Beyond the ‘Basildon Man’

Radical ESSEX (Focal Point Gallery, 2018)

If the tone of Radical ESSEX is at times defensive, it’s because it has reason to be. The book is upfront about popular perceptions of Essex, from its reputation as a county characterised by its purported brashness, to the right-wing, Tory-voting ‘Basildon Man’ invented by the newspaper industry in the 1980s as a supposed archetype of a shift in working-class political allegiances.

Radical ESSEX sets about showing us a different side to the county, and introducing us to alternative figures from its history. Published by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, and resulting from an exhibition and programme of events of the same name, Radical ESSEX brings together essays on various aspects of the county’s landscape, architecture and culture. There’s a strong emphasis on not just telling alternative stories about Essex, but highlighting the ways in which the county, which is within easy reach of London yet retains a sense of cultural and geographical isolation, has provided the space for the development of radically new social, political and architectural experiments. These include both planned communities, driven by ideological, political and moral motivations, as explored in a fascinating chapter on communitarianism by Ken Worpole, as well as more ad hoc settlements such as the plot lands, initially developed as DIY country escapes yet ultimately and illicitly settled more permanently, which are visited by Gillian Darley.

Radical ESSEX rises to the provocation, set out by writer Tim Burrows early on in the book, that ‘to infer anything intellectual from the county has at times seemed like a radical act’. A real highlight, therefore, is the chapter on the University of Essex, one of a 1960s generation of ‘new’ universities, and the way it embraced the new not just architecturally, but in the types of subjects that were taught and its approaches to teaching them, which ultimately aimed to generate students capable of thinking for themselves. As the chapter notes, this quickly resulted in a reputation for radicalism and free thinking – students set up their own ‘Free University’, and played an active part in political and social protests.

In general, the place of modernity in shaping Essex comes across strongly in Radical ESSEX – from the marsh-draining techniques, borrowed from the Dutch, that enabled the land to be reclaimed from the sea, to the bold modernism of planned towns and estates such as Silver End, Bataville and Frinton Park. However, modernism is also emblematic of the tensions encapsulated within the county. Although it’s home to some of the earliest and most innovative built expressions of modernism in the UK, which rightly take their place in the book, Essex is also a county of suburban sprawl, and an early adopter of the increasingly prevalent out-of-town, shed-type genre of architecture. In his chapter, architect Charles Holland makes the case that architectural modernism both began and ended in Essex: the county ultimately rejected modernism with the influential Essex Design Guide of 1973, which promoted a return to vernacular architecture and traditional building materials.

Essex has also been shaped by movement, particularly as expressed in successive waves of migration. No story of Essex would be complete without a discussion of the Essex new towns, built to house former East Enders post-WWII, and we’re also reminded of the arrival of the Windrush at Tilbury docks and the large numbers of international students attracted to study at the University of Essex. It continues today as young people are driven from the capital as London’s living costs become increasingly prohibitive for those looking to set up home or raise a family.

Although – or perhaps because – it’s not regarded as being conventionally picturesque, the look and feel of the book makes a feature of the county’s distinctive landscape, in which oozy, marshy creeks and inlets, which ebb and flow as the tide changes, leave behind large, shifting banks of mud. Instead of marbling, we have watery imprints, saturated in surreal colours, like an aerial or satellite view of the county gone psychedelic, aptly capturing the county’s strangeness. Catherine Hyland’s photos, which run throughout the book, on the other hand, offer a gentle, soft-edged view of the county and its architecture, old and new: remote country church and brutalist university campus alike are imbued with a hazy, pleasant familiarity, as if Essex is a county where anything is possible, and it’s always a bright early summer day.

Natalie Bradbury

Advertisements

Shades of grey

Lynda Nead – The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (Yale, 2017)

Lynda Nead’s new history of art and culture in post-war Britain borrows its title from a novel by crime fiction writer Margery Allingham. Whilst Allingham’s ‘tiger’ was a vicious killer who lurked in the grimy shadows of post-war London, it’s the smoke that is the important word here; Nead frames her study within the fog of 1950s Britain, beginning with the ‘Great Smog’ that hung over London for five days towards the end of 1952, the year The Tiger in the Smoke was published.

It’s significant, too, that Nead borrows from the mass cultural form of the detective novel to set the tone of the book, which emphasises the ordinariness and continuity of experience that characterised much of life in post-war Britain. Nead’s early focus on the atmospheric qualities of smog begins a search for the other collective social and cultural events that set the tone for the period. Although the Festival of Britain of 1951 features as a national focal point and a spectacular showcase of modernity, most of the details she highlights are far more everyday, from the illustrated black and white Picture Post articles that captured life in the streets of derelict and war-ravaged Britain, to the tedium of Sunday afternoons, to family life that was increasingly brought together around the TV set, to the dressing gowns worn by bored housewives up and down the country, to the domestic details captured by the ‘Kitchen Sink Painters’. These humdrum reference points are used as entry points into bigger narratives, from gender and race to national identity.

