Alÿs, Cory Arcangel, Fiona Banner, James Bridle, Christoph Büchel, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Mahwish Chishty, Nathan Coley, David Cotterrell, Dexter Dalwood, Omer Fast, Coco Fusco, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Mona Hatoum, Jenny Holzer, Rachel Howard, Shona Illingworth, Alfredo Jaar, Jitish Kallat, John Keane, kennardphillips, Fabian Knecht, Hanaa Malallah, Julie Mehretu, Sabine Mortiz, Iván Navarro, Tony Oursler, Trevor Paglen, Mai-Thu Perret, Grayson Perry, Jamal Penjweny, Gerhard Richter, Martha Rosler, Jim Ricks, Hrair Sarkissian, Indrė Šerpytytė, Santiago Sierra, Taryn Simon, Walid Siti, John Smith, Kerry Tribe, Ai Weiwei.

There’s quite a lot of art to enjoy and admire here, and I found this a very thought-provoking exhibition – but not necessarily in the way the curators intended.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

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