Sunday, 26 September 2010

THREE TODAY!!!


Yes, today's the day that the Lucid Frenzy blog celebrates its third birthday! (This may well be the first time this blog has ever brought in something on time...) Expect more of the usual sort of thing to come. But for today here’s some links...

  1. Somebody has reviewed ‘Lucid Frenzy’!
Well, sort of... I have sometimes produced paper zine versions of old items, which I’ve given away to people I’ve bumped into at at the London Zine Symposium. During this haphazard prcoess, 365 Zines A Year was handed one and wrote about it...



  1. My Flickr page
...updated only yesterday with more pictures of London, graffiti and the Sussex Downs.



  1. My Share My Playlists page
...http://sharemyplaylists.com/members/lucid-frenzy/playlists>... found here. With playlists devoted to folk, punk, post punk, hardcore, psychedelic, kosmische and the human voice (among others)

  1. K-Punk on ’Inception’
Only recently, I reviewed the film ’Inception’ through the prism of Mark Fisher (aka K-Punk’s) recent treatise ’Capitalist Realism.’ Click here for what the man himself had to say about the film...

  1. K-Punk Playlist: The Metaphysics of Crackle
I’m actually listening to this playlist right now! My only possible complaint would be that it’s so well mixed I don’t tend to listen to it as a series of individual tracks, but a whole, so I’ve still no idea who any of the acts are...

  1. Andrew Rilstone on Joseph Campbell
Regular readers (should any exist) will have seen me link to Andrew’s stuff before. This reaction to Joseph Campbell is sprawling and multiform rather than concise and incisive, but I’d like to think that’s a description rather than a criticism. And he does have his incisive moments...

”Campbell thinks that symbols mean what they mean, and there's an end to it. All stories have a meaning, and it's our job to learn the language or crack the code or remove the mask so the One Truth is revealed.

I think that this is a silly, reductive, limiting way of reading stories.”

(Believe it or not, and I didn’t, but it is in part a reaction to something I wrote.)

It starts here, though there are several parts.

Normal service should not be assumed...

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

THE REAL SHARE DRIVE?


Here's something I wrote for Andrew Hickey's magazine 'PEP' on the subjects of downloading, copyright and intellectual property - from the inevitable anti-capitalist perspective.


(NB That PDF download does take a while!)

Sunday, 19 September 2010

INCEPTION

Danger! Plot Spoilers below...


Psyche Or Spy?

Some have seen this new film by Christopher Nolan as a de facto sequel to his earlier ‘Memento’. I’d been cynically suspecting something more akin to the ‘Matrix’ template - spewing out cool-sounding concepts slightly faster than you could keep up with. Something fun in itself, but aimed at 0-Level stoners.

For once, such cynical suspicions were largely unfounded. ‘Inception’ has its gaps and lapses, but is far more coherent than ‘The Matrix.’ It’s chief feature is an elegantly ‘nested’ structure of dreams-within-dreams, as if its reality was built up of Russian Dolls. Instead of either film above, it would make for a better comparison with Cronenberg’s ‘eXistenZ.’

However, as with Nolan’s earlier ’Batman Begins’, I was left with the feeling that Hollywood films have now caught up with comics – but the comics of ten years ago. There was a period in comics where more sophisticated stuff could happen incidentally, provided two superheroes hit each other at the end and the good one won. But this period is by-and-large over, and artists now delight in trivialising such scenes. Take Daniel Merlin Goodbrey’s ’Play’, currently on display as part of the Hypercomics Exhibition. As the artist says here, he uses the attacking demons merely as a device to delay exchanges between the two chief characters. They could as easily be waiters in a restaurant.

But here, while there’s no denying the smart plot structure, in terms of events it is less Russian Doll than a jam sandwich. The ‘jam’ of crazy concepts and wacky dream worlds must always alternate with the ‘bread-and-butter’ of standard action movie fare – car chases and gun battles.

There’s a telling moment during one such gun-battle where a character levels a gun, only to be upbraided by a comrade – “you mustn’t be afraid to dream a bit bigger” – who produces... ahem... a bigger gun. Given they’re in a dream world they could build a titanium wall around themselves, or make those enemy agents vanish in a puff of illogic. But of course we are in the action-movie section, where all actions are arbitrarily confined to gun-battle rules. There’s a frisson of excitement as we enter each new dream level, which is somewhat dissipated when the same gun-battles are simply transplanted into it. (The patented excuse is that you can’t bend reality too much, to risk tipping off your target. Yet this dream is being held by one of their team, so walking incognito isn’t necessary.)

