Poetry against the monarchy
Thursday, 13 June 2024 07:33

Poetry against the monarchy

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock presents four poems which capture the oddity and the horror of living in a country without class solidarity and where we are encouraged to accept a monarchy symbolising inequality, privilege and oppression. Image above: Paul Harrop

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee is looming, and my own small section of England’s Garden Coast has already witnessed worrying outbreaks of union bunting. Festivities are threatened. I’m dreading it. Having tried and failed to invite myself somewhere – anywhere – else for the entire obnoxious duration, there’s nothing left to do but watch the spectacle unfold with an appropriate mixture of anger and nausea.

I was living in London when Britain ‘celebrated’ the Diamond Jubilee in 2012. That was stomach-churning enough: a nasty little marketing manoeuvre designed to recast the monarchy as a cultural agent as opposed to a political one. The Diamond Jubilee sought to free the monarchy from its difficult, morally compromised political context, and cement it instead at the very heart of Brand Britain: a series of cultural levers – music, literature, film, sport, art, and drama – intended to evoke a nebulous though crowd-pleasing notion of Britishness with which to distract the populace at home and to woo the global marketplace. It was deeply cynical, but it did make some level of strategic sense.

London hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games that year, taking full advantage of the opportunity to socially cleanse the city of homeless, poor and working-class populations, while promoting the capital as a securitised playground for the rich. The relentless frenzy with which The Games were hyped was matched by an equally zealous clampdown on any potential unrest. Protest was denied through preventative policing, and by a virtual blackout on dissenting voices across the mainstream media. Coverage of the Olympic Games encouraged a profound and disturbing disconnect between the feelgood spectacle and its grim political underpinnings.

A particularly egregious example was Paralympic sponsorship by ATOS, the outsourcing giant and ‘health care’ provider whose infamous fitness to work tests caused wave upon wave of often fatal misery to be visited upon those with physical disabilities and mental health issues alike. How was it possible for the public to be so inspired and galvanised by the achievements of disabled athletes, yet happy to ignore the injustice meted out against other disabled people, or to accept the cruel irony of ATOS as a ‘proud’ and prominent Paralympic sponsor?

Irrational jingoism

Noam Chomsky describes sport as a crucial component of the ‘indoctrination system’. In Manufacturing Consent, he states that sport functions as ‘a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority. And you know, group cohesion, behind leadership elements. In fact it’s training in irrational jingoism. Which is not to decry sport in and of itself, or those who follow or participate in it. It is rather Chomsky’s call to be conscious of the way notions of ‘patriotism’ and belonging are manufactured and exploited: by companies like ATOS who hijack the achievements of athletes to rehabilitate their damaged public image, or by nation states and governments to create an uncritical consensus reality.

The Diamond Jubilee rode the surge of nationalistic sentiment stirred up by ‘Team GB’ and the Olympic Games. What was being celebrated was not so much the Queen herself, and certainly not the monarchy, but the amorphous sense of Britain or Britishness, an idea of which Elizabeth Windsor is the kitsch and endlessly marketable signifier. A symbol, in other words, ripe for reproduction across one hundred thousand souvenir keychains. The flag-waving spectacle created by mainstream media discourses empties the monarchy of historical and political context, allowing them to become a hollow receptacle for whatever idea is expedient to government. Cultural discourses have tended to heavily moralise the monarchy through representations of nationhood, philanthropy, and family, effectively masking their relationship to centuries of exploitation, accumulation, corruption, and conquest.

Fast forward to 2022 and the monarchy seems symbolically shaky. The glorious moment during Liverpool’s FA Cup match against Chelsea on the 15th of May, when fans booed the National Anthem, seems to suggest both a disillusionment with these British figureheads, and an abiding frustration with the ‘values’ they are supposed to represent. It isn’t only that the royals themselves have shrunk in the public estimation, as indeed they might, but that government propaganda has welded the idea of Britain to these fallible individuals too successfully for either party’s good. What, after all, are we being summoned to celebrate with ‘God Save the Queen’?

