We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (1998)

‘Hutus must stop having mercy on the Tutsis.’
Eighth of the Hutu Ten Commandments published by Hutu Power propagandist Hassan Ngeze in 1990 (page 88)

Disappointment

Simon’s law of book-buying states that the more you spend on a book, the more likely you are to be disappointed. Nothing has brought me as much pleasure as picking up a copy of my childhood favourite, The Town That Went South by Clive King, for 30p in a National Trust second-hand bookshop a few years ago. By contrast, I paid full whack to buy We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families and almost immediately took against it.

The shiny cover of the Picador paperback somehow belies the fact that it was published in 1998 and so is nearly a quarter of a century old.

Next, the introduction by Old Etonian and Conservative Party leadership contender Rory Stewart is reasonable enough but offers no insights or ideas. In fact it opens with disappointing stupidity. His very first sentence is: ‘Is genocide a suitable subject for literature?’ to which the obvious answer is, ‘Yes, everything is a suitable subject for literature’. More specifically, ‘Yes – have you not heard of Holocaust literature?’ Literature about the killing fields of Cambodia, about the Armenian genocide, and so on? So it’s a non-question asked for purely rhetorical effect.

And finally, Gourevitch’s book itself is also disappointing because, although it contains a lot of good quality history of the background and buildup to the genocide, of the events of the genocide itself, and then a detailed account of the aftermath up until late 1998 when he completed his text, and although it contains interviews with a phenomenally large number of representative figures – it is continually interrupted by Gourevitch’s own meditations on the nature of genocide, what we should feel about genocide, whether we can write about genocide, the difficulty of imagining genocide and so on, which are uniformly poor quality, entry-level, GCSE-level. Trite ideas padded out with lame and obvious quotes. It is a big disappointment. Gourevitch may be a terrific reporter but he’s no intellectual.

The tone is set in the puzzling first chapter where Gourevitch retails a conversation he had with a pygmy (one of the aboriginal inhabitants of the region now known as Rwanda, who were swamped by later Bantu incomers and now make up about 1% of the population). This conversation delivers the  thumpingly banal message that humanity is one and needs to be united in its struggle against nature. This is the ‘insight’ message Gourevitch chooses to open his long book about the Rwandan genocide with, i.e. not very insightful at all, certainly not worth paying £10 for.

With a sinking feeling, I realised within a few pages that this book was not going to offer much insight into politics or human nature. In fact, in the passages where he tries to ‘think’ about the genocide, Gourevitch’s banal meanderings tend to blanket and dull the impact of the horrifying facts he sets down so powerfully in the factual passages.

The second disappointment is that a major part of the book’s USP is that it contains interviews and conversations Gourevitch had with scores of Rwandans from all parts of the country, from all classes and professions, Hutus and Tutsis, which go to create an impressive mosaic, like the walls of photos I’ve seen in some art installations, hundreds of photos of ordinary people caught up in a nightmare. Hence the book’s sub-title, Stories from Rwanda.

But I’m sad to report that these stories, also, partake of the general disappointment because they, also, are often surprisingly dull and banal. Obviously, many of the interviewees describe horrifying scenes: they describe entire lives lived in the shadow of the ethnic conflict between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi populations, they describe the repeated crises in the 1960s and 70s, when small-scale pogroms, massacres and localised ethnic cleansing broke out for one reason or another; then they describe the atmosphere of fear created by the RPF invasion of 1990 and the emergence of really vitriolic Hutu supremacism, the advent of magazines and radio stations calling for the complete extermination of the Tutsis; and then describe gathering round their radios to listen to the dreadful news that the moderate Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane had been shot down as it came into land at Kigali airport and the terrible sense of doom most of them felt.

And then, of course, Gourevitch includes eye-witness account of going into hiding, being arrested, trying desperately to contact family members, watching people being shot, hacked to death with machetes, driving through smoking villages, coming across streets full of bodies, terror and despair.

The content of these stories is, of course, gripping and horrifying. But the style is uniformly flat. They all sound the same, they all speak very simply. Either that’s because all Rwandans sound the same, very simple and flat. Or because all Rwandans are dull and boring. Or maybe because every interview had to be carried out through an interpreter, since most Rwandans speak French, and French has less lexical variety than English and that’s why everyone comes out sounding the same. Or maybe it’s because all the testimony has been first translated, and then put through Gourevitch’s own style machine. All the interviews are made up of suspiciously complete sentences. There are no hesitations or repetitions or stumblings. All Gourevitch’s interviewees speak in perfect and grammatically correct sentences. They all sound the same and they all sound boring.

He even manages to make Paul Kagame sound boring, which is quite a feat. Paul Kagame was born and raised a Rwandan exile in Uganda. He volunteered to join the Ugandan army, rose quickly through the ranks, studied military theory, was a senior officer in the rebel force which helped Yoweri Museveni overthrow the Ugandan dictator Milton Obote. Kagame then went on to become a co-founder and eventually leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which invaded north Rwanda in 1990 and fought the Rwandan army to a ceasefire in 1993. Kagame was still working through implementation the peace accords he signed with the Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana in August 1993, when the latter’s plane was blown out of the sky in April 1994. This was the trigger for Hutu Power extremists in the government to launch their genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, so Kagame immediately resumed the RPF incursion into Rwanda, quickly seizing large parts of the country, taking the capital Kigali on 4 July 1994, then pushing west to conquer almost the entire country and putting an end to the genocide by 17 July 1994.

Kagame then took up the twin roles of vice-president and defence minister in the post-genocide government, but everyone knew he was the real power in Rwanda, which he has gone on to lead down to the present day, 2021, when he is still serving as president.

Kagame is described by analysts as a military leader of ‘genius’ for turning the RPF from a ragtag of half-armed volunteers into a highly disciplined and effective military force (p.218). And then, after all this, he went on to be the military and strategic brains behind the alliance of armies, the AFDL, which invaded east Zaire in 1997 to close the Hutu refugee camps where Hutu Power génocidaires had been regrouping and preparing for genocide part two. This was the incursion which led to the AFDL marching all the way to Kinshasa and overthrowing Zairean dictator Joseph Mobutu.

In other words, Kagame is one of the most fascinating characters of the late 20th/early 21st centuries and Gourevitch has had the privilege of interviewing him not once but on numerous occasions. And yet, in Gourevitch’s hands, this is what Kagame sounds like:

“I have wanted to be original about my own thinking, especially in regard to my own situation here. Not that I don’t realise that there are other people out there to admire, but it is just not my habit to admire anybody. Even if something has worked, I think there are many other things that could work also. If there’s anything else that has worked, I would certainly pick a bit from that. But if there could be another way of having things work, I would like to discover that. If I could have some original way of thinking, that would be OK for me.” (quoted on page 213)

Pretty dull, eh. It’s far too harsh to say that Gourevitch is a lightweight and he makes everyone he interviews sound like a lightweight, but that thought did cross my mind during more than one of the duller interviews in the book.

He’s spoken to literally hundreds of people, including many key players and all kinds of experts and aid and UN officials and yet…hardly any of them say anything interesting. Only towards the end did some of the Rwandan officials complaining about the utter ineffectualness of the international community make an impression.

A literary account, alas

Gourevitch is a longtime staff writer for New Yorker magazine and a former editor of The Paris Review. He knew nothing about Rwanda or African politics before he watched the shocking images on the TV news as the Rwanda genocide broke in spring 1994. Fascinated and appalled he realised he had to find out more (or realised this was a terrific opportunity for an ambitious journalist looking for a subject for a book).

So Gourevitch began visiting Rwanda in 1995 (p.7) and over the next two years made nine trips to the country and to its neighbours (Zaire, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania) to report on the genocide and its aftermath. He made 6 trips lasting a total of 9 months (p.185). During that time he interviewed hundreds of people from Rwanda and the neighbouring countries and the book contains an impressive number of first-hand, eye-witness testimony from many, many Tutsi survivors, as well as more confrontational interviews with men accused of complicity or of organising particular local massacres.

Possibly his lack of background in African affairs partly explains the air of hopeless bewilderment he exudes right from the start. In the opening sections of the book Gourevitch goes heavy on his inability to imagine the events, on the importance of imagination in our lives, his interest in how people imagine their identities, on the importance of the narratives which shape their lives. In other words, he brings a heavily literary slant to his huge and complicated subject.

On the first page of his text he mentions Charles Dickens, on page 3 he is citing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there are epigraphs from George Eliot and John Milton. Directly after that limp quote from Kagame which I cite above, Gourevitch says it reminds him of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke writing on love and art (p.213).

Oh dear. It is going to be literary journalism, the worst sort, the type of journalism which spends a lot of its energy emphasising the author’s own sensitivity, which foregrounds his own emotional responses, to the subject matter, rather than doing a journalist’s job which is to get on and tell you what happened and let interviewees tell their own stories, preferably without a load of editorialising about how you everything you find out about the horrors makes you feel. In the showbiz world of American journalism, ruined by the egotistical displays of Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe in the 1960s, it is acceptable to put the author and his responses at the centre of the story, but I wanted a history, I wanted to know the facts, not reiterations of how a pampered New York journalist was appalled to discover how brutal life  is in much of Africa and how thoughtlessly cruel human beings can be.

His factual sections are sensational but when he stops to reflect on it all, Gourevitch writes quite a lot of stupid things. When he writes that ‘Power is terribly complex’ on page 78 I suddenly realised I was dealing with an idiot. My daughter learned more about political, social and cultural power in her GCSE Sociology course than Gourevitch displays in this entire book. All the ‘reflection’ in the book displays a disappointingly low knowledge of political theory, knowledge of international relations, or philosophy about human nature.

And I was irritated by his casual assumption that the ‘we’ he continually refers to are all white, liberal, college-educated, East Coast readers of New Yorker magazine, that ‘we’ all share his over-developed moral scruples and his severely under-developed sense of world affairs, geopolitics, African history and politics. Right at the beginning he tries to implicate the reader in his sensitive moral scruples:

I presume that you are reading this because you want a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. (p.19)

Well, er, no. I am not disturbed by my interest in reading about the Rwandan genocide in the same way that I am not disturbed by my interest in reading about the Holocaust, or the Second World War, or the First World War, the Somme, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American Civil War, the Tapei Rebellion, the rape of Nanking, the Gulag Archipelago, the Russian Civil War, the Ukraine famine, the Partition of India, Islamic State, the Crusades, the decimation of the Incas and Aztecs, the violent rise of Islam, the blood-soaked fall of Byzantium, the life and massacres of Genghiz Khan. I could go on…

I am reading this book because I want to be better informed about human history which, as anyone who has even a superficial knowledge of the subject knows, amounts to an unrelenting series of wars, massacres, genocides and bloodbaths. I’m kind of used to it.

So, no, I am not in the slightest disturbed by my curiosity to want to understand a recent historical event better. Seems perfectly normal to me, and most of the history books I read include passages where historians say the public in general ought to be more aware of history. In addition, many progressive historians and commentators tell us we need to get out of our Eurocentric frame of reference and understand more about the wider world and places beyond London or Paris. So that’s why I’m reading a book about Africa, and about one of the most striking events in post-war African history.

Gourevitch’s comment betrays a basic…what…dimness, obtuseness, ignorance…about the entire subject of History and why people would want to study it, which is to find out what happened, to try and understand why it happened, in order to better understand the forces at work in the world around us, now, in the present.

The facts

The book consists of three elements:

  1. Gourevitch’s self-consciously literary fretting over the power of imagination and the importance of narrative and the centrality of stories and the difficulties of human identity and a familiar checklist of progressive, liberal arts issues
  2. interviews with scores of Rwandans, UN officials, foreign doctors and aid workers, politicians and so on, giving often harrowing descriptions of their experiences or clarifying the political situation in Kigali, in the UN, in the aid camps in Zaire
  3. actual historical facts

When he sticks to the facts, Gourevitch is very good indeed. Suddenly, about a third of the way into the book, after the kind of maundering speculation I’ve been slagging off, it changes tone dramatically and becomes a riveting account of the early history of the country, a description of the colonial era when the Belgians divided the two ethnic groups of Hutu and Tutsi the better to control them, and how this ethnic division, once created, went on to dog the Rwanda, which won independence in 1962 but continued to suffer repeated outbreaks of ethnic violence, pogroms and massacres (the massacres of 59, of 61, of 63, and so on).

In what follows I extract the facts Gourevitch gives and supplement them from other sources to try and create a comprehensive and useful timeline.