Moreover, a lot of the dream images are themselves redolent of the clich├ęs of spy movies. One recurrent motif is the image of the safe, representing the private self or ‘Rosebud’ secret. This suggests layers of jam spread rather thin, with the butter poking through.

In this way ’Incognitio’ is like a smarter ’The Matrix’, raising the question of whether it is merely for A-level stoners.


Except, like the dreams, there’s another level to it...

Dreams Inside Dreams, Films Upon Films:

One clear metaphor for dreams in the film is drug addiction. People jack themselves into dreams, their bodies then collapsing into stupified piles, ‘Trainspotting’ style. We encounter one group of old ethnic men, for little reason other than to remind us of opium dens. There’s the standard warnings about going in too deep and not coming out. This is a recurring comparison in films, which often utilise dreams and drug-induced states as almost interchangeable plot-advancers. Drugs are almost always hallucinogenic in the visual world of film, despite the fact that few common recreational drugs are actually of this class. (LSD is widely supposed to be a hallucinogenic, perhaps largely from the way it is presented on film.)

Yet, as was clear from ’Memento’, Nolan also has a predilection for making formalist films – films about film. When we start to watch a film, we are thrust into unknown situations with nothing to guide us but immediate visual clues. Of course this was the exact situation imposed upon the protagonist of ’Memento’, whose memory loss leaves him bereft of anything approaching background or context. (So easily sketched in with a few words in a novel.) The cafe scene here is redolent of this, where the character Ariadne is asked how she got to that cafe. Realising she has no idea, she concludes she must be in a dream. Yet of course this is also the way film works.


Many are those who claim to be utilising genre conventions only to subvert them, and equally often are the times where I don’t bother listening. But, though I don’t doubt at all those ‘bread-and-butter’ scenes are primarily there to fill the cheap seats, this time there may be a little more to this.

Take, for example, the scene where Cobb is fleeing pursuers. At one point he has to squeeze through an ever-thinning alley to evade them. This seems too redolent of all the architecture-bending we’ve already seen to be a co-incidence. Is this a clue he’s actually in a dream there and then, without knowing it? But, what of all the other chase cliches we’ve just sat through – him jumping from first floor windows unharmed, a car screeching by to rescue him at just the right moment? Are they any more likely for being more common?

Dreams in films follow a set of conventions entirely unrelated to our actual dreams. They’re almost like sex scenes in films of old, before they could actually suggest any sex so instead made up some stand-in codes. Real dreams are almost always more about atmospheres than narratives. And I for one more often dream about quite ordinary situations, which are suffused with such a sense of numinousness that they feel more significant than the vastest of explosions.

Yet comics writer Grant Morrison has said he’s had dreams in which the McDonalds logo appears. Similarly, we have seen such scenes so often that, by force of repetition, they must surely have permeated our subconscious by now. More widely, the common suspension of logic encourages us to combine the two. We know, at some theoretical level, that real car chases and gun battles don’t happen the way they do on film. But they’re so ubiquitous that we don’t think to question them. By foregrounding the dreams, by questioning what is dream logic and what is merely movie logic, ’Inception’ does take some faltering steps to question the very gun-battles it titillates us with.


A core concept of the film is the Totem. Each team member has a totem, an object only they know intimately, which they use to tell dream state from life. (It might be interesting to compare them to the photos in ’Blade Runner’.) Our protagonist Cobb (played by Leonardo de Caprio) uses a spinning top. In dream states it merely continues spinning and never falls. As the film ends, finally reunited with his children, he again spins the top but the film cuts out before we see whether it falls.

(This is all based on something of a fudge. The point isn’t supposed to be that the top can never stop spinning in the gravity-defying world of dream. It’s that Cobb knows from experience exactly how it spins and falls, better than any dream architect could rig. It’s useless at telling us anything. But this hole is papered over by a kind of fuzzy association, between the perpetual spinning and the apparent timelessness of dream.)

Naturally people focus on the top. With inevitable literalism, they ask whether Cobb is in fact dreaming this feelgood ending. But its surely just as significant that Cobb doesn’t focus on it, but instead walks away to his children. It’s reminiscent of Clint Eastwood throwing away his gun at the end of ’Dirty Harry.’

