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English Imaginaries: Six Studies in Anglo-British Modernity by Kevin Davey (Lawrence & Wishart, London 1999, 202 pp).

Pundits are always looking for new takes on both fine art and popular culture. How they arrive at their themes isn't always clear, but in the case of the emerging debate about Englishness there can be little doubt that it is being driven by the process of political devolution within the United Kingdom. No surprise then that New Times associate editor Kevin Davey should be one of the first to jump on this bandwagon in a big way with his book English Imaginaries: Six Studies In Anglo-British Modernity. Since Davey is setting out to win influence within the Labour Party, it is perhaps understandable that he's not always clear about his agenda (more, it would seem, from a desire not to offend his chosen political constituency, than because he hasn't actually worked out what he wants). Davey has yet to transform himself into a figure of any significance, but given the marginal status of most of those debating Englishness, he is way ahead in the field. While the coalition of right-wing regionalists and former National Front members who now call themselves 'Anarchist Heretics' are likely to remain in the political wilderness, Davey is gearing himself up not simply to influence policy but also, one suspects, to make it. Culture is the one area in which newly elected London mayor Ken Livingstone stands any chance of exercising decisive influence, and people like Davey who have been beavering away in the area for years are now grasping at this and various other opportunities to shape policy.

Having stated his intention of looking at Nancy Cunard, Pete Townshend, Vivienne Westwood, David Dabydeen and Mark Wallinger, Davey announces in his introduction: "This book draws on the work of the french psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, and the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, to analyse a range of reflexive and future-oriented explorations of Anglo-British whiteness. Each of the six individuals studied sought to articulate the English imaginary with a new multiracial and democratic modernity. English Imaginaries contains stories forgotten or unfamiliar..." All of which appears rather problematic to this reader. To begin with just one small point, the lower case 'f' in Davey's designation 'french' (he dignifies words such as 'English', 'Anglo-British' and 'Italian' with capitalisation), is either a relatively subtle way of appealing to the xenophobic elements that flourish within the Labour Party, or else an indication that the book has been inadequately edited.

It is difficult to sympathise with Davey's desire to win influence within the Labour Party, but given this agenda, it is hardly surprising that he is unable to advance particularly progressive positions. Back in the seventies, when Labour still attempted to keep up the pretence of being a left-leaning party, figures such as Hugh Jenkins constituted its more liberal pole. The Culture Gap: An Experience of Government and the Arts by Jenkins is a revealing portrait of a cultural moderniser working within a social democratic party. In discussing the cultural commentator Jack Lindsay, Jenkins says: "He did not foresee, indeed no one did, the development of a huge transatlantic anti-culture; an overwhelming torrent of technically competent but often mindless and anti-social pap, aimed at the most easily stirred instincts of consumers... In our time the opium of the people is not religion, it is palatable misinformation: synthetic sex and violence on the television screen..."

Davey, like Tony Blair and New Labour, is hip to the widespread appeal of popular culture and avoids the blatant fogeyism of The Culture Gap. Pop sells and a young Pete Townshend resplendent in Union Jack suit is placed iconically on the cover of English Imaginaries as an instantly recognisable symbol of English mod(ernism). Accepting Townshend's own estimation of his work, Davey's subheadings include 'Autodestruction, Rickenbackers and the Forging of the Nation' and 'Tommy: A Struggle for the Nation's Soul'. That said, Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five might have provided a better example of a successful pop businessman than Townshend, while Reg Presley of The Troggs would have been a more 'democratic' choice (and not simply because he shifts the action away from London). Likewise, Eddie Grant of The Equals or soul singer Geno Washington might have provided a clearer focus for Davey's intention of 'challenging the dominant racialised representations of Englishness'. Given the author's claim that English Imaginaries 'contains stories forgotten or unfamiliar', it is rather difficult to see why there is a chapter on Pete Townshend. Davey could have covered pretty much the same ground by focusing on Eddie Philips of The Creation. Thanks to a Boney M cover version, the band's song Painter Man is well known. The Creation stage show featured singer Kenny Pickett making action paintings which would be set on fire. Philips (like Townsend) configured himself as a pop modernist by saying things such as 'our music is red - with purple flashes' and 'our show is a premeditated moving picture - non-stop movement.' Pete Townshend even asked Philips to join The Who as a second guitarist, but Philips turned him down. The fact that Philips ended up working for London Transport also serves to illustrate the ultimate fate of the average rock and roll dreamer.

