How students, academics, artists and galleries help to create a globalised, woke discourse which alienates ordinary people and hands political power to the Right

‘As polls have attested [traditional Labour voters] rejected Labour because it had become a party that derided everything they loved.’
(John Gray in The New Statesman)

As of January 2020, Labour has 580,000 registered members, giving it the largest membership of any party in Europe, and yet it has just suffered its worst election defeat since 1987. How do we reconcile these contradictory facts?

Trying to make sense of Labour’s catastrophic defeat in the 2019 General Election has prompted a flood of articles and analyses, most of which rightly focus on the distorting effects of Brexit. But I was fascinated to read several articles, by writers from the Left and the Right, which also attribute the defeat to more profound changes which have taken place in the Labour Party itself, that:

  • The decline of the traditional, manual-labouring working class, the decline in Trades Union membership and the increasing diversity of types of work and workplace, with the rise of part-time and zero hours contracts, now mean that the only section of society which Labour can entirely rely on is the vote of students, academics and middle-class, urban, university-educated progressives – writers, artists, film-makers, actors and the like – in other words, the cultural élite.
  • Students and academics and artists and film-makers are vastly more woke and concerned about the cultural issues which make up political correctness – feminism, #metoo, Black Lives Matter, LGBT+ issues and trans rights – these issues matter hugely more to them than to the rest of the population. Why? Because they’re well fed, they have the time, and the education.

1. ‘Why Labour Lost’ by John Curtice in The Spectator

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde and Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Social Research. His article in the Spectator (in fact extracts from a speech) is measured and cautious, but includes the following revealing statements:

Where does the [Labour] party go from here? Well, you certainly need to understand where you are at. This is no longer a party that particularly gains the support of working-class voters. Although it does still do relatively well in places that you might call working-class communities. This, at the moment, is a party that has young people, it has graduates, and their distinctive characteristic is that they are socially liberal. These are the people who are remain-y. These are people who are not concerned about immigration…

… now the party should run with the grain of what its got, which is young, socially liberal, university-educated voters

This is where source of the new members who flocked into the Labour Party as it became clear that Jeremy Corbyn was running for leadership in 2015: young, socially liberal, aware and radical students or former students, who elected and then re-elected the old school, radical Socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Image result for labour party membership graph

UK political party membership

So if it has such an enormous membership, why did Labour lose so badly? Obviously Brexit played a large part, but so – every single post mortem and account of anyone who canvassed on the doorsteps indicates – did the public’s profound dislike and distrust of Jeremy Corbyn himself.

To put in bluntly: the half million or so members of the Labour Party repeatedly voted for a leader who was shown time after time to be incompetent and unelectable. And in so doing cemented the shift from Labour being a party of the working class, to it becoming a party which mostly represents the bien-pensant, socially liberal, urban, professional middle classes.

2. ‘Why the Left Keep Losing’ by John Gray in the New Statesman

I very much enjoy Gray’s detached scepticism. Like me, he starts from the belief that humans are only another type of animal, mammals who happen to be able to stand up, speak and make things and as a result have developed an over-inflated sense of their own importance, but whose main achievement, in the long run, may turn out to be making planet earth uninhabitable.

Gray rightly gives pride of place to Brexit in this long analysis of what went wrong for Labour. But it is set in the context of a broader attack on the self-defeating progressive strain within the party.

He starts by enjoying the way the progressive liberal-minded politically correct have been shocked to discover that they don’t own the electorate and that things don’t appear to be smoothly trundling along fixed railway lines towards their version of a progressive Nirvana.

For the two wings of British progressivism – liberal centrism and Corbynite leftism – the election has been a profound shock. It is almost as if there was something in the contemporary scene they have failed to comprehend. They regard themselves as the embodiment of advancing modernity. Yet the pattern they imagined in history shows no signs of emerging. Any tendency to gradual improvement has given way to kaleidoscopic flux. Rather than tending towards some rational harmony, values are plural and contending. Political monotheism – the faith that only one political system can be right for all of humankind – has given way to inescapable pluralism. Progress has ceased to be the providential arc of history and instead become a prize snatched for a moment from the caprice of the gods.

He is describing that state of blank incomprehension and incredulity which we have seen all across the progressive cultural élite (writers, commentators, film-makers, actors, playwrights, poets, novelists and academics) ever since Leave won the Brexit referendum (23 June 2016).

The root cause is because progressives don’t understand that the majority of people are not like them – didn’t go to university, don’t agonise every day about the slave trade and trans rights, don’t have cushy office jobs writing books and articles.

Because many people in Britain struggle to earn enough to keep a roof over their heads and feed their children. Many people never read books or magazine articles and only read newspapers for the football and racing results. In fact many people in this country – up to 8 million adults, a fifth of the population – are functionally illiterate. (Adult Illiteracy In The UK)

Ignoring these most basic facts about the country they live in and the people they live among, progressives think everyone is like them, deep down, whether they know it or not – because progressives are convinced that their values are the only correct values and so must inevitably triumph.

Given this mindset, the only reason they can conceive for their repeated failures is that it’s all due to some right-wing conspiracy, or Russians manipulating the internet, or the first past the post system, or the patriarchy, or the influence of the right-wing media, or institutional racism, or any number of what are, in effect, paranoid conspiracy theories.

A much simpler explanation doesn’t occur to them: that the majority of the British people do actually pretty much understand their ideas and values and simply – reject them.

Gray makes a detour to demolish the progressive case for changing the electoral system, the case the Liberals and Social Democratic Party and then the Lib Dems have been making all my adult life.