It’s almost a non-question whether this is Cobb’s dream because this is so much Cobb’s film - he’s the only thing approaching a character in it. It’s significant that the two figures who most influence him have clearly allegorical names. Mal, his wife, is Latin for ‘sick’ and Ariadne is named after the Greek princess who guided Theseus through the maze and showed him how to slay the Minotaur. Mal was driven to her death by obsessing over whether reality was actually real. But by this point Cobb has defeated her, his shadow self, and simply doesn’t care. He will live the life he finds, real or not.

However, the top is still there for us. Two core concepts of the film are the act of inception itself and the “kick”. Inception is the mission of Cobb and his team, they must implant an idea so deep in the mind of their target (Fisher, played by Cillian Murphy) that he will believe he thought of it himself. The “kick” is the jarring motion that jerks you back into wakefulness, simulated by the team when it’s time to escape the dream.

‘Inception’ the film is of course both act of inception and kick, and this is the point where we are given our kick. It’s almost like the infamous ending to Jodorowski’s ‘Holy Mountain’, which tells us explicitly we have been in a film but must now carry it’s purpose into the wider world. The final ‘message’ is quite a Buddhist one. Our lives are taking place in a realm of illusion, created only to teach us life-lessons which will allow us to leave it. We need to wake up now.

Except, like the dream, there’s another level to it. (Like the film this review has a tripartite structure, gettit?) As so often, if we want to know what’s really interesting about this film we’re going to have to look past the whole business of authorial intent...


Flexible Landscapes:
It’s tempting to wonder if the fate of any metaphor is to become actualised. ‘Blockbuster’ is a case in point. It originally applied to stage-plays, and simply meant ‘hit’. But it was first usurped by movies, then (in accordance with post-September 11th and environmental fears) it found it’s literal expression. Virtually every Hollywood budget came to be spent on demolishing at least a good section of downtown New York, or somewhere similarly iconic.

But, as you’ll know if you’ve so much as seen the trailer, ’Inception’ mutates this into a new variant – the blockbender. One scene from the film (iconic but of little plot importance) shows the streets of Paris buckle, bend and flip back over themselves, like rolled-up lino.

...except of course that’s only new to film. Variants of such sights have been commonplace in adverts for years. Perhaps the classic example was one of the first, the T-Mobile advert which matched malleable geography to the slogan “the world just got more flexible” (variant below). (Itself, inevitably enough, a literalisation and recuperation of once-radical notions, such as Unitary Urbanism.)



This, of course, inverts the usual trajectory. We’re used to new visual motifs springing up the other way, from film into adverts. (Think of that post ’Matrix’ phase where there seemed a law where every advert had to have ‘bullet time’ in it.) This reversal would seem grist to the mill of Mark Fisher who, in his study ’Capitalist Realism’, suggests contemporary Hollywood blockbusters are reflecting Post Fordist economics.

As Fisher puts it: “the assembly line becomes a ‘flux of information’... Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream... Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken down into punctiform divisions... To function effectively as a component of just-in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability.”

Not so long ago, all that was needed to hold down a job was to have vaguely relevant skills and show up on time. Now it is necessary to display indefinable ‘soft skills’, and the place you pick them from is your private life. It’s increasingly common to go to work interviews and discover your prospective employer has already looked you up on-line, and made character judgements about you on this basis. What could be a more classic metaphor for that throwing-open for inspection than the invasion of dreams? Dreams were once the most private thing, not just walled inside your head but double-cocooned within your subconscious.

Significantly, however, our heroes here are not defenders of personal privacy but very agents of this seemingly inevitable invasion. Equally significantly, they are jobsworths not evangelists. Their mission, to plant an idea inside your head so deep you think you must have thought of it, is not the game-plan of quack gurus -who seek to emphasise the centrality of their role at all costs. Instead it’s the aim of the marketing man, to subliminally channel your whim not towards a soft drink but that soft drink.

And as jobsworths, this crew are not presented as black hearted rogues so much as themselves victims of this paradigm, perhaps as much as the man they seek to rob. They’re a shiftless bunch, migrating from job to job across a non-place world, made up of interchangeable cityscapes, train carriages, plane cabins and chain hotels. From Cobb’s ‘secret’ its unclear whether they even know each other particularly well, or are just pretending to stay disconnected out of assumed professionalism.