Given that Davey begins his third chapter with the observation that 'the name of J. B. Priestley is often taken in vain', it is doubtful that he intended the subheading 'Britain's Gramsci?' to be ironic. Davey answers his rhetorical question about Priestley with the qualification that 'the legacy of Bradford's Gramsci resides in his example rather than a codified theoretical discourse...' Despite this, Davey's portrait of Priestly as a regionalist is rather one-sided since he doesn't sufficiently emphasise that some of the Yorkshireman's work in this area is most productively read as a satirical response to high Tory county literature. More worryingly, in his enthusiasm for regionalism, Davey somehow overlooks the fact that in recent years it has become a pole of regroupment for parts of the far-Right; specifically those elements previously involved with the Strasserite fraction of the National Front who were inspired by the 'right-wing Gramscism' of the European New Right. The same group of fascists were also placing great emphasis on the notion of a 'third way' in their rhetoric a decade before it became a favoured theme of Blair and New Labour. Davey may not be aware of this, or he may have chosen to ignore it, but it is an unpleasant reminder of the dangers inherent in certain types of identity politics. Likewise, the parallels between the current shake-up of local politics in the United Kingdom (which appear to be the inspiration for Davey's work) and fascist corporatism are deeply troubling. To take the example of local government in Tower Hamlets, recently there has been an attempt to shift power into the hands of particular councillors, with their colleagues becoming more or less answerable to them. This and the concomitant process of devolution appears to be far more than a mere cosmetic change to placate nationalist opinion in Scotland and Wales (Cornish nationalism is more or less ignored by Davey as well as New Labour), it is indicative of a concerted effort - under the fraudulent guise of ' democracy' - to concentrate power in ways that correspond to the fascist leadership model.

While Davey takes up elements of the argument elaborated by Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic: Modernity & Double Consciousness, at other times he appears to be echoing incompatible positions. For example, Davey claims: "As Anthony D. King points out. 'The first globally multiracial, multicultural, societies on any substantial scale were in the periphery, not the core.' " It seems to me that if one takes the argument that there is a black Atlantic culture which is not specifically African, American, Caribbean, or British, but all of these at once, a black Atlantic culture whose themes and techniques transcend ethnicity and nationality to produce something new, then 'core' and 'periphery' are inappropriate metaphors to apply to it. Obviously, these are not terms that originate with Davey, but he cites them approvingly. The terms 'core and periphery' also play a key role in the rhetoric of Alternative Green, a magazine that advocates regionalism based on 'the loyalty of the right, the compassion of the left' - and counts a substantial quota of former National Front members among its contributors. This is something Davey needs to address.

Moving on, Davey kicks off his chapter about Mark Wallinger with the following remarks: "In 1997 a Union Jack transformed by the colours of the Irish Tricolour flew over the impoverished and ethnically diverse streets of Brixton in inner London. Mark Wallinger's Oxymoron was a joke and a challenge, the national flag inverted into the colours of its historic republican opponent. It wasn't so funny when I took a smaller version across the Irish channel, as the peace process stumbled. In one Belfast area it was seen as a symbol of national unity, corrupted by its loathsome abject. In another it was an offensive appropriation of Irishness, and further evidence of Anglo-British arrogance and insensitivity. If nothing else, young British art (yBa), at least in the North of Ireland, had proved it did possess the capacity to shock."

Gorbals based artist Kenny Murphy-Roud showed a Union Jack transformed by the colours of the Irish Tricolour with the title Flag at a number of exhibitions and events in Glasgow during the eighties. Glasgow, like Belfast, is a city marred by Orange Lodges and Protestant bigotry, and so it took a certain amount of front on Murphy-Roud's part to show it in his home-town. While Wallinger may not have been aware of this precedent for Oxymoron, his work certainly lacks the political gravity that the context and intent of Murphy-Roud's Flag demonstrated, and not least in the personal risks its creator took. Similarly, Davey's notion of Brixton's streets being impoverished is perverse, and simultaneously overlooks the fact that the gentrification of the area (for which people like Wallinger are responsible) is currently causing the displacement of parts of its less prosperous population. When Davey writes of 'the national flag inverted into the colours of its historic republican opponent', he is unconsciously articulating a form of ethnic and national difference that separates people off from each other and diverts them into social and historical locations that become mutually impermeable and incommensurable. If Davey looked into, for example, what Oliver Cromwell (perhaps the best known of all English republicans) did in Ireland, then he might get his head around the arrogance and insensitivity of his statements with regard to Oxymoron.

