Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979
until 29th August, 2016
Conceptual Art changed the face of art in this country – at least that is the thesis of this show. Certainly after 1964 the range of what might turn up in an art gallery was widened considerably; and that followed from what is the defining feature of Conceptual Art: the artefact no longer matters, it’s the thought that counts. Where the artist’s mind goes, there the show follows. Of course, the pure theory didn’t make it into practice. The new art often lacked technical sophistication – Gilbert and George made themselves into living sculptures after their attempts at sculpting hard and lasting materials didn’t succeed – but it was usually put together with some care. There is more old-fashioned artistry to Conceptual Art than its propagandists care to admit.
Still, the idea – ‘concept’ – is what counts. And for the period of this show the concept was usually a comment about the artificiality of art, or criticism of the then Art Establishment. Some of these concepts were fair-to-obvious; yet, for all that, the artists took themselves and their ideas very seriously: there was no engagement with any professional philosopher who might disagree with them. This is neatly illustrated in Tate Britain’s show. Here some philosophical text from William Letwin – readers of New Directions may be familiar with his wife’s ‘The Gentleman in Trollope’, and its conclusion that the true gentleman in Trollope is a Jewish woman – is displayed as part of a not-quite painting. But Letwin’s words have no status in the artist’s thinking. The concept for this particular installation is a child of the absurdism of Duchamp and the suspicious relativism of Post-Modernism. There is no dialogue outside that magic circle. Unsurprisingly, it then follows that the concepts in this show are often tired, hackneyed, self-contradictory, or tedious. This should be fatal for art whose justification is the thought that lies behind it.
In fact, the art isn’t that bad. The worst pieces are the feminist-Maoist-pro-IRA-anti-bourgeois collages. These fail to create sympathy for the oppressed, and instead encourage envy of the oppressors – only the ideologically driven would not see the appeal of beautiful people doing decadent things. The same Puritanism hangs over attempts to raise the consciousness of the proletariat. The workers don’t seem to have appreciated the art school intelligentsia, or why they should chuck out the chintz. In this they showed form: in the years before this show begins Le Corbusier despaired of the workers whose naff and homely fittings messed up his machines for living.
The problem with the majority of the works at Tate Britain is that they are decently produced but not especially memorable. They are not overtly propagandist in a political sense, and so they are consistent with their absurdist roots; but they don’t have the resonance or the capacity to move of great art. That is a product of Conceptual Art’s chosen limits: narrow horizons were part of the plan, and all the techniques developed by previous artists and society to sustain interest were jettisoned. It is no surprise, then, that later the YBAs should become shock-jocks and attention-grabbing spectacle junkies.
In this show those later excesses are barely hinted at. It was enough for an artist to say a work of art was a work of art if he or she said it was, even if the work was going for a walk. This was a sophistic legerdemain: although we may not always be able to distinguish between different shades of grey, we still know the difference between black and white. The same goes for what may or may not be art. Likewise, the fact that there is an element of convention and artificiality in human societies and human communication does not justify taking words out of their common usage. Conceptual artists are the heirs of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, for whom a word was what he said it meant and nothing else.
So did Conceptual Art change the art world? Yes, to the extent that Conceptualism is the new Establishment; but that feels like a hollow victory, if not a defeat. After all, how can anti-art be the Art Establishment? Conceptual Art is now just another kind of thing to put in a gallery – it said it wasn’t going to be that, but it is. The first room of this show illustrates this with a pyramid of oranges. It’s there because, according to Conceptual Art, art can be a pyramid of oranges. The pyramid fits the clichés of Conceptual Art. The pyramid is not permanent – the oranges will go off. It’s not to be revered, so it’s not on a plinth. It involves the passerby directly and has a notice which says you can take one of the oranges. This transgressive strategy, before which conservatives and the lumpen proletariat tremble, is spoilt by an admonition not to eat the orange in the exhibition rooms. It’s further spoilt by the way visitors interact with this exhibit. They treat it as if it were as sacred as a Rodin or a Michelangelo. If you obey the artist’s instruction and take an orange – and I did – there is at once a frisson of disapproval and words are muttered to the exhibition guards. So not only have the proletariat ignored the freedoms of Conceptual Art and its historico-materialist inevitability, the Middle Classes have wrapped it up in their usual suffocating embrace.
This is a show short of intellectual depth; but it is worth going to see. I ate my orange: however you rate Conceptual Art, Tate Britain knows where to buy good fruit.
