Monthly Archives: October 2013

On iconoclasm, and our relationship with art

Before I came back to university, my Auntie Christine kindly bought me a year’s membership to the Tate galleries, which grants me access to the special exhibits free of charge, and allows me usage of the Member’s bar. You can guess which one of those I am most excited about. Anyway, a few weeks ago I decided to go to the Tate National because, well, why the hell not, and whilst I was there I visited Art Under Attack, an exhibit which detailed the history of iconoclasm in Britain. Now, this blog is not going to be a review of the exhibit; Christ knows there are already plenty of those. Instead, I am going to talk about some of the things the displays made me think about, and in particular how art and symbols shape our everyday experiences.

 

All in all, there were nine rooms, and needless to say I am not going to be dwelling on the four rooms concerning the Reformation and the Puritans. There is already enough written on those two subjects without me adding my witty and insightful commentary to the already overloaded canon (pun intended). Rather, for me the most interesting rooms were the last five, as they raised three interesting questions, one of which I had never considered before, and two of which I feel are particularly relevant today.

 

The first issue the exhibit made me think about was how, by altering and re-imagining already existing works of art, we can give them a new meaning. Or, to put it another way, how destruction is just as much an artistic process as creation. I am not going to lie, a lot of it was pseudo-intellectual crap. But there was plenty of interesting stuff, and the best pieces for my money were Jake and Dinos Chapman’s One Day You Shall No Longer Be Loved (that it should come to this), a series of nineteenth century portraits which have been vandalised so as to reflect the decomposition and decay that their subjects have suffered.

 

In doing so, the Chapman’s are effectively mocking our obsession with preserving our appearances against the forces of time and ageing, whether it is through cosmetic surgery, a myriad of creams and lotions, or (as is the case here) by commissioning portraits and photos so as to ensure an idealised image of ourselves is preserved for time immemorial. There were some other interesting pieces, such as those where the artist had removed sections of a painting or photo (usually the faces) and replaced them with mirrors, so it looked like you or part of the room were in the painting. But again, for me it was the Chapman’s exhibit which really summed up the overall message.

 

This also links into the second point the exhibit raised, namely how the destruction of public art is still a very potent political and social symbol, even in this day and age. For example, it highlighted how the destruction of statues and other public symbols of British occupation was used across the Empire to raise awareness of and support for independence movements in the colonies, and also to try and bring about a sense of panic and fear on the part of the British.

 

There was also a room devoted to the suffragette movement, which was particularly fascinating. Not only did it show just how much a relatively minor act of public vandalism could shock the wider public, but it also highlighted the tension between the suffragettes and other ‘progressive’ causes of the time. My favourite was a plea from British artists to the suffragettes which argued that whilst they supported their goals, in their eyes the destruction of art was going one step too far.

 

However, the most important thought I took away from Art Under Attack regarded the relationship between the state and art. As I said earlier, there were plenty of examples of how first Henry 8th and then Oliver Cromwell used the destruction of holy images and relics to impose a new social order upon England. But it also showed how the state can create art for its own means. The most obvious example is by choosing to fund artists and galleries, but there are far more subtle ways.

 

For example, who can forget the ruckus generated when it was announced that Elizabeth Frey (the only woman on any Bank of England notes) was to be removed from the £5, and replaced with Sir Winston Churchill? At first it seems like a relatively trivial debate, but when put in the context of a sluggish economic recovery and a shaky coalition government, all of a sudden the decision to replace an obscure social reformer with arguably the most respected Prime Minister in history seems less like a cosmetic change to a banknote, and more like a cynical ploy to try and restore some sense of lost pride to a beleaguered nation.

 

Because at the end of the day, it is the small symbols which shape our public consciousness, for the simple fact that we are exposed to them from the cradle to the grave. They are what we hinge our personal and public identities upon, and it is critical to remember this. As soon as we start to take symbols for granted, we start to ignore their effects, which leaves us open to be manipulated by those who know that changing who appears on the £5 note is far more culturally devastating than the destruction of any statue or work of art could possibly be.

