Queer British Art 1861-1967
until 1 October 2017
Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors
Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill
until 25 August 2017
Tate Britain’s ‘Queer British Art’ seeks to explore the relationship between emerging queer communities and some of the visual arts in the hundred years between the ending of the death penalty for sodomy, and the partial decriminalisation of sex between men. The term ‘queer’ is used because terms such as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ were unknown for much of the period, and because it is broad enough not to impose specific identity labels.
The task the curators have set themselves is not easy. One reason is that it is likely that the threat of legal action pushed some of the exhibited artists to leave little evidence about their sexuality and gender identity. It is also probable that others, such as Aubrey Beardsley, were sexually inactive.
Still, this was a period of great social change, and many artists did push at the boundaries of what was acceptable, and were condemned by the critics for that. But even the critics were not of one mind. Works like Walter Crane’s ‘Renaissance of Venus’ were appreciated for their effeminacy by so robustly a heterosexual commentator as G.F. Watts. It was all very fluid.
And weak artistically. It is especially ironic that the promoters of art for art’s sake are not often convincing artists. This show is strong on statements which must have meant a lot to their creators and which required some courage to exhibit. It is not strong on art which anybody would want to look at other than as part of a conversation about sexuality and identity. The best artists are Bacon and Hockney, whose works fill the final room, but these are secondary works. And even Hockney and Bacon suggest little of the exploratory zest or ludic quality some of the show’s commentators talk about.
Still, the show is interesting and has its moments. Some of the ‘Theatrical Types’ are gloriously camp, notably Glen Byam Shaw as Laertes, besides which Noël Coward’s scarlet dressing gown is a model of restraint and introversion. And there are lots of bottoms by Duncan Grant, and working class roughs and foreign sailors, and more than a whiff of snobbery.
Women painters and women sitters come out better than the men. Laura Knight’s ‘Self-portrait’ is first and foremost a well-made picture. William Strang’s picture of Vita Sackville-West is a striking portrait, and properly flatters the sitter while suggesting her vigorous character. But too many of the artists are at best rather dreary also-rans and too many of their subjects are sentimental kitsch.
The contrast with Gagosian’s Picasso show could hardly be greater. There are over 100 prints, paintings, drawings, ceramics and sculptures. They are not Picasso’s greatest works, but there is more fun and life and eroticism in one squiggle by the Spaniard than in all the pained and laboured works over at Tate Britain. Of course, sex mattered to Picasso just as it did to the Tate’s queer artists, and the equation of Picasso himself with bulls has led to some very seamy pictures, if you think about them in literal terms. But they aren’t there to be taken literally. They’re there as works by a supremely great artist, who could project himself in some quite unlikely ways which had a huge impact on the whole world of art.
So Gagosian has photographs of Picasso dressed up in a bull’s head, which are quite amusing and not too show-offy. There’s a cast of his bull’s head made of a bicycle seat and handlebars, which is creative with found objects in a way the great Americans must have envied. And there are cartoonish toreadors who have more working class grit in them than anything Tate Britain can show. And then there’s Picasso’s extraordinary facility in so many media, especially drawing, in which a few wobbly lines convey animal life in a way that makes Beardsley look prosaic. It is even possible that Picasso’s bulls’ heads are the ancestors of Britain’s two greatest screen actors, Wallace and Gromit.
None of which is either down to Picasso’s sexuality or to his position in a heterosexual-dominated world. He had, after all, been vilified in the press quite as much as many queer artists, though without the threat of a private prosecution hanging over his private life. By the same token, there were great queer artists in the past: Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci to name two likely examples. But Tate Britain has no artist of their calibre, and the story it seeks to tell is not supported by the artworks.
Gagosian’s show is free.
THE BENEDICT OPTION:
A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
Sentinel, 262pp pbk
ISBN: 978 0735213296 £20
How do we, as Christians, balance Jesus’ call to maintain our distinct identity as the people of God, and remain relevant to the culture around us? Are we, as Western Christians, in danger of becoming like the frog who was placed in tepid water, and did not notice as the water temperature slowly increased? Has the legalization, and acceptance, of gay marriage marked a point of no return for Western culture, and do Christians now have to stop trying to save this culture, and start working to ensure a Christian culture survives the new ‘dark age’ which is upon us?
All of these questions and more are tackled in a new popular-level book written by Rod Dreher which has rocketed to a place in the New York Bestseller list since its publication in March. Dreher is a conservative American Christian (culturally and theologically) who is attempting to wake up an American church which he believes is slowly boiling in a decadent and morally compromised US culture. In his first two chapters, Dreher sets out to prove his point to his American audience, and British Christians will need no convincing of his central thesis, given that we have preceded the Americans in moving to a post-Christian society. In the following chapters, Dreher moves to suggest that we cannot stop this decline, and instead we ought to prepare our people to create their own Christian sub-culture which can survive whilst the modern Western society destroys itself.
