Tuesday 15 June 2010

Little Stick of Blackpool Rock

Donald McGill - A Stick of Rock, Cock (1952)
Rude Britannia: British Comic Art, at Tate Britain
Will Self on an exhibition that celebrates the great British satirical impulse in art

The Guardian, Saturday 5 June 2010

A few weeks ago, a famous – and famously beautiful – young novelist found herself unfortunately seated beside me at an otherwise impeccably Hampstead dinner party. Bemoaning the state of British arts in general, she animadverted concerning our undoubted satirical prowess: "It's easy for us, it's what we do – we just lift an arse cheek and out it comes." Actually, I'm not sure she did say the arse-cheek bit – but it was words to that effect.

Esprit de l'escalier it may've been, but I found myself, days later, wondering why exactly it was that we should feel at all shamefaced about our singular collective ability to guy, to poke fun, to take the piss and otherwise generally excoriate. Now comes Rude Britannia, an exhibition of satiric art and cartoon which, if any were needed, provides ample confirmation of not just how deeply the satiric taproot is sunk into British soil, but how crucial its vigorous propagation has always been to our constitution – both political and psychological – while its massy canopy has, for centuries, protected our civil liberties, such as they are.

William Hogarth - A Rake's Progress (1735)
Rude Britannia takes a broadly narrative and historical approach to graphic satire, while allowing for sub-sections to treat of the political, the bawdy and the absurd. Beginning in the mid-16th century, with text-heavy allegorical and emblematic prints, the exhibition canters brusquely through the great ribald explosion of the 1700s – Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson et al – on through the expansion of print in the Victorian era, and the concomitant democratisation of satire; then presents such wayward and decadent figures as Beardsley, before shepherding in the celebrated 20th-century cartoonists – Low, Scarfe, Steadman – eventually coming up to date with generous space allocated to such nominally "fine" artists as John Isaacs, Sarah Lucas and David Shrigley.

The inclusion of these latter is entirely just: British satiric art begins in adaptations of style by painters who saw themselves as fundamentally serious, and ends having come full circle. From Leonardo Da Vinci, via the "characters" of Wenceslaus Hollar, the tradition of exaggerating human physiognomies in order to express underlying characteristics was championed by William Hogarth, but, as his 1743 Characters or Caricatures makes clear, the derogatory intent – or otherwise – is in the collusion between the hand of the creator and the eye of the beholder. It remains there. I always considered the works of the so-called "Young British Artists" of the 1990s, as cartoon-like – in a good way: strong, arresting images in two and three dimensions, that were then captioned by their titles. Damien Hirst's shark-in-formaldehyde, entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living comes to mind, but Rude Britannia has other works on show, such as Lucas's Chicken Knickers, and Isaacs's I Can't Help the Way I Feel, that capture this satiric impulse equally well.

Thomas Rowlandson's A French Dentist Showing a Specimen of His Artificial Teeth and False Palates (1811)
The former is indeed a plucked chicken affixed to the front of a woman's knickers (the woman is in them), and it would seem to me suitable to link the image to Thomas Rowlandson's notorious Cunnyseurs, a much-reproduced etching from the early 1800s, which shows four men mixing perversion with aesthetics. As for the latter, Isaacs's is a latex figure of such terrifyingly morbid obesity that he – she? it? – could also serve as a grotesque of 18th-century social saturnalia or, more particularly, as a model for the pendulous bare buttocks the bewigged toadies are attempting to kiss in the seminal Idol Worship or the Way to Preferment, a 1740 print which marks the arrival on the British scene of caricature specifically deployed to drag the haut down to the bas. Occasioned by anxieties about Horace Walpole's government and the eclipsing of monarchical by parliamentary government, far from seeming a remote or recondite image, the techniques by the anonymous creator of Idol can be seen to this day, on the editorial page of this very newspaper, deployed by such modern masters of the genre as Martin Rowson and Steve Bell.

To my mind, the presumption that satire is essentially light-hearted and antic is the first victim of this fine in-gathering of works. The curators of Rude Britannia contend in the catalogue that it may be difficult for us moderns to understand what the viewers of the early caricaturists and political cartoonists found in them to laugh at, but this is a mistaken view of satirical art, which may have humour as by-product, but whose main intent is quite as serious as that of any other genre – arguably more so. It's no coincidence that, in the 18th century, satire boomed with the establishment of modern parliamentary democracy, nor that it languished during the later Victorian era, during the mass-hypnosis of imperialist jingoism.

EB White said of Punch – originally launched in 1841, and subtitled the London Charivari – that it was "as British as vegetable marrow", and that it constituted a legislature in its own right. But while the very term "cartoon" owes its origin to a fine and serious bit of satire that ran in the early Punch – John Leech's Cartoon No 1 Substance and Shadow – the magazine soon degenerated into manufacturing the sort of whimsy even Victoria herself could stomach. Leech's "cartoon" was of the cartoons – in the original sense – for the opulent interior decorations intended for the new Houses of Parliament, being looked at by the emaciated London poor.

But attempting to shame politicians with caricature has always been a risky business. The caricaturist's experience all too often bears out the old adage that "politics is showbiz for ugly people", because – as Ralph Steadman once put it to me: "No matter how venal, corrupt and disgusting you make them look, they still call up wanting to buy the thing so they can hang it in their toilet." Steadman became so appalled by this narcissism of the grotesque, that during the 1997 elections he refused to draw any part of politicians but their legs, and – shades of 16th-century allegory – I was called in to provide the legs with extended captions. However, Steadman's plaint is nothing new – George IV was an enthusiastic collector of Gillray and Rowlandson – even though they often depicted him in all his corpulence.