Advertisements

On London Museum, and making history ‘relevant’

This week’s blog was meant to be about my trip to the Tate National two weeks ago. I have even written out the introductory paragraph, and let me tell you, it is a belter. But sadly, you will all have to wait for that one, as this week I went to visit the London Museum with some of my course mates, and whilst I was there I came across an exhibit which, for my money, captures the very essence of how very badly the mainstream media and heritage sector can fail in trying to make history ‘relevant’, an issue which is incredibly important for both historians and the wider public.

Before I begin, I must say that, overall, the London Museum was really interesting, and I would definitely recommend going. Whilst my favourite areas were those focusing on modern London and the issues the city would face in the future, I can honestly say that the whole museum was a pleasure to look around, and a thoroughly enriching experience.

But hidden amongst what is otherwise a generally worthwhile experience, is one which shatters any immersion one had built up before that point. At the end of the exhibit on London during the Roman and Anglo-Saxon era is an ‘urban youth project’ exploring the similarities between life in medieval Londinium, and modern day London. There is no nice way to put it: the results are excruciatingly shit. I cannot do justice to how forced the comparisons were. For example, we are told that, “we use coins to buy stuff. So did the Romans.” And that, “the Romans wore jewellery, just like we do.” We also get the obligatory “urban scenes” where people use slang like “do you want to twos a fag” and I am “bare hungry”, the only conceivable purpose for which is to remind us that we have not accidentally jumped into a T.A.R.D.I.S. and travelled back two millennia, but that we are still in twenty first century Britain. Certainly it had fuck all to do with showing how much we have in common with the Romans.

But whilst it is all good and well to pour scorn on what was, in all seriousness, an earnest attempt to engage a wider, and possibly previously uninterested, audience with history, for me it is symptomatic of a wider problem, and that is how in the process of trying to make history ‘relevant’, the mainstream media succeeds only in dumbing it down.

This ‘dumbing down’ is most blatant on television. And we all know what I am talking about. We have all seen them: history shows presented by people who clearly have no knowledge of or particular interest in the subject matter, but who are famous in another, more widely watched field; and who are therefore guaranteed to draw in the portion of the audience who (in television executive’s minds at least) do not want to watch documentaries, or anything which could be considered ‘intellectual’. The irony of these shows is that they are often populated by talking heads who are specialists in their field, and would be far more engaging, insightful, and charming hosts than any of the celebrities which are chosen to host these programmes in their place.

However, what angers me the most about this is that it assumes the majority of their target audience is stupid. By that, I do not just mean ‘stupid’ in the sense that they are uninformed in the topic which is being discussed; but ‘stupid’ in the sense that they are so lacking in intellectual curiosity and mental capacity, that any show which discusses a topic which could be considered intellectually challenging is doomed to fail, unless it is attached to a celebrity which the wider public immediately recognise as being definitively ‘not intellectual’. It is patronising in the extreme, and we deserve better.

Now, do not get me wrong. If a celebrity or non-historian has a genuine interest in a subject, they can create some very interesting programmes. For example, anyone who watched Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys would have come away with a far greater historical understanding of the regions he visited; and whilst the focus was definitely on the food he cooked, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations also explores the histories of the various countries he visits. What annoys me is when the presenter is clearly only there for the fact that they are already an established ‘face of the channel’, as it comes of as (and, to be honest, likely is) nothing more than a cynical ploy to attract more viewers, and quality of the programme be damned.

But what can we do to change this? Put simply there are no easy answers, and certainly we historians must take our share of the blame. Certainly there are far, far too many historians who would prefer to keep history for their own select group, and as such have little to no idea of how to present these topics to a broader audience.

But we as a television audience must also make our stand. If you see a show which places ratings ahead of the intellectual integrity of the show, write to the producers of the show. Tweet rude things about it. Anything, to get the message across that (in the immortal words of Howard Beale) “I am mad as hell, and I am not going to take this anymore”. I for one do not want to live in a country where Danny Dyer: Isn’t History, like, Old?! Is no longer a punch line, but a reality.