Underpinning this exploration of post-war culture is the work of cultural theorist Raymond Williams. Nead convincingly draws upon the term ‘structures of feeling’, which Williams used to characterise the intangible shifts in culture, meaning and atmosphere that subtly occur from one generation to the next. Although she focuses on the years between 1945 and 1960, ultimately Nead exposes the impossibility of identifying a neatly delineated time period in this way; as she points out, the new developments of post-war Britain, such as the welfare state and physical reconstruction, existed alongside residual aspects of culture dating not just from the war – rationing, she reminds us, continued until 1954, and towns and cities continued to be haunted by empty bombsites many years the war had ended – but from the Victorian period, both in the country’s crumbling built environment and in lingering social attitudes and artistic influences. The overall picture painted by Nead is far from the colour and experimentation of the swinging sixties; instead, she suggests that for most of the population British life existed in various shades of grey.

The fact that there’s been considerable interest in the post-war period in recent years, from Owen Hatherley’s writing on nostalgia, to the inception of Manchester’s own Modernist magazine, to the restaging of the Independent Group’s famous exhibition Parallel of Art and Life at the ICA in 2013, hardly needs restating. What Nead adds to this return to the post-war era is a rare talent for combining in-depth research and academic analysis with a style of writing that’s interesting and pleasurable for the general reader.

She also ventures beyond the standard texts of the period to offer up reading – and viewing – lists of less-known books and films from the era, providing a starting point for further explorations into the culture of Britain at a time when the country was simultaneously in thrall to its past, absorbing increasingly international influences, and exploring new ideas of what it might become.

– Natalie Bradbury

Back to school

Sam Thorne – School: A Recent History of Self-Organized Art Education (Sternberg Press 2017)

Sam Thorne’s School is not just, as its subtitle suggests, a ‘recent history of self-organized art education’, surveying the ‘sudden density’ of alternative of art schools that have emerged since the early 2000s. It’s also a timely contribution to an ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of higher education, who should bear the costs – and the expected and desired outcomes for those who participate.

Implicit is the conundrum of the role an art school might usefully be expected to fulfil, given that somebody cannot be taught to ‘be’ an artist. Josef Beuys’ famous saying ‘everyone is an artist’ recurs again and again in the book. If everyone is an artist, then, the purpose of art schools is not to create artists, but to provide an environment in which artists might develop and realise their potential, meet other artists, have time, space and resources to test and experiment, and to challenge and be challenged.

For this reason, the overall emphasis of the art schools featured in the book is less on practical and vocational training and more about creating a discursive environment which is flexible, collaborative and self-directed. The school in this sense is less a place where the student is a fee-paying customer, taking on crippling debt in order to purchase an off-the-peg education delivered in expensive buildings, and more a place to go to learn and change through process and experience. This is an education which is not separate from the real world, but takes place throughout the everyday, and concerns not just knowledge and skills but thoughts and attitudes to life. It’s interdisciplinary: art schools are not just a place where one might find painters and sculptors, but activists, writers, cooks and musicians. This education does not end at the close of the school day, once students have left the building or graduate, but is something students take with them into the future. It’s less about giving students the keys to enter elite international art networks, and the ability to participate in global art markets, than about developing artists’ abilities to criticise, critique and suggest alternatives.

In School, Thorne explores the different approaches that have been taken to providing this education. He grounds artist-led education historically in initiatives such as the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, before presenting a series of interviews with alternative art schools around the world, from European case studies to projects in Cuba, the United States, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East and Africa.

Sometimes these schools mirror the formal education systems, whether in language – several adopt the name of ‘school’, ‘university’ or ‘academy’ – or in their expectations of the students, such as writing a formal dissertation. These alternative schools may also have symbiotic relationships to the academy, through affiliation, funding or staffing. Often, too, students have already been through post-graduate education – the alternative art school is supplementary to it rather than a replacement.

Thorne shows that what does separate these schools from established institutions is their tendency to be small-scale, rooted in community and specific in their response to local context. Among the case studies highlighted are universities that are nomadic, moving to different cities, those which take place within the domestic space of the home, and those which suggest the atelier model, with students acting in a role that is akin to assistants within a studio system.

The more interesting interviews are those in which the challenges faced by artists and art students are most apparent, due to economic, social or political constraints, or which take place in areas with little tradition of mainstream non-academic art education: it’s in cities such as Ramallah and St Petersburg that alternative, critical education feels most daring, urgent and necessary.

Thorne made the conscious decision to focus on the founders of alternative art schools. In a book expounding non-hierarchical and collaborative education it feels a little odd that key, driving individuals and personalities are highlighted at the expense of those who have participated in, taught at or graduated from alternative art schools. The ideas and motivations behind the schools therefore come across much more strongly than the feeling of actually studying there.

These alternative art schools, too, appear as a series of experiments and one-off projects rather than long-term, sustainable alternatives to the market-driven system of higher education. However, as Thorne points out, even if they don’t offer an alternative route to the established system they offer ‘modest proposals’ for the type of education that might be delivered in the art school of the future.

– Natalie Bradbury

Shake it Like a…

Peter Buse – The Camera Does the Rest, How Polaroid Changed Photography (University of Chicago Press)

‘Every photographic print is a material object, but a Polaroid is somehow more so’. Such is the rationale for Peter Buse’s latest book; a study in the cultural history of Polaroids.

Even the term, ‘Polaroids’, distinguishes the products of this iconic company from other images (whether on film or digital). One wouldn’t refer to a cherished Fuji, or a secret stash of intimate Kodaks. Polaroids are something different.

