Tuesday, 22 October 2013


In yesterday's Dabbler, Brit was recalling the grim experience of walking through the first 20th Century British gallery in the Tate. I too was making my flinching, wincing way through that gallery on Sunday, immediately after enjoying the little connecting room that contains Georgiana's Dead Bird - not to mention a fine Ruskin drawing of a corner of the facade of San Marco, and Arthur Melville's stunning The Blue Night, Venice.
What is it with British art of the past century or so that it is so fixated with the grotesque, the repulsive, the ugly and horrific? Surely no other culture has ever put such high value (and sky-high prices) on art that no sane person could bear to live with - fancy a Bacon on the wall, anyone? A Lucian Freud nude? How about some nice Chapman Brothers mutilations or Gilbert and George coprophilia? Call me old-fashioned and simplistic, but surely art should be (or attempt to be) beautiful and give pleasure. But maybe this kind of grotesquerie does give pleasure of a sort - something akin to what the French call nostalgie de la boue, a yearning for degradation. There is a very strong strain in our culture that regards the ugly and brutal as essentially more 'authentic' than the beautiful and pleasing - despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that most of us live lives of such comfort, peace and ease as past generations could only dream of. It's akin to the curious predilection for violence, dark secrets, corruption and conspiracies in TV drama (British and Scandinavian - i.e. the least violent and corrupt societies on Earth, more or less). This is the spurious glamour and cost-free thrill of  'authenticity', a kind of inverse sentimentality. In the world of the visual arts, our preoccupation with the dark side might come to seem as baffling to future generations as the overt sentimentality of the Victorians, and ugliness might again be recognised for what it is. Ugly. 


  1. despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that most of us live lives of such comfort, peace and ease as past generations could only dream of.

    I agree. I think it's a flight from boredom, just as the Victorian sentimentality you mentioned was a flight from degradation.

    I think the more squalid stuff is anti-art, a rejection of aesthetic transcendence by liberals who embrace transcendent morality in the guise of universal human rights, but still need to rebel somehow to avoid overdosing on piety.

    I think (some) conservatives have their equivalent holiday from piety with 'Tory anarchism' (PG Wodehouse, the Goons etc) and/or a retreat into nostalgia for childhood cf 150 years of children's literature. Middle Earth couldn't be more of a High Tory fantasy if it had been dreamed up by Enoch Powell after sharing an opium pipe with Princess Margaret.

  2. Ho ho - a lovely image, Michael!
    The persistent grip of children's literature on the British imagination has long puzzled me - nowadays it's probably part of our infantilised culture, but the roots are clearly deeper than that... And the Anglo-American equivalent is equally baffling - comic books written for 12-yr-old boys becoming huge megabucks movies for adults - and being taken seriously! Funny old world...

  3. My instinctive reaction to Bacon is "ugh what horrible misanthropic nihilistic merde" - but that I suppose proves he acheived his aim, for which he must be given due credit