Other cartoonist-laureates seem more tendentious to me: David Low, represented in this exhibition by a cartoon showing Aldous Huxley and Dick Sheppard (Anglican clergyman and founder of the Peace Pledge Union), terrifying Hitler and Mussolini with their limp-wristed antics, is habitually cited as the "greatest 20th-century British cartoonist". I have my doubts: I never liked Low's line, and more perhaps than in any other form of graphic art, line is absolutely crucial to caricature. Low's is too smooth for my taste, and I'm not so sure that he isn't hoisted above the shoulders of his peers precisely because of his early stand against appeasement – thus becoming the cartoon version of Churchill (although, arguably, Winnie was always his own best comic exaggeration).

Rude Britannia isn't all politics, though; there's room in the show for such sauciers as Aubrey Beardsley and Donald McGill, both of whom – in their very divergent ways – extolled the comedic potential of the male erection in those far off days before the synthesis of Viagra. Big dicks can always shrivel into nubbins of insignificance, and as such they are obvious stand-up stand-ins for phallocentric patriarchy. Looking at McGill beside Beardsley makes one realise not so much how filthy Beardsley's cocks are – with their exposed domes and writhing veins – but how equally subversive McGill's 1930s' seaside humour was, making a mockery of Britain's interwar flop-on by equipping its petit-bourgeois with such exaggerated symbolism.

Which brings us to the vexed question of sex: the curators of Rude Britannia ruefully admit to their collective masculinity, and they have attempted to represent female artists working in the satiric mode; however, with such notable exceptions as Sarah Lucas (and Sue Webster of Webster & Noble), there's great evidence here of an enduring male satiric supremacy. Such British mistresses of the craft that there are tend towards the whimsical end of the spectrum, and while not wishing to denigrate the fine work of Posy Simmonds or Beryl Cook, it altogether lacks the bite delivered by doggier types. (As for Alison Jackson, her look-a-like fake-celebrities doing daft things belong on teenage iPhones, so far as I'm concerned.) Personally, I don't see this as a cause for despair; on the contrary, in as much as satire is a concomitant of political and economic power, it's only to be expected that it should be practised by recusants of the moiety that possess these things: when we have as many female MPs and company directors as there are male, then too we will have satiric parity.

It could be argued that I'm being myopic here – and that Rude Britannia's curators are as well. There is a very important sense in which the graphic art that lasts is determined by non-obvious forms of acceptability. A case in point is George Cruikshank's huge emblematic painting The Worship of Bacchus (1860-62), a work allegorising the socially deleterious effects of alcohol, which the artist undertook when he himself took the pledge. Despite the undoubted magnificence of Bacchus, it wasn't popular in its day, and ended up damaged and languishing before being restored by the Tate at the time of the Millennium celebrations. Cruikshank's painting employs satiric means to distinctly worthy ends – but such agitprop is never reverenced, whether it's in support of feminism or temperance (and recall, the two were closely entwined in the 19th century).

Moreover, there's a great deal of satiric graphic art that by reason of its mode of production is necessarily ephemeral. This was true of the wood-blocked chapbooks that endured into the Victorian era, as radical agitators maintained primitive production methods to keep prices within range of working people. It's true also of the work of such graffiti artists as Banksy (significantly absent from the exhibition), whose greatest works are necessarily situational. It would be impossible to "show" Banksy's stencil of two rats mounting a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the Houses of Parliament, which depends for much of its effect on the fact it was stencilled on the embankment opposite Westminster.

Anael from The Bash Street Kids, by Leo Baxendale
Arguably, there's already something curiously dated about a show like Rude Britannia itself: it may well demonstrate the full compass of a tendency in British art. After all, if the satiric style begins with established naturalist painters exaggerating their hand, then surely when the likes of Jake and Dinos Chapman, or Grayson Perry – who are more than established in the fine art world – have their gallery-conceived works re-contextualised as avowedly satiric, the circle may have been closed. The early works of Hogarth and Reynolds were, in part, intended as "in jokes". Reynolds's Parody of Raphael's School of Athens, while depicting effete and ugly Grand Tourists cluttering up the salons of Italy, nonetheless provided him with an entrĂ©e to those self-same tourists' buying power. The same might be said of the Chapmans and Perry, whose works – whatever else they may be – are stratospherically expensive.

Kennard Phillipps - Photo Op (2005)
It may be that the rudest and most subversive parts of ever-rude Britannia are not really amenable to the gallery, occupying as they do the demented zoetrope of the web. Well, I'm no great fan of the web – it certainly doesn't do for graphic art what the mezzotint did – but if it does have a role to play, then the satiric one would appear to be ideal, demanding as it does an instantaneous response, coupled to a near-universal accessibility. Which brings us back up the stairs to confront our young novelist: it may be that satire is as easy for us Britons as lifting up an arse-cheek; it may be that that's what we do, but just try and imagine what it would be like if we stopped doing it? The best description of the Russians I ever heard was: imagine the Irish with an empire. This suggests the best possible description of the Dutch: imagine the British . . . without satire.

Rude Britannia: British Comic Art is at Tate Britain (020 7887 8825) from 9 June to 5 September 2010. A series of three BBC4 programmes, Rude Britannia, will begin on 14 June.



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