At the heart of Buse’s study is the quintessential Polaroid, or lack of one. Rather, each generation experiences the very concept of the Polaroid anew. The first Polaroid film, released in the 1940s, introduced the world to automatically developing images and for a short while represented a luxury item. As Polaroid developed new technologies this luxury image was retained for its initial releases.

Land cameras found their way into the hands of movie stars, U.S. Presidents and, most influentially, Ansel Adams.

The world’s first inexpensive ‘instant camera’, the Polaroid Swinger, appeared in the 1960s. As the process produced no negative from which to make copies, and made darkroom skills redundant, the world of professional photography was immediately sceptical. Instead the Polaroid marketing department emphasised the fun of photography, targeting young women in particular as a market alienated by the technophile photographic elite.

The release of the SX-70 consolidated the company’s reputation for making party cameras. The SX-70 introduced the automated roller, pushing the photograph out directly towards the photographed. Rather than the private pursuit of the photographer, Buse argues, Polaroid’s cameras after the SX-70 turned photography into a social activity, a special event, something that’s fun to do, something to break the ice; a common practice being to give the photo to the sitter rather than have the taker keep them for themselves.

Contra-Sontag, Buse argues the memorial value of these photographs is a secondary characteristic. Polaroids were hardly Barthes’ memento mori, they were Instagram before the internet. The mythology of the Polaroid supports this interpretation and, according to Buse, the mythology is indeed largely mythical.

Other than the asymmetrical white borders (the bottom border being larger to house the ‘bubble’ of chemicals necessary for instant developing) the rest of Polaroid’s supposedly unique qualities were either untrue or shared with their competitors.

‘The film quality was terrible but more loveable as a result’, is a common presumption, ‘the image was wet and needed to be shaken dry or stuck under an armpit, that the colours of the film were highly saturated, and of course, that the images soon faded away’. In fact, a scientific comparison found Polaroids to be of comparable image quality with competing non-instant film, and they had similar levels of saturation.

Salesmen were so frustrated by the fading myth that they’d cellotape a Polaroid onto a window directly facing the sun and stick a Kodak photo next to it. Within a week this would allow their clients to compare the fading themselves, with Kodak always fading faster.

The myth of fading can be attributed to the Polaroid’s reputation for fun, ie/ a lack of seriousness and a lack of permanence. As much as this reputation was fostered by the company there was also a simultaneous effort to win over the world of high art.

Ansel Adams was part of this movement; acting as a consultant to the company from 1961. His work in Polaroid appeared regularly in avant garde magazines like Aperture along with essays on the pedagogical potential of instant film. Polaroid cameras might be used for fun, these essays argued, but they were far from being mere toys.

Dr David Land, the famed inventor behind Polaroid, shared these aspirations, albeit with a populist’s focus on showmanship. Buse returns to the enigmatic Land on a number of occasions, most compellingly when discussing his annual general meeting appearances. Buse gives the impression of Land as a proto-Steve Jobs, lecturing his engineers, sales teams and investors alike on colour theory and Bergsonian philosophy between product releases.

‘In 1971’ Buse describes, ‘Land stood on stage and pulled a closed SX-70 prototype camera out of his suitcoat and showed it to the audience without explaining what it was except to suggest that [it] would be disclosed at some future date’.

By the 1980s the Polaroid AGM came complete with circus animals, live musicians and, in 1986, a building-sized replica of the Spectra System camera: The Camera Does the Rest is filled with fascinating insights like these. It provides a thorough overview of Polaroid’s history without the wearying detail which might come of a comprehensive study. It contains vital theoretical insights not only about photography but about the history of technology, memory and nostalgia. It is compelling written, an entertaining read and a case study in how to do cultural studies properly.

As a reader from the post-Polaroid generation I was particularly interested in the section regarding contemporary hipsterdom’s relationship with Polaroid. The Impossible Project, who now manufacture Polaroid-eque film for sale online, are often considered to be pandering to nostalgia or else harbouring an obtuse attachment to obsolete technology.

Especially perplexing are those too young to have purchased film from Polaroid, who ceased production in 2008, and yet purchase replica film today at around $3 a photo. Polaroid’s materiality, Buse argues, has come to signify materiality itself. And materiality, in an era of the all-pervasive digital, is now a valuable commodity.

Misguided or not, the book makes one thing is clear; these neo-Polaroids are simply the next iteration of a form which has traversed the artistic, the popular and occasionally the seedy on its journey to becoming iconic.

– Joe Darlington

Stones and Hard Places

Various – Cosmic Shift, Russian Contemporary Art Writing (Zed)

This is the first anthology of Russian contemporary art writing to be published outside Russia. It includes Barte de Baere, Anton Vidokle, Bogdan Mamonov, Pavel Pepperstein, Dmitri Prigov and Masha Sumnina. However, the book was perhaps unsurprisingly begun via a chance meeting at Goldsmiths College, London.

This book, on its way through its approaches to art, also explores the communism of old and the communism to come. It does so in relation to representational questions. It does so in relation to the arts of the former Soviets, with some leeway (for instance Boris Groys is included, a German who grew up in Russia).

My review, then, will suggest what use this book might have to Manchester artists, because many of the ideas in this book – ideas that are common currency to those who lived through the hard grip of communism and its eventual dropping of them into a void – are much needed by the modernistas, neo-radicals and posturers in the city. Many of them cluster around the urban art scene.

This book both is and isn’t about the ‘Various Times’ of the European mid-century. It raises the spectres of Poland, Germany, in the late 1930s and 1940s, without meaning to.

