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Water-Wallèd Provincialism in Art: A Defence of the Indefensible

November 25, 2012

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears: I come to exhume provincialism and to praise it. The evil that men do lives after them: the good is oft interred with their bones. And grievously hath the parochial answer’d it. But here I am to speak what I do know. You all did love the indigenous once, not without cause: what cause withholds you then, to mourn for it? A proviso, then: this may indeed appear to be a furciferous defence of the indefensible. Certainly, the redoubts are few and the garrisons undermanned. In 1847 the Duke of Wellington was moved to write an open letter, one fretting over the defenceless state of Britain’s coastline and its vulnerability to foreign invasion. But if we were to similarly assess the state of  Magna Britannia’s Martellos today, as an allegory for her national art, we would not only find them nigh-derelict curiosities; far worse, in fact, we would see that the beaches have already been stormed, the land occupied. Britain has been conquered by the forces of internationalism, Albion reduced to a demure, acquiescent Vichy – its most compliant collaborator: indifference. But where is the temperamental insurgency? Ford Madox Ford wrote in Some Do Not that, ‘In such a world as this… a sentimentalist must be stoned to death. He makes the others so uncomfortable.’ If this is indeed the case, the insurrectionist would be failing in his dutiful obligation if he didn’t throw a few rocks back before buried under the rubble himself. For sentimentalism – perhaps the greatest sin held by the contemporary canon – need not necessarily be so syrupy, but something very sanguinary, indeed.

On the face of it, multi-national art, contained within modernist and internationalist contemporary art movements, appears to be the superlative and desirable preference; the gold standard championing the eclectic and the inclusive. Furthermore, it is the ecumenical lingua franca that all self-respecting liberals must subscribe to in order to avoid the urticate accusation of ‘cultural bigot’. Yet don’t be fooled by this particularly blackmailing mendacity. Internationalism is not pluralism; unless you consider the assimilation of multifarious cultures into one homogenous dominion to be one of those rarest fruitions: a heterogeneous and tolerant caliphate of all the jargons. But what, if any, autonomous vernacular lingo can weather this apparent Commonwealth of the Cosmopolitan? As the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams once defiantly remarked: ‘Better to be vitally parochial than to be an emasculate cosmopolitan.’ Yet some readers may no doubt think the eradication of borders, countries and ethnicities to be a desirable form of cultural genocide and patricide; a very noble suicide. But in a time of rapid and uncontainable globalisation – an increasingly elongated epoch of eroded ethnicities and massacred dialects – if art has just one duty to which it must morally adhere then surely it is to enact a resistance against the corrosion affected by the contemporary, and then to defend it to the very last. But unforgivably, not only has Western art failed to man the redoubts, it has actually been complicit in pulling them down. Termed ‘nonconformist’ by its allies, it has gradually, sometimes brutally, acquired the orthodoxy of internationalism, which has itself become the contemporary position, legitimated by many with an iconoclastic agenda. The only worthwhile bulwark against this is to build up a domestic and patriotic art, kept exclusively within the confines of the parish.

But don’t be so unimaginative as to believe that this conservatism is born of some nefarious nationalism. But it is unashamedly patriotic. Those who respect the language must make sure to mark the delineation. The essayist George Orwell defines the division best; that patriotism is a ‘devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people[s]’. Pompous and bloated, maybe, but intrinsically defensive, and that is its exoneration. Nationalism, on the other hand, as Orwell avows, is stridently belligerent and ‘inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.’ But if we were now to apply this précis to internationalist art movements and any idiosyncratic native nationhood: which of the two appears the more imperial; the other the native with his back to the wall? Which of the two is the colonial power which plunders the other culture in order to sustain its own cultural economy?  Yet patriotism is, still – and quite naturally in the internationalist’s viewpoint – the Devil incarnate. However, the playwright Robert Bolt, in A Man for All Seasons, offers us an effective advocatus diaboli in the form of Sir Thomas More. When the utilitarian William Roper promotes to More the benefit of cutting down of every law in England in order to corner and convict the Devil, More replies: ‘Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws… And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!’ Internationalists take note; the ‘atavistic emotion of patriotism’, as even Orwell noted, had its uses; such as in 1940, in uniting the nation, pro bono, ‘like a herd of cattle facing a wolf’. Yet perhaps this is exactly why the autocratic internationalist seeks its demolition.