SPEAKING OF SIN
The Lost Language of Salvation
Barbara Brown Taylor
Canterbury Press, 88pp, pbk
978 1848257979, £10.99
I must confess to have slightly ‘nobbled’ Barbara Brown Taylor by reading her engaging and readable little book as I made a pilgrimage with our parish around the painted monasteries of northern Romania. I’m afraid the extraordinary depth, substance, and reality of the Orthodoxy in which we were trying to immerse ourselves made Brown Taylor’s ideas seem rather anæmic and contrived by comparison; more the fruit of a ‘Messy Church’ craft activity than a product of the master carpenter’s workshop.
There are some very good things about the book, certainly. Brown Taylor rightly, I think, identifies an inadequate engagement with the theological reality and language of sin in the public consciousness within and without the Church. She suggests that this challenge should not cause us to jettison the word from our liturgy or Christian conversation, but that we need to speak about it more – more often, more effectively, more completely. Her use of New Testament Greek will engage and enrich many people’s engagement with Scripture and their own Christian faith. Brown Taylor displays gentleness, humanity, and wisdom in the way she discusses the causes and fruits of sin in our lives. She is also faithful in the way she argues that people’s difficulty in engaging with sin in the liturgy (the Baptism liturgy is her primary example) is not the fault of the liturgy but the lack of proper catechesis. I found myself nodding along to all this, and thought that even the fierce Romanian nun walking past hammering her plank of wood in order to call her sisters to Vespers might have nodded, too.
But the book left me feeling like I’d had a decaffeinated Nescafé, rather than a bitter shot of Romanian tarmac-like coffee. Brown Taylor tries to tackle the implications of ‘pluralism’, ‘post-modernism’, and ‘secularism’, but her sketch of the field leaves much unsaid. This is by no means a disaster – one of the best things about this book is that it is short and punchy, but still reasonably thoughtful. Brown Taylor is also frank in her introduction that this book is not intended to be the last word, but a stimulus to this much needed conversation. Nonetheless, when reading her sketch of things ‘as they are’ my English eyes (Brown Taylor is an American Episcopalian) struggled to distinguish the Christian perspective she sought to convey with her description of modern, educated, wealthy, liberal, white, consumerist America.
Everyone in our parish seems glued to one American T.V. box set after another – there are times when the Atlantic seems not to exist. I think the underlying social and theological assumptions in this book only serve to emphasise the gulf between our countries, cultures, and parts of the Church. Her attempt to discuss Original Sin also leaves much to be desired in terms of its rootedness in Christian thought. Furthermore, having asked good questions of the way we prepare for the Baptism liturgy, Brown Taylor left me wondering what she makes of the (to my mind utterly inseparable) relationship between Christian belief, worship, and practice in the life of the Church. In the end, her foundations seem dangerously close to regarding the Christian faith as a social-ethical code with pseudo-religious trappings.
I sincerely hope that the conversation about sin that Barbara Brown Taylor wants the Church to have does grow and develop. I appreciated her wisdom in considering my own life, sinfulness, and hope in God’s grace. She is right; but I’m just not convinced that she has the right course plotted, or the theological kit that we need for the journey.
The Lost Obelisks of Egypt
Bloomsbury, 238pp, hbk
978 1474242936, £19.99
The fascination of the great ones of this world with all things Egyptological has a very long history, going far back beyond Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, and the ground breaking working work of Champollion in finally deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs with the assistance of the monumental ‘crib’ that is the Rosetta Stone. Like the temples and monuments that they built, the dynasties of ancient Egypt towered above the history of the ancient Mediterranean, mysterious and proud, inviting their neighbours to look upon their works and despair. When the last of them was defeated with Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31BC, their Roman conquerors – in particular Augustus – sought the validating legitimacy of Egypt’s tremendous past by transporting and erecting as symbols of their own majesty and power so many of those massive obelisks which stood outside Egyptian temples – power which was demonstrated not only in the size and antiquity of those monuments, but the Roman expertise to transport these massive blocks of granite from Egypt and erect them in Rome.
This pattern was followed by Renaissance popes who beautified and laid out the capital of the Papal States after the return from Avignon as symbols of their own power, and, significantly, of the triumph and power of the Catholic faith after the divisions and threats to it of the Avignon antipopes and the Reformation. In the resulting building works many of the obelisks that the emperors had brought to Rome were rediscovered in the rubble of the imperial capital, to which the onslaughts of waves of barbarians and neglect had consigned them. No better image could be found to celebrate the triumph of the Catholic faith over adversity than the re-erection of these pagan symbols, now crowned with Christian symbols and statues.