But this book is also about an emerging period of New Things and I want to suggest to you that those older Various Times are being lost in that, at the same time as they resurface in new forms: The idea that Jacobin magazine is straightforwardly the alt-left opposite to the alt-right of Vice magazine: The Good against The Bad. The White Hats out to outgun The Black Hats; be wary.

I have spoken of the managing out of postmodernism from the university elsewhere. What we are seeing is the rise of a culture which is wilfully trying to close the gap between signifier and signified. What Jodi Dean has described, via Zizek, as the capitulation to new forms of submission. Look at the article on ‘The 1917 Peasant Revolutions’ in Jacobin by Sarah Badcock and Be Aware. If facts can be presented selectively enough to become lie, then that article is a damn lie.

What we aren’t seeing in the text is a sense that the artists of the former citizens of the Tito regime brought to bear on their work, artists such as Mladen Stilinović, that, as the title of the wonderful retrospective show at Nottingham Contemporary, curated by Lina Dzuverovic explained: ‘Monuments Are Not To Ne Trusted’. Stilinović is an exemplar here, distrustful of both capitalism and communism, he existed within both as a kind of permanent dissident and his work is better for it.

More recently Engels has returned again in the statue the artist Phil Collins brought back from the Ukraine, which was ‘unveiled’ on the 16th of July, 2017. This statue was the centrepiece of the closing event of the 2017 Manchester International Festival, an event called Ceremony, a title that ties the Soviet-era statue to the Manchester band Joy Division and the general revival of the post-punk and modernist aesthetic in Britain.

Engels’ return to the surface of Manchester, now he has been ‘uncovered’, whether uncovered at the back of a factory in the Ukraine, by archeologists, or in the written textual surface of his explorations in and around Angel Meadow, invariably means a set of investments in fragments of material from the past. All archeological sites are characterised by the projections of their present moments into that past.

The statue of Engels lay unwanted because it had become a toxic symbol. All iconography associated with the former Soviets was taken down, a final dictat enshrined in legislation: In 2015 Soviet monuments became illegal. The Holodomor and the moving of ethnic Russians into satellite states, including the Ukraine are not simply ‘of the past’; they are of recent times. The Putin regime have entered the Ukraine aggressively yet again.

While these tragic occurrences are not necessarily tied to the socialism of Marx-Engels, the Engels statue, in the Ukraine, became a site of projection for all the geographical terrors of Russian military managerialism. This is why it was given away by the town of Mala Pereshchepina to Manchester. How very strange then that a YBA should then have it driven to Manchester. How odd that an artist associated with the invented new hyper-capitalist art market of Charles Saatchi in the 1990s, as the older art markets atrophied, should dabble with this particular object and its constellations of significatory dust.

All over social media, the idea that Engels had been ‘brought home’ could be seen, that the statue is ‘coming back’. It is an idea absolutely cracked with contradiction. How bizarre that in Manchester, of all places, the statue is being seen as something ‘solid’, that what had definitely melted into air appears to have become concrete again. The Joy Division, who are invoked in the name of the Phil Collins artwork Ceremony – the name is taken from one of their song titles – were seen as proto-postmodern, in that they took their name from an SS brothel, its signifier rising above the signified.

The moment of the Manchester Modernist Society (MMS) is tangled up in all of this too: MMS is characterised by rescuing the reputations of modernist buildings from the categories of, for instance, ‘slum’ in favour of celebrations of minimal or brutalist aesthetics.

At the unveiling of the Engels statue there was a banner workshop. Some of the slogans displayed there included ‘communism is coming home’ and ‘when they write our history they will say this is where it started’. This thin trope, that Manchester is a ‘revolutionary city’ can be seen in many discourses about it.

From the great book edited by Peck and Ward, City of Revolution to the brochure of the 2017 Manchester Literature Festival and even thinner cultural references in the world of pop. But Manchester’s ‘revolution’, if it can even be called that, Industrialism, was a failed radicalism. Because in Manchester there was a bourgeois revolution instead of a political one. This may not be a point to mourn, as in France the very real political revolution turned into The Terror and yet another form of Nationalist Imperialism.

The later ‘revolution’ in Manchester we might point to includes Manchester City Council who out of sheer desperation began to seek money from all kinds of non-governmental sources. This essentially became the model for the neoliberal form of governance and statecraft in the 1990s, including the re-calibration of the Labour Party as New Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair.

Many of Manchester’s cultural players were formed in this period, including many of the Manchester International Festival insiders. George Osborne, former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, greatly admires Sir Howard Bernstein, an icon of neoliberal city governance.

A new generation is emerging though. They often describe themselves as communist. The Stalin memes and hammers and sickles they deploy on social media are flexible, plastic, elastic even. They are semi-ironic. Yet at the same time, the Engels statue is seen as something solid for them and irony itself is openly disavowed. For many of them, the Engels statue is a solid icon of belief in the future. Let me be clear, the reduction of spectra of meaning into one dogmatic sign is one of the processes via which totalitarianism is delivered.

What is behind these assertions is the recent revival of the Labour Party under the current leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn himself, in many ways, has become a statue like that of Engels. The two signs became interchangeable at the close of Ceremony. But there is a tension here, as some of Manchester’s cultural players associated with Manchester International Festival are solidly New Labour, as is Manchester City Council.