Rwandan history

In 1994 Rwanda had a population of about 7 million. Relatively small, it was the most densely populated country in Africa. About 85% of the population were Hutus, 14% Tutsis and 1% pygmies known at the Twa.

Rwanda is divided into five provinces: Kigali, Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western.

Because they were illiterate, no Rwandans before the arrival of Europeans had ever written anything down. Therefore, their prehistory relies entirely on unreliable oral traditions and speculation. Modern archaeology tentatively suggests that the hilly region was inhabited by pygmies as long ago as 8,000 BC, before it was slowly infiltrated from 700 AD by Bantu tribes from West Africa who went on to form the Hutus, and by ‘Nilotic’ ethnic groups from the north who were ancestors of the Tutsi (p.49). Maybe.

Hutus and Tutsis

For centuries before Europeans arrived, the Tutsis were nomadic cattle rearers, which made them wealthier than the Hutu majority who were mostly static farmers; the ruler of Rwanda was a Tutsi and the aristocratic Tutsis looked down on the peasant Hutus.

The regime was essentially feudal: Tutsis were aristocrats; Hutus were vassals. (p.49)

Although there’s a racial stereotype that the Hutus are full-on ‘negroid’ African in appearance while the Tutsis have narrow faces, with narrow noses and thin lips, in reality scores of generations of interbreeding meant the majority of the population didn’t conform to these stereotypes and very often Rwandans couldn’t tell which groups each other belonged to (p.50). Plenty of the Rwandans Gourevitch talks to tell him they pass for one ethnic group when they in fact belong to another. In other words, it wasn’t such a starkly obvious divide as between blacks and whites. Many Hutus and Tutsis are indistinguishable.

Tutsi ruler Kigeli Rwabugiri reigned from 1853 to 1895 and expanded the kingdom to its greatest extent. He oversaw a society which was regimented and hierarchical, with layers of military, political and civil chiefs and governors, priests, tax collectors, sub-chiefs, deputy governors and so on (p.49). Divisions between Hutu and Tutsi were hardened, with the former obliged to perform forced labour for the latter.

When the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885 carved up Africa between the European imperial nations, Rwanda was handed to the Germans because they had explored the region, had missionaries on the ground, and nobody else wanted it (p.55). After Germany lost the Great War, Rwanda was combined with the neighbouring nation of Burundi and handed by the victorious allies over to Belgium, because they abut the huge Belgian Congo to the west. Belgium ran Rwanda from 1918 to 1962.

The Belgians hardened the ethnic division in the country by compelling every citizen to state on their identity papers which group they belonged to. This had the effect of crystallising a racial divide which had been far more fluid and flexible before.

The Hutu revolution

Throughout the century Hutu resentment at their inferior status simmered. With the advent of an educated class it found expression. In 1957 nine Hutu intellectuals published a Hutu Manifesto. Its full title was ‘Note on the social aspect of the native racial problem in Rwanda’ and it was ten pages long. The manifesto called for a ‘double liberation’ of the Hutu people, from the colonial oppression of the Belgians, and then from the racial oppression of the Tutsis. The manifesto called for the political disenfranchisement of the Tutsi, banning intermarriage between the two groups, and banning the Tutsi from military service.

1959 Hutu political leaders backed by elements in the Belgian administration overthrew the Tutsi monarchy (which had continued to exist throughout the colonial period) and replaced it with a republic. Violence against Tutsis spread across the country and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda. (When many of these exiles returned with the triumph of the RPF government in 1994, they were referred to as ’59ers’.)

Independence 1962

Rwanda was separated from Burundi and the two countries gained independence on 1 July 1962. Tutsi militias raised among exiles, especially in neighbouring Uganda, staged occasional raids into Rwanda, which always led to reprisals by the Hutu government. In December 1963 a Tutsi raid led to Hutu reprisals in which tens of thousands of Tutsis were massacred, in what one journalist called a genocide and Bertrand Russell declared was the worst massacre since the Holocaust. (This Russell quote crops up in Fergal Keane’s book on the genocide; it’s obviously one of those quotable quotes you get extra marks for in your GCSE essay.)

More than 336,000 Tutsi left Rwanda in 1964 to escape the Hutu purges. In 1972 Tutsi school students across the country were attacked, beaten, their houses torched. So large-scale massacres and pogroms came in waves.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Burundi, it was the Tutsis who were in charge and in 1973 embarked on a pogrom of Hutus. As many as 100,000 were killed and a further 200,000 Hutus fled as exiles into Rwanda, where every one of their stories fed the fuel of anti-Tutsi anger.

The 1973 influx of Hutu refugees inspired the Rwandan president Grégoire Kayibanda to order his army chief of staff, Juvénal Habyarimana, to set up ‘committees of public safety’, which promptly set about massacring Tutsis. On this occasion the victims were ‘only’ in the hundreds, but as many 100,000 Tutsis fled abroad.

To summarise, Rwanda and Burundi have a long record of attack and counter-attack, profound ethnic antagonism and ethnic cleansing of the two groups which dated back before independence and flared up on an almost annual basis, with the Tutsi almost always being victimised, massacred, and fleeing the country in tens of thousands. The 1994 genocide was generations in the making.

Habyarimana’s coup 1973

In 1973 Rwanda’s army chief of staff, Hutu nationalist Juvénal Habyarimana, carried out a coup, overthrowing president Kayibanda and declaring himself president of independent Rwanda. Under his rule Rwanda became a totalitarian, one-party state in which every citizen was compelled to be a member of his MRND party and was required to chant and dance in adulation of the president at mass pageants (p.75). Habyarimana was to remain dictator of Rwanda for 21 years, kept in place by lavish aid from Western nations and in particular from his most loyal Western supporter, France. Naturellement.

Gourevitch makes the point that during the 1980s and 90s France channeled huge amounts of armaments to the Hutu government, up to and through the actual genocide; that French advisers helped the government at all levels; that French president Francois Mitterand’s son Jean-Christophe was an arms dealer who made a packet from the trade (p.89).

In 1986 the global price of Rwanda’s main exports, coffee and tea, collapsed, and real hardship for the majority of the population added to simmering Hutu disaffection. The racist, supremacist policies of Hutu Power spread like a virus, popularising the insulting term inyenzi or cockroaches for Tutsis.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) The Tutsis in Uganda

But so did the Tutsi fightback. It is important to understand the role played by Ugandan politics. In 1979 Tutsi exiles in Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). (It was initially known as the Rwandan Refugees Welfare Association and then, from 1980, as the Rwandan Alliance for National Unity (RANU)). It was formed in response to the persecution of Tutsi refugees by the regime of Ugandan president Milton Obote. Obote accused the Rwandans of collaboration with his predecessor, Idi Amin.

Tutsi refugees Fred Rwigyema and Paul Kagame had joined Yoweri Museveni’s rebel Front for National Salvation (FRONASA). Museveni had fought alongside Obote to defeat Amin in 1979 but withdrew from the government following Obote’s disputed victory in the 1980 general election.

With Rwigyema and Kagame, Museveni formed a new rebel army, the National Resistance Army (NRA). Their campaign to overthrow Obote’s government became known as the Ugandan Bush War.

Obote remained hostile to Rwandan refugees throughout his presidency and in 1981 forced RANU into exile in Kenya. In 1982 he encouraged local councils to force Rwandan refugees out of ordinary civil life and into refugee camps. When Rwandans attempted to cross the border back into Rwanda, the Habyarimana regime confined them to isolated refugee camps and closed the border to prevent further migration.

You can see why many Tutsi exiles found themselves in an impossible position and it explains why so many joined up with Museveni’s NRA with the aim of overthrowing Obote and restoring their rights within Uganda.

In 1986 the NRA captured Kampala with a force of 14,000 soldiers which included 500 Rwandans, some of them senior officers, among them Kagame and Rwigyema. Museveni was grateful for their support and relaxed all Obote’s laws discriminating against Rwandans.

But you can also see why their success in the Bush War led soldiers like Rwigyema and Kagame to  think they might launch a similar military attack against the consider an attack against Rwanda, with the aim of overthrowing the dictatorial Habyarimana regime, installing a moderate government and so allowing the Rwandan refugees inside Uganda to return home. And you can see why the new man they’d helped to power in Uganda, Museveni, would support such a move.

The Rwandan civil war 1990 to 1994

At its 1987 convention RANU renamed itself the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). After a small-scale incursion was repelled in 1989, a cohort of Tutsi soldiers within the Ugandan army deserted, along with uniforms, arms and ammunition and invaded north Rwanda in 1990. It was the right year, as the Cold War came to an end and Western powers abruptly ceased their support for African dictators like Mobutu of Zaire and Habyarimana of Rwanda and force them to instal multi-party democracies.

The RPF incursion developed into the Rwandan Civil War. (To give a sense of the relatively small scale of all this, the original Tutsi incursion numbered some 2,500 soldiers who effectively went AWOL from the Ugandan army, accompanied by some 800 civilians such as doctors and nurses.) The RPF were defeated and repelled by the Rwandan Army (bolstered by French troops flown in to prop up another notorious African dictator) and withdrew to the Virunga mountains where Paul Kagame, establishing himself as its paramount leader, led a very effective regrouping and reorganisation. He attracted funds and exiles, he imposed strict military discipline and turned the RPF into an impressive fighting machine. In 1991 they emerged from the mountains to conduct an effective guerrilla campaign, hitting military targets across the north.

Throughout this period Hutu Power stepped up their propaganda that the Tutsis were parasites on decent hard-working Hutus, exacerbated by the war which Hutus blamed on Tutsi invaders. The circle around Habyarimana’s wife, Agathe, set up a propaganda magazine, Akura, edited by Hassan Ngeze, who developed into the Dr Goebbels of the regime and in December 1990 published a Hutu Ten Commandments mandating Hutu supremacy in all aspects of Rwandan life (p.87).

Propaganda claimed the Tutsis were an alien people, were not Christians, were fighting to gain dictatorial control of Rwanda, restore the old monarchy and reduce the Hutu majority to slaves. In 1992 Hutu Power ideologue Leon Mugesera made a much-reported and chilling speech calling on Hutus to send the Tutsis back to Ethiopia by river i.e. as corpses down the river Nyabarongo (pages 53 and 96). And throughout the war Radio Rwanda broadcast anti-Tutsi hate and there were sporadic anti-Tutsi pogroms around the country, in which thousands were murdered.

The RPF invasion ratcheted up the very anti-Tutsi hate they were set up to counter.

Fragile peace 1993

By 1992 Habyarimana had been forced to accept a measure of multi-party politics and had included politicians not members of his party in the cabinet. It was these opposition politicians who met with the RPF leadership and negotiated a ceasefire in July 1992, leading to face-to-face peace negotiations.

It’s vital to realise that the hardline Hutus, often referred to as the akazu (p.81) and linked with the extended family of the president’s wife, disapproved of Habyarimana’s willingness to compromise and negotiate. They began setting up parallel hard-line Hutu structures within the organs of state, the civil service, the media and the army. Historian Gérard Prunier names late 1992 as the time when the idea of a genocidal ‘final solution’ to kill every Tutsi in Rwanda was first floated among this group. It was led, ironically enough, by one of the new parties encouraged to form by Western pressure to set up a proper democracy, the Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR).

When Habyarimana signed a treaty with the RPF in early 1993 promising a transition to a genuine pluralist democracy in which Tutsi rights would be respected the CDR refused to sign, organised nationwide protests and encourage anti-Tutsi violence in which hundreds were murdered. In response the RPF resumed hostilities, this time defeating the Rwandan army which hadn’t been paid due to the country’s deteriorating economy.

Ever-faithful France sent troops to bolster the Rwandan army. The numbers are tiny. Just the arrival of 400 well disciplined and trained French troops was enough to halt the RPF advance. Nonetheless the RPF came within striking distance of Kigali but Kagali overruled his senior officers and refused to take the capital, shrewdly pointing out that it would alienate his foreign backers and the Hutu population. Instead he declared a ceasefire and called for more negotiations.

On the Hutu side, factions arose in all the parties which allied themselves with what became known as Hutu Power. Each party split into a moderate faction which believed in some amount of political negotiation, and a ‘Power’ faction, which rejected compromise and stood for total Hutu supremacy (p.97). Youth militia wings of each of the parties emerged, including the Interahamwe meaning ‘those who attack together’, who had their origin in football supporters clubs (p.93).

