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.

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