Bob Brier’s engaging book traces the history of these obelisks, the deciphering – sometimes totally fraudulent – of their hieroglyphs, and their journey from sacred steles to centrepieces of triumphant town planning. Its principal hero (although it has many heroes, ancient and modern) is perhaps Domenico Fontana, the man who re-erected for Sixtus V with much labour and cost the obelisk that now adorns St Peter’s Square. In a long and fascinating chapter Brier relates Fontana’s detailed calculations and mighty machines and devices, which enabled him to achieve this triumph of engineering skill without damage to the obelisk or injury to any of his workmen – and without any knowledge as to the ability of the Romans or the Egyptians to perform such feats, which modern archaeology has subsequently still not ascertained.
Brier continues with accounts of the journeys taken by the obelisks now at the centre of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, and Cleopatra’s Needles in London and Central Park in New York – further evidence that latter-day political empires continued to seek to associate their own power with the authority of the Pharaohs, albeit this time also with the authority of the weakened dynasty of the Khedives whom they dominated after the building of the Suez Canal. To his accounts of the labours involved in taking down and re-erecting these symbols, he adds details of the difficulties in transporting them by sea to their final destinations – in the case of the Embankment obelisk, in what can only be described as a huge covered bath tub, which capsized in a storm in the Bay of Biscay and resulted in the loss of life which the curious may see recorded on the side of the obelisk today. (It is a constant feature of obelisks that each generation, Egyptian, Roman, Papal, or American, adds its own signature or marker to them, thus making the history of these megaliths their own.)
So Brier’s book moves from a skilful exposition of the creation of the obelisks in the quarries of Ancient Egypt to the more personal stories behind them in modern times. This prevents the cynical thought that, in themselves, obelisks are perhaps rather dull objects, relying more for their impact on size and weight than design or artistic merit. Brier, a distinguished American academic, is a regular guide to the monuments of Egypt, and his enthusiastic tone throughout – he digresses from his history of the Place de la Concorde obelisk with a perhaps not strictly relevant account by one of Napoleon’s savants of an Egyptian strip tease entitled the Dance of the Bee – prevents his story from ever becoming dry or overly technical, albeit published by Bloomsbury as part of an academic series. He is to be congratulated on writing a comprehensive book, which illuminates not only the somewhat obscure creation and history of these massive monuments, but also the obsession of so many centuries with them.
SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS
Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre
Penguin, 96pp, hbk
This Italian bestseller is spreading around the world as word gets out of a scientist who can put a century’s achievement into fewer than 100 readable pages. I appreciated the simple, clear text despite translation and some of his intriguing lines that beg philosophical and theological engagement. ‘It is part of our nature to love and to be honest. It is part of our nature to long to know more, and to continue to learn’.
Over the last century the frontiers of science have advanced through relativity theory’s insight into the cosmos, quantum theory’s insight into the subatomic and the acknowledgment that the working of our own thought processes make for a fuzziness between observer and observed. Rovelli is excited by the way we stand ‘on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the Unknown’ and senses breathtaking mystery and beauty.
The seven lessons he gives are on
relativity, quantum mechanics, the architecture of the universe, elementary particles, quantum gravity, probability,
and ourselves. They were initially given in an Italian Sunday newspaper, and
were so well received that they were
published further afield across the world. It is a mark of great intellect both to grasp deep truth and be able to communicate it
simply and clearly, itself evidence of your firm grasp. Here particularly is a lesson for theologians, reminding them of the need to distil thinking again and again into the vernacular, as Lewis used to say. Truth isn’t esoteric.
The wisdom Rovelli distils seems to have been acquired indirectly, even through wasting time. We’re told that the young Albert Einstein ‘spent a year loafing aimlessly’. This is a typical counter-cultural aspect of this fascinating and lucid treatise. I liked the way it goes head on at the paradox of space being all curves in relativity theory and granular in quantum mechanics. Both theories work well independently but can’t both be right. A current scientific endeavour called ‘quantum gravity’ is an attempt at resolving this schizophrenia.
When the universe gets compressed, according to quantum gravitational
theory, there’s a counter force; so what we know as the ‘Big Bang’ might conceivably be a ‘Big Bounce’, with our world being born from a preceding universe’s
contraction with an intermediate phase where there is neither space nor time. This is fascinating reading, as is the
perception that the distinction between past and future is inseparable from the inevitable flow of heat from hot to cold. ‘Time sits at the centre of the tangle of problems raised by the intersection of gravity, quantum mechanics and
thermodynamics. A tangle of problems where we are still in the dark’.
It is an achievement of the author to take unschooled readers out of the dark regarding the main achievements of
science in the last century, whilst making us more aware of current frontiers of knowledge awaiting illumination by thought and experiment. Ongoing eagerness for discovery and honesty in facing challenges to age-old thinking aren’t just the preserve of the scientist.