Habyarimana began to realise that the Hutu Power militants were more his enemy than the RPF. After prolonged haggling over the make-up of the post-war Rwandan army, a formal peace treaty was signed on 4 August 1993 (p.99). A transitional government was to be set up with members from all the main parties. UN troops were flown in to supervise the treaty, while Hutu Power authorities began to plan a genocide. Four days after the signing a new radio station set up by the akazu, Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines, began broadcasting genocidal propaganda (p.99).

The general situation was not helped at all when president of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye, who had been elected in June as the country’s first ever Hutu president, was assassinated by extremist Tutsi army officers in October 1993, leading to a Hutu uprising and a violent crackdown by the Tutsi army which left around 50,000 dead (p.101). The assassination reinforced the notion among Rwandan Hutus that the Tutsi  presented a permanent threat and that there could be no peace, not real long-lasting peace, until they were completely eliminated. This very fragile ‘peace’ lasted from August 1993 till April 1994.

Trigger for the genocide 1994

On the night of 6 April 1994 a plane carrying president Habyarimana and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi – both Hutus – was shot down as it approached Kigali airport, killing everyone on board. Hutu extremists blamed the RPF. The Hutu Power wing of the army, led by Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, assassinated the next in line to civilian authority, the (Hutu) Prime Minister,  Agathe Uwilingiyimana, along with ten Belgian UN soldiers charged with her protection (who were tortured first, p.114), and immediately started to implement the campaign of slaughter which they had been developing for years. It was to be a ‘final solution’ to the Tutsi problem.

The RPF claims that Hutu extremists themselves murdered their own president because he was engaged in negotiations with the Tutsis i.e. was a moderate Hutu and seen by a ‘sellout’ by the extremists on his own side.

The very next day, 7 April, as systematic killings across the country began, Kagame warned he was abandoning the treaty and the RPF broke out of its base in the north, attacking into Rwanda in three directions. So the genocide took place against the backdrop of renewed invasion and war. The RPF slowly seized territory in the east, heading south. UN troops were stationed in the demilitarised zone in the north but were ordered to withdraw to their camps to avoid getting involved in the fighting.

You can see why the renewal of war incited the Hutu Power advocates to carry out the genocide with feverish haste, ordering their followers at local level to kill as many as possible as quickly as possible before either the RPF won or the international community stepped in. For Hutu Power, it was a race against the clock.

The genocide – 100 days in 1994

Between April and July 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days. Three key facts to grasp are that:

1. The Hutu Power extremists had been preparing for this day for years, had drawn up lists of every Tutsis in the country with names and addresses, had assigned local Hutu leaders to direct and manage the slaughter, and had plans to take over state radio The Hutu extremists set up a radio station, RTLM, and newspapers which circulated hate propaganda, urging people to ‘weed out the inyenzi‘, to broadcast messages of hate. In other words, it was all extremely well planned. The identity cards which every Rwandan had been obliged by law to carry ever since the Belgians introduced them in 1931 (p.56) now became death warrants for any Tutsi stopped by police, militias, at road blocks, in the street, stopped search identified and hacked to death with a machete.

2. Second thing is that Rwanda was unique in tropical African countries in having been, from before Europeans arrived, a highly hierarchical country, organised like a pyramid from each district up to the top of government. Habyarimana’s governing party, the MRND, had a youth wing called the Interahamwe, which was turned into a militia to carry out the slaughter, but they operated within a highly organised society. It was a very well-organised genocide.

3. French troops, fighting on the side of the Rwandan army, freed up resources which Colonel Théoneste Bagosora could redirect to speeding up the genocide (p.90). On the nights of 16 and 18 June French arms shipments were flown into Goma in Zaire and then ferried across the border to support the genocidal Hutu Power regime (p.155). Gourevitch writes of:

The French political and military establishment’s…blatant complicity in the preparation and implementation of the butchery. (p.155)

I was amused to read that as the RPF closed in a French military plane whisked Habyarimana’s wife, Agathe, the central figure in the networks of Hutu Power, the leading figure in the azaku, to safety back in the homeland of liberty, equality and fraternity. Vive la France!

Number killed

At least 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in just 100 days, making it the fastest mass killing in human history. People were slaughtered at a faster rate than even during the Holocaust. Some Tutsis, commentators and historians put the figure higher at 1 million, for example a Red Cross report published soon afterwards.

What’s Somalia got to do with it?

Six months before the genocide broke out American troops had carried out Operation Gothic Serpent, an attempt to take on the evil warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid.,who ruled Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, which led to the so-called Battle of Mogadishu on 3 and 4 October 1993 during which a black hawk helicopter was shot down and 19 American soldiers were killed and 73 wounded. Not just that. The American corpses were paraded through the streets, and filmed and the video footage beamed around the world. The world’s only superpower was humiliated.

This explains why, when trouble broke out in another faraway African state, the administration of President Bill Clinton desperately tried to ignore it, then downplay it. Gourevitch quotes the press conferences given while the genocide was being carried out in which the poor press secretary tried to explain the administration’s position that ‘genocidal acts’ were taking place but these didn’t amount to an actual genocide. Why the hair-splitting? Because if the Americans conceded it was a genocide, then they would be legally obliged under the Genocide Convention of 1948 to intervene. And Clinton refused under any circumstances to risk another Black Hawk Down humiliation. And therefore officials at every level of the administration were under strict orders never to use the g word.

A bit too neatly Gourevitch says that in May, as the genocide was in full swing, he was visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which happened to have been opened by President Bill Clinton who made a speech repeating the museum’s motto Never Again. But not only did it happen again, and the American government was the number one reason that the West, the international community and the United Nations did not do more to stop it (as explained in detail on pages 151 to 154). Disgusting.

French involvement and guilt

By June the RPF, attracting more and more Tutsi recruits, controlled the east of Rwanda, had surrounded the key cities including Kigali. In the same month France launched Opération Turquoise in the west of the country, entering from bases in the Zairian cities of Goma and Bukavu and eventually controlling the western fifth of Rwanda in order to create a safe haven for refugees. The fact that many of these refugees were Hutus, fleeing the advancing RPF army, and included many Hutu Power administrators and officials, has led to claims ever since that the French in effect protected those responsible for the genocide.

From the moment they arrived, and wherever they went, the French forces supported and preserved the same local political leaders who had presided over the genocide. (p.158)

Throughout the genocide French military spokesman argued that it was a ‘two-way’ genocide, both sides were as bad as each other and sneeringly referred to the RPF as the Khmer Rouge. The French had many motivations. 1. To maintain hegemony over the widest possible area of francophonie. 2. To maintain its credibility with the other African dictators it supported. Hatred of the English. Hard though it is to believe, the French government opposed the RPF because they originated in English-speaking Uganda. French culture must be preserved even at the cost of supporting the largest genocide since the Holocaust. This was recognised as a factor in France’s support for mass murder by as senior figure as Paul Kagame:

‘If they wanted people here to speak French, they shouldn’t have helped to kill people here who spoke French.’ (p.160)

The permanent grievance of the history’s losers.

The signal achievement of [France’s] Opération Turquoise was to permit the slaughter of Tutsis to continue for an extra month, and to secure safe passage for the genocidal command to cross, with a lot of its weaponry, into Zaire. (p.161)

Scum. cf p.289 and p.325.

End of the genocide July 1994

By late June the RPF had surrounded Kigali and took the capital on 4 July, followed on 18 July by the major towns of the north-west, forcing the interim government into Zaire. The RPF victory ended the genocide as well as the civil war. By the end of July 1994 Kagame’s forces held the whole of Rwanda except for the Turquoise zone in the south-west.

The international community, the UN troops on the ground and the French had done fuck-all to halt the worst genocide since the Second World War. (To be fair, Canadian General Roméo Dallaire sent his superiors in New York advance warnings he had learned from high-placed Hutu dissidents that a really huge massacre was being planned. When they ignored his warnings and actively reduced the UN presence on the ground, he and his reduced forces were at least able to provide refuge for thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutu at its headquarters in Amahoro Stadium, at other secure UN sites, and assisted with the evacuation of foreign nationals.)

Instead the genocide ended solely as a result of the military intervention of Paul Kagame’s RPF (p.143). (Mind you, you could make the case that the genocide only came about because of the sequence of events following the RPF’s initial invasion of 1990, designed to overthrow the ‘legitimate’ Hutu government. Academics, commentators and advocates of all sides can spend the rest of time assigning blame.)

Map showing the advance of the RPF during the 1994 Rwandan genocide (source: Wikipedia)

Aftermath – flight of the Hutus

As the RPF closed in the Hutu extremists prepared not just to flee the country, but used state radio and local authorities to terrify the Hutu population into believing they too, in their turn, would be slaughtered by vengeful Tutsis. Which explains why some two million Hutu peasants took to the road and fled west into Zaire, eventually setting up huge refugee camps as big as cities.

And indeed the RPF were accused of themselves killing thousands of Hutu civilians as they took power, and of pursuing and Hutus across the border in Zaire as they tracked down members of the notorious Interahamwe. The RPF denies this was intentional but Gourevitch has Kagame admitting certain rogue elements in his army may have carried out illegal revenge attacks. He tried to restrain them, some were tried and imprisoned, but there’s a limit to his control.

But the bigger story, which Gourevitch dwells on at length, was the creation of vast Hutu refugee camps which became cities in their own right, homes to countless businesses, run with fear and intimidation by Hutu Power administrators, and funded and supported by the international community and hundreds of well-meaning aid agencies.

Ethnic cleansing in East Congo 1995 to 1996

The resulting situation in eastern Congo became chaotic with Rwandan Tutsis tracking down and massacring Hutus, and Hutu extremists regrouping in the vast refugee camps helped by Western governments and aid agencies a) launching cross-border raids back into Rwanda to murder survivors and kill witnesses and b) embarking on their own campaigns of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Tutsis who had lived in Zaire for generations, specifically in the area of Kivu around the Zairean town of Goma.

In other words, intense Hutu-Tutsi animosity, spilling over into massacres and ethnic cleansing continued for years after the genocide itself was ended by the invading RPF.

First Congo War 1996 to 1997

Gourevitch spells out how the genocide was a gift from God for Congo dictator Seko Sese Mobutu (p.281). The old bastard had been unceremoniously dumped by his Western supporters when the Cold War ended in 1990 and had gone through a lean time manipulating a succession of fig-leaf ‘democratic’ governments while he slowly lost control of the lucrative mining industries which had kept his kleptocratic state alive, inflation soared to 9,000 per cent, the economy collapsed.

But with the advent of nearly two million refugees in the far east of his country in 1994, Mobutu was suddenly the man the international community and countless aid agencies had to go through to help them and he proved a willing participant, seeing as he got to cream off significant percentages of the money passing through his capital and its crooked banks. Leading the charge was, of course, the dictator’s most loyal Western friend and the most avid supporter of the genocidal Hutus, France.

France, ever eager to bail out Hutu Power, broke ranks with the rest of what in Cold War parlance used to be called the ‘Free World’ and unilaterally restored aid to Zaire – which meant, of course, to Mobutu who shovelled the money directly into his Swiss bank accounts. (p.281)

Throughout the spring of 1996 Hutu Power militias based in the refugee camps funded by the West continued a campaign to ethnically cleanse the area of North Kivu of its native Zairean Tutsi population, Gourevitch tours the area after such cleansing, travelling through miles of devastation, meeting terrified refugees. The RPF Rwandan government demanded something be done to protect the Tutsis. Zaire protested no such cleansing was going on. The international community did precisely nothing (p.289).

Eventually Kagame was forced to consider direct military intervention into eastern Zaire where the camps were located. His ally Museveni had introduced Kagame to Zairean revolutionary and guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. They began recruiting troops and creating networks of like-minded soldiers, militias and exiles which coalesced into the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation or AFDL.

Since North Kivu had been largely ethnically cleansed of Tutsis, Kagam predicted the Hutu Power militias would next turn on the 300,000 or so Tutsis living in South Kivu, known as the Banyamulenge after the town they were meant to have immigrated from back in the seventeenth century.

In September 1996 Hutu militias began attacking the Banyamulenge, burning houses, assassinating key officials, executing people in the street. They were fully supported by Mobutu’s army and media, who blamed the Tutsis victims for every atrocity. This was the same pattern and rhetoric which had led to the genocide. Tutsis fought back and were aided by Rwandan soldiers infiltrated into the area (p.295).