Because they don’t understand the nature of the population of the country they live in, Gray says, it rarely crosses the progressive mind to consider that, if we introduced some other form of electoral system such as proportional representation, it would in all probability not usher in a multicultural Paradise, but might reveal the electorate as being even more right-wing than we had imagined. Progressives easily forget that in the 2014 election UKIP won nearly 4 million votes. If we had an elementary system of proportional representation, that would have given them 80 MPs!

Progressives talk of building the kind of majority they want, as if it somehow already latently exists. More likely, parties of the far right would set the political agenda, as they do throughout much of the continent. If you want a European-style voting system, you get a European style of politics.

Sceptics love ironies and Gray is a turbo-charged sceptic, he revels in paradoxes and ironic reversals. Thus he enjoys the idea that Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for modernising New Labour, for the glamorous appeal of a global economy and for the unlimited immigration which went with it, ended up shafting his own party.

New Labour’s unthinking embrace of globalisation and open borders produced the working-class revolt against economic liberalism and mobilised support for Brexit.

A key element of this has been the unforeseen consequence of Blair and Brown’s idea to send 50% of the British population to university.

The result over the past fifteen years or so has been a huge increase in the number of young people with degrees, people who – if they did a humanities degree, certainly – will have been exposed to an exhilarating mix of Western Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, post-structuralism and the whole gamut of progressive ideas which come under the rubric of ‘Theory’ or ‘Critical Theory’. (What is critical theory)

I feel confident of this terrain since this is precisely the exhilarating mix of ideas which I absorbed as an English student back in the 1980s, when we thought reading Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan and Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida would somehow sort out the Miners’ Strike and overthrow Mrs Thatcher, much like the rioting students of 1968 thought that reading Michel Foucault would usher in the Millennium.

But it didn’t, did it?

It turns out that clever students reading clever books – devoting months of your life to studying ‘the death of the author’, Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony or Derrida’s notion of deconstruction – doesn’t really change anything. And then they all go out into the real world and become lawyers and accountants. Or TV producers and writers. Or they remain in academia and teach this self-reinforcing and weirdly irrelevant ideology to a new generation of young acolytes.

Gray devotes a central section of his essay to the baleful impact which contemporary woke academia and the progressive ideology it promotes have had on actual politics.

If only people aged between 18 and 24 had voted in the general election, Corbyn would have won an enormous majority. No doubt this is partly because of Corbyn’s promise to abolish student tuition fees and the difficulties young people face in the housing and jobs markets. But their support for Corbyn is also a by-product of beliefs and values they have absorbed at school and university. According to the progressive ideology that has been instilled in them, the West is uniquely malignant, the ultimate source of injustice and oppression throughout the world, and Western power and values essentially illegitimate.

Humanities and social sciences teaching has been largely shaped by progressive thinking for generations, though other perspectives were previously tolerated. The metamorphosis of universities into centres of censorship and indoctrination is a more recent development, and with the expansion of higher education it has become politically significant. By over-enlarging the university system, Blair created the constituency that enabled the Corbynites to displace New Labour. No longer mainly a cult of intellectuals, as in Orwell’s time, progressivism has become the unthinking faith of millions of graduates.

When Labour voters switched to Johnson, they were surely moved by moral revulsion as well as their material interests. As polls have attested, they rejected Labour because it had become a party that derided everything they loved. Many referenced Corbyn’s support for regimes and movements that are violently hostile to the West. Some cited anti-Semitism as one of the evils their parents or grandparents had gone to war to defeat. For working class voters, Labour had set itself against patriotism and moral decency.

Compare and contrast Gray’s summary with this excerpt from an article by Toby Young, who did some canvassing for a friend standing as a Tory candidate in Newcastle. All the working class people he spoke to said they were going to vote Conservative, often for the first time in their lives. This was partly because many wanted to get Brexit done, but also:

Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have talked a good deal about winning back these working class voters, but his policy positions haven’t been designed to appeal to them. I’m not just talking about his ambivalence on Brexit – there’s a widespread feeling among voters who value flag, faith and family that Corbyn isn’t one of them. Before he became Labour leader in 2015, he was an energetic protestor against nearly every armed conflict Britain has been involved in since Suez, including the Falklands War. He’s also called for the abandonment of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, the withdrawal of the UK from NATO and the dismantling of our security services – not to mention declining to sing the National Anthem at a Battle of Britain service in 2015. From the point of view of many working class voters, for whom love of country is still a deeply felt emotion, Corbyn seems to side with the country’s enemies more often than he does with Britain. (Britain’s Labour Party Got Woke – And Now It’s Broke)

Immediately after the election I read an interview with a Labour activist in a northern constituency which was home of several army barracks of the British Army. She said many people considered Corbyn a traitor who was a more enthusiastic supporter of groups like Hamas and the IRA than of our own armed forces.

The discrepancy between how woke, over-educated commentators interpreted the Brexit vote and the reality on the ground was epitomised by disputes about whether it involved some kind of nostalgia for the British Empire. I read numerous articles by academics and progressive commentators saying Brexit was the result of entrenched racism and/or nostalgia for the days when Britain was Great.

But on Radio 4 I heard Ruth Smeeth, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, saying she’d been reading London-based, college-educated commentators claiming that the people who voted Brexit were nostalgic for the British Empire, and went on quite crossly to say people voting Brexit had nothing to do with the bloody British Empire which hardly any of them remember…

It’s because where they live there’s widespread unemployment, lack of housing, the schools are poor, the infrastructure is falling to pieces and they just think they’ve been ignored and taken for granted by London politicians for too long. And being told they’re ignorant white racist imperialist chavs by posh London liberals doesn’t exactly help.