Book of the month
THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND AND THE HOME FRONT 1914-1918
Civilians, Soldiers and Religion in Wartime Colchester
Boydell Press, 288pp, hbk
978 1783270514, £30
Alan Wilkinson’s 1978 book The Church of England and the First World War has left a heavy legacy both for military chaplains and for the wider Church. In the former regard, the continuing research of Michael Snape, Professor of Anglican Studies at the University of Durham, has encouraged a more balanced understanding of the ministry of chaplains and the spiritual life of the British soldier in the First World War. The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918 achieves something similar for the ministry of the parish church as it reveals the depth of care, the courage, and the sheer faithfulness of parish clergy and their people in every aspect of local wartime life.
Colchester has been a garrison town intermittently since Roman times. The modern garrison was shaped in the mid-nineteenth century, when tented camps gave way to permanent barrack accommodation for troops returning from the Crimean War. It is now home to the Army’s largest fighting brigade and will thus surely continue to be part of the nation’s military and political story. Colchester claims to be Britain’s oldest recorded town, and it was the first capital of Roman Britain. It is deeply representative of our nation, and perhaps rarely more so than in those decisive years of a century ago. From the microcosm of this town in Essex, through detailed local research, Robert Beaken produces a fascinating case-study from which a wider wisdom of pastoral and spiritual practice is allowed to emerge.
Dr Beaken has consulted a wide range of material, and he succeeds in his primary aim of bringing to life the town and the people of Colchester. He has assimilated his facts and he presents them clearly. The reader gets a sense of who people were, and what they were like: not just the fierce and erratic John Watts-Ditchfield, appointed first Bishop of Chelmsford in 1914; or Robert Whitcombe, the more empathetic Suffragan Bishop of Colchester (‘the clergy never had a more real or true friend’, noted the Chelmsford Diocesan Chronicle), who actually served as a chaplain on the Western Front in 1918-19; or the gracious and caring Greville Brunwin-Hales of St Mary-at-the Walls, whose two sons were both killed in the war; but also the other clergy of Colchester’s seventeen parishes.
This is investigative social history, with sections on class-consciousness and social obligation, working-class parishioners, War Savings Bonds, the Colchester War Work Depot, hospitals, and the care of children. The difficulty, as the author identifies, is that there is very little surviving correspondence, and much pastoral work is by its nature unlikely to have been thoroughly documented a century ago. It is possible to know for sure that the twenty-six Church of England priests in Colchester had a huge task in visiting the bereaved and the families of the wounded, and that they fulfilled this duty, but it is not possible to know what was said by way of bringing comfort, as there are no journals or diaries upon which to draw. Dr Beaken’s research manages nonetheless to overcome this impasse in order to show very clearly a hard-working and committed clergy who provided the leadership to enable and inspire their congregations. Clergy and laity shared together both in the local endeavour and, by extension, in the supporting of their nation through the war.
The crucial chapter on prayer and worship looks at public observance and patterns of attendance before engaging with the liturgical controversies of Reservation, Prayers for the Dead, and Requiem Masses. These were difficult and disputed matters, but what is clear is the value in pastoral care of the sacramental, the tangible, and the visible. At a time of acute need in the lives of everyday working people, the ministry of the Church was profoundly effective when it spoke clearly of holiness. It was effective when it could be seen and touched and heard. Regarding Reservation, the Bishop of London spoke of the connection between ‘the tide of human grief’ and the ‘longing [for] the Sacramental Presence of our Lord’. Regarding Prayers for the Dead, Archbishop Davidson preached on All Souls’ Day 1914 of ‘the absolutely trustful prayer of a wounded spirit’ for the one ‘whom we shall not greet on earth again, but who, in [the] Father’s loving keeping, still lives…’. For Requiem Masses, there was the extraordinarily wide circulation of the card ‘The Place of Meeting’, a reproduction by Mowbray & Co. of Thomas Noyes-Lewis’ painting of a Requiem, with the soldiers and sailors killed in war depicted above the consecration.
It would be interesting to find out more about the use in parish life of sacramental confession, which the Army’s Chaplain-General, Bishop John Taylor Smith, had prohibited for all Church of England clergy at the front. This caused widespread consternation, and rightly so, and certainly led to Anglican soldiers seeking absolution from Roman Catholic chaplains. And the observation, quoted from Michael Snape’s God and the British Soldier (2005), that ‘the London Regiment was noted for containing a higher than average proportion of communicants in its ranks, reflecting the large numbers of Anglo-Catholic parishes in London’ identifies a principle of spiritual formation which remains true in my own experience today, even with a smaller Army and a less static population. A sacramental and prayerful ministry of pastoral care will find its own reward. As we reflect upon the spiritual and physical sacrifice of the people and clergy of Colchester which maintained the moral identity of their town through those four years, we may pray for such truth-bearing faithfulness in the challenges of our own time.