On Orwell, and the importance of novels

I doubt it will surprise many of you when I say that I am a massive George Orwell fan. Or maybe it did come as a surprise, I have no idea. I have been meaning to write about this topic for a while now (well, two weeks to be exact), as the novel is a very important, but often overlooked, tool for historians, and it was whilst reading one of his Essays I came across a quote that, to me, summed up how they should be used almost perfectly.

 

What I have always loved about Orwell’s novels is that whilst they are all of their time they are also timeless, in that whilst they are based in a historical setting, a modern audience can easily identify and relate to the characters which populate them. The best example of this is Coming Up For Air, as whilst very few of us can say we know how it feels to be a middle-aged man on the eve of World War Two, we can all easily identify with his main struggle, which is reconciling his imagined (and arguably idealised) past with the crushing reality of the present.

 

And this is Orwell’s true genius. By basing his novels around a character which almost anyone can relate to or at the very least recognise, he creates one with whom we can almost immediately empathise. As a result, Orwell is free to explore the political, social or moral issues at the heart of his novel with in far more detail than most other novels do, for the fact that we are already emotionally invested in the story. This means we are instinctively engaged with the novel’s world, and as such are far readier to react to the concerns he raises, without him having to deliver an exposition dump and explain to us why they should matter.

 

Whether this was a deliberate choice or not I do not know, but I am tempted to say that it was, based on the aforementioned quote. In his essay about ‘boys’ weeklies’, Orwell wrote the following:

 

“Personally, I believe that most people are influenced far more than they care to admit by novels… and it is from this point of view that the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life.’[1]

 

This, then, is the true value of the novel to historians. Just as Orwell uses his characters as a way through which the reader can engage with issues outside their normalcy, novels should be used by historians as a window through which we can observe the pre-occupations and assumptions of an era or community. One way we can do this is through analysing the sales patterns of specific genres of book. For example, if adventure stories are flying off the shelves, we can extrapolate that the society reading them is one which values exploration and entrepreneurship; an abundance of dystopian literature is suggestive of a society in the midst of great social, cultural or moral turbulence; and if love stories involving werewolves, vampires and poorly fleshed out humans are the hot seller… well… I give up.

 

Similarly, it is highly likely that the portrayal of certain characters, institutions and social groups are exaggerations of the reality. But this ignores the point that these exaggerations have to be, in some way, factually accurate, for the simple fact that if they were not, none of the audience would be able to recognise and/or relate to them. Even more telling, however, are those elements of society which are left out of the story, for the act of omission is far more damning than even the worst caricature as it gives its actors the worst possible voice: none at all.

However, we must also be careful that we do not fall into intellectual snobbery. Whilst some would like to pretend otherwise, the fact is that the books which frequent Richard and Judy’s Book Club have far more impact on the nature of public discourse than most books on any ‘100 books to read before you die’ list, for the simple fact that more people read them. Of course, to say that ‘highbrow’ books are of no use in analysing wider cultural, and particularly intellectual, trends is just as simplistic as the alternative, but to limit our analysis of novels to those which are seen as academically au fait for fear of appearing ‘populist’ is narrow-minded, runs counter to the basic principles of our craft, and undermines any conclusions which you may have reached.

 

Of course, this is to say nothing of the question as to whether a particular novel shaped or simply reflected public opinion; and nor have I addressed the issues of historical novels, but those can wait. Overall, the main purpose of the novel for a historian is not as a source of information, but for the insight it can give into the circumstances in which it was written, and if used properly, this insight can be just as useful as any academic tract.


[1] George Orwell, ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ in George Orwell, Essays (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000) 98.

On Cracked.com, and history as humour

I love my degree, I really do. I find the process of reading, analysing and writing about history fascinating, and I can honestly say that there is not an era or genre of history where I have not been able to find an enjoyable aspect in it. Except for econometrics. Balls to econometrics. But like even the most faithful husband, occasionally my mind begins to wander, and in most cases I find that during such moments of infidelity I end up on Cracked.com.