Of the six subjects Davey selects, the art theorist and novelist David Dabydeen is both the most interesting and, given the ideological agenda of English Imaginaries, the most difficult for its author to assimilate into his overall argument. According to Davey: "Dabydeen's black counter-discourse is an attempt to decolonise English language and culture, unmasking and replacing the knowledges that once justified imperial authority. His work tries to prevent the reproduction of white Anglo-British distinction and in so doing, it searches for non-racialised routes beyond it. The work of a man who has made blackness visible in the white literary and artistic canon can be read to make whiteness visible too." For those of us who cannot, do not or do not wish to constitute ourselves as white subjects, the universalisation of whiteness as a standard and an ideal within the dominant literary and artistic canon is unfortunately all too visible. By writing about making whiteness visible, Davey reveals one of his own blindspots - he writes from the perspective of a centred white subject and is clearly addressing himself to white subjects, thereby inadvertently excluding everybody else - a weakness that makes his attempt to modernise the English identity, at best, hazardous. Of course, Davey is not the first writer filled with the finest of intentions to fall into this trap; Susan Rabin Suleiman's "The Jew In Sartre's Reflexions sur la question juive: An exercise in Historical Reading" (included in The Jew In The Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity edited by Linda Nochlin and Tamar Garb) is a scrupulous examination of a similar error in the work of a rather more famous author.

The other issue that requires addressing with regard to Davey is the very real danger he seems to be in of landing himself an overpaid job as a consultant or part of a think tank. Contact with this type of bureaucratic culture is more than likely to exacerbate the weaknesses in Davey's positions. Fortunately, my own contact with publicly funded arts bodies has not proved as unpleasant as reading the autobiography of Charles Osborne, a former Director of the Literature Department of the Arts Council. The following examples of Osborne's xenophobia are taken from Giving It Away: Memoirs of an Uncivil Servant: "...what is wrong with racial prejudice (or rather racial dislike, for prejudice, or prejudging, of anything is clearly unfair)? Races differ from one another, and one cannot be expected to like everything and everyone in the world can one? To say to yourself, 'I dislike Australians or Jews or Arabs or Boers or Japanese, and therefore I shall have as little to do with them as possible.' is, in my view, perfectly permissible... I regard the Japanese as a cruel and unusual race and I have no desire to visit the land of the cherry blossom and the Toyota... Too many novelists today... expect to be able to write without being able to write... Intention is nothing. Intention is those Irishmen sitting around in Dublin cafes telling one another about the novels they are going to write... Intention is also those nouvelle vague plodders and their English followers. Achievement is all... In the view of many, the dark person in this interesting literary woodpile is the public library system, which leads me to the question of Public Lending Rights..."

Osborne is clearly delighted with his racism and while it may have been more pronounced than that of his colleagues, it was tolerated within the Arts Council for twenty years. Recent scrutiny of the metropolitan police and other public bodies shows that such institutional racism is not a thing of the past. Osborne may have left the Arts Council in 1986, but I am not yet convinced that the culture of which he was a part has been fully addressed and tackled satisfactorily. Writing cogently on such matters may not make Davey influential within the Labour Party, and is unlikely to land him a cushy bureaucratic job, but nevertheless his talents and time might have been better employed in this way. The fact that Davey is prepared to address racism is positive, since a good many of those who lay claim to left-wing political views are reluctant to deal with such matters., If only Davey could overcome his obsession with the Labour Party and English national identity, he might get somewhere worthwhile - and by simultaneously working on his blindspots, develop a more incisive critique of fine art, popular culture and racism.

First published in Modern Painters Summer 2000.