This is the problem Rebecca Long-Bailey tried to address a few weeks ago when she called for a patriotic progressivism. She had obviously seen how Corbyn’s support for Britain’s enemies lost him huge swathes of working class support, the support of not only soldiers and sailors and air force personnel, but all the families of those people, the average squaddie and seaman who have often come from rough working class backgrounds and for whom a career in the services, with the training which goes along with it, is a welcome way out of a life of low expectations.

But on ‘patriotism’ Long-Bailey is caught between two forces, the common sense views of the majority of the British public and the hyper-liberal progressive values of the modern Labour Party’s middle-class and student base. Just as she is on transgender rights and anti-Semitism and dwelling endlessly on the evils of the slave trade – because the majority of the population doesn’t hold these views, but the majority of the Labour Party’s young, indoctrinated, politically correct students and graduates (the ones John Gray describes) very powerfully do hold all these views.

They have been taught by their lecturers and professors that the British Empire was the worst thing in world history, worse than the Nazis and Stalin and Pol Pot, and that Britain only has any industry or prosperity because of the slave trade, and that all British institutions (starting with the police, the army and the judiciary) are institutionally racist and sexist – just as they think trans rights are one of the key issues of our time, and are vehemently anti-Israel and pro-Palestine – the attitude which lies behind the lamentable rise of anti-Semitism in the modern Labour Party.

Here’s an excerpt from an article in GQ lamenting the big hole Labour has dug for itself by identifying with progressive anti-patriotism, and essentially agreeing with the John Gray and Toby Young analyses:

Much has been made of Labour leadership hopeful Long-Bailey’s reference to “progressive patriotism”, a phrase which wants to have its cake and eat it, but ends up satisfying nobody. The fact that she felt compelled to mention at all it suggests a cultural jolt is underway. In this context, “progressive” is being used to soothe her suspicious supporters, to help them hold their noses when discussing something as demeaning as patriotism. For the millions of voters Labour has lost, patriotism is not and has never been a problem, so dressing it up in the frills of progressive politics not only neuters the idea, but insults their intelligence. (Boris Johnson has won the culture war… for now by George Chesterton in GQ magazine)

Who can forget Emily Thornberry’s tweeted photo of a white van parked outside a house displaying the English flag while she was out canvassing in Rochester, a photo which neatly embodied both the anti-patriotic instincts of the Labour high command, as well as their Islington middle-class contempt for the actual working classes they so ludicrously claim to represent.

Thornberry was forced to resign from the shadow cabinet as a result of this tweet and this image, but she was, of course, taken back into the cabinet a year later, and until very recently was one of the candidates to become next Labour leader. Who needs any additional proof of the Labour Party top cadres’ contempt for the ‘patriotic’, ‘white’, ‘working classes’, three terms which, in the last decade or so, have become terms of abuse within progressive ideology.

Image result for emily thornberry tweet

Towards the end of his essay Gray skewers politically correct progressives with a vengeance:

Liberal or Corbynite, the core of the progressivist cult is the belief that the values that have guided human civilisation to date, especially in the West, need to be junked. A new kind of society is required, which progressives will devise. They are equipped for this task with scraps of faux-Marxism and hyper-liberalism, from which they have assembled a world-view. They believed a majority of people would submit to their vision and follow them. Instead they have been ignored, while their world-view has melted down into a heap of trash. They retain their position in British institutions, but their self-image as the leaders of society has been badly shaken. It is only to be expected that many should be fixated on conspiracy theories, or otherwise unhinged. The feature of the contemporary scene progressives fail to understand, in the end, is themselves.

Given the grip of these progressive zealots over the party base, it is going to be difficult to create a coherent Labour Party ideology which can reunite its alienated working class voters, especially in the North, with the liberal, middle-class progressives of the bourgeois south.

And then Gray ends his essay with a calculated insult designed to infuriate the kind of woke progressives he is describing, suggesting that to a large extent their vehement espousal of women’s rights, black rights, Muslim rights, LGBT+ rights, trans rights and so on were in fact, in the end, the convenient posturing of cynical careerists who could see that it would help their careers as actors and film-makers and TV presenters and artists and gallery curators and so on to adopt the latest progressive views but who might, given the right-wing drift of the times, be prepared to abandon them… for the right price.

Faced with the possibility of a decade or more of Conservative rule, Britain’s cultural establishment may change its complexion. As well as an identity, progressive views have been a means of advancement in the academy, the arts and broadcast media. With the funding position of cultural institutions under review, the usefulness of progressivism as a career strategy may be about to decline.

As satirical insults go, this is quite funny, as funny as anything in Swift or Pope, but I think it’s wrong.

In my opinion progressives will continue painting themselves further and further into a virtuously woke corner, and in doing so permanently undermine the ability of a Left-of-centre government to ever return to power.

Conclusion

The point of this blog post is not to present conclusive evidence for my thesis. There is a world of evidence for countless other positions and I’ve mostly omitted the importance of Brexit which might turn out to have caused a one-off temporary alignment of British politics which then gently returns to its basic two-party model, all the commentators I’ve quoted say that is a possibility.

And I’m always ready to accept the possibility that I am simply wrong.

The main point of this brief commentary on John Gray’s article is more to explain to readers the thinking underlying my response to books and exhibitions which embody progressivee ideology i.e. which go out of their way to criticise Britain, Britain’s armed forces, the British Empire, white people, men, and straight people.