The leak of the ‘Paradise Papers’ way back in 2017 revealed the extent to which the Queen’s private estate used offshore private equity funds to avoid paying tax on its holdings. Not exactly a scrupulous move, especially when you consider that the Crown is already exempt by law from taxation, and also from inheritance tax on ‘sovereign to sovereign’ bequests. As Laura Clancy has pointed out, the royal family ‘relies on the (uncodified) British constitution and political custom to play the same game’ as corporate tax avoidance giants such Amazon and Facebook, thus the monarchy ‘stitches together historical customs with financial capitalist logic.’ The scale of this corruption is immense, and sharply felt by the poorest amongst us during times of austerity. According to findings published by the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2019, Austerity caused 130,000 preventable deaths. As the cost-of-living crisis escalates, this terrible toll can only increase, blighting the families, communities, and individual lives of our most vulnerable citizens. Under such conditions why wouldn’t a hymn of subservience to monumental privilege be booed?

But if obscene wealth corruption weren’t enough, over the last couple of years we have also witnessed the sickening sexual assault allegations against the walking disgrace that is Prince Andrew, alongside the ongoing and surpassingly tedious saga of ‘Megxit’ with its troubling overtones of racism and misogyny. I could go on. But it begs the question: if we’re not evoking love for Britain’s ruling elite when we broadcast ‘God Save the Queen’, what are we evoking? Britain itself? Britishness? What’s that? A country in which food banks are now forced to provide kettles and cold boxes, for those who cannot afford to use their cookers. A country in which Tory MP, Lee Anderson, felt secure enough of his position to brag that people in his constituency are now required to sign up to ‘budgeting’ and ‘cooking’ courses when they register at a food bank. Anderson is the same hypocritical toad who claimed £222,000 in expenses last year. Just saying.

Partygate, pandemics, profits and poverty

Britain is the Britain of Partygate; of the callous and incompetent handling of a global pandemic that exacerbated the shocking extent of inequality between rich and poor. It’s a country in which energy companies and supermarkets are currently enjoying treble profits, profits that the Tory Government are monumentally reluctant to tax. It’s a country with an asylum policy so staggeringly inhumane as to draw condemnation from every quarter; of wrongful deportations enacted against those who have made Britain their home for decades, and illegal detention of those recently arrived and fleeing from violence.

There is little there to be proud of. So why should fans passively condone the achievements of their team being yoked to dynastic wealth by a bunch of gilded hypocrites? The team weren’t playing for ‘Queen and Country’, but representing a city that has a long, bitter association with poverty, hunger, state violence, and the remorseless grinding of the class system. That sport might be activated as a place of protest is a potentially mighty thing. Grassroots initiatives such as Liverpool and Everton’s Fans Supporting Foodbanks scheme suggest that rather than an indoctrination tool, sport might provide a space of solidarity and shared social consciousness. Once, that is, it is stripped of its tired, jingoistic trappings.

But jingoistic trappings die hard, and here on the coast I have a close-up view of the way in which national identity is selectively edited towards political ends. The Border Force patrol boats frequently mar an otherwise idyllic view of the Channel, and the hateful Napier barracks, where asylum seekers are detained under the most appalling conditions, are a stone’s throw from the gorgeous rolling hills in which I walk my dog. In the build-up to the EU referendum in 2016, the White Cliffs across which I often hike had become symbolic in the debate over immigration. It is difficult to square such stunning natural beauty with their difficult legacy as icons of British insular exceptionalism and racially exclusive identity. As you walk into Dover there is no shortage of racist and anti-immigrant graffiti, no shortage of union flags, no shortage of embattled border mentality. The paraphernalia of the Platinum Jubilee merges with and glosses these more overt forms of racism, a racism that Tory Brexit legitimated and exposed.

Dover and Thanet voted overwhelming to leave the EU, a campaign that recruited the Cliffs and the town’s historic status as a defensive stronghold to project an image of Britain besieged by menacing ‘others’. There’s a sad irony here: according to the Centre for Progressive Policy, Dover and Thanet are likely to be ‘pushed into poverty’ by the Tory government’s failure to tackle a cost-of-living crisis they themselves created. Dover, hit by P&O’s sudden sacking of 800 seafarers, is especially suffering. The town has become, in recent years, a post-Brexit carpark, and this chaos seems set to continue indefinitely. These towns are not served by the class system, by the ruling elite, or by the monarchy that is their symbolic head. Britain needs better symbols, and a more inclusive, empathetic vision of itself.

