Mediamatic Magazine vol 4#4 Andrew Brighton 1 Jan 1990

The Mundane Drag of the Material

Feiningers woodcut The Crystal Cathedral of Communism, that epitome of a synthesis between social and cultural ideals, is often reproduced as the cover of Bauhaus Manifesto of 1919 without its title. We live in a forest of stories. The stories of art told in recent times suggest that avant-garde art looked forward to the future that is now for such art no longer threatens our beliefs. English art institutions and criticism have banalised twentieth century art. Here 1 want to describe some of the tacit rules that shape these stories. I want to suggest some sources for the English need for banality.


The Mundane Drag of the Material -

Like Russia, England, with Ireland at its shoulder, is on the edge of Europe. Unlike Russia, England’s is a clement climate. It is difficult to imagine late spring in England being re-appropriated by the unseasonable harsh cold that Pasternak recalls of 1930: The beginning of April surprised Moscow in the white stupor of the returning winter.Like a cliche from a nineteenth century history or a television documentary, the English islands history too is represented as relatively mild and merciful. No military invasions for nearly a millennium and no revolution for three hundred years. England's continuity, its sameness, its soft soggy climate, its productive land, people’s habits of mind and organisation they feel to be somehow organic, natural.

On the seventh it began to thaw for the second time, and on the fourteenth when Mayakovsky shot himself, not everyone had yet become accustomed to the novelty of the spring. The devices are at least twofold in the passage I have quoted from Pasternak’s Safe Conduct. The phrase concerning Mayakovsky’s suicide occurs in sentences describing the weather. It is a description that evokes a common but intimate experience of the unexpected snow and cold and then the thaw. In that brutal phrase Mayakovsky slams the door not just on the shared bewilderment at unseasonable weather. He opts out of a shared time and its pains. A time acutely aware of itself as history, as part of a narrative.

Mayakovsky was one of the authors of the Russian narrative. He was the Bolshevik revolution's poet. But by 1930 the revolution had been over for thirteen years, the civil war for eight, Stalin was in power. A new stability, a new normality, a new everyday was closing its grip upon Mayakovsky's life and the institutions of culture. Mayakovsky, who had attempted or at least played with suicide before, was aware of his act as a narrative device. He had written in a poem of 1915:
More and more I'm thinking - woiddn tithe best to place
the full stop of a bullet at my ending.

Having lost the narrative of Empire, lost its picture of England’s historical destiny the educated English are concept trained to avoid social and historical visions. They have no intelligentsia with a seriously elaborated critical culture. Rather the tight-arsed pragmatism that characterises the English civil service is the quintessence of its cultural ethos. The paradigm of knowledge is common sense. The everyday sentiments and experience of bourgeois life are the measure of all things, they are real, all else pretension. At core English educated culture is based on the banal.

Mayakovsky must have known his act would re-interpret his poetry; turn their revolutionary romanticism into impossible longings and veils for brutality. In an Unfinished Prelude to the Second Part of a Poem on the Five Year Plan he would seem to write for those who will read him in the knowledge of the manner of his death:

The sea goes to weep.
The sea goes to sleep.
As they say,
the incident has petered out.
The love boat of life
has crashed on philistine reefs.

The word that Herbert Marshal renders as philistine in this translation of the poem is byt. Gerard Conio in The Futurist, the Formalists, and the Marxist Critique, writes that byt is too rich in meaning to be translated with precision. Usually it refers to everyday life, routine life, in a pejorative sense, with its conventions and rituals; it is associated with the most hateful form of alienation, the force of routine, ’getting in a rut', the slavery of material comfort. It corresponds, finally, to 'embourgeoisement'. He has been translated as rendering the last line as: The barge of love has shattered against everyday life.

In England embourgeoisement and banality is propagated by church and state; not the overtly brutal banality of Stalinism but a benign banality. England’s most important cultural institution is the state dependent British Broadcasting Corporation. The staff of the BBC is vetted by 1*15, a part of the state apparatus concerned with policing and identifying any threat to the existing order. It is not just that Marxists are banned from broadcasting on the BBC'S radio channel for the educated, Radio 3, and are simply too ‘boring1 to appear elsewhere; ignorance of European traditions of cultural criticism is a prerequisite of a career in the BBC as well as the 'quality media’ in general. However, this policing is probably unnecessary. The BBC is dominated by graduates of two universities, Oxford and Cambridge. These kingdoms of swats in two provincial cities school the privileged young in the sifting of data and the rapid regurgitation of texts, the culture of Oxbridge offers no conceptual succour for a break with bourgeois common sense.

