Friday 22 November 2013

The Assassination of JFK

On the 30th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I was teaching at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, so I was able to announce to my American students (and I hope impress them in the process) that I knew exactly where I was and what I had been doing on the fateful day itself. As a seven-year-old boy I was helping my parents carry family belongings from one side of the road to the other as we moved across from number 65A to number 60, when suddenly a neighbour came running round the corner shouting “President Kennedy has been shot”.

Twenty years further on, and being over here rather than over there, the event itself inevitably feels more distant; and yet the 50th anniversary makes me reflect on how important the Kennedy assassination has been in cultural criticism. For as soon as you reject the Warren Commission’s report into it (one lone gunman firing three shots) you are caught up in the realm of conspiracy theory – which in its turn becomes one of the most important narrative paradigms of the postmodern. For the figuration of conspiracy is, in Fredric Jameson's words, ‘an attempt – “unconscious,” if you follow my loose, figural use of that otherwise individual term – to think a system [i.e. multinational late capitalism] so vast that it cannot be encompassed by the natural and historically developed categories of perception with which human beings normally orient themselves’. Conspiracy films and novels have their built-in limits, but they at least begin the process of mapping the unrepresentable system which is global capital itself.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

50 Years of Morris Studies

I certainly can’t match Peter Faulkner’s peerless erudition as he told the tale at of the 50 years of Morris studies in which he has been involved at Kelmscott House on Saturday. But I did have a feeling that I might want to tell the story in a rather different way. After all, Peter’s starting point, 1963, was also the very year in which my parents, as a young working-class couple with three children, moved from their rented first-floor flat to the new house they had just bought directly across the road, and three or four years later they bought their first car too.

My father was working very long hours to afford this – full days in the Ekco television factory followed by four-hour evening shifts there too – but still, British society was clearly entering a quite new phase of capitalism; and as such consumerism set in, debates about the ‘embourgeoisement’ of the working class were in full swing too. This new economic and cultural phase could not but have a considerable impact on ‘Morris studies’. For Morris himself, art was the explosive ‘outside’ of a philistine capitalist economy; but now – in what would eventually become full postmodernism – art was increasingly part of economic innovation and production. Could Morris still be of use in such a context, and if so, how?

In fact, I think the very phrase ‘Morris studies’ – as if it were an autonomous academic region, with its own laws and temporality – may not be very helpful. What we have, always, are mutations in capitalism and attempts at popular or socialist resistance to this; and the question is then to what extent Morris can be a resource for the latter. We have had another major mutation of capitalism and its ideologies in our own time – everything that the terms ‘globalisation’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ gesture towards – and so the question comes up freshly for us too: how can we make Morris’s thought and art newly useful to us in all this, how can we secure its relevance for the next 50 years?

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Grayson Perry's Reith Lectures

‘We are now in the end-state of art’ claimed Grayson Perry in his lively BBC Reith lectures, which came to a close this morning. But this didn’t stop him from generating and citing an extraordinary number of definitions of art in the course of these four talks. It was, by turns, an ‘asset class’, an ‘inner shed’ or psychological refuge, a ‘perfect R & D department for capitalism’, ‘spirituality in drag’ (Jennifer Yane), a means of ‘expressing one’s universal wound’ (Raymond Tallis), a process of ‘meaning-making’, and so on. It has to be something, at any rate – one or some or all of these things – because what seems to be Perry’s ultimate trauma as artist and thinker on aesthetics is Marcel Duchamp’s scandalous demonstration, with the famous urinal of 1917, that anything at all can be art. Avantgardism as extreme as that Grayson Perry will not accept: for him, there are limits or boundaries marking art from non-art, even if they are ‘softer’ than for traditionalist aesthetics itself.

Perry gave us an entertaining tour of the institutions as well as the definitions of contemporary art, from the high-end curators and museums of his first lecture, through the commercial art market of the second (with a staggering £43 billion pounds sloshing through it last year), to the art colleges of his more autobiographical final talk. So powerful are such institutional forces that they even remake urban space itself: Walthamstow becomes, in his term, ‘Awe-samstow’ as yesterday’s counter-cultural bohemianism becomes today’s gentrification under ‘the dead hand of the developer’. There doesn’t seem much – or anything – that multinational capital cannot incorporate, from the ‘ironic market sell-outs’ (among whom one senses Perry places Damien Hirst) to the ‘worthy activists’ who hoped they could make a difference.

And it was here, I felt, that in the end Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures were lacking. I wanted to hear more about what an activist art might be, about how – in the teeth of all the difficulties he evoked so cogently - one could forge aesthetic forms to effect that ‘cognitive mapping’ that Fredric Jameson used to talk about, or to articulate new ‘structures of feeling’ (to borrow Raymond Williams’s term) that might point in a socially utopian direction. It was heartening to hear of Jeremy Deller’s ‘Battle of Orgreave’ as politically-inspired participation art in the first lecture, but there was too little of this in the successor talks (though there has been more of it in Perry’s own tapestries and TV work). So I felt that, in these lectures at least, our ‘Essex transvestite potter’ was too much of an insider or licensed jester; for as he himself ruefully acknowledged in the last lecture (dressed this time not as Claire but as a Pierrot clown), mocking the pomposities and contradictions of the contemporary art world was like ‘teasing my best friend’.