That internationalism is a benign and innocuous entity, an innovative and progressive force for good, must be repudiated, and I do so. Rather, it is colonial. Picasso’s anthropological pillage of African and Oceanic cultures, outside that of the European tradition, for example, cannot be denied. The appropriation of other national identities – even if the motive is prompted by an authentic appreciation – is nonetheless embezzlement. This may seem harmless enough, but remember that this, with every acquisition and subsequent assimilation into one’s own vocabulary one makes, eradicates the singular entity that the aboriginal ethnicity once retained – ripping it out of its natural environment. Yet this is, for example, the so-called archaeologically sound excuse made by the British Museum to hold the Parthenon Marbles in carcer; andyet any self-respecting aesthete should, surely, seek to see this piece of Greek heritage reunited with its true architecturally indigenous environment. Yet how many looting Lord Elgins has internationalism created? Internationalism is the new colonialism. A thief with a cultural face, its corollary, and our great injury, is homogeny. And uniformity’s intrinsic rapport with the totalitarian instinct is incontrovertible. And yet, still, its fervent exponents have the gall to claim the nonconformist-liberal high ground as their own. Worse still, they have been allowed to do so. Yet surely it is no coincidence that Britain’s most prolific and defiant, though terse, period of idiosyncratic outburst, an episode lasting just five years, in the twentieth-century, materialized as a consequence of the Second World War, when, fighting for its life, the country was cut-off from the influence of the European Continent. Under the direction of Kenneth Clark and the War Artists Advisory Committee, Britain’s most endowed painters blossomed, exuding an identifiably British art – artists such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Paul Nash, John Minton and Eric Ravilious, all in the hue, though to varying extents, of Alexander Cozens, Francis Towne, William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Frederick Landseer Griggs.

However, this is not, conversely, an isolationist’s advocacy in the sense of plotting to tow the United Kingdom a hundred or so miles westwards into the secluded bosom of the Atlantic Ocean. Duty to one’s own country need not, for example, negate the Francophile inclination. Indeed, no English artist can be entirely immune to outside influence; and it has had its uses. Much like our own beloved English Language, inflected with the explosively potent synthesis of Latin, Germanic and Norman-French derivations – a combination without which England would not have sired Shakespeare – our art, too, can claim descent from various overseas lineages. Yet, nonetheless, it is a separate language. And as the writer Osbert Sitwell wrote eloquently in 1944: ‘A county is worth dying for, as it is worth living for, because of the flowers its soil produces. Shakespeare out-distances Waterloo as an English triumph.’ However, as Tate Britain’s recent Picasso & Modern British Art exhibition proved, recent stimulus, with a few minor exceptions, has for a long time overwhelmed the, admittedly less-sophisticated, native school of British art to the extent that it has practically no idiosyncrasies of its own remaining. Ergo: Duncan Grant. Yet Bloomsbury was just the first incursion.

The tyranny of modernism and the contemporary – homogenous, colonial or iconoclastic – has all too many paradigms: Piet Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, Ben Nicholson’s period of Abstract-Puritanism, the sterile styling’s of Le Corbusier, Malevich’s Suprematism, Picasso’s and Henry Moore’s sporadic alignment with Primitivism, Marinetti’s and Futurism’s oppressive assault on the past, the Abstract-Expressionist ejaculatory jizz (best spat out than swallowed) of the grandmaster-quack Jackson Pollock, and – I really can’t resist directing one disgracefully predictable kick to the crotch – the pseudo-intellectual constructions of Simon Starling’s conceptual sheds. Undoubtedly art, they would not be so dangerous but for the internationalist strain they each covertly conceal. Here the inveterate native is nothing but an antediluvian relic, the last standing Megatherium. Indeed, in 1932 the artist Paul Nash noted that the conflict was one of the ‘industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile’. Today, in 2012, the industrial has largely won out, the surviving remnant of the pastoral Old Guard scattered to the corners of the kingdom, exiled and obliged to eke out a living outside the broad boundary wall of the M25; artists such as Harold Mockford taking refuge in the provinces, stubbornly carrying on in the Neo-Romantic manner once employed by Graham Sutherland and John Piper. The school isn’t quite dead yet, but evidently exhibits a longstanding tubercular cough. Indeed, many would be hard-pressed to identify even just a few of the defining characteristics of Albion’s autochthonous idiom in paint.