The dreams they enter into are no magic-door escape route from the outside world. There are no crystal castles conjured from dust, as Dr. Manhattan creates in ’Watchmen.” The dream worlds are simply distortions of the waking one, the same corporate lobbies and chain hotel corridors. In fact, as the dream world is their workplace, it is where this world is most manifest. It reflects the way in which the post-Fordist workplace endlessly shifts tasks and goals upon you, or demands new sets of ‘soft skills’ be conjured up.


Even dying doesn’t give them an “out”, they simply wake up ready for the next mission. The place they fear most is not Hell but Limbo, a kind of post-modern netherworld which contains only the crumbling residue of the past. Cobb literally cannot go home to his family. (An extrapolation and microcosm of the contract worker, chasing job after job as they appear. ’Inception’ would make a good comparison to de Caprio’s previous ’Shutter Island’ here.)

Their mission, to ensure Fisher does not take over his father’s business, is also significant. During Fordism, sons simply duplicated what their fathers did or took up some essentially similar variant. (Ford was himself succeeded by his grandson.) The idea that you don’t do this, that life is a series of continual fractures and branchings, is the essence of Post Fordism.

This is never more proven than in the twin payoff scenes. In Fisher’s he ‘remembers’ a number code to reach a staged reconciliation with his dying Father. Yet this number code has only retconned significance, he was forced to recite it earlier and then a dream safe was built to that combination. Playing this deception upon him is not made into a quandary or an act of moral complexity: indeed, it is filmed as an almost exactly similar triumph to Cobb’s more central payoff. Instead the whole question is dismissed as if irrelevant. He is given an epiphany, what more could someone possibly want? Similarly, we are not told that Cobb is back in reality, merely that he is “happier now”. As always in Hollywood, or any other marketplace, feelgood trumps all.

However, none of the above should be taken to suggest this is a bad film – in fact, quite the reverse. The role of a work of art is not to come up with the correct answer, but articulate most clearly what it is trying to say. The images ’Inception’ conjures up of the Post Fordist world are potent and effective. The bending and buckling streets of Paris do not literally represent our world, but portray the way it feels to live in it. ’Dark Knight’ perhaps did a similar thing, but it was much more capital-P political, presenting us with tagged ‘ethical dilemmas’ and the like. ’Inception’ is much more structural, looking less at the debates which occupy the surface of our world than at what underpins them.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

"LET'S DO A MAGAZINE": PETE ASHTON ON BRITISH SMALL PRESS COMICS HISTORY

“They were kind of obsessive and kind of compulsive and had a fair amount of mental disorders.”

It seemed slightly weird at first that Pete Ashton, big cheese in the Nineties small press comics scene, should choose to focus his Birmingham Zine Festival talk on the Escape/ Fast Fiction crowd of the Eighties. But, true to form, Pete turns in a good talk, and he’s surely right to suggest that pretty much everything since has moved in their slipstream. (It would certainly be true of my efforts.)


The emergence of the British Small Press Comics scene in the early 1980s from Pete Ashton on Vimeo.

Friday, 10 September 2010

RUDE BRITANNIA: BRITISH COMIC ART (2)

For Part One click here


Sticking It To The Man – A How-to Guide

But enough of history, which is perhaps just one big how-to guide anyway. Having established that satire has to have a target, let’s look at what weapons it has to throw.

Satire has a weird and often abusive relationship with realism. Satire must always mirror in some way what is, but must equally function as a distorting mirror. This is pretty much a definition of the caricature. George Grosz (excluded from this show by nationality) spoke of “interior reality”, in which art is liberated to show things the way they really should look. The cartoonist Kaz (excluded from here for a very similar reason) commented “basically, I’m dissatisfied with the way the world looks... why don’t corporations look more evil? Instead of water fountains in front of their building, why not flames?” (‘Comics Journal’, 186)

Another medium equally inextricably caught up with satire is collage, which by definition shoves clashing worlds together. Thomas Patch’s painting‘A Gathering of the Dilettanti in a Sculpture Hall’ (1760/1) could be seen as a proto-collage, straining to invent the form. It shows the boorish British, the original lager louts on tour, let loose in a continental sculpture hall. They are caricatured against the more classically depicted background. (You could see this as the return of the cartoons, in the word’s original sense of ‘under-drawing’, and with it the reduction of high art to its baser source.) Yet portraying them through the same medium as the stately backgrounds diminishes this juxtaposition, fits them too neatly into their surroundings. In more recent years this would be done as a photomontage, cartoon figures imposed upon a photographic background.