A good place to start in creating that vision would be in ridding ourselves of an institution whose wealth and history is inseparable from the depredations of colonialism, and whose cornerstone is inequality. In recent months, many former British colonies in the Caribbean have declared their intent to abolish the monarchy and remove Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state, including Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica and St. Kitts. Barbados has already cut ties with the British monarchy to become the world’s newest republic, and to rightly pursue reparations for the horrors of the slave trade. Campaigners are right: an apology is not enough. Prince Charles ‘acknowledging’ the ‘atrocity’ of slavery isn’t enough. An institution whose wealth was built on and maintained by slavery telling the descendants of slaves, whose families, cultures, and communities were scarred by colonialism, that they feel their pain is frankly insulting. You cannot cherry-pick which parts of Empire to whitewash and to fetishize. The foundation of Empire is slavery; slavery is the direct consequence of empire. The same applies to hierarchy, poverty, and gross inequality at home.

Much of the criticism levelled against the monarchy – at least much of the criticism that is allowed to be heard – has been rather toothless in nature, preferring to focus on the monarchy as an irrelevant and anachronistic institution, rather than a powerful political tool, enmeshed in the structures and the logics of capitalism at its absolute worst. I think that poetry can provide a place for wrestling with these thornier complexities; to resist and reshape notions of identity, solidarity and belonging. The four poems I want to share today achieve this through very different, but interconnected strategies.

Al Hutchins’ ‘Jubilee’

Al Hutchins’ ‘Jubilee’ emerges from the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 2012. It tackles the callous criminalising and forcible removal of homeless populations from city centres in the run up to planned ‘festivities’. In hounding the suffering and destitute from sight, class war is enacted even as its evidence is erased. The homeless protagonist in Hutchins’ poem is a ‘Jesus, shoeless, on the London Orbital’. He is a subject: subject to and under a law that carts him around like freight. He is not, and never will be, an implied audience, or ideal citizen. Throughout the poem, his erratic movement across the city is embodied by the staggered, halting line. Hutchins’ distinctive use of minimal punctuation gives the poem a provisional and precarious feel, emblematic not only of a difficult and marginal existence, but the way in which that existence always teeters on the brink of invisibility; the wilful blindness with which such lives are met.

The poem makes reference to food waste with great effect. It begins with the lines: ‘It is still daylight and the string/ Round the meat has been thrown’ and later evokes ‘Good food thrown for/ Spite/ Meat and eggs crumped/ Like old letters’. The discarded food in these lines does double duty: it signals the wasteful attitudes and behaviours of those with a degree of privilege, but it also associates Hutchins’ protagonist with the detritus and trash that are aimed at him and alongside which he is forced to subsist. He too is considered waste. He too has been discarded. Hutchins uses meat and eggs specifically to summon an image of the suffering animal bodies that provided the food. An image of slaughtered cattle closes the poem, the sound of the rain evoking the ‘clatter’ of their hooves. No one wishes to be reminded of where their food comes from or what happens to it after it has been thrown away, but Hutchins’ poem exposes both those things as it exposes the fact that immense wealth can only exist by metaphorically cannibalising the bodies of the poor and desperate.

I think the most haunting passage of this poem is when Hutchins’ speaker breaks the mood of internal reverie to ask the reader a direct question that contains both imploring and accusatory elements: ‘What is the merriment of/ 60 years like this?’ Here Hutchins’ contrasts the sixty years of grim endurance suffered by his homeless protagonist, with the sixty years of privilege and ease afforded the Queen. The survival of homeless persons is a miracle of resilience and resourcefulness. The survival of a person born into obscene wealth with access to the best of everything is hardly surprising. Why should the Queen’s longevity be feted, and Hutchins’ ‘Jesus’ scorned? Further, the speaker summons his own sixty years like a sentence, inviting us to empathise with his long experience of abjection, but also to reflect that a sixty-year reign in which conditions such as his persist is a mark of shame, not an occasion for celebration.