When the local Zairean governor declared that the entire Banyamulenge population had one week to vacate their homes and leave the territory, it was precisely the kind of categorical provocation Kagame had been waiting for. He immediately ordered the advance of the amalgamated forces which he, Museveni and Kabila had created into South Kivu. He tells Gourevitch he had three aims:

  1. protect the Banyamulenge Tutsis, arm them, empower them to fight and protect themselves
  2. to dismantle the notorious refugee camps and get their Hutu occupants to return to Rwanda where they would be treated decently
  3. to ‘change the situation in Zaire’ i.e. remove Mobutu as an active supporter of genocidal Hutu Power and replace him with a modern, neutral figure

The AFDL advance was as disciplined and effective as the RWP invasion of Rwanda 2 years earlier. It had the decisive effect of breaking the grip of Hutu Power on the camps and forcing an estimated 700,000 refugees to abandon the camps and trek the 20 or 30 miles back across the border into peaceful Rwanda, and return to their communities. Obviously, there were all kinds of problems with this enormous reintegration into such a densely populated country and with so many divisive memories, but the wholesale massacre of Hutu refugees which the Hutu Power ideologues had terrified the refugees with never happened.

But to the wider world’s surprise the invading AFDL didn’t just invade the Hutu camps, tracking down Hutu Power exponents, freeing the majority of the Hutu refugees into returning to Rwanda – they then declared their intention of marching on Zaire’s capital, Kinshasa, approximately two and a half thousand miles west.

Fall of Mobutu May 1997

It took the AFDL a long seven months to get there, more a tribute to the shocking state of Zaire’s roads and infrastructure than to any opposition put up by the rubbish Zaire army, the FAZ (which Gourevitch describes as ‘Mobutu’s famously cowardly army’, p.256).

As Kabila’s troops approached the capital, president Nelson Mandela of South Africa flew in to try and broker a deal, but failed. Mobutu wanted to stay on the scene, if only as a figurehead president, while Kabila, leading the winning army, wanted all or nothing. Mobutu, his family and cronies fled, Kabila’s troops entered Kinshasa and on 30 May 1997 Kabila was sworn in as president. Next day Kabile changed the country’s name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was to be president until his assassination in 2001.

The Second Congo War 1998 to 2003

Kabila turned against his own backers, responding to the Congo public’s dislike of the occupying army of Rwandans and Ugandans and summarily expelling them all in 1998. Bad move. Rwanda and Uganda again collaborated in putting together an invasion force, this time with the aim of overthrowing Kabila and installing a more compliant president. However, the conflict ended up roping six other African nations into the fighting which degenerated into chaos.

The conflict dragged on till 2003 by which time an estimated five million people had died as a result of the conflict. Some armed groups remain active in the areas near Rwanda’s border right up till the present day, 2021.

The post-genocide period

The last hundred pages of this 350-page book cover the period after the genocide. Gourevitch describes the surprising number of Tutsis who returned from exile all over the place, not just the neighbouring countries of Uganda and Tanzania, but Europe and America, once it was clear that a democratic, mixed ethnicity and peaceful government was in place. And the inevitable tensions this led to between those who’d lived through the horror and seen family and loved ones literally hacked to death before their eyes, and returnees from abroad who moved into the many empty houses, tidied up the mess left by the departing Hutus, had barbecues, laughed and joked as if nothing had happened. Many of the survivors Gourevitch interviews find this difficult to cope with (pages 229 to 241).

He covers the massacre of Hutu refugees at the Kibeho refugee camp. He visits post-genocide prisons packed with Hutus who are strangely passive. Considering that high-profile Hutus were being assassinated on the outside, many of them were relieved to be in the relative safety of prison, regularly visited by international aid workers and monitors. He describes in detail the paradox of Hutu Power genocidaires being protected and funded by western aid agencies, at the complete inability of the international community, yet again, to intervene to stop their attacks into Rwanda and their ethnic cleansing of North Kivu and, yet again, the only thing to stop it being a military invasion organised by Paul Kagame, this time in the shape of the coalition AFDL.

At this kind of thing – specific settings and the issues arising from them – Gourevitch excels and his book will remain a valuable record and testimony to the tense, disorientated spirit of the period after the genocide and before the second Congo war of 1998, the one which degenerated into the Great War of Africa. Gourevitch thought he was covering an event which had finished but ended up recording a moment in the continual, ongoing flux of human events, the edgy post-genocide moment which has itself become part of history.

Stupid remarks

Gourevitch peppers the books with remarks which are, presumably, intended to be insightful, but as someone who did a history GCSE, A-level, history-based degree and has spent my life reading history books and attending history exhibitions, I found disappointingly obvious and trite.

Colonisation is violence and there are many ways to carry out that violence. (p.55)

Every war is unconventional after its own fashion. (p.82)

They sound good, don’t they, they create a good literary, rhetorical effect, they sound profound, but a moment’s reflection tells you they are trite or untrue. He operates on a very superficial level. When he quotes Lord Acton’s hoary dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as if it was a useful contribution to the debate about the genocide, you realise you are dealing with a child. He quotes Stalin’s alleged saying that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic, as if it’s a dazzling new discovery (p.201). Disappointing.

Worst of all, Gourevitch develops a theory of human nature based on his literary feelings, on the premise that the most important thing about human nature is the power of the imagination. Instead of seeing things in political terms, he again and again reverts to modish blah about narratives and stories and identity and returns again and again to the importance of imagination, narrative and stories. He is more indebted to Coleridge than Clausewitz. John Milton, Charles Dickens, Rilke, George Eliot, these are his terms terms of reference. It is thin stuff and wholly inappropriate to the subject matter.

He keeps writing things I profoundly disagree with.

We are, each of us, functions of how we imagine ourselves and of how others imagine us… (p.71)

(Note the prissy, attention-drawing use of commas, a rhetorical flourish to make the sentence sound more considered and profound.) I am a Darwinian materialist so I simply disagree. I would counter-suggest that we are, each of us, (sic) not at all functions of how we imagine ourselves, but functions of how our bodies work, products of our biology, of the complex interaction between our genetic inheritance and the myriad biochemical signals the environment we find ourselves in sends us or triggers in our bodies.

If I am starving to death in one of the world’s countless famines or dying of cancer or stroke or heart attack or delirious with malaria it doesn’t really matter what my imagination or anyone else’s imaginations are doing. I am a function, first and foremost, of my biology, all else is secondary.

He writes that the most basic function of power is to coerce us into its narratives. This reads to me like the modish bullshit of the English graduate. The whole approach reeks of the trend across all the humanities and high brow journalism to invoke the magic words ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ as if they explain everything about human nature and politics, but they don’t. If someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to do something or die, complex theories of meta-narrative and Coleridgean distinctions between imagination and fancy become irrelevant. When he writes:

I felt tempted, at times, to think of Rwanda after the genocide as an impossible country. (p.224)

I felt tempted to throw the book out the window. This is high-sounding bullshit. What does it even mean? A country is a country is a country, borders on a map, enforced by border police, with a government and administration and laws and a currency. Russia continues to exist after its century of Soviet tyranny, Germany is going strong, decades after the Holocaust and its violent partition, even Cambodia is still a country after the horror of the killing fields – and so on and so on. Clearly the worry that Rwanda is an ‘impossible’ country is a problem which only exists in Gourevitch’s head and shows you just how obtuse his responses can be.

There’s a lot to be written about the ideology of Hutu Power which drove the genocide and the way it shaped the actions of the génocidaires at all levels of Rwandan society, but Gourevitch doesn’t have the conceptual framework or academic training to do it. He makes repeated efforts to do so, but I found them shallow and disappointing.

The big takeaway

Leaving Gourevitch out of the equation, I think the biggest single thing to take away from study of the Rwandan genocide is that it wasn’t a one-off, inexplicable outbreak of barbarity. The one big thing you learn from studying it is that it was simply the highest point of a century-old culture of ethnic rivalry and hatred, which broke out from the 1950s onwards in repeated massacres and pogroms, exactly as the Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe were subject to centuries of persecution and pogroms way before the Holocaust.

In that sense it is far from inexplicable, it is very, very explicable. What turned the long history of minor, localised outbreaks of ethnic violence into a genocide was the hard work of the Hutu Power ideologues who set out to organise the extermination of the Tutsis by harnessing the organisation and technology of a modern state, using state radio, magazines, and every level of the highly structured administration to promulgate simple messages of hate and desperation. It boiled down to: “Kill the cockroaches before they kill us!” and hundreds of thousands of Hutus, primed by decades of negative propaganda, bought this message and acted on it (p.251).

But study of the Rwandan genocide doesn’t stop in July 1994. Like all the other accounts I’ve read, Gourevitch shows how it leads directly on to the issue of the Hutu refugee camps and the way the Hutu Power génocidaires survived and recreated their power structures there, terrorising hundreds of thousands of refugees, carrying out deadly incursions back into Rwanda, and then setting about the ethnic cleansing of east Congo. And how that led directly to the AFDL invasion of Zaire which became known as the First Congo War, and how that led on to the second invasion of Congo, by Rwandan and Ugandan forces which led to the disastrous Great War of Africa.

For a few months the specific genocidal Hutu Power campaign was able to be carried out with unbridled ferocity, but the killing of Tutsis had been commonplace for decades before it, and the killing of comparable numbers of Hutus (maybe as many as 100,000 Hutus were killed in all forms of revenge attack, from individual reprisals and local pogroms through to the more organised massacres in the refugee camps) followed seamlessly after it.

Gourevitch ends his book gloomily with Bill Clinton’s flying visit to Rwanda in March 1998 (he didn’t even leave the airport) but during which he acknowledged that the events of 1994 had been a genocide and that ‘the international community’ had done too little to intervene. The later sections of his book testify over and over to the complete failure of the international community, America or the UN to act either to prevent the genocide or to intervene to prevent the regrouping of the génocidaires in the camps. Gourevitch gets progressively more angry about it.

But the thing that comes over in his last few pages is the way the killings resumed inside Rwanda. During 1997 and into early 1998, as he was finalising his account, the number of murders and massacres of Tutsis by revived groups of Hutu Power génocidaires was steadily increasing. In fact the book ends with yet another grim atrocity, an account of how a group of 150 Hutu Power militia and interahamwe attacked a boarding school in Gisenyi and hacked to pieces the 17 schoolgirls and a 62-year-old Belgian nun.

In other words, as he ended the book, the tide of communal hate killing had returned and was rising. I’ll need to read other books to find out what happened next…

A correct understanding of human nature

The Rwandan genocide itself was a definable and unique historical event with a specific start and a specific end-point. Gourevitch, throughout his book, professes himself puzzled and bewildered at how it could ever have happened, incapable of imagining the motivation and mindset of ordinary people who took up machetes to hack their neighbours and own family members to pieces.

But the more you study it, the more understandable the Rwandan genocide becomes, provided you have a correct understanding of human nature.

We humans are animals, part of the animal kingdom, subject to the same constraints and urges as other animals. My son who’s just completed his Biology degree, said one of his lecturers summed up all animal activity in a snappy motto: feed, fight, fuck. That’s it. Like all animals, we humans are programmed to mate and reproduce; to do that effectively, we have to fight or compete (albeit in socially mediated and sublimated ways) for a mate. But none of this can take place unless we can feed and water ourselves on a regular basis.

For sure, the so-called ‘mind’ and ‘reason’ which well-fed philosophers have pontificated about for millennia, beginning in the slave societies of ancient Greece and Rome, is also a deep part of human nature – but most people, even the most highly educated, are fundamentally irrational and easily swayed. Humans are very suggestible and easily steered towards courses of action which let them fulfil their primal urges – hunger, lust, violence, and the more socialised wishes for praise and acceptance, wealth and power, no matter how local and fleeting. (Presumably Gourevitch has heard of Sigmund Freud. If so, why has he not learned anything from him, from the grim conclusions Freud drew about human nature based on the First World War?)

The great appeal of war for young men in less-than-perfectly-disciplined armies is that you can fulfil a lot of these really primitive urges. As well as the joy of killing alongside a closely-bonded band of brothers, war all too often provides endless opportunity for risk-free sexual violence. Hence the outbreak of mass raping during every conflict in human history, including the Rwandan genocide.

Once you align your thinking with the basic facts that humans are fundamentally irrational animals, driven by a cacophony of unconscious primitive urges, which lead them to make all kinds of irrational mistakes and, given the opportunity, behave terribly – then most of human history, including all its atrocities, make perfect sense, indeed seem inevitable.