The idea of Engels returning lies latent in E.P. Thompson’s reading of him as a kind of Timelord. However, Derrida writes well on how Marx and Engels actually advised for their lives after their own redundancy and death: ‘Who has ever called for the transformation of his own theses?’

Derrida explains that they didn’t simply ask for their work to be updated with new knowledge, but requested that the original knowledge be treated robustly. In this, the excessive warnings about Marx and Engels predicting history, about their work as a sealed hermetic system, as excessive and ill-read as similar charges against Hegel, need to be denied again. They need to be denied for a new generation of radicals who are erroneously making them solid.

If you do nothing else read ‘Soviet communism and the paradox of alienation’ in this book, an essay by Artemy Magun:

‘Communist government should be truly dialectical’, as opposed to ‘the pseudo dialectical liberal state’ and ‘the ideocratic dogmatism of the Soviet state’, to which (Boris) ‘Groys falsely attributes a dialectic’. Such a government ‘should be dialectical in its rationality and aesthetical in its virtuosity.’ It should be ‘harsh’, but ‘plastic at the same time, constantly preparing its own downfall and rescuing itself from it.’

This is not an argument for postmodern relativism, it is not an argument that says the young radicals are too communist, but it is an argument that says the young Corbynistas are not yet properly communist. Artemy Magun’s essay is a good place to start again.

Belgrade went from a cosmopolis in 1978 to the horrors of the 1990s in no time at all. ‘It couldn’t happen here’. Yes it could. We need the eastern semi-dissident voices more than ever as the communist sympathy increases.

Putting Humans Back In Their Place

Roger Cardinal – The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash (Reaktion)

Paul Nash has long been presented as a 20th century modernist who updated the English landscape tradition. He gives us the coast at Dymchurch, but also the Flanders landscapes of the First World War and the aerial battles of the Second World War. Here then, is all the progress of machine modernity and its horrors in one.

But in Nash’s hands, the ‘great’ dogfights of The Battle of Britain look like moths around a lamp, as a summer evening wanes. Nature, in Nash’s work, is neither terrible nor benign, it is coldly ambivalent. Nash’s contribution to history – and to the history of representation – has been to reduce the great efforts of ‘mankind’ to their proper scale in the wider universe. His contribution to history, then, has been to level it, and therefore his own efforts, to blips in space-time.

Roger Cardinal is an international expert on Art Brut and is highly knowledgeable on surrealism and modernism. This book presents some of the work that made Nash’s name, but it takes you into another space, by presenting lesser known works and the later oils. Here, we can rediscover Nash anew, as his popular image fades a little through over-exposure.

We know a lot about the paintings, but the photographs have been less prolifically explored until recently. This book covers both. The photos are often thought of as source material, tools for studies, for instance the Kodak pocket camera images of wrecked aircraft at a dump in Oxford, that found their place in Nash’s rightly famous painting Totes Meer.

But many of the photographs are poetic and strange in their own right, enigmatic and mysterious. They emerge from the British surrealism of figures such as Humphrey Spender. But some of them, architectural figures glimpsed over hedges, strange anthropomorphic shapes in the landscape, odd spaces, have an eerie quality.

There’s a kind of Gang Lion and Tulse Luper feel to the images. As though some secretive psychogeographic project ran under the official war work and activities in the art scene of the time.

Cardinal’s narrative is intellectual but helpful, it seems to anticipate the reader’s questions. It wears its erudition lightly enough to introduce some of the more complicated aspects of Nash’s work and its place in history to everyone. At the same time, it opens Nash out and gives us a much richer picture, very much in the spirit of the painter himself.

Paul Nash is still searingly relevant. In an era where the ‘anthropocene’ is fashionable intellectual currency, Cardinal points us back to an artist who would have found absolutely nothing novel in that idea.

This is an excellent study, the images are beautifully reproduced, and the book serves several purposes at once. It is introductory, expansive and critical without ever being patronising or agonistic. This is often the mark of good scholarship: Those who really know their stuff don’t need to strut it.

Holding On To A Dear Life

Various – A Jar of Wild Flowers, Essays in Celebration of John Berger (Zed Books)

It’s tempting to think that we no longer have figures like Goethe, Rosa Luxemburg, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt or Adorno. But John Berger was their equivalent, as was Zygmunt Bauman, who also died recently. Berger may not have made work that sounded or looked like any of those people, but why would he?

His work is influenced by them all to a greater or lesser extent, but he rarely came on like a card-carrying German Idealist philosopher. It is there though, pulsing up from the past.

But now we no longer have John Berger.

Manchester Review of Books covered Tom Overton’s book on Berger, Landscapes, some time ago. This book though, arriving for Berger’s 90th, not long before he passed away, is a collection of tributes.

Berger’s life spans much of the 20th and some of the 21st century, emerging after the second world war, alongside the British New Left. But he carried on, becoming, if anything, more radical the older he got.

I remember reading an essay on Bruegel the Elder and ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. Berger compared the social world in the paintings to our own, implausibly, I thought, at first, until he explained that the lack of a centre, of a focal point, was a description of hell. He compared them to a CNN news bulletin.

It was utterly brilliant: So simple, so counterintuitive; yet so completely correct.

I also remember reading Hold Everything Dear when it came out and getting a sense that he had jettisoned many of the pointless courtly dances of writing. In it, he states, at one point, bluntly, that yes, he is still a Marxist. At the same time, the book is filled with poetry.