The ‘mood made familiar by English Art’, as described by Kenneth Clark in 1938, was ‘a shy grace, a restraint, and we must admit a certain immatureness’. Another critic believed it to be ‘the opposite of fanatic… the opposite of intellectualised: it means kindly and affectionate: it means technically competent: it usually means romantic.’ English art’s enemies saw this as clear as its defensive cohorts. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the fascistic leader and sebaceous douchebag of the Futurist set, was at least honest in vocalising his iconoclastic intent; condemning England as a nation ‘enslaved by old worm-eaten traditions, social conventions and romanticism’, its art ‘nostalgic… longing for a past that is beyond recall’. And of course, he was perfectly correct in this terse but astute abstract. But Marinetti sought to abolish Britain and its intrinsic sense of itself. Clearly, he had no sympathy for Cicero’s great retort, that the negation of the past and its inheritance was the equivalent of wishing to confine oneself to the mental condition of an adolescent. Inevitably, perhaps, native British art was always going to appear timid, conservative, and even embarrassing, when compared to the audacious experiments carried out under the grand auspices of modernism on the Continent. Unfortunately, in this myopic view – that the worth of a nation’s art, and its right to existence, could only ever be relative to that of the always superior ‘isms’, and thus substandard – tradition and modesty became nothing but synonyms for ‘inferior’. At least the New York-born poet Alice Duer Miller, composing at the time of the Second World War, recognised a good thing when she saw it, when now many Britons would not, writing:

I am American bred,
I have seen much to hate here – much to forgive,
But in a world where England is finished and dead,
I do not wish to live.

Yet there were Britons who stood for national dialect. When asked what the Royal Academy stood for in the 1930s, W.R.M. Lamb, its Secretary since 1913, replied in earnest that it was ‘the custodian of precious elements which might be overlooked or mislaid in the general hurry’. However, in this new century there is the common dictum – held most of all by my fellow comrades on the Left – which believes that there is no place for tradition and provincial-patriotism today. Indeed, many consider it the greatest disgrace. Yet years ago, when a love of country and an observance of duty actually saved Britain from Napoleonic tyranny (as it also did in the summer of 1940 against Nazi domination), and when the Royal Academy actually adhered to its own job description, this was not the case. Indeed, when the painter Charles Eastlake was made a Royal Academician his great friend, the sentimental and wildly partisan J.M.W. Turner was moved to comment, in a manner not at all meant to be flippant or mocking: ‘My dear Charles you are now a complete brother labourer in the same Vineyard and England expects every Man to do his duty.’ We abolish these congenital sentiments at our peril. For the contemporary and the international mean the dissolution of duty, and of England – a Ben Nicholson whitewash in the veritable Cromwellian manner. It is, in potentia, and by its very nature, totalitarian. The connection may, and must, be permitted and confessed to. English art requires a Trafalgar of its own. But as the poet Edwin James Milliken once penned – and was reiterated by Winston Churchill in his memoir The Gathering Storm:

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain,
And the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear;
And the signals flash through the night in vain,
For Death is in charge of the clattering train.

Coda: The whitewashing of history, of its innate lore, is one of the major stipulations of the Orwellian state. Indeed, as Winston Smith observes to Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘Do you realise that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished… history has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.’ But, ‘Talking to her, he realised how easy it was to present an appearance of orthodoxy while having no grasp whatever of what orthodoxy meant. In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it.’ Indeed, Julia, ‘only a rebel from the waist downwards’, had succumbed to the tyrannical rhetoric of the contemporary. Internationalism is very much in same stratum of Orwell’s INGSOC, ‘doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’ its purposely-bland vernacular; ‘an unending series of victories over your own memory’. Modernism is the architecture of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Indeed, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe might very easily have put forward a design for the Ministry of Truth himself. Conversely, history is a rude poetry that reverberates down to us from the past; its purpose to shock us out of our own indifference and, in doing so, to cure us of our docile obedience to the contemporary. Not our lifeblood, but rather the pause of reprieve between every heartbeat – yet the past is also uncouth and combative, made to be felt keenly. A bastion of liberty, it is also the last and greatest defender of nations, and of what Shakespeare evoked as ‘that white-faced shore… that water-wallèd bulwark, still secure and confident from foreign purposes’. Yet even history is now threatened. But if the indigenous artist or historian, the defender of the provincial, should like to know how to go about their duty, and in doing so defend their native culture, and others too, it can be simply summed up by the simplest order that Admiral Lord Nelson ever, perhaps, gave himself, one made upon the eve of Trafalgar, that ‘no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of the Enemy’.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 18, 2012 2:00 pm

    hello from across the ocean I’m jenny I’m such a blonde but I still particularly admired your work

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