Human nature doesn’t change, at least not on a timescale which human society registers. Give or take a few differences in social conventions, we understand the motives of medieval kings and Roman emperors just fine. And they map very well onto to the behaviour of contemporary African dictators such as Mobutu or Bokassa, just as the lickspittles and hangers-on in the court of each would be interchangeable, and just as the lives of the ordinary businessmen or urban workers or peasants doing forced labour in the fields would be recognisable in 1st century Rome or 20th century Congo.

It is only if you have a wrong understanding of human nature that you are surprised by atrocity and barbarity. Only if you assume that everybody else is as highly educated as you, as well-read in Rilke and Milton, as able to eat out in 5-star restaurants around the world on New Yorker expense accounts. If you come from this blessed background then you might be tempted to think that everyone else is as kind and generous and thoughtful and concerned about issues of gender and equality and identity and narrative as you are. So it is only if you live in this cloud cuckoo-land, liberal arts culture that you are going to be shaken to your core when you visit a country where hundreds of thousands of people undertook the systematic slaughter by hand of their neighbours and even their own family members.

The Armenian Genocide. The Russian Civil War. The Ukraine Famine. The Second Word War. The Holocaust. 20 million Russian dead. Indian Partition. The Great Leap Forward. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. Pol Pot in Cambodia. The Yugoslav wars. Has he not heard of these and many other comparable mass murders?

Why has he not learned the simple lesson that this is what humans do. In the right circumstances, whipped up by the right leaders, humans are capable of any atrocity. The Rwandan genocide wasn’t an inexplicable outbreak of madness but just the most recent example of an enduring and central aspect of human nature.

Gourevitch displays the same naive or obtuse shock every time he comes to ‘think about’ the genocide. The shock and dismay of a privileged, literature-soaked author, at the pinnacle of his liberal profession in the richest country in the world, amazed to discover what life is like in one of the poorest countries in the world (which is how Rwanda was classified by the World Bank in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, a place where the average annual wage was estimated to be $80, far less than Gourevitch and his fellow editors of The Paris Review probably used to spend on one business lunch.)

It isn’t anything ‘wrong’ in human nature or ‘wrong’ about the human imagination which he is discovering. Human nature is human nature just like gravity pulls things towards the centre of the earth, the sun rises in the morning, fire burns and so on. It is a basic fact of the world we exist in.

The reason Gourevitch is shocked is that he had such a completely mistaken view of human nature in the first place. He had read about the Holocaust but not really processed its lessons, what it tells us about what ‘ordinary’ people are capable of, namely any level of cruelty and barbarity if they think it means they and their loved ones will survive.

It is the shock of a pampered American discovering that the rest of the world is not like America, in fact it is inconceivably different. (Gourevitch is well aware of the issue of American parochialness and American ignorance. He routinely criticises the sparse and uninformed commentary on the situation in Rwanda and Zaire which he reads in even leading American newspapers like the New York Time and Washington Post, e.g. pages 297, 343. What’s the title of the Green Day song, American Idiot.)

Because he has diametrically the wrong view of human nature, Gourevitch at various points describes the genocide and the killings which followed it as a kind of failure of political and cultural imagination (p.206).

On the contrary, from my point of view, the Rwandan genocide was a kind of fulfilment of the profound and bestial aspects of human nature which I’ve described – albeit carefully whipped up, legitimised and organised by the Hutu Power propagandists. The genocide is explicable because it derives from understandable, analysable aspects of human nature. Have you not read any human history? Do you not know it amounts to a catalogue of massacres and genocides?

The common objection people make to my view of human nature, starting with my own kids, is: “Well, it’s not like that where I live. Where I live everyone is nice and friendly and caring. If what you say is true, how come everyone isn’t at everyone’s throats all the time?”

But the answer is simple: we in the West are well fed. Really well fed. The biggest medical problem in the West is the epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Fat people don’t fight. Even the most casual knowledge of history shows a direct correlation between hunger and social upheaval. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Nazis took place in societies pushed to the brink by famine, hunger and extreme social stress; in Weimar Germany mass unemployment meant people were literally starving.

In these circumstances, the most basic human drives come to the fore and can be manipulated and directed by those who understand how: Danton, Lenin, Goebbels, Pol Pot and, in Rwanda, the  exponents of Hutu Power such as Hassan Ngeze and Colonel Théoneste Bagosora.

It follows that the fundamental aim of any government should be to manage the economy in such a way as to ensure that most of its citizens are fed, not only as a good in itself but as the basic protection against social collapse and reversion to barbarism. To take a leaf from Gourevitch’s book and quote a famous literary figure, it was Bertolt Brecht who wrote: “Food first, then fancy talk about morality”. (“Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” The Threepenny Opera).

Feeding your population, ensuring security of food, then of housing, then of work which is rewarded with a stable currency, are probably any modern government’s top priorities.

Gourevitch’s assembly of all the facts and his narrative of the deep history, build-up to and then catastrophic events of the Rwandan genocide are thorough and authoritative, and he has obviously interviewed an enormous variety of people who shed light on all levels of events, victims and perpetrators, as well as numerous UN and aid officials, ministers, government spokesmen, including president Kagame of Rwanda and president Museveni of Uganda. It’s a hugely impressive roster. He had tremendous, what the journalists call “access”.

For all these reasons his book tells a searing story and will remain important evidence. But every time he stops to ‘think’ about what he’s describing, he displays a regrettably low level of awareness about human nature, society and history. He demonstrates that he is an idealistic American unprepared for a world which is mostly not populated by well-read, New York liberals. His bewilderment is sometimes so total I wish I found it funny, but it ended up being deeply irritating and marring my admiration for the extensive and very impressive factual sections of his book.

Cecile Kayirebwa

We are animals, bound by the same fundamental facts and constraints of biology as all other life forms on earth. And yet we belong to a freak line of evolution which has led us to develop language, speech, writing, mathematics and technology, and create an impenetrably complex labyrinth of cultural artefacts. One among billions of these human artefacts is this song written by Rwandan poet and singer, Cecile Kayirebwa, which laments the victims of the Rwandan genocide.

Credit

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1998. All references are to the 2000 Picador paperback edition.


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John Christopher on the changing face of science fiction (2003)

Christopher’s preface

When his young adult novel The White Mountains was reissued by Penguin in 2003, John Christopher was asked to write a new introduction to it. The resulting preface is only eight pages long and mostly explains a bit about the book’s conception and execution. But it also includes quite a passage describing how science fiction developed during his lifetime, which I think is worth publicising and pondering.

Christopher tells us that he was a well-established author of a dozen or more novels for adults when he received a letter from his agent telling him a publisher was asking whether he would consider writing a novel for children.

But what sort of book was it going to be? The publisher obviously wanted science fiction, but I was getting tired of destroying the world – by famine or freezing or earthquakes – and I was no longer interested in exploring the universe outside our planet. There was a reason for that.

When I was the age of the boys and girls for whom it was now proposed I write, I’d been very excited about the possibilities of space travel, but those had been different days. In the early thirties we knew just about enough about the solar system for its possibilities to be a magnet to the imagination. The moon might be cold and dead, but the planets offered scope for dreaming. Mars, for instance, was colder than our earth and had a thinner atmosphere, but possibly not too cold or airless to support life.

And Mars had those canals. An Italian astronomer called Schiaparelli, looking through his telescope in the nineteenth century, said he had seen canali on Mars’s rust-red surface. In Italian that just means ‘channels’, but it got translated as ‘canals’, which was much more intriguing. Maybe in that thin but breathable atmosphere there were long waterways, built by an ancient race of Martians, dotted with Martian cities that were lit by day by a smaller sun and at night by the magic gleam of two low-lying moons. An ancient race, because one might suppose that on that chillier planet the process of life’s evolution had been in advance of ours. Apart from being older, the Martians might well be wiser and able to pass on to us the fruit of their knowledge. Or, if they were so ancient as to have become extinct, the ruins of their cities might still be there to be explored.

Then there was Venus – closer to the sun and much hotter than the earth – with its permanent blanket of clouds. What might lie beneath the clouds? Perhaps a planet in an earlier period of evolution, as Mars was in a later one. Something like our own Carboniferous era, perhaps. Did tropical swamps teeming with dinosaurs and hovering pterodactyls await the arrival of our first spaceship?

Because that was something else we felt confident about: early experiments with rockets had already made the eventual conquest of space more than plausible. It could happen in our lifetime, and with it bring unthinkable wonders. It was a bit like being in Elizabethan England, reading stories about what might be found in the new world which was opening up on the far side of the barely explored western ocean.

But in three short decades everything changed. By the 1960s we knew more about the universe and the solar system – but what we’d learned was much less interesting than what we’d imagined. We knew that Mars was not just cold but an altogether hostile environment, Venus a choking oven of poisonous gases. The chance of any kind of life existing on either planet – or anywhere within reach of our probing rockets – was incredibly remote.

A couple of years after I wrote The White Mountains, space itself was finally conquered. The landing on the moon was televised around the world, timed to coincide with prime-time US television viewing. That meant the early hours of the morning in the Channel Islands, where I then lived. The boy I had been at fourteen would never have believed that I couldn’t be bothered to stay up to watch.

I had seen the future, and found it disappointing: so what remained? Well, there was the past. The colour which had bleached out of our interplanetary speculations was still bright in human history and there was life there, and romance and action… The publisher wanted the future: I was more interested in the past…

The Tripod trilogy reconciles future and past

Christopher then goes on to explain how he conceived a way of combining the two, the publisher’s request for science fiction with his own disillusion with science fiction tropes and growing fondness for past history, by imagining an earth set in the future and which has been conquered by futuristic machines, the tripods (very similar to the Martians of H.G. Wells’s War of The Worlds) but the invaders have realised the best way of controlling human society is to take it back to the Middle Ages, by creating small rural communities of serfs obeying the local lord of the manor who in turn owes fealty to the king who is himself guided by the tripods.

And hence the odd atmosphere of Christopher’s Tripod trilogy, which combine futuristic alien masters with a society which is thoroughly feudal and medieval in feel.

Disillusionment with space travel

So much for the origins of this particular novel, but the point of quoting his words in full is to convey Christopher’s eye-witness testimony to how young science-fiction-minded writers’ attitude changed massively between, say, 1930 and 1970.

The just-enough knowledge of the solar system which he describes in the 1930s is the imaginative backdrop to the Flash Gordon, space rocket and ray gun, bubble gum sci fi stories of the 1940s, 50s and on into the 60s. It explains the early space fiction of John Wyndham, two of whose novels are set on a Mars where humans can breathe the ‘air’, can settle and meet the native ‘Martians’, as they do in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the first of which was written as long ago as 1946, and as they do in thousands and thousands of other travelling-to-Mars and colonising-Venus stories.

I wonder if we could delve deeper and locate just when that sense of disillusionment kicked in. Immediately after the Second World War science fiction received a boost from at least two specific inventions: one was the atom bomb, with its ramifications for new ‘atomic power’ which imaginative writers speculated could be turned into engines which could power spaceships across the solar system; the second was the practical application of rocket technology by the Nazis, who developed their big V1 and V2 rockets, both of which are prototypes for the countless cigar-shaped rockets to the moon, to Mars or to Venus which infest the science fiction magazines of the period.

And behind specifically sci fi-friendly inventions there lay the enormous psychological boost of America’s post-war economic boom, when cars and bras got bigger and bigger, the consumer revolution of fridges, washing machines and so on, which fuelled the widespread expectation that pretty soon gadgets would be developed to solve every household or lifestyle problem – including ones for teleporting round the planet or jetting off to the stars.

Is it possible, I wonder, to date precisely when the sense of disillusion which Christopher so eloquently describes, began to kick in? Or did it happen to different people at different times? I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s and remember watching Tomorrow’s World with James Burke who also covered the Apollo moon landings, and there was still plenty of optimism about building a space station and using it as a jumping off point for Mars and all the rest of it.

J.G. Ballard was a relatively lone voice when he declared in about 1973 that the Space Age was over. That seemed a mad thing to say but what he was specifically referring to was the fact that the later moon landings were not covered live by American TV because ratings fell off. By the last moon mission, the Apollo 17 trip of 1972, the moon landings and the TV series that presented them to a worldwide audience, had been cancelled.