Rather it offers common sense lifted to the pedantry. Enid Starkie in her Life of Baudelaire claims with pride that had he gone to Oxford or Cambridge he would have become a civil servant. We would have been spared that poetry.

Even the appointment of England's head of state, the very pinnacle of its social hierarchy, is left to benign nature made manifest in conventional family life. Hereditarily qualified gonads and ovaries of the royalfamily tree confer power and privilege upon their fruit. Similarly the church offers as its symbolic head not some strangely garbed priest honed in theological debate, church politics and pastoral experience but again that tweedy wife of a former naval officer surrounded by dogs, children and grandchildren all made special by coming from the right gonads and ovaries. To quote the Irishman Brendan Behan:

Don't speak of your alien Minister His Church without meaning or faith For the comer stone of his Temple Are the bollocks of Henry the eighth.

The lack of intellectual seriousness, the inarticulacy of the culture, leads to the assumption that an intuitive sense of right and wrong, the unconceptualised biddings of the bourgeois super-ego, is the true basis for judgement. England is infected by the non-conformist conscience. This moralism has idiotised the English left for it believes in the universality, the naturalness of its own notion of virtue. Politically it sets out to do good and to abolish the evil ones. It dreams of the dictatorship of the suburban conscience, the world as one great Quaker meeting. Another consequence is that its political class is conceptually incapable of a serious idea of culture. In its view art and literature are an up-market amenity, of no more consequence upon how they think about the world than swimming pools.

English educated culture takes the acceptance of byt as its measure of honesty. All else is pretension, self dramatisation or intellectual hogwash. English culture is metaphysically stunted. Recently Ruskin has been revived as one of the fathers of modern English culture and heroised as of continuing relevance. In contrast Hegel's metaphysics has been central to Russian and European art and politics.

Hegel’s is a theory of spiritual progress. If the history of the world is conceived as the history of mind or Spirit in a journey towards self-knowledge then the world is not something that the mind observes. Rather, the world is produced by mind. To put it in other terms, culture does not represent things or nature rather, it produces things or nature in its representations. Our way of ordering things does not reveal nature, it reveals the mind to itself. Art in this view is part of the developing articulation of mind. Beauty for Hegel was an intuition of the nature of the Spirit. So for instance, it was possible for Mondrian to think of pictorial tension as embodying the driving contradictions of the Spirit.

Against this I take Ruskin, and more importantly, many have taken Ruskin to say, that art is concerned to represent God’s order. An order that is a-historical, that is given in nature. Art in this view is only a means of representing an a-historical order. In this sense it is illustrative, all else is dishonest. Rather than being what consciousness is formed in, history and culture are what gets in the way of how things really are.

English art criticism sets out to show sameness, to show that essentially nothing has happened. Consider the anti-history of Herbert Read's essay for the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in which he argued that what he called 'superrealism' in general is the romantic principle in art, with one stroke he was able to dehistoricise Surrealism. It was just a particular expression of a principle already well developed in English culture. In his essay for the Faber anthology on Surrealism of the same year he actually tells us that Dialectics is the logic of change in nature. That it might be applicable to human history seems to have escaped his attention. He goes on to say that: Surrealism demands nothing less than a revaluation of ah aesthetic values. It did not. It called for the abolition of aesthetics, it was seeking to revolutionise consciousness, to make new forms of knowledge possible.

More recently Sir Lawrence Gowing CBE, RA suggested, in a catalogue for an exhibition at Yale of the School of London painters, i.e. Bacon, Auerbach, Freud et al., that these artists were post-modern before Post-Modernism. This is like thinking that being un-married and celibate is the same as being a widower. As a piece of cultural history it is nonsense, as a cultural symptom it is important. What Gowing was by implication praising and displaying was anti-historicism. As with Read, the latest foreign thing was essentially prefigured in English culture.

For the twentieth century, stories informed by the Hegelian conception of history were central to the political and the cultural avant-garde. Some held out the possibility of the transformation or indeed the abolition of the banality of everyday existence. Surrealism was to shatter the hegemony of bourgeois common sense. Neo-Plasticism embodied the transcendence of the material world. In the communist vision humankind freed from class conflict, the blind engine of history, would take its destiny into its own hands and be reconciled with the world. In Malevich's Suprematism