My points are:

1. The progressive academics and writers and artists and film-makers and gallery curators who use 1960s sociological terminology to attack British history, British heritage, the British Empire and British values, and who quote feminist and post-colonial rhetoric to attack men, the patriarchy, the male gaze, heteronormativity, Britain’s racist society and so on – they quite clearly think that History is On Their Side and that each one of their critical and minatory articles, works of art, films and exhibitions, are chipping away at the white, patriarchal, racist Establishment which, because of their efforts, will one day crumble away and reveal a multicultural Paradise in which the male gaze and inequality and manspreading have all been abolished.

2. But not only is this not very likely to happen, but the General Election of 2019 (and the Brexit vote and, if you want to drag the Yanks into it, the election of Donald Trump) suggest the precise opposite: that there is no such thing as history being on anyone’s side, that events take their own course regardless of anyone’s intentions, that their victory is far from inevitable. I entirely agree with Gray’s fundamental interpretation of human history which is things change, they change all the time and often at bewildering speed – but they don’t necessarily change for the better. To believe they do is a fundamentally Christian idea, based on the notion that History has a purpose and is heading towards a glorious endpoint, the Revolution, the Return of the King, the creation of a fair and just society.

But it’s not. It never has been and it never will. To believe otherwise, contrary to all the evidence of human history, is to have precisely the same kind of ‘faith’ as Christians and other religious believers do in their consoling ideologies. It is not, in other words, to live in the real world which we all actually inhabit.

3. And lastly, as the various writers quoted above suggest, there is plenty of evidence that, if anything, the metropolitan, liberal, progressive élite of artists and actors and film-makers and writers and gallery curators and their relentless insistence on woke issues actively alienates the majority of the population.

The majority of the population does not support its victim-grievance politics, its disproportionate concern for refugees and immigrants and every other minority cause, its excessive concern for the Palestinians and the black victims of the American police. Who gives a damn about all that (the overwhelmingly white, London, liberal middle classes, that’s who).

On the contrary most of the polling evidence shows that the majority of the British population just wants someone to sort out the NHS, and the police, and crack down on crime, and control immigration, and improve their local schools. Much the same issues, in other words, as have dominated all the general elections I can remember going back to the 1970s, and which a huge swathe of working class and Northern voters didn’t believe the Labour Party was capable of delivering.

The sound of losers

So it is this real-world political analysis which explains why, when I read yet another book by a left-wing academic attacking the British Empire or the slave trade i.e. fighting battles which were over generations or hundreds of years ago – or when I visit another exhibition about the wickedness of straight white men, or read another article explaining why I should be up in arms about the rapacious behaviour of Hollywood film producers, my first reaction is: this is the rhetoric of losers.

Not ‘losers’ in the playground, insult sense. I mean it is, quite literally, the rhetoric of the over-educated minority of the population who keep losing elections, who lost the last election, and the three before that, and the Brexit referendum. It is the sound of people who keep losing. Any way you look at it, the progressive Left’s record is appalling.

  • 2010 General Election = Conservative-led coalition
  • 2015 General Election = Conservative government
  • 2016 Leave wins the Brexit referendum
  • 2017 General Election = Conservative government
  • 2019 General Election = Conservative government

In order to win elections in a modern Western country you need to build coalitions and reach out to people, all kinds of people, imperfect people, people you don’t like or whose values you may not share or actively oppose, in order to assemble what is called ‘a majority’.

The woke insistence on an utterly pure, unstained and uncontaminated virtue – a kind of political virginity test – militates against this ever happening.

So all this explains why, when I visited the Barbican gallery’s exhibition Masculinities: Liberation through Photography and read its wall labels:

  • attacking traditional notions of masculinity
  • attacking men for running the Patriarchy and for their male gaze and for their manspreading and mansplaining and their toxic masculinity (in case you think I’m exaggerating, there is a section of the exhibition devoted to manspreading, and several displays devoted explicitly to toxic masculinity)
  • attacking white people for their institutional racism
  • attacking straight people for their homophobia
  • and attacking heteronormative people for their transphobia

I very simply concluded that this is not how you reach out and build alliances. This is not how you create coalitions. This is not how you win political power.

This is how you create a politically correct ivory tower, convinced of your own virtue and rectitude – this is how you propagate an ideology which objectifies, judges and demonises the majority of the population for what you claim to be its sins of sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and so on.

What I felt was that exhibitions like this are part of the much broader anti-British, anti-white, anti-straight, anti-family, anti-tradition cultural message being pumped out across all channels and all media by a London-based, university-educated, progressive élite, which worships American gay and black and feminist art, but which – when it came to the crunch – repelled huge numbers of traditional Labour Party voters and helped deliver the Conservative Party its biggest electoral victory since 1987.

Quite frankly this scares me. It scares me because I wonder whether the decline of the old manual-labouring working class, the disappearance of all the old heavy industries I grew up with – coalmining, steelmaking, shipbuilding, car manufactring – the casualisation and zero contract nature of so much modern work, the loss to Labour of the so-called Red Wall constituencies, the loss of Scotland dammit, combined with the sustained attack on all forms of traditional belief by the metropolitan cultural élite and the reduction of Labour support to the progressive middle classes of the big English cities – London, Bristol, Brighton…

All these social, economic and cultural changes hardly make me think we’re on the verge of some glorious multicultural, post-patriarchal age of Aquarius which progressive ideology promises if only we can smash the patriarchy and reclaim the night and free the nipple and stand up for trans rights and welcome tens of thousands more refugees into the country…

It all makes me wonder whether the Labour Party will ever hold power in Britain again.