People were bored. Although we then went on to decades of the space shuttle and the creation of the international space station (the 1980s and 90s) Ballard was, I think, right to realise that these developments no longer captured widespread popular attention. They relapsed into being the special interest of a diminishing band of fans, with occasional flare-ups of wider interest whenever a rocket or shuttle blew up (January 28, 1986) or the occasional landing of a little buggy on Mars (as with the current Mars rover mission).

Anthropomorphism and Western chauvinism

But more than just shedding light on the trajectory from optimism to indifference about space travel in the mind of Christopher and by extension his generation (he was born in 1922), this passage also tells us something else about the sociological shape of the human imagination.

What I mean is the incredibly anthropomorphic nature of the speculations Christopher found so exciting. He expected there to be cities, or ruins of cities, or ‘wise old civilisations’ which could teach us newbies the secrets of the universe. Or maybe Venus would be at the other end of the evolutionary scale and just like earth in the age of the dinosaurs.

Either way you can see how these are obviously entirely human, anthropomorphic imaginings.

Digging a bit deeper, the notion that there might be ‘ruins’ on Mars is not only anthropomorphic but very Anglocentric. The 1920s and 30s were a great era for finding ruins of lost civilisations, crystallised by the publicity surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. But the point is that these, along with discoveries made along the Silk Road in Asia or aboriginal holy sites in Australia, or Inca and Aztec sites in Central America, or the imperial cities of Zimbabwe or Chad, these were all discoveries made by Europeans and Americans, and so became part of our culture, the relics were brought back to our countries and became part of our colonial ownership of the rest of the world.

The ruins might be in Central America or Asia but they were made by white men, written up in white men’s journals for white men organisations and popularised through the newspapers, tabloids and magazines of the West, percolating down to schoolboys like Christopher and his contemporaries as controlled and ordered and structured into heroic narratives of Western exploration and discovery and understanding.

And it’s this ordered, directed, pro-Western structuring of narratives of discovery which underpin thousands and thousands of science fiction planetary stories from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Underpinned by the basic assumption that we earthlings, generally American earthlings, have a God-given right to colonise, inhabit, discover, communicate with, define and categorise and generally own the rest of the solar system if not the galaxy.

Which makes all the narratives which share this basic underpinning or ideological framework – no matter how disturbing their surface details and gaudy monsters might be – at their core, reassuring and comforting because they reinforce the notions of order and civilisation and morality and hierarchy and category which underpinned Western discourse (i.e. the aggregated total of the news media, scientific research, history and the humanities and all types of fiction) during that era.

Christopher’s young notions about the solar system and aliens were human-friendly and Western friendly.

Moving from adult to children’s fiction

In this respect Christopher’s transition from writing for adults to writing for children at just the time he did makes perfect sense, because the adult world, at the end of the 1960s, was ceasing to be the homogenous world of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and morphing into something else, something harsher and more fragmented.

Of course the Great Depression of the 1930s and then the vast calamity of the Second World War were physically and economically much more disastrous than anything which happened in the 60s and 70s. But the late 1960s and 70s saw the breakdown of the ideological, moral and cultural consensus which had dominated the West since 1945.

John Wyndham’s science fiction novels are ‘cosy’ because the protagonists all share the same values and worldview, even when they’re taking potshots at each other – to take a tiny example, Croker, the ostensible ‘baddie’ who staged the attack on Senate House in Day of The Triffids, later candidly admits it was the wrong solution to the plight of a world gone blind, and ends up becoming the leader of a new community. Deep down everyone is on the same side, believes the same things, shares the same values.

J.G. Ballard’s fiction represents, from the start, the collapse of this consensus. In Ballard’s early works the characters go mad, have psychotic breakdowns. To be precise, his characters’ response to some environmental catastrophe is to withdraw into private worlds and fantasies and to cease altogether to share values with anyone else. The moral consensus apparent in all Wyndham’s novels vanishes like morning dew leaving a ruined landscape of wandering psychotics – not psychotic killers, just people living entirely inside their own heads, to their own made-up values.

In the mid- to late-1960s, Ballard’s novels featured a lot of casual sex and violence and psychological breakdown which outraged the philistines and traditionalists. What is not so often commented on is that, as the 1970s progressed, the decade Tom Wolfe labelled the Me Decade (‘characterised by narcissism, self-indulgence, and a lack of social concern’) Ballard’s fictions came to seem prophetic of the widespread collapse of communitarianism and the rise of atomized individualism widely observed in that decade.

By the time Reagan and Thatcher were elected in 1979, although he’d carried on writing pretty much the same kind of thing, society had so completely transformed its values that Ballard came to seem like the prophet of smug, gated, amoral, rich sybarites, the subjects of his final (and, to me, deeply unsatisfying) novels, Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).

These all describe ‘transgressive’ behaviour among upper-middle-class professional types. They’re often described as satires, but they’re not, they’re more like shopping lists or role models for the era of the Sunday Times rich list and the never-ending series of lifestyle magazines which arose during the 1980s.

Thus to read in chronological order the novels of John Wyndham in the 30s, 40s, 50s, of John Christopher in the 50s and 60s, the optimistic techno-novels of Arthur C. Clarke from the 1950s through the 1970s, and then onto the stories and novels of J.G. Ballard is to watch the decline of Western optimism and consensus, to observe the death and burial of any sense of shared values and morals.

Now we are living in the aftermath of that collapse, with ever-increasing fragmentation of Western societies into angry tribes all convinced that they are the hard-done-by ones, and demanding restitution, justice and compensation from everyone else – the splintering of shared progressive ideas on the left into a welter of special interest and identity groups which itself mirrors the anger of right-wing communities who perceive their own white ethnic and traditional (cis-) gender identities under attack.

Sometimes reading the media, especially social media, feels like watching wild ferrets snapping at each other’s throats, against the darkening backdrop of the never-ending pandemic and the relentless environmental catastrophe of global warming.

We have come a long, long way from the innocently triumphalist vision of space-suited chaps rocketing off to colonise Venus and Mars. Now, far from colonising any other planets, it looks like we don’t even know how to hold democratic elections any more, and can’t agree what they’re for (this piece was written soon after the Proud Boys invaded the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021).

We certainly don’t know how to manage the planet we live on, let alone set ourselves up to ‘conquer’ and run others.


Reviews of other John Christopher novels

Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 @ Tate Modern

Tillmans and Tate

Wolfgang Tillmans is German – as you’d expect from the name – but has spent a lot of time in the UK. He studied at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in the early 90s, then moved on to London and, although he’s had spells in the States (New York, of course), he still has a studio in London and divides his time between here and Berlin.

Also, although photos of him from the 1990s make him look like a punk or street kid, a member of the hoody generation, Tillmans has in fact created a tidy place for himself within the British art establishment.

  • Between 2009 and 2014 Tillmans served as an Artist Trustee of the Tate Board. He is also a member of the museum’s Collection Committee and the Tate Britain Council
  • Tillmans was the first photographer – and also the first non-British person – to be awarded the Tate annual Turner Prize, in 2000
  • In 2014 Tillmans won the Charles Wollaston Award, the main prize of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
  • In 2015 Tillmans was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Centenary Medal and an Honorary Fellowship
  • In 2015 Tillmans was commissioned to create the official portrait of retiring British Museum director Neil MacGregor

Quite the establishment darling then, and with a very close connection with Tate which is – uncoincidentally – now giving him this huge 14-room exhibition.

Iguazu (2010) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Iguazu (2010) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Tillmans’ photography

Tillmans was born in 1968 and so is a youthful 48. His career consists of ‘explorations of the possibilities of modern photography’. As a young gay student his early works depict bohemian men and, apparently, he was hailed as a chronicler of that queer boho scene – something he’s been trying to escape ever since.

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans

In fact the show reveals a determination to explore and diversify, to range over a huge variety of genres – portraits, still lifes, sky photographs, astro-photography, aerial shots and landscapes.

But he is just as interested in the presentation of the works as the subject matter, and this is one of the main themes of the show. It is emphatically not just a series of huge glossy photographs. Instead, there is a systematic exploration of the tremendous range of the media, of shapes and sizes and styles and formats, which the photographic image can come in.

There certainly are the big colour prints he’s famous for, but also photocopies and black and white prints, some enormous, some tiny – some expensively framed, some not – some are enormous and formally hung, some are in a cluster of Polaroid-size snaps just pinned up to the wall.

Also there are rooms full of display cases showing the range of arty or fashion magazines he’s worked for. Other rooms show collections of articles from newspapers and magazines concerning ‘issues of the day’, juxtaposed with relevant or related photos.

How we consume the image is as much a part of the show, as the images themselves.

Collum by Wolfgang Tillmans

Collum by Wolfgang Tillmans

Every room an installation

Quite quickly you realise that ideas and issues about photography are just as important as the images themselves

Thus, right at the beginning we are told that each room is a separate entity; each room has been individually created and curated – ‘specially configured’ – to address specific issues or themes or topics. The intention, then, is that each room (as a unique assembly of images) serves a double purpose – addressing varied issues and subjects but also exploring the wide range of formats which images can come in, ‘exploring’ the nature of the photographic image.

Operating on the basis of the fundamental equality of all motifs and supports, through this continual re-arranging, repositioning, questioning and reinforcement, Tillmans avoids ascribing any ‘conclusions’ to his work and thus subjects his photographic vision to a perpetual re-contextualization

To professional theorists of photography and the digital image, for all art and media students generally, this show is a goldmine of conceptualisation and theory. To ordinary gallery-goers simply curious to see arresting, beautiful or imaginative images… maybe not quite so compelling.

paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014) by Wolfgang Tillmans

paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Read the booklet

Indeed at the entrance to the exhibition the visitor attendant on the door tells us there will be no wall labels giving context and information, as is usual in most modern art exhibitions. Instead, the visitor is told they must consult the free booklet given out at the door to read up on what each room is about, what it is trying to say, the idea behind the installation.

There are 14 rooms so that’s 14 short essays. That’s quite a lot of reading, quite a lot of information processing to be done before you even look at anything.

And the only snag is that, the more you read, the less impressive the concepts and ideas become. As early as room 2 we learn that Tillmans spends a lot of time in his studio, making prints, planning exhibitions, collecting materials, gathering ideas and so on. Thus room 2 contains photos of… his studio, which, like most workplaces these days, consists mainly of computers on messy desks, with odd shots of cardboard boxes full of bottles, a colour photocopier taken to pieces and so on. It looks, in fact, like a really boring office.

But the commentary tries to gee it up by quoting from the man himself. Among other things it tells us that Tillmans has often described the core of his work as:

translating the three dimensional world into two dimensional pictures.

Wow. Profound. Isn’t this a tad… obvious? Do you think there has been any artist since about 1300 and any photographer since about 1850 who hasn’t been aware that they are engaged in transferring the 3D world onto a 2D surface?

In room 3 we learn about Tillmans’s project to travel the world and deliberately spend just a few days in each place photographing his first impressions, untainted by any understanding or knowledge of the local culture. He did, we are reassured, use ‘a high resolution digital camera’. And this approach led to some pretty impressive revelations, to a number of ‘shrewd observations about contemporary worldviews’.

For example? Well, he noticed that the shape of car headlights has changed in the past few decades. Herr Tillmans detected that car headlights are now much more angular than they used to be which, giving them, as the booklet helpfully explains:

a predatory appearance that might reflect a more competitive environment.

Golly. He spent four years travelling round the world and discovered… that car headlights are more angular than they used to be. Do you see what I mean by the ‘concepts’ and ‘ideas’ underpinning the show not being that…. impressive. Don’t get me wrong: the photos of car headlights are beautifully shot, big, perfectly in focus, very much like… well… high def adverts for car headlights.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Headlight

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Headlight (left)

Room 4 is devoted to a series of display cases showing a project titled truth study centre which has been rumbling on since 2005. Photos, newspaper and magazine clippings, objects, drawings and copies of his own images are laid out in cases to highlight the revelation that – the media sometimes contradict themselves, politicians sometimes make statements about things they don’t understand, scientific knowledge is limited and partial, you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

I’m helping my daughter revise for her GCSE Media Studies exam. I know for a fact that these are the kinds of ‘insight’ which are quite literally taught to every 15-year-old schoolchild in the country.

It began to dawn on me that if you expect people to spend a lot of time at your exhibition reading about your ‘insights’ and ‘concepts’ – it would be a good idea to have something worth reading about. By room 5 I stopped reading the booklet for any ‘insight’ it gave me, but purely as a source of unintentional comedy.