At this point one is liable to get twitchy, particularly as Dreher points to Benedict of Nursia (hence the title), the founder of Western monasticism, as an example for emulation. However, it is only fair to highlight at this point that Dreher is not suggesting a heading for the hills, or a mass movement into remote monastic communities. Rather, he is suggesting a deliberate creating of Christian community in the places which we find ourselves: first through a through vetting of modern culture, and then by the adoption of deliberate Christian practices which will sustain these communities against the cultural onslaught which has already begun. We may be inclined to think that we are already doing this, and perhaps many of us are, but Dreher’s book helped me, at least, to see how modern media, smart phones, and centrally-set school curricula are altering the way Christians see the world without us noticing. His solutions include homeschooling, the deliberate use of liturgy in our churches, a deep and ongoing engagement with Scripture, and the careful vetting of the media which we allow into our homes, and into our heads. None of this is unique to Dreher. Much of this is tinged with a certain Americanism which may cause us to smirk, and, as is the wont of many American authors, the book is probably a third longer that it needs to be. But what Dreher does is to bring together, in one place and at a popular level, a clear and incisive look at the Western world, and some ways in which Christians might fight back.
You will not agree with everything in this book. You might think that Dreher gives up to soon, or that he removes Christians too far from the cultural wars around us. But the book is worth reading for two reasons: first it gets you thinking about your own lifestyle, and the lifestyles of those in our churches, and stimulates us to produce our own answers to surviving in what is undoubtedly a post-Christian world. Second, this book is worth reading because of its impact. It is being discussed across the States by Christians of every tradition, and it will not be long before members of our churches are reading and digesting Dreher’s work and it will form part of the backdrop of any discussion of these areas. The Western Church must respond to the collapse of Western culture, and this book will certainly help many people to begin to formulate a response, even as they critique and challenge some of its suggestions.
THE GOOD BOOK
40 Chapters that reveal the Bible’s biggest ideas
David Cook, 398pp
ISBN 978-1434711502 £16
‘Love is learning to say and mean certain words. If love is patient, then we learn to say, “I can wait, you go first.” If love is kind, we teach ourselves to confess to others, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.” If love knows no boasting or pride then we strike the words “I told you so” from our vocabularies. If love isn’t easily angered, then we develop the discipline to say nothing at all when we most want to retaliate.’
This down-to-earth expansion of 1 Corinthians 13 gives a taster of US Baptist pastor Deron Spoo’s attempt to make the Bible accessible to Christian enquirers. The book selects and expounds forty Bible chapters with an eye to engaging seekers with the main themes of Christianity. Such a scheme is deemed preferable to handing people a Bible without any guidance.
I liked this original approach and the author’s take on creation, fall, redemption, etc, which demonstrate a sense of mainstream Christian teaching. Deron Spoo’s gifting as a TV devotional presenter is evident. I found him deep, readable, succinct and, as with Eugene Petersons The Message, both challenging and refreshing as an American writer.
Here are some one-liner gems: ‘We experience the peace of God as we adopt the pace of God’ (Exodus 14). ‘Like nitroglycerin [sex] can be used either to blow up bridges or heal hearts’ (Judges 16). ‘One shot from a destiny-appointed person can bring down the most formidable of foes’ (1 Samuel 17). ‘Wisdom is doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons’ (Proverbs 1). ‘Building trust with others leads to changed lives’ (Jonah 1). Change ‘God, get me out of this’ to ‘God, what do you want me to get out of this?’ (James 1).
The death and resurrection of Christ are the author’s key to the Bible. I liked his analogy between the way thin-skinned fish in deep water generate internal pressure equal and opposite to that of the ocean with having Jesus’ power and presence inside of us and how that equips us at times to bear crushing forces (Matthew 28). Dealing with life’s uncertainties is a major asset of the life of faith. Interesting to learn, someone asked Mother Teresa to pray clarity for them and she refused, saying she’d rather pray they be given deeper trust in God to live better with uncertainty.
Deron Spoo’s enthusiasm for engaging Scripture so as to perceive God’s face, hand and heart infects the reader. He sets forth a big picture and draws you in, not least through the testimony of the devout. ‘Great faith is the product of great fights. Great testimonies are the outcome of great tests. Great triumphs can only come out of great trials’ (Smith Wigglesworth).
After presenting on Galatians and its witness to Christian growth in love, joy and peace, Spoo tells of how Edmund Hillary addressed Everest after an earlier failure to climb it: ‘Mount Everest, you beat me first time, but I’ll beat you the next time because you’ve grown all you are going to grow… but I’m still growing.’ A year later, Hillary proved himself greater than the mountain.
To enter the world of the Bible is to experience spiritual growth through the momentum of the Holy Spirit who presses us forward. Our lives become one with God’s people looking to God’s future. The Good Book is an attractive guide to Scripture from an author who has experienced its transformative power and writes convincingly of intimacy with God nourished by the Bible.