And, more specifically, whether the kind of progressive art élite I’m describing is destined to become a permanent minority, stuck like a cracked record in its reverence of ‘transgressive’ and ‘rebel’ art by black and feminist and gay and trans artists from New York and Berlin and Seoul, luxuriating in its rhetoric of ‘subversion’ and ‘challenge’ and ‘interrogation’, while in reality being completely ignored by the great majority of the population or, if it makes any impression at all, simply contributing to the widespread sense that a snobbish progressive London élite is looking down its superior nose at the lifestyles, opinions and patriotic beliefs of the great majority of the working class, while hypocritically keeping all the money and power, the best schools, the private hospitals and the plum jobs for themselves.

The scale of the challenge


Related links

Here is an article by Owen Jones in the Guardian which soundly rejects the position I’ve sketched out. I agree with him that just because Labour lost is no reason to blame it on the various minorities which have achieved huge advances in freedom and reality over the past 30 or 40 years. I’m not blaming the minorities: I’m blaming the middle-class cultural élite which has prioritised trendy minority issues at the expense of the bread-and-butter issues which affect real communities the length and breadth of the land.

Also, analysing Jones’s piece, it is notable for being relatively light on psephological data i.e, quantitative or qualitative analysis of the 2019 election, and relies on going back to the 1970s and 1980s to dig up ancient examples of dated bigotry. In other words, it sounds good but unintentionally exposes the weakness of its own position. The 1970s were a long time ago. I was there. They were awful. But it’s 2020 now. Crapping on about 1970s bigotry is similar to crapping on about the British Empire or the slave trade – it’s enjoyable, makes us all feel virtuous, but avoids the really difficult task of explaining how you are going to tackle entrenched poverty and inequality NOW.

Related blog posts

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art @ the British Museum

European explorers

As John Darwin’s brilliant history of Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, makes clear, quite a few things distinguished European culture from the culture of the other Eurasian empires (i.e. the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Moghul Empire in northern India, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Empire) in the centuries after the death of Tamerlane the Great in 1405.

Just two of them were a readiness, on the part of the Europeans, to travel and explore, and an endless curiosity which led to almost obsessive collecting and categorising and curating and exhibiting.

No Chinese explorers visited Europe during the 19th century and were so dazzled by its history and architecture and art that they made copious sketches and drawings, took photographs, bought up every quaint European curio they could get their hands on, and carried them all back to China to catalogue and categorise and trigger an artistic renaissance.

That kind of thing just didn’t happen because few Chinese travelled abroad. Very few wanted to, or had the means to, and anyway it was frowned upon because every educated Chinese knew that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the universe, the possessor of a perfect culture, which didn’t need or want to know anything at all about the outside world, overrun as it was by cultureless barbarians.

And Darwin shows how this complacent and self-centred attitude was echoed by the cultural and political elites of Japan, Moghul India, the Safavid Empire and the sprawling Ottoman Empire, for centuries.

No, the wandering, exploring, collecting bug seems to have affected Europeans on a completely different scale from any of the world’s other civilisations.

Thus it was that from the 1500s onwards a steadily increasing stream of travellers, explorers, soldiers and sailors, archaeologists and artists travelled all over the Muslim lands lining the North African coast and the Middle East – territory nominally under the control of the extensive Ottoman Empire – to explore and describe and paint and buy and plunder.

Inspired by the East

This ambitious exhibition delves into one aspect of this huge European enterprise by looking at the long and complex history of cultural interchanges between the Islamic Middle East and Europe from about 1500 onwards.

Not surprisingly several of the earliest objects are swords and helmets since the single most important fact about Islam is that it was a conqueror’s religion, spread by highly organised and zealous Arabs as they exploded out of Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries to seize the Christian Middle East and North African coastline.

Gilt-Copper helmet, Turkey (about 1650) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman dynasty which began its rise to prominence in the 1200s was itself just the last in a line of dynasties which had vied for leadership of the Muslim world since the birth of Islam in the 630s.

The Ottoman Turks rose to dominate the area we call the Middle East during the period 1300 to 1453 (the year when the Ottomans seized Christian Constantinople and made it into their capital, Istanbul). I’ve reviewed several books about the decline of the Byzantine Empire as it came under relentless pressure from successive Muslim rulers, until its eventual fall to the Ottomans.

The Ottoman heyday is usually dated from the year of the fall of Byzantium – 1453 – to around 1600, during which they extended their power across all of North Africa and deep into Europe. It’s salutary to remember that twice the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, in 1526 and 1683, and was only just defeated both times i.e. they could have penetrated even further into Christian Europe.

As it was, throughout this period the Ottomans ruled the extensive territory of former Christian Europe which we call the Balkans, as well as Christian Greece and Christian subjects in numerous Mediterranean islands.

Mainly Victorian

A handful of pieces and a few wall labels in the exhibition gesture towards this long and complex early history of Ottoman rise and conquest and domination, including the striking portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a painter from the school of Veronese, which has been used as the poster for the show.

A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a member of the School of Veronese (c. 1580) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

But the exhibition really focuses on works from the much later period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, partly for the simple reason that the period 1800 to the outbreak of the Second World War saw a steadily increasing number of European travellers to North Africa and the Middle East.

Some of this was simply a function of continually improving transport, sailing ships giving way to steamships, the steady spread of railways, the industrial revolution creating a new leisured class, especially in Britain and France, who wanted to see the world, helped along by firms like Thomas Cook which launched its first cruises in the 1870s.

Many devout Victorians, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, wanted to tour the Holy Land and see for themselves the places where Our Lord had stood. Flocks of visitors drew and sketched and painted watercolours and oils and bought all manner of souvenirs, carpets and clothes, tiles and glasswork. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the British public was highly aware of the extremely diverse and colourful cultures of the peoples it ruled over.