Another example of the overconceptualisation of the stunningly banal is room 7, a nice-sized room with roof-height windows looking out over the Thames. In it are placed a very expensive sound system and some state-of-the-art loudspeakers which are playing a loop of tracks by Colourbox, an English band from the 80s that Tillman likes. And some benches to sit on.

That’s it. The idea seems to be that bands spend months in music studios recording music on incredibly hi-quality digital equipment – and then lots of people listen to this music through dodgy headphones via their mobile devices. The Big Idea seems to be: doesn’t that seem a bit of a shame?

I sat staring out at the view, tapping my feet to Colourbox and reading the rest of the booklet in a private game of ‘bullshit bingo’, spotting pretentious clichés and choice examples of curator-speak (otherwise known as ‘art bollocks’). According to the booklet the music room – ahem, I mean the installation entitled Playback Room – is:

An example of Tillman’s curatorial practice, he has chosen to include it here to encourage others to think about how recorded music can be given prominence within the museum setting.

Well, I bet nobody’s ever thought of playing music in an art gallery before. Truly we live in an age of exciting innovations!

The Painted Word

In his blistering satire on the 1970s New York art world, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe describes how it suddenly dawned on him – as the new movements of minimalism and conceptual art became prominent in the early 1970s – that the concept, the idea, the project, the word, had now become the truly creative part of a work of art – and that the actual painting or photo or sculpture, was merely an appendage, an afterthought, a kind of dubious, oh-do-we-really-have-to illustration of the idea for the work.

The idea, and its formulation in words, was now the creative achievement. Hence his title – the insight that a lot of modern art is merely a sort of painted word. I couldn’t help thinking of Wolfe as I was obliged at the start of each one of the 14 rooms here to read the short essay in the booklet to find out what the devil the room was on about. Increasingly ignoring the text, I had the subversive idea of looking closely at what was actually on display.

Four thoughts

1. Abstracts Once you actually focus on the art, then a number of the really large abstract prints, in the series named Silver and Greifbar, really stand out. Large swirls of colour which are apparently created without using a camera but by manipulating light and chemicals directly onto photosensitive paper. Big bold and attractive – though maybe because they look so much like the abstract expressionists I’ve been reading about recenty. They are a sort of cross between abstract expressionism and a funky advert for ice cream being mixed. Or maybe shots of campari or whiskey being twirled in a glass.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Greifbar 29 (left) and a portrait of a guy picking his toenails (through the doorway)

Good, aren’t they? And massive. Immersive. And immensely familiar because you feel like someone somewhere has surely been making pictures like this for decades, but you can’t quite remember who. Maybe they haven’t. Either way, big and very relaxing.

2. Ugly A lot, in fact every single one of the many, many portraits sprinkled throughout the exhibition, are ugly. Some of the famous people – the usual arty suspects like Vivienne Westwood or Patti Smith or Morrissey – are fairly old and raddled to start with, but even the various-sized portraits of his young gang, his mates, scruffy sneaker-shoed arty types in dodgy-looking flats and apartments, gay men, gay women, young boho types, ALL of them are done with a deliberately unflattering, anti-romanticism.

In this respect Tillmans combines, to my mind, the deliberate willful ugliness of much modern photography and contemporary art, with an extra helping of the traditional German taste for the grotesque, a lineage which stretches from Dürer, through the German Expressionists, to George Grosz and Otto Dix and on to Joseph Beuys – a lot of German art has foregrounded ugliness, crudity and ungainliness. No grace. No poise. Scruffy unshaven blokes in duffel coats. Clunky hairy people with all their spots and pimples.

Given his queer punk credentials it’s a little surprising how few sexually explicit photos there are here, but it’s entirely characteristic that the two really rude ones – of a man’s bollocks and a woman’s pussy – are hairy and unglamorous. Shrewdly composed and framed, alright – beautifully in focus – technically perfect – but determinedly, almost brutally, real. (See below) The aesthetic is in the refusal to retouch, soften, smooth out or prettify. In cold white light, in perfect focus, in unforgiving colour –this is what it is.

3. People reading the booklet instead of looking at the art Half way round I noticed just how many of the visitors were standing heads-down, intently studying the curator’s booklet and not looking at all at the supposed ‘art’. As a private joke, I began to take photos of visitors reading the booklet instead of looking at the art. I like to think this is a new artistic genre which I have just invented – ‘Photos of visitors to a Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition who spend more time reading the booklet about the exhibition than actually looking at the works in the exhibition’. Maybe I’ll enter my portfolio for the Turner Prize.

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #1

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #1

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #2

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #2

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #3

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #3

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #4

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #4

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #5

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #5

4. ‘Practice’ Usually in the commentary on a contemporary artist we learn that they are challenging, subverting, investigating, questioning and engaging with contemporary issues – more often than not these days, issues of gender and identity, the favourite subject of artists and curators alike.

Tillman does all that, of course, but I couldn’t also help noticing the obsessive repetition of the word ‘practice’ in the booklet:

  • … these elements [photographing everyday life and contemporary culture and displaying the prints as whole-room installations] remain central to his practice…
  • … cultural attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality have become more open over the three decades since he began his practice…
  • [the sound room is] an example of Tillman’s curatorial practice…
  • [since his high school days Tillman] has found ways to resist the idea that the photograph is solely a direct record of reality. In 2011, this area of his practice was compiled for the first time in his book Abstract Pictures
  • An acute awareness of fragility endures across Tillmans’s practice in all its different forms…
  • Since 2014 he has allowed performance to become a more prominent strand of his practice…
  • Portraiture has been central to Tillmans’s practice for three decades…

This word ‘practice’ always reminds me of GPs or vets – probably because, looking after two children and two cats as I do, I spend a LOT of time either at the vets or the GPs’ – and so I kept finding myself standing in front of big or little photos, of the sea, or a dusty car, or a garden weed, or ships in China or a roll of paper or someone’s bollocks, with the titles of James Herriot’s vet books drifting through my mind in ironic counterpoint.

If Only They Could Talk

If Only They Could Talk

Let sleeping vets lie

Let sleeping vets lie

It shouldn't happen to a vet

It shouldn’t happen to a vet

The sea

The final room contains two huge photos of the sea. Like lots of Tillmans’ giant pics, what’s not to like? Big bold beautifully shot, nicely framed.

However, because none of us can be expected to really get these photos unless we’ve read the booklet and had the curators properly explain to us what we’re looking at, I quote the relevant paragraph in full:

Symbol and allegory are artistic strategies Tillmans is usually keen to avoid. The State We’re In, A 2015 is a departure from this stance: the work’s title is a direct reference to current global political tensions. Depicting the Atlantic Ocean, a vast area that crosses time zones and national frontiers, it records the sea energised by opposing forces, but not yet breaking into waves. Differing energies collide, about to erupt into conflict.

Now do you understand this photo? (And thanks for the tip that the Atlantic Ocean is vast and crosses several time zones. I might pass that on to my daughter for her GCSE Geography exam which she is taking tomorrow. The Atlantic Ocean is very big. One to remember. Where would we be without artists, curators and their amazing insights?)

Conclusion

Although most of the text and installation paraphernalia was bollocks, I actually enjoyed this exhibition. The music room was nice and relaxing and the really big abstracts (the Silvers and Greifbars, the series showing rolls of paper as abstract shapes) are wonderful. The enormous photos of the sea or a market in Africa or a dusty car or the messy desk in his studio or two guys playing chess in China are all very quaffable, easy on the eye, slip down a treat.

I spoke to another visitor who commented that it was all very ‘cool’ in the older sense of the word – there was absolutely no emotional affect in any of it. Once you realised that the ‘concepts’ and ‘installations’ were based on incredibly simplistic schoolboy ideas (pictures are 2D representations of a 3D reality, it might be nice to have music in galleries, cars are sleeker than they used to be, attitudes to gender and race are more relaxed than they were thirty years ago, some of the stuff you read in newspapers isn’t strictly true) you felt free to ignore them completely, and just drift among this haphazard selection of all kinds of photographic images – large and small, colour or monochrome, framed or tacked to the wall – and like whatever takes your fancy.

And without the verbiage of the booklet – if you consciously ignore the attempt at conceptualisation, the frameworks of the installation and so on – then the real message that comes over is one of enormous randomness – haphazardness, aimlessness, arbitrariness. Sea, a weed, a car, some random people, a computer, big abstracts, rolls of paper, magazines, more random people – it’s like going for a walk through Google Images – each done to technical perfection, with a high gloss finish, perfectly in focus, made with Germanic precision – but completely odourless, uninflected, unaffecting.

In fact it bears out one of the few bits of the booklet which had any real purchase – that Tillmans believes in ‘the fundamental equality of all motifs’. Everything is the same. As an old boss of mine used to say, When everything’s a priority, then nothing’s a priority. Alles ist gleich. The apple tree outside his window, Hannah the lesbian, the Atlantic Ocean, a cardboard box, some Chinese guys, some Pakistani guys, a desk, a waterfall, a shiny red car, the Director of the British Museum, some students in a room…

It all goes into the Tillmans machine and comes out wonderfully and completely bereft of meaning or significance, entirely inconsequential – and so, all taken together, producing an effect of great calmness.

A very relaxing and soothing experience – and if you throw in a game of bullshit bingo or watching-people-read-the-booklet, very funny too.

Vielen Dank, Herr Tillsman.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

I bought this as a Bantam paperback back in 1976 when it cost 65p. Now it costs nearly £11.

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

Tom Wolfe was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism, a style of reporting which became fashionable in the 1960s, in which the ‘reporter’ a) was increasingly central to the story itself b) reported in the loose, slangy street style of the day. I recently read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, whose phantasmagorical prose style tried to capture the deranged, trippy experience of the Vietnam War. In fact,  it was only a few years earlier, in 1973, that Wolfe had edited and published the collection, The New Journalism, which crystallised the movement’s reputation.

Wolfe’s version was always urban and urbane. He used literary devices – sarcasm, irony, outrageously subjective opinions, and a dandy style incorporating onomatopoeia, multiple ornate phrases piled up between ellipses or dashes – to cover his subjects. His breakthrough piece in 1963 was a magazine piece about Californian hot rod and custom car culture titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He followed this with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of the counter-culture author Ken Kesey and his hippy Merry Pranksters.

In 1970 he published Radical Chic, a scathing description of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the radical Black Panther Party, in which classy, upper class New York intellectuals bathed in the glory of consorting with radical revolutionaries and – my dear! – such charming young black men!!

The Painted Word

The Painted Word continues the theme of skewering the pretentions of New York’s glitzy upper-class liberal elite. In this short book (actually just a long article printed in Harper’s Magazine in April 1975) Wolfe rips into the pretentiousness of the New York art scene, its struggling artists and its oh-so-precious upper-class devotees.

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

The Boho Dance Since the end of the 19th century the myth had grown up about struggling artists making do with bread and candles in unheated attics while they grind their brains to portray the Truth. Above all the Bohemian (shortened to ‘boho’) artist knows that a key part of the character is scorning the despised bourgeois values, being anti-respectability, dressing scruffy, identifying with the people and so on.

The Consummation But in fact, without exception, all these struggling artists yearn for one thing and one thing only which is to be recognised and acknowledged. How does that happen? You are taken up by the rich elite, particularly the elite of gallery owners and their very rich sponsors.

Schizophrenia But having spent a lifetime cultivating the personality of the struggling artist, many find it difficult to cope with suddenly being showered with prizes, grants, exhibitions, books and magazine articles. Especially since a lot of the showering comes from the very people you’ve spent tour adult life despising and denigrating.

Picasso is the prime example of an artist who made the transition with style, buying suits at the finest London tailors, living in style with his numerous mistresses, and still managing to convey a raffish bohemian air. Jackson Pollock is a tragic example of the Boho artist who couldn’t cope with this sudden clash of identities. Wolfe describes the time Pollock arrived at the uptown apartment of his mega-rich sponsor Peggy Guggenheim to find a dinner party full of Top People. Pollock promptly stripped naked and pissed in the fireplace – but the Top People were delighted: this was precisely the outrageous artistic antics that, by the 1950s, the haute bourgeoisie expected from its pet artists. Spiralling into alcoholism, Pollock died by crashing a car which he was driving when drunk, in 1956.