Pressure (review of Horace Ové's film which includes an overview of the London Metropolitan Police racism that constitutes part of the background to this work)

Books & Writing


Stewart Home portrait 2004Stewart Home portrait 2004Stewart Home portrait 2004

English Imaginaries by Kevin Davey book cover

Richard Billingham, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham June 7 to July 16 2000.
Richard Billingham's widely exhibited snapshots of his family are augmented in this show by a series of landscape photographs and four video pieces. Despite being mounted on aluminium and hung in galleries, much of Billingham's work can be approached with the cheery informality that accompanies the pervasive phenomenon of family photographs being passed around. The imagery is banal and deliberately repetitive - drinking, smoking, family arguments, dogs - a substandard repertoire of kitchen sink clichés. By way of contrast, the landscapes are reminiscent of the photography used on the covers of independent rock records in the late seventies and early eighties, and in particular the imagery favoured by labels such as Factory and Industrial. In the instance of these works, it is the framing that gives them visual impact. Last and in every sense least, the video work comes across as a second-rate imitation of the deliberately amateur aesthetic favoured by innumerable copy culture practitioners ranging from tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE to Dogbiz. Billingham's plodding pseudo-formalism in these pieces makes a trash film director such as Edward D. Wood appear sophisticated in comparison.

According to the free information leaflet accompanying the show: "Richard Billingham's photographs demonstrate the way in which the artist's intentions influence the way we perceive images". The problematic nature of this claim is evident from the quote attributed to Billingham that proceeds it: "It is not my intention to... be political... only to make work that is as spiritually meaningful as I can make it..." The very notion of spirituality is bogus, and so it is unlikely that Billingham's mystical pretensions influence viewers who are mature enough to reject silly superstitions about unmoved movers and divine substance. That said, Billingham's assertion does reflect the indeterminacy with which his work as a whole is imbued. Religion is a phantasmagoria, therefore Billingham's inability to make his throughput spiritually meaningful does not necessarily prove that he hasn't strived long and hard to achieve some intangible effect. However, judged on the basis of the visible results, it seems unlikely Billingham deliberately set out to arrive at his present gaseous position, since even this resolute indeterminacy appears to be a chance result of his woefully under theorised and blatantly ideological working practice. Billingham may not want to produce images that are going to be read politically, but given his use of pastoral motifs, this is something that will occur regardless of his wishes. To state the obvious, any work of art is redolent of particular (critical) definitions of 'reality' and 'art' and these definitions are all ideological. The dubious nature of a particular cultural artefact - that dimension of it which seems out of the control of its supposed creator - constitutes an area of struggle. This is not necessarily something which should be resolved: indeed, as soon as efforts are made to resolve it as a problem, the artefact tends towards meaninglessness.

While Billingham isn't necessarily responsible for the inept theoretical commentary accompanying his show, he has not - as far as I know - objected to it. The curators suggest that a net curtain becomes an abstract pattern and a picture of Billingham's mother doing a jigsaw puzzle is an example of her filling in time. Most net curtains are, in fact, deliberately manufactured with abstract patterning, probably in order to distract attention away from their functional purpose of creating a sense of privacy on overcrowded housing estates. This, naturally enough, led me to wonder why Billingham's parents bothered putting up net curtains when they are apparently quite happy to let their son make a living by flogging mediocre images of their 'private' life to bourgeois aesthetes who find this type of representation titillating. Likewise, rather than viewing Billingham's mother Liz doing a jigsaw puzzle as simply a means of filling in time, she might be seen as wrestling with form and colour in a way that mirrors what goes on in art galleries.

Tellingly, Billingham's mother is presented on that most domestic of objects, the television, in the video display of Liz Smoking. The other three videos are projected onto walls, thereby creating proportionately larger images of the males they depict smoking, engrossed in a Playstation game and lying in bed. Similarly, while the snapshots of Billingham's family are unframed, his landscape photographs are ostentatiously placed behind glass, and this unashamedly reflects social and artistic hierarchies within capitalist society. There is nothing to indicate irony or critical intent in these modes of display, and as a result Billingham comes across as bluntly reactionary. He seems to be telling us that there is wisdom in being able to accept and stoically endure poverty. This is something that bourgeois hacks are always pleased to hear, and producing work that unequivocally reiterates propaganda of this type (and denying its political status is a key feature of such propaganda) has long been a means of social advancement for turncoat writers and artists from lower class backgrounds.

Nevertheless, Billingham could easily reverse my reading of his work. All he'd have to do is announce that the man who appeared as his alcoholic father in various pieces was an actor hired to play the part, and that his entire output was a prank carried off at the expense of the bourgeoisie. On the basis of this show, Billingham appears to be an aesthetically impoverished praetorian. However, I'd prefer to be proved wrong about this and instead have it confirmed that Billingham's throughput is part of an elaborate hoax.
First published in Art Monthly # 238 July/August 2000.