Book of the month
THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF ANGLICAN STUDIES
Mark D. Chapman, Sathianathan Clarke, Martyn Percy (eds)
OUP, 672pp, hbk
978 0199218561, £95
The Anglican Communion has been on the brink of collapse for as long as I have known it. There is always a crisis, and it is always expected to be the crisis to end all crises. And yet it never is. Like the encores of an ageing troubadour unwilling to leave the stage, there is always time for one more crisis. Perhaps the reality is that the Anglican Communion will never definitively collapse, because there is not enough which holds it together in the first place. And so we will stagger on, with a continuing church here and a social media campaign there; a provocative appointment to high office one day, and an illegally (but validly) ordained episcopal curate the next.
If imminent collapse is one perpetual feature of the Anglican Communion, then almost total disinterest in its affairs on the part of most members of the Mother Church is another. Compared to the English, Anglicans in other provinces are far more interested in the history of Anglicanism; far quicker to assert their ties with (and loyalty to – or perhaps now dissent from) the See of Canterbury; and far more inquisitive about how and why Anglicanism is different from other denominations. Perhaps this is because to be an Anglican is – in most cases – much less of a conscious choice in England than it is anywhere else. P. D. James had a character in one of her novels who viewed church attendance as ‘a weekly affirmation of his Englishness and of acceptable behaviour, a mildly agreeable obligation devoid of religious fervour’. The character’s mother had summed up ‘wild clerical innovations’ with the telling phrase, ‘We’re C of E, darling, we don’t do that sort of thing’. The joke wouldn’t work anywhere else in the world.
All of which is to say that the appearance of The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies is welcome: not just because it offers an updated and improved type of the myriad of similar handbooks which have gone before; but also because it deliberately and explicitly seeks to introduce a new interdisciplinary subject: Anglican Studies.
A problem arises here straight away. It is the problem of herding cats: how do you manage it? In beautifully Anglican style, the editors seek to resolve the conundrum by making a virtue out of a problem: ‘At times there are tensions and points of conflict between the essays. But that is something to be welcomed… It will become clear to any reader that this is anything but a ‘systematic theology’ of Anglicanism… But it is also not the sort of cosy fudge that is sometimes called Anglican comprehensiveness: the Handbook does not set out either to police or resolve such tensions.’ How very Church of England.
Within these parameters, the volume is a success. It offers an excellent variety of stimulating essays on a wide variety of topics which will make the book essential reading (or at least an essential reference resource) for ordinands and anyone with an interest in Anglicanism and/or the Church of England. It is a pity that the cover price puts it beyond the reach of most individuals, and it is to be hoped that OUP publish a paperback version at a more accessible price.
What of the essays themselves? There are forty-four of them (plus the introduction), spread over seven sections: Historiography; The Methods and Styles of Anglicanism; The Contextualization of Anglicanism; Anglican Identities; Crises and Controversies; The Practice of Anglican Life; The Futures of Anglicanism (note the deliberate plural here!). In a collection as large and wide-ranging as this, it is inevitable that some essays will appeal more than others. A list of the essays that are particularly irritating (or just plain wrong) would be quite fun to compile, but not awfully constructive in this context. Let me, then, point to a few of the best.
Paul Avis is the doyen of Anglican studies. He has long been fascinated by Anglicanism as an expression of Conciliarism, and he addresses precisely that topic here, with particular reference to the Lambeth Conference. In a second essay, he examines the use of – and loyalty to – the Book of Common Prayer as a defining characteristic of Anglicanism; one that has changed (but not disappeared) in recent decades.
Andrew Atherstone teaches at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. He acknowledges the inevitability of varieties of churchmanship within Anglicanism, and cautions against a lazy descent into caricatures of church parties.
Martyn Percy is the highest-paid cleric in the Church of England. In his current role, he runs an Oxford college, a cathedral, and episcopal appointments in the Northern province. He was previously the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon. His essay on ordination training is one of the most important in the book. In it, he insists on the value of formation and the ongoing necessity of ‘discrete environments … that can best serve the needs of the church for the formation of the clergy’.
The sociologist Grace Davie offers a stimulating overview of establishment, and concludes by putting a positive case for a weak established church. The Archbishop of Cape Town commends pragmatism in political engagement, through the prism of his own South African context. Mark Chapman’s interesting essay, ‘Varieties of Missionary Bishop’, does exactly what it says on the tin. There are too many other worthwhile contributions to list them all here.
What is missing? I would have liked to have seen more explicitly historical essays, since a church that has come about largely through a succession of contingent (or providential?) circumstances can only really be understood by studying its past. And it goes without saying that traditional Catholics and (to a lesser extent) conservative Evangelicals are drastically under-represented here. The observation that some provinces do not yet ordain women sums up the underlying tone. Nonetheless, these are relatively minor quibbles with what should prove to be the definitive single-volume introduction to Anglicanism for years to come.