Zed Books are a co-op and this seems very appropriate, part of the tribute of the edition. Berger’s leftism never departed from him, it seemed to get stauncher, in inverse proportion to his generosity of spirit.

In London, Berger hung out with exiles who knew a lot about art, but cared nothing for art markets, and in fact were completely scornful of them. Berger was highly critical of the art market all his life, a tradition carried on nicely by Julian Stallabrass, who puts out books with empty squares where the accompanying picture should be, because the copyright is locked down by capitalist cartels.

The titles of the pieces in this collection are just single words, grouped under a themed heading. For instance a section called The Colours of the Cosmos has titles which run ‘Graphite’, ‘Hay’, ‘Fire’, ‘Milk’, ‘Blood’, ‘Forest’, ‘Toast’ and ‘Oil’.

There’s something straightforward and poetic about this, as there was about Berger’s work, and Jean Mohr’s, who also contributes the moving foreword to this collection.

But the universal and particular are one here too. Toast, blood, fire, oil. The cosmos and your immediate surroundings are part of the same vast continuum. But the search for god, or in this case, the god particle at CERN, is pointless, if the mortal lives of all cannot be lived blessedly.

For Berger, as Amarjit Chandan puts it, and beautifully, the ‘existential angst’ is ‘further expanded with the extent of multiplied horizons’.

Put more practically though, this way of titling pieces avoids the usual contents page in a collection, where each author’s long title, well-crafted in isolation, immediately drowns in all the others. This is refreshing.

Editor Yasmin Gunaratnam mentions that Berger met Orwell while working for New Statesman and that some of his style of argument is passed on from Orwell. This simple fact strikes me hard. Just that plain fact, that they met, and the continuum back into the past, into Orwell’s time, or rather Eric Blair’s time, in the Imperial police in India, on the road with ‘vagrants’.

Suddenly I cannot stop thinking about the simultaneous closeness and distance of history. But it is ordinary, too, as Hans Jürgen Balmes shows, in his section ‘Graphite’. He remembers Berger lighting a candle during a powercut and then reading. Suddenly I’m in some place with friends, on a break. Anywhere. The pencil line, fragile, shaking, easy to erase, is history.

Rema Hammami then writes about John Berger’s text messages. The facile notion that somehow newer forms of inscription are profane or less serious, although it is faster or more quotidian, is completely exploded by this section. The SMS message is a fugitive pencil line too.

A very interesting dimension of Berger’s life that is becoming much clearer in this moment of national breakdown is his decision to move to a rural, remote town in France and live there. There are parallels with Henri Lefebvre here, the great urbanist who in fact began in the landscape and life of the French peasant. But Berger also seems to mirror that other very British exile, Robert Graves. Part of the establishment, but pacifist, avant garde and totally dissenting. They left the island and stayed away. Never has this made more sense than now.

You can never escape, of course, in France there is Le Pen, but you can remove yourself to the edges in order to look back in again, awry.

Nick Thorpe and Iain Chambers turn the book towards migration. A Seventh Man is now a book about all migrant journeys. Decades old, it is as contemporary as the breaking news and as universally intense as Homer. Rochelle Simmons’ section explores Berger’s use of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to open up the politics of race. Simmons unflinchingly points out the ‘limitations’ of Berger’s ‘propaganda by deed’ – in this case donating his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers – at the same time as celebrating it. Yahia Yakhlef’s final chapter ‘Courage’ makes clear Berger’s commitment.

Gunaratnam writes about Berger’s comments on the photographer Chris Killip’s work, in Thatcher’s Britain, describing it as a series of views of a -20 degree winter where people simply insulate themselves in any way they can to get through.

The same horror is with us again. Out on to the streets you go, and if you are lucky, with a tent or sleeping bag. She describes Howard Becker’s comments on Berger and Mohr’s work, how it gives you what I call in my head ‘truthness’.

There’s a richness to this collection. It unfolds, yields, gives. Nikos Papastergiadis contributes a wonderful section on landscapes, art and creation and how it connects with the human social world. The essay by Gavin Francis on A Fortunate Man is wonderful. It’s one of Berger and Mohr’s most moving books, and, perhaps not surprisingly, one that I rarely see for sale in book shops.

Who will replace the likes of Berger, Bauman and those taken far too soon, such as Gillian Rose? There is much to hold dear here for the art school. There is a generational cliff edge as those of Berger’s generation and the one after pass into retirement. The arts have been coloured pink for a long time, but it is not a natural state of affairs. It can and will change, and now we see how quantifiable outcomes and instrumentalised rationales affect all but the most resistant arts institutions.

However, what’s truly great about this anthology is that it is almost completely multi-purpose. It is of relevance to everyone in the humanities as well as the arts, and to the general reader interested in the new century and the one that has passed and how they connect: This is an electrically passionate collection.

The Master of the Untitled Statement

Hans Haake – Working Conditions, The Writings of Hans Haake (MIT Writing Art Series)

Hans Haake’s shopping lists must be amazing. He has a way of putting things down on a single A4 sheet that makes them stick on the walls of art student digs and then adhere all the way through to their mature studio spaces and beyond. He’s right up there, along with Dieter Roth.