But the thesis of this exhibition is that the Islamic culture of the Ottoman Empire bore a uniquely close and fractious relationship with Europe, was the predominant colonial and foreign cultural ‘Other’ for Europe throughout the period – a kind of backward cousin, a slothful and declining ‘Orient’ against which we could measure our ever-growing knowledge, technology and power. And that a huge number of craftsmen and artists and metalworkers and glassblowers and designers and artists and architects were particularly dazzled and influenced and inspired by Islamic and Middle Eastern art and culture.

So this exhibition, Inspired by the East, aims to bring together a wealth of artifacts to show a) some of the original Islamic arts and crafts from the era and b) the impact Islamic architecture, designs and patterns had on European craftsmen, artists and designers through a large selection of European objects.

Enamelled glass lamp made by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, France (about 1877)

Thus the exhibition includes wonderful, ornate and beautiful examples from a whole range of media and crafts such as:

  • tiles
  • glasswork
  • ceramics
  • metalwork
  • jewellery
  • clothing
  • architecture
  • design

I was interested to learn there was a genre called ‘costume books’ which simply showed the costumes of all the new races and peoples Europeans had discovered as they expanded and explored from the 1500s onwards and which, of course, featured books devoted to the clothes and garments of the Middle East.

I learned that all kinds of products by Islamic artisans were prized in the West from early on, such as Egyptian metalwork and Persian ceramics. During the 19th century Western craftsmen could use developing technology to reproduce much of this work. The exhibition includes Arab-inspired ceramics by Théodore Deck, a leading French ceramicist who in the late nineteenth century created a range of pieces directly inspired by Islamic originals.

Nearby is a section devoted to Owen Jones, one of the most influential tastemakers of the Victorian era. His pioneering studies on colour theory, geometry and form still inspire designers to this day. Jones was an architect, designer and design theorist and was Superintendent of Works for the 1851 Great Exhibition. His masterpiece was Grammar of Ornament, a huge and lavish folio displaying stunning patterns, motifs and ornaments in 112 illustrated plates, many of which featured Islamic decorations and motifs. Some of the Islamic plates from the book are on display here.

But but but… I was struck by several obvious problems.

Number one was that most of the works on display are by Europeans. They are not original works by the Islamic craftsmen and artists who are so praised. They are European copies, displayed with the intention of showing how widespread the impact of Islamic styles and motifs was on the European arts. If you’re looking for a world of authentically Islamic arts and crafts you’d do better to go the V&A.

Number two was that, despite the beauty of individual works, it became difficult to avoid a sense of scrappiness, a sense that the curators are trying to cover a lot of ground, in fact an enormous subject – the impact of the Muslim world on the art and culture of the West – with a surprisingly small range of exhibits.

Take my home area, history: A few helmets and a sword are accompanied by a paragraph or two about the extent of the Ottoman Empire – but this, the military rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire, is a huge, a vast subject, which I felt was barely scratched and whose omission made the entire show feel one-sided i.e. presented only the Europeans as aggressive colonialists whereas, as I’ve explained, it was the Muslims who originally conquered half the Christian Mediterranean.

Similarly, the friend I went with is mad about Islamic tiles so was pleased to see a display of half a dozen beautiful and ornate tiles – but disappointed that they turned out to be made by a Victorian British manufacturer using Islamic motifs – and that that was it when it came to tiles.

Islamic architecture is distinctive and beautiful and exists over half the world, but it was dealt with via just a few British buildings which used Islamic motifs, such as the well-known artist Lord Leighton’s famous house in West London which he had modelled inside to recreate some of the rooms from the Alhambra in Spain, namely ‘the Arab Hall’. Leighton had the place covered in Islamic tiles designed by William de Morgan. There are photos of the interior and a lovely wooden model but… is that it?

The single most dominant impression was made by the paintings, a few scattered in the early sections but then leading up to a huge wall displaying about 20 classic, late-Victorian, Orientalist paintings.

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch (1890) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Orientalism

This brings us to the several meanings of ‘Orientalism’, a word and idea which are raised early in the exhibition and then referenced throughout.

1. The word Orientalism was originally, during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, a value-neutral term applied to all or any scholars, linguists, archaeologists or artists who specialised in ‘the Orient’, a vague expression generally taken to be Islamic North Africa and Middle East but sometimes stretching to include India. It survives in this neutral sense in many places to this day, for example in the name of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

2. However, the term underwent a revolutionary change in 1978 when the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his academic study Orientalism. In this book Said subjected the so-called ‘scholarly’ works of 19th century Orientalist academics to in-depth analysis in order to support one big radical idea: that almost all the supposedly scholarly and academic books and ideas produced by European scholars about the Orient were the witting or unwitting handmaids of Western Imperialism.

Almost all the nineteenth-century Orientalists declared the Ottoman Empire corrupt and stagnant, Islam itself incapable of change. The people living there were stereotyped as somehow more primitive, dressing in loose but colourful clothing, slothful and lazy and corrupt.

Probably the most notable idea was the fascination the institution of the harem had for repressed Westerners who projected all kinds of sexual fantasies onto Oriental woman and painted no end of soft porn depictions of the sultan and his slaves and concubines and slave auctions and so on.

So powerful was Said’s critique that it spread and prospered in the academy, becoming the new orthodoxy and casting a critical shadow back over everything written or painted about the Middle East in the previous 200 years or more. Since its publication almost everything any European said, wrote or painted about the Ottoman Empire has been reappraised to appear in a much more sinister light, either furthering malicious racist stereotypes, aiding in imperial exploitation, or the shameless appropriation of a weaker culture’s art and designs.