Of course it is not that paint is tied to realism. (Or else Francis Bacon would have had a rather short career.) It’s true that the drawn line better captured the life, the plasticity of the image. But there’s something else. Its plasticity also conveys the all-important sense of fluidity, of flux. We need to be aware of the mutation. The caricature, whether of Pitt or Blair, relies on our remembering their actual look and comparing it to the artist’s distortion. It’s like comparing a jazz reworking back to the original standard.



More widely, satirical art is illustrational in the verb sense of the word – it is there to show something. The artist’s skill and imagination is pressed into service of a central idea; what Cruikshank called “the mapping out of certain vices for an especial purpose”. A sense of speed and dynamism, even a slightly unfinished quality, keep the audience’s eye on the through-line and not the flourishes. (Ironically, Cruikshank’s own afore-mentioned ’Worship of Bacchus’, the source of this phrase, epitomises when this is not followed.)

But is caricature actually any more than exaggeration with an agenda? Could Hogarth have been right to warn against it? In the giant ’Viz’ strip Gillray and Rowlandson compete in ever-more-outrageous ways to depict the Prince Regent, a kind of arms race of excess which collapses in on itself until it is replaced by conceptual art. (They’re both upped when a dog turd is taken for an image of him.) (Analysing the dog turd in a ’Viz’ strip... I should be getting paid for this!)

In addition there’s the constant concern that satire will not prick but inflame the power of its targets. As Will Self comments "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.” For that reason Ralph Steadman has vowed only to portray the legs, not the likeness, of politicians – effectively abandoning caricature.


One sidestep from this is to represent figures with an emblem, what David Low called “a tab of identity.” Just as the Bat sign stands for Batman, Harry Furness’ series ‘Getting Gladstone’s Collar Up’ turns Gladstone’s starchy collar into a shorthand image of the politician. Steve Bell reduced John Major to his underpants to the degree where he mock-lamented the end of Major’s tenure by showing just the underpants (‘Burning Pants’ ,1997).

Photomontage is by definition pulled closer to its targets, and to escape their orbit needs to enhance its own unreality. Pete Kennard and Cat Phillip’s well-known ’Photo Op’ (2005) draws power from using a real image of Tony Blair. Yet the ‘fakery’ is also foregrounded and unmissable, we know this is no actual photo-op but a collage - an editorialism written with scissors and glue.


Conversely, Alison Jackson takes lookalikes in unlikely but naturalised settings, and her work becomes a misconceived failure. It’s not the moralist point that the artist is trying to palm off a fake as real, it’s the sense that the all-important presence of the artist – the manipulating figure trying to make a point – becomes diminished. We are just left with the celebrity.

Disorder in the Gallery

Given this interest in form and emphasis upon continuity of tradition, you could see why they decided upon a thematic not chronological arrangement of the works. But they never quite had the courage of this conviction and the result reveals an evident tension between the two. The first room, given the label ‘British Comic Art’ as though the rest of the show is about haberdashery or something, is essentially chronological – about historical roots. But a smattering of more modern works are added, just in case we don’t get the point. This is followed by ‘Social Satire and the Grotesque’ and ‘Politics’ but (as these labels might suggest) these are pretty much interchangeable.

The two other rooms, ‘The Bawdy’ and ‘The Absurd’, were by contrast too standalone. I had pretty much expected this from the bawdy, but had held high hopes for the absurd! My heart beats for the points where the absurd gets married to the political, perhaps as a means of resolving the afore-mentioned paradox of satire - the one stops the other becoming too schematic or moralistic, the other roots the one and stops it trailing off into whimsy.


Take Shaun Dolye and Mally Malass’s large-scale sculptural piece ‘Death to the Fascist Fruit Boys’ (2010). A bag of chips (in the traditional blue-and-white cone), dispatches a gang of ‘healthy’ fruit. It’s a brilliant and well-executed work, spilling into a thousand subsidiary gags. But, despite the nods to ‘healthy eating’ campaigns it is purely absurdist and not political. It works for the very reason ’Worship of Bacchus’ doesn’t, the large 3D rendering of what is essentially a slight gag cartoon is so out-of-proportion that it creates a bizarre and arresting juxtaposition. It’s like if someone made a plastic dog turd the size of a pyramid. Had it just been a gag cartoon, it would have been amusing but forgettable.