His statements veer between the completely distilled and the wide open and suggestive. For instance one untitled piece from the early 1960s that provides the exact crosshair position of contemporary avant garde art, next to the ‘why don’t you switch off your television set go off and do something less boring instead’ pieces (I’m sure he would have approved).

After Duchamp, after Fluxus, this is a game and the pieces on the board move. Duchamp was a great chess player, running several simultaneous international games by post from his flat. Haake understands that this is now the territory and as Lyotard explained everything is a move in a game, but if there are no rules, there is no game. Haake is a master player of the new ruleless game.

But Haake’s ‘game’ isn’t the international art career he has. The pieces in this book the writing corresponds to are livid, anti-capitalist, through and through.

Documenta, which Haake is so associated with, came out of need to revive the avant garde after the Nazis destroyed it. Haake then goes on to make the most furious political, informed pieces, persistently, and persistently with humour, for the rest of his career, something that is little short of miraculous. No postmodern bubbles for Haake.

This is a book you can live in. When Haake writes ‘articulate something natural’ those three words contain the whole philosophical understanding that art is not nature, that articulation is language, visual or otherwise. Three words by Haake are that good. They are worth a thousand by lesser artists and writers.

These instruction-based pieces are the counterpoints to the micro-manifesto style writing. In fact on second thoughts, Hans Haake’s shopping lists are probably just shopping lists.

In this spirit, surely Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt took some inspiration from Hans Haake when putting Oblique Strategies together?

‘Just carry on.’

The No Longer Sacred Profane

Jeff Nuttall – An Aesthetic of Obscenity: Five Novels (VP Reprint Series)

It is good to see Jeff Nuttall returning as Jeff Nuttall. Those who care should brace themselves for a whole wave of Nuttall nonsense to come. Papers already exist that link him to Deleuze and Guattari, missing the way Jeff hated them, outlined with little ambuguity in Art and the Degradation of Awareness, one of his best books.

Jeff hating them doesn’t mean those links can’t be made, but those links are very weak. There are theorists attempting to push the cumbersome Nuttall body into genderless Bataillean theorising, which itself arrives largely via Allan Stoekl’s flawed Marxist readings of Bataille. Nuttall was phallocentric if he was anything, performing with his cock and balls out often.

‘The subversive thread of the imagination’ currently being claimed for Jeff, is now the most re-directable force for capital there is, on the planet. ‘Social’ labour on the internet is all surplus value for others who know how to profit from the processes.

‘Happening assemblages’ are supposedly all unconscious intensities, but Nuttall hated what happened to the experiments of Allan Kaprow. The ultimate end of those were U2s Zoo Tour. They were absorbed into Neoliberal Europolitics, the Rock ‘n’ Roll dome of Blair and a Stratocaster in number ten, a rebound from Clinton, the first black man in the white house, with his saxophone.

Nuttall hated rock music, he once told me it was ‘stand up wanks using somebody elses’s fist.’ I’d like to propose that Nuttall is a radical materialist, something that has been and will be overlooked. These collected novels give me ballast.

In them, Nuttall tries to use words, often to describe sex, that will wake our switched off bodies to their anaesthetised conditions, conditions he thought were injected by the presence of the nuclear bomb.

Nuttall’s small press poetry was put out by tiny outfits like Arc, struggling for years and then selling the remainders as rare luxuries. I have never seen the novels and so hats off to Douglas Field and Jay Jones for collecting them in all their profane glory. They have done a marvellous job here.

These novels should be read by all the academics preparing to chop Nuttall’s body up even further to use as fuel in the Higher Education novelty race. Snipe’s Spinster proves what they all conveniently forget, that Nuttall was ANTI-COUNTERCULTURE. Bomb Culture was a way of distancing himself from it all, rather than pulling himself further in.

This does not mean that Nuttall was some kind of conservative, far from it, he saw the counterculture commodified and he disaffiliated immediately. For Nuttall, the counterculture was not radical enough.

There’s lots of fucking of the non-transgender sort. Cocks and fannies. Very British, and the novel writing in between the mad nutty riffs is so very British too. Kingsley Amis sticking two fingers up then getting his wanger out. This isn’t Joyce or Burroughs, no matter how much people want to claim him for ‘non-linearity’.

There’s a clear lineage of music hall smut, stand-up comedian, jazz riffer and scat singer. These novels are a whole lot of fun and they are an antidote to the pretentious radical posturing being performed around Nuttall’s corpse, which oddly makes them a whole lot more radical than they were before, somehow.

I can’t imagine that this collection exists in vast numbers or that they will hang around for long. Get one from verbivoraciouspress.org

Windows within Windows

John Berger – Landscapes (Verso)

On an ordinary page, right in the middle of this collection, John Berger states that ‘stupid people often accuse Marxists of welcoming the intrusion of politics into art.’

It is one of those wake-up moments John Berger is so good at providing. He goes on to explain that these intrusions are painful and often have great suffering at their roots. Even Marxists do not welcome these into their contemplations. As a counterpoint, he then describes Picasso, staying at the Savoy in London, as a successful enfant terrible, no longer seeing the poor at café tables.

What Berger has done, persistently, from every angle, all his long life, is explore how our windows on the world are constructed. He questions what they engage with, edit out and why.

If we look at ‘English landscapes’ from the late 18th century, they are made through the lenses of Italy, and the grand tour. The misty blue beyonds are coming out of an appreciation of the Italian renaissance as the ‘pinnacle’ of perfect art, and also out of the artist visiting Italy.