No modern artist can escape his fate – which is to a) adopt the Bohemian pose until b) he or she is taken up by the art-loving elite, and finds their anti-bourgeois snarling is rewarded by dinner party invitations and cocktails. Neutered. Caged.

Cultureberg because the art world is run by a tiny clique of super-rich patrons and sponsors, who pay for the little galleries, commission grand works, fund little magazines, hold lavish opening night parties, and support the big museums. In a spirit of mockery Wolfe calculates that the entire global art elite – the culturati, the denizens of Cultureberg – number 750 in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in  London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, 3,000 in New York and maybe 1,000 scattered round the rest of the world. Say, 10,000 in all. A large village-sized population of artistic elite which decide who and what is the New Thing.

Wolfe makes the telling point that their decisions are generally announced in the pages of various magazines, as profiles and features, and in galleries as major shows or retrospectives. The public – which votes with its wallet when it comes to music, theatre, books or movies – has no such choice when it comes to art. The decisions are all made by the tiny art elite and only then do we, the public, get presented with a fait accompli.

Big money and high art

Thus, as he puts it, Modern Art – which was largely begun before the Great War – only became widely known after the Great War, not because anyone understood it better – but because the global elite found a use for it. It was only in the 1920s that the word ‘modern’ became so tremendously fashionable (as, Wolfe points out, ‘now’ was a buzz word of the 1960s – the ‘Now Generation’, and possibly ‘digital’ is the word of our era).

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 having been developed by three rich women,  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil), Lillie P. Bliss (daughter of a U.S. Secretary of the Interior) and Mary Quinn Sullivan (wife of a lawyer specialising in large wealth trusts). Its first president was Anson Conger Goodyear, Director and Vice-President of various railroad companies and he recruited Paul Sachs, son of the founder of Goldman Sachs, and Frank Crowninshield, editor from 1914 to 1935 of Vanity Fair.

Art has always gone hand in hand with money, back through Renaissance princes to medieval kings, through the monuments built to commemorate Caesars and pharaohs. What is distinctive about modern art – and especially in America – is the hilarious contradiction between the aggressively anti-bourgeois stance of so many Boho artists, and the staggering wealth of their patrons and sponsors.

A cartoon history of modern art

Barely had this trend got going, claims Wolfe, than it stalled with the regrettable interruption of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During the 1930s a lot of artists were put on the spot about their actual anti-bourgeois sentiments and found themselves churning out scores of images of brawny workers and downtrodden blacks. Fortunately (says Wolfe, in his breezily ironic tone) the Second World War came to America’s rescue, destroying Europe and making God’s own country the world’s first superpower but also – from the modern artists point of view – sweeping away the social realism of the 1930s which was now – in the cold light of the Cold War – looked suspiciously like commie art.

And so it was, with a loud whooshing sound, that the forward march of Modern Art resumed its stomp with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, a dazzlingly new style which foxed the general public (as all good new art should) but drove Cultureburg wild with excitement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – in their significantly different ways – produced a complete revolution in thinking about art which was a) God’s gift to intellectual theorists b) a specifically American look which Peggy Guggenheim and indeed the Federal Government could back and support c) and whose repercussions are still with us.

The battle of the bergs

The central and longest section of the essay is a deliberately distorted lampoon on the work of the two fashionable critics who promoted Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. First Wolfe caricatures the way the two men supported different artists in the movement by writing analyses of every-more dizzying intellectual abstruseness. For Greenberg the Cubists et al had correctly rejected Victorian realism and the absurd notion that a painting is a doorway into life, into a scene; but they had not gone far enough – you can still make out sort-of realistic objects in Cubism and related movements.

The Abstract Expressionists had gone one decisive step further and acknowledged that the painting is just a flat surface on which shapes and colours are arranged. In fact the flatter, the better, and Wolfe satirises Greenberg’s writings as increasingly shrill demands for evermore flatness, while at the same time decrying the great American public for not understanding the heroic work being done by this handful of tortured geniuses in Downtown New York.

Rosenberg entered the scene early in the 1950s and is responsible for a crucial extra element – he reintroduced psychology into what was in danger of appearing a very stale formal pursuit by coining the term ‘action painting’ (p.51). The painting isn’t a thing (no matter how flat). It is the record of an event and that event is the heroic manly painter wrestling with the inchoate materials of the universe to express his own deep existential angst.

Wow. So puzzled millionaires could now feel liberated to buy these splats of paint across huge canvasses (Pollock), these shimmering blocks of colour (Rothko), these disturbing lightning flashes against washes of plain colour (Newman), these blown-up black gestures which defied the universe (Franz Kline) because a) this showed how clever and up to the minute they were b) this showed how much soul and feeling and emotion they had and c) it showed how goddam American they were, and proud of it!

As early as 1949 poor Pollock was being hailed as the greatest American painter ever, not only in the art press, but to the wider world in a four-page spread in Life magazine. His famous drip paintings were made in the relatively short period 1947-50 and his later experiments, first with totally black works, then a return to more figurative, were not welcomed by critics or the art coteries who expected him to keep delivering the good. In a way it’s surprising he soldiered on till 1956.

And he died just as the new kids arrived on the block. Apparently Pop Art is dated to Jasper Johns’ one man show at the Castelli Gallery in 1958. American flags, numbers, letters, targets. He was quickly taken up by another berg, this time Leo Steinberg who, in Wolfe’s jokey narrative, manages to trounce both Greenberg and Rosenberg by declaring Abstract Expressionism not flat enough! This was because, despite the fact that it was all about the action on the surface of the canvas, in fact the Abstract Expressionist paintings still – if looked at a certain way – still had a sort of depth. You can be drawn into a Pollock or a Rothko.

However, the new young guys – led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – painted things which were already flat – the flag, numbers, target, letters or the photographs which Rauschenberg liberally sprinkled in his works. It was flat on flat. Flat squared. Ha! Gotcha!

But while Steinberg developed an arcane theory around Pop – claiming that it didn’t depict household objects in a realistic way, no, no no, no no, that would be a retreat back to figurativism, no no, Pop caught the interplay of signs which were such a feature of American life – a nod to the semiotics and structuralism becoming fashionable over in France – while Steinberg laboured to give Pop a sophisticated intellectual rationale, Wolfe sniggers that in fact rich collectors liked Pop Art because it was about super-recognisable and, ultimately, very reassuring things. It was American, it was fun, it was cool and above all, it was great to look at. Marilyn Monroe’s face blown up big and coloured in. What’s not to love?

Wolfe satirises Steinberg’s own confession that he resisted at first; he clung, like a virgin, onto his old beliefs, his devotion to action painting as revelation of the agonising struggle of the Great Artist. The shallowness of the new work upset him, but then – bang! – he got it. This was the next thing. Abstract Expressionism died overnight and all the galleries filled up with earnest Pops. Who also sold like hot cakes, much to the disgruntlement of the AEs who a) had never in fact sold that much and b) suddenly found themselves in the embarrassing position of being the old fuddy-duddies.

The Turbulence Theorem

Wolfe lampoons Steinberg’s resistance-then-submission story, saying it embodies what could be called the Turbulence Theorem of modern art:

If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great. (p.88)

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

Wolfe remembers attending the 1965 Museum of Modern Art show which launched Op Art, short for Optical Art, but which its practitioners preferred to call Perceptual Abstraction. The catalogue recapitulated the history of modernism – the cubists rejected the window-on-the-world idea, Abstract Expressionists had established the art work as an object as real as a table or chair – now Perceptual Abstraction reduced art to an experiment in the science of perception – to the response of cones and rods within the eye and to synapses of the retinal nerves as they processed the deliberately mesmerising geometric patterns of Perceptual Abstraction. Hence the name.

But Greenberg and Rosenberg fought back with their own post-Pop style, which they christened Post-Painterly Abstraction, also known as Colour Field Abstract or Hard Edge Abstract which was painting with the brushstrokes and everything expressive taken out. Not quick enough, though, because in the mid to late 60s another big school emerged which came to be called Minimalism. In his cartoon way of telling the story, Wolfe invokes the Turbulence Theory i.e. it can’t be any good unless you hate it. Thus the critic Robert Scull was walking down Madison Avenue and saw a wall of pictures which were apparently completely white. They were in fact white paper with a few super-faint words ghostly written in a corner, by someone called Walter de Maria. Scull disliked them so much he realised they must be genius, bought them all, phoned the artist and became his sponsor on the spot!

But even as Op Art got publicity Minimalism was stirring. Colour? Pattern? Canvases? How derriere-garde, how bourgeois! Paint direct on the gallery wall (Sol Lewitt). Put a pile of bricks on the floor (Carl Andre). A stack of metal shelves up the wall (Donald Judd). Neon tubes in a corner (Dan Flavin).

But these can still be bought and sold like any other commodity and displayed in art galleries, yuk, to be silently revered by the hypocritical bourgeoisie! Reject the art gallery, comrades! And so began Earth Art – a circle of rocks in the desert (Richard Long).  A spiral made of mud and salt into the Great Salt Lake (Robert Smithson). Photographs of the work would have to be enough for the smug uptown liberal elite.

But then, why have an actual object at all? How very bourgeois! Why not just have the idea for a work? Conceptual art.

And each successive wave prompted shrieks of outrage from the middle-brow press? Excellent! We must be doing something right. Classic conceptual art reduced the whole enterprise to words – documentation – describing and explaining what the art work would or could be. There was fierce competition to be the most conceptual of the conceptualists, which Wolfe thinks was won by Lawrence Weiner with his Declaration of Intent (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

No paint. No canvas. No gallery. Nothing but words. And with this – Wolfe jokes – Art disappeared up its own fundament and re-emerged as pure theory, as words shorn of anything representational at all.

Epilogue

Where do you go after you’ve completely abolished your form? Well, post-modernism turns out to be the answer. The best explanation I heard of this troubled idea is that the core idea of MODERNISM is that there is ONE NARRATIVE – from Cezanne through Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Suprematism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, you can argue the case that there has been a steady series of waves, all operating under broadly the same parameters, each one represented by an avant-garde of pioneers who critics, collectors and public perceived as a kind of unified set of experiments on a single journey forwards, towards…

And post-modernism just stepped away from this whole story. Turns out there are hundreds of stories, thousands of stories, why get hung up about this particular one? You can have all or any of them, like flavours in an ice cream parlour. The very idea of ONE avant-garde which everyone had to look out for, keep up with, and which represented the latest step in an exciting voyage of discovery… over. Finished. Kaput!

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wolfe’s hilarious romp through (then) recent art history is that he shows you how quickly it happened and how long ago all this is – and that by the time he wrote it in 1975, something like post-Modernism had set in. Meaning, a return to guilt-free figurative realism. He singles out the Photo-realism of Richard Estes, who takes colour photos of banal street scenes (generally shop facades) blows them up very big, projects them on a screen and then carefully paints them.

In the recent exhibition of American prints at the British Museum, some prints of Estes’ Photo-realist works follow the black and white lines of the Minimalist room and are accompanied by artists who returned to the deeply unfashionable genre of portrait painting, namely Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Their work just seems very, well, relaxed, after the existential agonies of the Abstract Expressionists. You look back at the tortured artists of the 1950s and think – to use the American expression – ‘Oh, just get over yourselves.’

The return of the repressed Boho

So what happened next? In the British Museum exhibition post-modernism is represented by a return to Estes’ street scenes, a load of portraits and various realistic depictions of the human form. What interested me was that around 1980 the show stopped being chronological and became thematic, collapsing into three isshoos – gay art around AIDS, feminism and gender, and African American art.

The casual viewer can’t help feeling that these represent a return of the wish to épater le bourgeoisie – the rallying cry of the late-19th century French avant-garde – i.e. to shock the middle classes. Reading the captions here and at the numerous other art exhibitions I go to, you get the sense that artists, and especially critics and curators, wish they were back in the age of modernism, when art genuinely did shock and stun and amaze, when it genuinely ‘transgressed’ and ‘subverted’ something, when it counted for something, goddammit, when it did shock and change wider society a little – and weren’t living now, in the age of finance capitalism, the age of Trump and post-factual politics, the age of Instagram and Facebook and instant liking and friending, when nothing much has any meaning or depth.

I looked around at my fellow ageing, white middle-class visitors to the American prints exhibition at the British Museum: were any of them shocked and outraged by graphic depictions of AIDS or slave ships or a feminist from the 1970s subverting gender stereotypes? Nope. To coin a typically powerful American phrase, I think the curators are confusing us with someone who gives a shit.

Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

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