Worse, for a show with such self-proclaimed wildness there did feel something safe and predictable in the choice of works. Hogarth and Gillray may be fantastic talents, but many will have seen them adorn Tate walls before. Perhaps we should take their presence as a given, and exult in the more modern artists getting into the galleries. But there’s a rub to that...

Not In Rude Health After All

By chance I took in this show en route to the Caption comics convention. Despite (or perhaps because of) being the arts’ poor relation, comics are often ahead of the curve of trends. Comics publishing was once constrained into a very small number of genres, each ruled by strong censorship. But with the effective collapse of the UK comic industry, comics went into post-Fordist micro-production. Caption, essentially a meet-up for self-publishers, is now the UK’s longest-running convention. Perhaps not un-coincidentally, self-expression and autobiography are now in.

A hit of the show was Darryl Cunningham’s ’Psychiatric Tales’, an account of his experiences as a psychiatric nurse. There is no denying that in itself that in itself this book is great! But it seems to epitomise the direction comics have gone in. Even the few political cartoonists, such as Edd Baldry or Isy Morgenmuffel tend to write autobio comics of their experiences in political activism – there’s little satire going on. Something like Sean Duffield’s ’Crap Factory’, which lambasts David Cameron, Alan Sugar and Barack Obama (below), is a rarity. I can’t help but feel that when we boldly marched in one new area we lost the land we once had. Personal expression has been gained but the social has been lost, the embracing of popular culture, and with it the revelling in the rudery of satire. ‘Common’ once meant both base and widely shared. Now it’s not even an active word.



Tom Lehrer claimed “satire died” in 1973 when Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. But, decades later, is he finally proven right? Is that how this exhibition can be here, in such salubrious surroundings? After all, what’s the point in knocking down politicians in an era where nobody looks up to them anyway? In a world ruled by celebrity, aren’t we better off ignoring them? And yet I for one miss the stroke of the vitriolic nib...

...in short, this show was something I’d hoped to love and feared to disdain. But, while there was much to commend, ultimately ’Rude Britannia’ did not break past the level of polite applause.


A tour of the exhibition by curator Martin Myrone, recorded by Alex Fitch for Panel Borders...

Sunday, 5 September 2010

RUDE BRITANNIA: BRITISH COMIC ART (1)

Tate Modern, until 5th September... yep, yet another exhibition I get round to reviewing just as it closes!


“Satire and mockery work best when there is an underlying basic respect, even affection, for the target.”
 -  The Daily Express
“Our leaders always should be questioned. They are very arrogant people that set themselves up.”
 - Gerald Scarfe, Tate Short
“I do admire a man with a vitriolic nib”
 - Woman cosying up to Gillray in ’Viz’ cartoon

In Rude Health:

I approached this exhibition with a familiar combination of hope and trepidation, for many of us fear we have become used to this sort of thing. Comics tend to be the poor relation who’s habitually hoping to be well-connected, that Seventeenth Century prints will turn out to be some long-lost Uncle who has secretly left them an inheritance. But, to take a Dickensian analogy, any fortune always tends to have come not from Miss Haversham but Magwitch the convict.

Thankfully, this exhibition avoids all of that. For one thing, it isn’t particularly interested in the form of comics as distinguished from cartoons or graphic art in general - as the progamme styles it, “the comic in British art.” But more importantly, its aim is more to draw 17th Century prints down to the level of comics than vice versa. Comics have no ‘heritage’, but they do come from a lineage of bolshey and disrespectful louts.


This show did have the good fortune to be set against the grand and august Tate Britain, not the jazzy and insistently contemporary Tate Modern. Just seeing the gaudy signs outside the hallowed Victoriana was an invigorating juxtaposition, like the lunatics had taken over the asylum. However, this was built upon with repeated attempts to play creatively with the gallery setting. Every room was given its own curator, granting each its own look and feel. In a typically nice touch, Scarfe provided a Gillray-styled Pitt with his legs forming an arch between two rooms.