 

For those of you who are out of the loop, Cracked.com is a humour site which deals with a wide array of topic matter, and whilst its main focus is pop culture and re-edited photographs, a substantial portion of the website is devoted to articles discussing historical topics. These articles are an eclectic bunch, varying between informative,[1] inspirational, [2]  disturbing,[3]  and just downright funny,[4] but in most cases they are well written, engaging, and seek to inform their audience about an event or period of history which the author feels has been misrepresented or completely overlooked; and more often than not they’re pretty funny as well. An In Our Time for the modern age if you will.

 

Now, obviously to use Cracked.com as an academic source is completely beyond the Pale, although I would like to see the look on my supervisor’s face if I tried. Originally this blog was going to be about how Cracked’s main use for teachers and the like is to promote self-education and inspire individuals to learn more about a particular subject. But then I realised something. Humour, as a form of rhetoric, is almost completely absent from any serious historical discourse.

 

I honestly think I can count on my hands the amount of times an academic history book or article has made me laugh. And I mean a proper laugh. Not a wry chuckle at a witty but nonetheless self-referential aside that one academic made about another and that will be read by maybe five other people. No, I mean a comment which I could share with my friends, without eliciting awkward stares, a nervous shuffling of seats and a cautious but firm, “anyway…”.

 

Now I will admit that it is perhaps unfair to pick out academic literature for its inability to leave me rolling around with side-splitting laughter. That is not its purpose, and it would be rather odd if a monograph on farming in fourteenth century Slovenia read like the pilot for a Channel 4 sitcom. No, what is pernicious about this po-faced, ‘history is 100% serious’ attitude is that it has carried over from the realms of academic history and into the realm of public history, where the vast majority of the audience are (generally speaking) not well versed in the issues being discussed, and are not particularly interested in the historiographical debate around the topic.

 

In my opinion, when most people watch a documentary or read a book, what they want is something which is educational but still entertaining. Ultimately, this balance is all dependent upon the narrator, who must demonstrate that they know and care about their subject matter, but without talking about it in an unnecessarily inaccessible manner; and one of the most important parts of this process on the part of the narrator is understanding when to shift the tone of the discussion away from straight-lipped seriousness to a more light hearted one. After all, at the end of the day no one will read your book or watch your show if it is little more than a lecture by proxy, no matter what its intellectual pedigree.

 

And it can be done. Mark Steel, John O’Farrell and (dare I say it) Jeremy Clarkson have all proved that you can produce a history programme (or in the case of O’Farrell book) which is humorous, but still engages with the subject matter in a way which is respectful to its historical legacy and impact. Indeed, perhaps the best examples of history programmes, books and articles which are amusing but still informative come from those outside the discipline of history, and that is a sad indictment of the capacity of professional historians to be erudite, but still enjoyable.

 

Overall, however, the true value of humour is its capacity for revelation. For no form of discourse other than humour has the capacity to strip bare all the inconsistencies, stereotypes and prejudices of a flawed argument or belief in a way that is so shocking and instantaneous, that it leaves its apologists with no other recourse than a humiliated withdrawal. After all, we could argue on an intellectual plane for hours about the ill-conceived ideologies and beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan, but in the words of Dennis Miller, nothing really undermines their arguments more than the “irony of fat guys…in pee stained bed sheets…. claiming to be the master race.”[5]

On Vietnam, and lessons for British history

At the start of this year I went travelling around south-east Asia for four months, during which time I visited (among other places) Vietnam. And no, don’t worry, this post is not going to be a list of all the places I saw and things I did, although scuba diving in Koh Phi Phi was pretty damn cool. Rather, during my travels I went to a lot of museums and other places of historical interest, and as such I had plenty of opportunities to reflect on how history should, or more pertinently should not, be taught.