Schizophrenia

Now the woke young curators of this exhibition are fully paid-up subscribers to Said’s unforgiving views about Western exploitation of the Middle East. This isn’t a guess on my part. They quote page one of Orientalism in the very opening wall label which introduces the exhibition:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant… The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.

And every other wall label takes pains to remind us that the plate or vase or tile or translation of The 1001 Nights or any other cultural product which we’re looking at and which references Islam may well seem beautiful to us but, tut tut, we should be aware that it was part of the wicked European fashion to appropriate Islamic patterns for vases or the exploitative trend for mock Moorish architecture, or the thieving use of Arabic script in picture frames and so on.

And that behind all of this detail, all of these individual examples of cultural appropriation, lies the huge looming shadow of Western Imperialism!

Four tiles by William De Morgan & Co, Britain (1888-1897)

Cumulatively, these hectoring labels and panels created, for me at any rate, a strange sense of schizophrenia. In one and the same wall label the curators might both praise the craftmanship of a western tile maker or architect – and yet accuse them of being part of the general movement of cultural appropriation. Praise and damn almost in the same breath.

As so often in modern exhibitions, I began to feel that I got more visual and aesthetic enjoyment if I just stopped reading the hectoring labels – felt less harangued and nagged to feel guilty about things which happened 150 years before I was even born.

Orientalist painting

It’s probably in painting that the Orientalist issue is most obvious, or most familiar to most of us because the antique shops of the West are awash with third-rate late-Victorian depictions of the Arab world, of mosques, old men in long gowns with even longer beards, camels crossing the desert, Oriental markets, scantily dressed concubines and so on.

Said’s idea is that, although these images are fairly harmless looked at individually, taken together they become condescending, sexist and racist, depicting a fantasy world of harems and sultans, long-gowned scholars in picturesque mosques, colourful markets or the desert at dawn – all of which, taken together, creates a patronising distortion of the complex realities of the many peoples and tribes and ethnic groups and nations scattered across North Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, taken together, they all tend in the same direction, promoting an ideology claiming that all these cultures and peoples might well be noble and beautiful, but were also backward and in decline, and therefore needed to be taken in hand, taken over, guided and ruled by us, the enlightened West.

At Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch (1923)

The big wall hanging of twenty or so massive Orientalist paintings which I mentioned earlier are obviously meant to represent a kind of ‘Wall of Shame’. Tut tut, we are encouraged to think: look at all these stereotypical markets and mosques and rugs and carpets. Look how oppressive they are.

However, I just didn’t feel the moral outrage I think the curators intend us to feel. The real impact of hanging so many Orientalist paintings next to each other was, in my opinion, to make you feel a bit sick, as if you’d been let loose in a sweetshop and eaten everything in sight. They are self-consciously opulent and gorgeous to the point of absurdity.

Another, more objective result of examining so many of these over-ripe productions was that, pace Said, most of them are not from the imperial nineteenth century, nor, surprisingly, were many of them produced by the classic imperialist powers who carved up the Middle East between them, France and Britain.

At least half of them were from the twentieth century, many from after the Great War (the two above are from 1913 and 1923). And quite a few were by either German or American painters, not by the cultural Anglo-French cultural appropriators. Neither the Germans nor the Americans had any colonial presence in the Middle East till well after the Great War and even then, not very much.

Orientalism or Romanticism?

As I read yet another wall label pointing out how the Orientalist painters fantasised and romanticised and embellished lots of the subjects they painted, as if this was a shockingly immoral and exploitative thing to do, a simple thought occurred to me: Didn’t all 19th century artists?

There are thousands and thousands of Victorian genre paintings which romanticise and glamorise all kinds of subjects, from their own working classes (cf the exhibition of cheesy paintings of Victorian children I saw earlier this year at the Guildhall) to windswept Hebridean crofters.

In other words, wasn’t the entire artistic movement of Romanticism about, well, stereotypically romantic subject matter – about mountains and storms at sea and heroic adventures and tormented heroes and shy maidens with heaving bosoms who needed rescuing from dragons (I’m thinking of the amazing late-Victorian fantasies of Edward Burne-Jones as recently displayed at Tate Britain).

The same exaggerated depiction of popular conceptions of subjects was applied to everything – I bet medieval knights weren’t as manly and knightly as they appear in Victorian paintings, that Highland crofters weren’t as proud and noble, or our brave soldiers quite as manly and beautifully kitted out, as they appear in those big hearty late-Victorian paintings.

Don’t all Victorian paintings depict extravagant stereotypes in lush and glamorous colours? In other words, there is nothing particular or exceptional about this hyper-romantic style being applied to ‘Oriental’ subjects: it was applied to countless other subjects as well.

The Guard by Antonio María Fabrés y Costa (1889)

The harem

I was especially looking forward to the section about the harem, not because I was expecting to be particularly titillated but because I was anticipating the orgy of outraged feminism it would prompt in the commentary.

After all, one of the most obvious and much-repeated claims of anti-orientalist, politically correct literary critics, feminists and curators is that Western white men used the Ottoman institution of the harem to concoct a vast number of soft porn, erotic fantasies which bore no relation to reality at all, but merely satisfied the gloating gaze of fat, rich, white, male collectors.

So the most astonishing single thing about this exhibition about Western depictions of the Orient is the complete absence of even one decent painting showing a classic, late-Victorian harem scene. Not one.

I thought I must have missed a room somewhere and went back through the exhibition to check, but eventually realised that the little collection of five or so chaste drawings and one painting – none of which show a nude woman, all of them very restrained – is all they have! 