...but of course I would say that! For so many of these things we’d already done in Brighton with the ‘Sofa’ comic art shows of the Nineties, albeit in our characteristic haphazard, dole-cheque-stretching fashion; cartoons re-rendered into relief, picture labels as their own cartoon strip which you could follow, places set aside for you to read and draw, even a giant-size stand-up comic. (Though, in the parlance of ’Viz’, theirs was bigger than ours!) There was even a call for fanzine producers to send in their wares! Alas, though, we didn’t think of the Cashpun machine where punters were invited to donate jokes.

Naturally, I’d like to imagine the big boys borrowed it all from us. But it’s more likely a case of great minds thinking alike. To frame this type of content the accepted way would be deathly.


No Two Britains:

An accompanying BBC4 documentary of the same name, broadcast in June, went further than this counterposing the common against the refined. It posited two Britains perpetually at war with one another, the upright and spendthrift versus the bawdy and licensuous – the very reverse of John Major’s infamous “a nation at ease with itself.” This would seem a popular idea, kept alive by sources as apparently separate as ’Class War’ and ’Loaded’ magazine. But it really rests on the notion that some forms of art are inherently high or low culture, a rather rigid demarcation for something supposedly celebrating the unruly!

Like most ahistorical theories, its kryptonite is history. To the exhibition’s credit, it serves up enough glowing green stuff to dispel the documentary’s binary notions. Hogarth, for example, was very much a moralist and social improver. You just need to look at one of his most famous engravings (helpfully on show here), ’Gin Lane’. This is the classic indightment of binge drinking, familiar from so many shock TV documentaries and tabloid headlines. Yet Hogarth is very much the father of our scurrilous tradition.


This paradox has a further twist, for (as the exhibition demonstrates) Hogarth then took a paternity test against his offspring. In 1742 he drew ‘Characters and Caricatures’ (above), a doubling up of pre-and-post-caricature head shots, as a demonstration of the very wrongness of caricature, “a foreign aristocratic indulgence.” Yet of course many took the warning as a how-to guide. Later in the same room we come across Gillray’s ‘Doublures of Characters’ (1798). which uses exactly the same device to sing caricature’s praises! History is made in this messy way, of influence despite intent, of progression through twist and turn.

Moreover, an unchanging artistic tradition relies on the notion of an unchanging politics. But before the vote was widespread politicians were inevitably drawn from the aristocratic class, giving them still some of the shine of divine right. Of course Pitt was not born to the Prime Minister, but he was from part of a small elect group who by birthright were be looked up to. Consequently, Princes and Prime Ministers became equally pilloried. In such a time, just to drawn Pitt as a fleshy being rendered him as a man like you or me, and undermined this.

Greed for money or power were therefore translated into baser functions, gluttony or sexual avarice. Curator Martin Myrone describes this as “the body being overtaken by its own desires, transformed into something monstrous.”


Of course change has been mostly cosmetic. Today we toil under an ex-Bullingdon Prime Minster whose cabinet is stuffed with toffs. But nowadays they seek to downplay and disguise their origins. (Hence the gag of Cameron as “call-me-Dave.”) To reduce them to bodily functions is pointless when they are so keen to come across as men of the people. The old methods of attack no longer bite. (Notably, there's been a more recent development in deforming and debasing corporate brands rather than celebrity figures.)

Finally, and going back to ’Gin Lane’ it could be argued that satire has an inherent paradox between the lambasting and the improving. Satire is qualitatively different to mere parody. To be a parody, it’s enough for something to be a poor imitation of something else. (Rob Liefeld was a parody of Kirby, the UK Subs of the Sex Pistols and so on.) Satire has at least an incipient critique, a beef against its target. Even the foulest-smelling rotten fruit must be well-aimed to be effective. Yet this risks tipping over into sanctimoniousness, against which jeering boorishness can be a valuable asset.

In fact a room here is given over to showing what happens when the boorishness is taken away - Cruikshank’s vast late work ‘The Worship of Bacchus’ (1862). This pious warning against “the evils arising from intoxication” is as grandiose as anything Bosch ever came up with. Room curator Steve Bell describes the work’s aim as “to rescue mankind from its own base urges and this to preserve the established order.” Though compelling, the work is something of a grand folly. Its already pious message is magnified by the sheer scale of it, so gargantuan as to repels involvement. It’s like reading of a great massacre, in which so many millions died that your brain numbs to the numbers. ’Gin Lane’ is more effective for focusing on a few representative figures.