They are historical constructs. This is how ‘Landscapes’ makes sense here. This is not a BBC4 scan of lush English Pastoralism to tasteful music.

Renaissance perspectivalism was seen, in the west, in British art traditions all the way up to the early twentieth century, as ‘more real’, ‘more natural’, more correct in the ways in which they represented the world. The example often given in art schools is Piero della Francesca’s View of an Ideal City (1470) which uses technologies of perspective to illustrate the ‘ideal form’ of utopian city spaces.

But perspectivalism was exactly that, a technology. These pictures contain the idea that their way of representing the world was becoming ‘more correct’, that western art gets better and better, more realistic, as history goes on, an idea that the era was steeped in, partly through the philosophy of Hegel.

Yet if we look at non-western art, we get a very different range of ways of representing the world. We also get very different ways of seeing through the ‘isms’ that shattered those simplistic ‘windows on the world’ in the twentieth century.

Within the western representational tradition, one of the few places we can find a very different take on visual representation is in the art of children. The idea of the child as something untutored lies here, of the ‘primitive’ as something to be ironed out of creativity.

These debates sit on bigger questions of nature versus nurture, of Rousseau and Locke. But when we look at an example such as Alfred Wallis, we can see how this intuitive, ‘untrained’ sense of visual representation isn’t exclusively produced by infants at all.

Wallis began painting in his 70s after his wife died, and was considered eccentric until discovered by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in the early twentieth century, when modern artists were beginning to think all over again about the idea of the ‘primitive’ and the ‘sophisticated’ in art.

Similarly, what Berger does is to explore everyday life at the other side of his window on the world. He goes to the marginal edge zones figures such as Wallis came from, again and again, as much as he goes to national galleries to interrogate dubious masterpieces.

Rather than look at what is assembled ‘out there’ as a landowner might, looking at what he owns to then have it painted in oil, Berger travels to engage it in dialogue. So here we get lettuce, radish and horseradishes on market stalls in Krakow, next to discussions of Joyce’s Ulysses, now utterly levelled in its importance, back to the everyday it emerged out of.

For Adorno, a revolutionary painting teaches you how to read its new dialect at the same time as it utterly shatters the linearity of previous conventions, as did Ulysses, but with Berger we never lose sight of the everyday life such new forms came from.

Abstraction and other ways of seeing come out of the real. Artists abstract from that real, for various reasons. They are not trying to break into the real from the abstract, even if they try, even if this is what they think they are doing.

Berger might, then, add another thing that people often do, which is to declare avant garde art elitist and impenetrable.

But Picasso intentionally brought African forms into cubist perspectivalism, for instance, in his controversial Demoiselles d’Avignon. Both Cubism and the interest in non-western art were calculated to shatter the assumptions of a ‘natural’ form of representation, or a ‘correct’ form in perspectivalism.

The interest in so-called ‘outsider art’, arriving out of these sorts of discoveries, also examines – and murkily collects and sells – the art of asylum inmates. This can be traced back to Jean Dubuffet’s ‘Art Brut’ or ‘raw art’ and early twentieth century modernists and their interest in the art of the ‘primitive’, or untrained, or children.

But we need to question the politics implicit in terms such as ‘outsider’. For what are these artists and these ways of representing the work actually outside of?

It has been suggested, by writers such as Martin Jay among others, that the renaissance perspectival form is just one ‘regime of modernity’. It is just one way of representing the world, a product of just one culture, which, because of the violence of imperialism, saw itself ‘at the centre’ of ‘civilisation’ and the ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’ to be in the ‘peripheral’ colonies they were subjugating and exploiting.

This is then mapped onto practitioners such as Alfred Wallis even in western territories, and onto asylum inmates. This is why Marxists do not welcome politics into their contemplation. Because the messages those intrusions bring are heavy.

In excerpts from his trilogy here, that begins with his novel Pig Earth, Berger sides with the ‘so-called backwards’, as he does so eloquently in his collaboration with Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man.

Berger is not just ‘for the outsider’, in some ways – although we have to be careful with this – he has lived with them and as one of them. We can ask questions about whether or not Wallis’s vision of the world is more correct than that of Francesca. Is it right to call Wallis ‘child-like’, ‘eccentric’, or ‘primitive’?

Such terms are at least implicitly imperialistic, we must stare those facts fully in the face and they are big intrusions.

Berger gives us different stories of both artists and peasants moving from place to place, via his own peripatetic life. He shows us, in short, the windows through windows through windows that writing about art inevitably involves.

Like Sigmar Polke, who treated his canvases with resin so you could see the frame behind, Berger does not try to convince us that he is providing a clear view through clean glass onto an objective reality. But oddly, via doing that he always gives us a richer, more authentic and real take on that reality.

Also like Polke, once he has disabused us of the notion of a straightforward ‘window on the world’, Berger overlays the resulting deflated space with poetry. Tom Overton’s editing has an important part to play here, as with the previous volume Portraits, he puts Berger’s artificially separated projects of fiction, criticism, biography and politics back into the single powerful river it always came from.

These collections are only just beginning to resurrect Berger from the default image of him smoking on television in big shirt collars. These are the landscapes of Berger’s life as he reaches its end, and they are nothing short of a journey through the whole of twentieth century Europe.