There’s a tiny photo of one of the classic nude-in-a-Turkish-bath paintings by Ingres, but any actual huge, beautiful and sexy harem scenes by him or Eugène Delacroix or John Frederick Lewis or any number of their followers and copyers… nothing! None!

I think I could go to my nearest antiques shop and find more cheesy old Victorian paintings of scantily-clad maidens in a supposed harem than there were in this exhibition. It is an astonishing gap. The big oil painting I mentioned is of a fully-clothed woman who could be more or less anywhere.

Off to one side there is one little drawing of a woman playing a musical instrument by a French artist we are assured, by the conscientious curators, was a notorious Orientalist – though it could hardly be less offensive. Does this image strike you as being offensively racist and sexist, stereotyping the Orient and providing visual underpinning for Western imperialism? It doesn’t, to me.

Study of a girl playing a stringed instrument by Jean Léon Gérôme (1886)

In fact it raises a related politico-aesthetic question, because the curators point out that the artists, Jean Léon Gérôme, was well known for his meticulous sketches and drawings he made preparatory to making an oil painting. Which made me reflect: I n what way can these artists be accused of peddling lazy stereotypes if they were carefully and meticulously depicting what they saw, what was actually in front of them?

The sex object bites back (or photographs itself wearing clothes)

The absolute of real killer harem scenes is all the more puzzling because it is meant to set up the final part of the exhibition, which is devoted to contemporary works by modern Muslim women artists.

The curators have chosen to interpret these contemporary Muslim women artists as responding to the despicable tradition of Western Orientalism. They are ‘speaking back to Orientalist representations of the east’. They are ‘subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists’.

But alas the curators’ plan doesn’t really work because we have not seen any of the sexy, sexist Orientalist representations of the east which these contemporary artists are kicking back against. We pretty much have to imagine them, or remember them from other exhibitions or books.

In fact I thought all four of the women artists on display here were very good, very very good, in their way better than the rest of the exhibition. Best of the four was a triptych of images by Lalla Essaydi, part of a large series of works titled Women of Morocco.

In them Essaydi or her models adopt the poses of the scantily-clad women draped around in famous Orientalist paintings, only here the women are chastely and Islamically dressed and – and this is the distinctive thing from a visual point of view – both they, their clothes and the studio backcloths are covered in Islamic script. I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, to produce really vibrant and exciting images.

Les Femmes du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi (2005) © Lalla Esaydi

Conclusion

Inspired by the East feels, in the end, like a rather thin exhibition.

Firstly, it claims to be a look at the interaction between East and West, so you’d expect it to be divided into two parts; How East affected West and how West affected East.

As noted, there’s plenty of examples of the way Westerners appropriated Eastern designs and motifs and patterns, architecture and design (although this felt like a much larger subject which really deserved to be investigated in much greater depth – All over London are buildings which incorporate Islamic motifs; if you add in tiling and ceramics and metalwork you have a huge subject).

But as to West affecting East, this section felt very skimpy indeed, with just one small room showing a couple of photo albums by pioneering photographers in Istanbul and a map or two. Is that it?

Secondly, there is the big shadow of Edward Said and his embittering theory of Orientalism threaded throughout the show, the premise that all depictions of the Middle East and all forms of appropriation of its culture were handmaidens to the wicked, Western imperial exploitation of the area.

But this rather harsh and inflexible approach militates against the more nuanced vibe of the ‘cultural interactions’ parts of the show. One minute the curators are praising Western craftsmen; the next they are berating the subtle cultural imperialism of copying Islamic designs.

Hence my comment about the unsettling schizophrenia I thought the show suffered from.

3. And when I got to the section on the harem and realised how tragically thin it was, it suddenly crystallised for me how skimpy the rest of the exhibition feels. It feels like it’s trying to address two or three really big issues and not quite doing any of them quite properly.

Alhambra vase, Spain 1800–1899 © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

Writing versus art

I read Orientalism at university four or five years after it was published, when it still had ‘the shock of the new’, before it settled down to become the new orthodoxy taught to each new generation of humanities and art students.

And Said’s book is almost entirely concerned with Orientalist writing – with the supposedly factual works of Orientalist ‘scholars’ (who he systematically debunks) and with the Western literary writers who perpetuated stereotypes about the Exotic East (Byron, Nerval, Flaubert just for starters).

A lot of this kind of writing was produced in the nineteenth century and so Said had a rich vein to draw on, and was able to show how the supposedly ‘scholarly’ writing, and the literary works, easily morphed into official, governing and imperial writing, could be co-opted into government reports and assessments, how anthropological studies could be quoted in business cases for invading Egypt, say, or Iraq.

But it is much harder to divine a particularly patronising, racist or imperialist motive behind a set of porcelain which just happens to use an Islamic motif, or in picture frames which use Arabic script as decoration, or in glassware which incorporates Islamic patterns.

It’s easier to imagine that they were just one among the millions of other ranges of pottery and ceramics and frames produced during the consumer boom of the nineteenth century, which cannibalised motifs and patterns from all available sources – from India and China and Japan to name just a few – if it produced something which would sell.

To see most of the objects in this exhibition as part of an enormous explosion of art and crafts products which catered for the burgeoning middles classes as, to some extent, they still do today.

So my last thought is that maybe the bittiness and thinness of the exhibition is owing to the fact that the curators are trying to illustrate a basically literary theory with works of art and museum objects. And not nearly enough of them to really round out the argument.

Whatever the reason, for me this exhibition contained an entertaining pot-pourri of lovely objects, but didn’t really hang together either as history, or as a sustained exploration of the themes it purports to address.

Promotional video

Curators

  • Julia Tugwell
  • Olivia Threlkeld

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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