 

You truly would not believe how staggeringly biased museums in Vietnam can be. Indeed in some cases it is so overt and blatant that it borders on parody, the best example of which was probably Ho Lao Prison in Hanoi. However, whilst such museums and attractions were overtly little else than tools of nationalist propaganda, the most egregious examples were those museums which covered their agendas with apparently neutral, or even benign, objectives. In this case, I am referring to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

 

I must clear one thing up before I begin: the War Remnants Museum is a truly eye opening experience, and anyone who has the opportunity to go should do so. It is a moving, and humbling, experience to talk to survivors of the war, or who have developed physical disabilities due to the effects of Agent Orange; and the pictures of the aftermath of U.S. bombings are so horrific they have to be seen to be believed. There was also a pretty poignant gallery detailing the psychological effects the war had on U.S. soldiers, so it does at least attempt to explore the war from an American perspective.

 

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the museum is not a balanced representation of the conflict in Vietnam, a fact which is betrayed by the fact that its original name was the “House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and Puppet Government of South Vietnam”[1]. Whilst one could argue that it doesn’t necessarily need to be considering the atrocities committed by the United States and South Vietnamese governments, I disagree. To ignore the Vietcong massacres in Hue or Dak Son, as well as the sadistic barbarity of the traps the Vietcong employed against U.S. troops, is a cynical misrepresentation of history, as it manipulates the genuine revulsion many feel towards the acts committed by the United States during the Vietnam War so as to discourage any genuine analysis or reflection on the nature of war or the horrors people committed in the names of capitalism and communism. Instead, it replaces it with nothing but a hatred of America on the one hand; and a glorified, idealised image of the Vietcong and Communist Vietnam on the other.

 

So far, so Daily Mail. But what does this have to do with British history? One of the truly dispiriting things to witness are the constant calls for schools, television and museums to go back to teaching “proper, British history”. I have neither the time nor the energy to write about the myriad of problems I have with the term “proper history” (not for now at least) but my main gripe with such demands is that, if followed through to their logical ends, they would result in just the sort of manipulative and deplorable history that I rallied at mere sentences ago.

 

Just like the War Remnants Museum, their goals initially seem reasonable, even laudable. “All we want”, they would argue, “is for a history which tells people what really happened.” They want a history which reflects the achievements of this fair island; which tells of our struggles against adversity, often in the face of any logic or reason; and one which is framed around the triumphs and victories of great men and women who were reflections of the greatness of our nation, in that they too triumphed over insurmountable odds.

 

The problem is that such a history would not be a ‘proper’ history at all. Rather, all it would be is a hollow shell, shying away from any critical analysis of Britain international affairs in regards to Europe, Empire and the world in general; and marginalising, if not ignoring completely, the range of experiences had by women, the LGBT community, various ethnic, socio-economic and political groups, and anyone else who does not fit into the neat category of ‘great men (and occasionally women)’.

 

In the place of any genuine attempt to explain how and why we arrived at the current state of affairs, a far more simple narrative would form, casting Britain as a nation on a teleological pattern of progress until after World War Two, upon which we were cut down by the unholy trinity of socialism, feminism and multiculturalism. And if you disagree with this history? Well, at best you are nothing more than an ‘out of touch intellectual’, and at worst an ‘anti-British subversive’.

 

I will admit the above is, perhaps, an oversimplification. Certainly it would be just as wrong to produce an anodyne version of history which is neither rejected nor accepted by any one group in order to satisfy a misguided sense of political correctness (again, another horrible term I know, but I use it for want of a better one). None the less I feel that such an issue is worth getting passionate about. I have been to Vietnam. I have seen how they teach history in the public domain, and I would much rather live in a system where we have to deal with the excesses of free debate and discussion, than one where any dissenting opinion is crushed before it is even allowed to form.

On the author

Hi everyone,

I’m Tom Whitehead, the author, as you may have surmised from my (definitely not J.S. Mill inspired) heading. I’m currently studying at Royal Holloway College, University of London, and I’m reading for my MA in Public History, and as part of this I’ve set up this here blog, where I’ll be writing, musing, and often ranting, about any historical subjects which are unfortunate enough to wander into my cross hairs.  Now that the formalities are over with, than you for visiting, and I hope you enjoy the blog.