P. V. Tims satire on the reptilian royals

P.V. Tims takes an entirely different approach to protest in the poem ‘If David Icke was Right’. On the surface, this whimsical piece imagines what our society would look like supposing Icke’s crackpot conspiracy theory of a blood-drinking ‘reptilian elite’ in Buckingham Palace was literally true. Tims has a light, humourist’s touch, accentuated through the use of a simple alternating rhyme scheme with an easy, mostly regular meter. The poem can be enjoyed as an absurd satire on Britain’s slavish attachment to the monarchy: not to be discouraged by the fact that the entire royal family have revealed themselves as a race of vicious space lizards, ‘Blighty’ loses no time in converting Buckingham Palace into a spacious reptile house, opening it to the public, and generally ‘Flaunting our cold-blooded monarchist grace’.

However, there is a violence lurking within the poem: the ‘flies and raw gizzards’ that have replaced the twee Victoria sponges of The Great British Bake Off are funny in context, but also repellently visceral. The juxtaposition of raw offal with the kitschy TV show suggests something disgusting and lethal hidden just beneath the surface of its carefully stage-managed, people-pleasing Britishness. Tims furthers this unsettling ambiguity by use of the phrases ‘cold-blooded’ and ‘forked-tongued’, which we are used to encountering in their figurative sense as applied to people who are ruthless, glib, and deceptive. Because the poem is placed in the present active tense, Tims blurs the line not only between reptile and human, but speculative future and lived present, implying that those qualities of cruelty and deceitfulness belong equally to our human royal family.

The final stanza concludes with the hapless ‘silver-lining’ that at least in their lizard form the royal family make more attractive stamps. This weak justification is reminiscent of the arguments often offered in favour of the monarchy: that they are ‘harmless’, ‘amusing’, ‘good for tourism’, as if any of those things excuse or balance the towering inequality and historical violence they represent and preside over.

Sabrina Lyall's evocation of class-based oppression

In Sabrina Lyall’s ‘The Subject’, both Hutchins’ bleak realism and Tims’ gleeful absurdism meet. As the title implies, the poem presents us with a portrait of the ideal royal subject. Lyall uses a surrealistic turn to create a grotesque and troubling image of an obedient model citizen, ‘white/ as a weak emergency’, who thinks ‘Kate Middleton/ looks beautiful in green’ and that the Queen is ‘doing a marvellous job’.

Lyall’s images are suggestive, rather than declarative, and she builds her picture by small self-contained increments, offering strange and unsettling glimpses of her poetic subject. The third stanza is particularly disturbing: ‘The subject’s body/ is a neat briquette,/ catching fire// (nobody minds).’ Here Lyall plays the shocking violence of a woman being burnt against the banality of a tidy suburban barbeque. Even in an extremis of pain and suffering the subject is ‘neat’. The parenthesised ‘nobody minds’ is chilling: so long as the subject suffers tidily, nobody need take offence at her distress. That this is her priority recalls Steve Biko’s dictum that ‘The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.’ Lyall is repeatedly signalling throughout the poem that what allegiance to monarchy and empire requires of us is to be bland and self-effacing to the point of our own destruction; to ignore our self-interest and that of our class cohort in favour of identification with those who seek to exploit and control us.

Lyall’s subject apes the behaviours of her social “betters” in the hopes of passing as one of them. While she is permitted to exist within their orbit, she is never quite accepted, she ‘has a permit/ for her face’, is ‘allowed/ to park here’, is ‘trusted/ with the key/ to the community/ allotment.’ These mediocre privileges are only accorded to her because she has made of herself an insipid mask of conformity, acceptably middle-class and feminine in her appearance and opinions. Her life is small, ‘a tiny Hell/ enclosed inside/ a Margate snow globe’; she is forced to live inside ‘a wicker hamper’. These metaphors conjure the restriction and claustrophobia of working-class life, especially during the pandemic. Margate, with its large Tory majority, voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. The poem captures the dislocation of a working-class subject hemmed in and stifled by an experience of class-based oppression with which they cannot identity. Rather, the poem ends with Lyall’s subject stuffed like so much dirty laundry into her hamper, still mouthing platitudes about the ‘marvellous’ Queen.

Kevin McCann's mirroring of privilege and poverty

A different kind of willed inattention is the subject of Kevin McCann’s ‘Jubilee’: a direct address to the sanctimonious and smugly complacent. When I read it for the first time, I found myself thinking again of Lee Anderson, forcing his constituents to enrol in “budgeting” courses because there is, as the poem states, ‘no money tree’. I thought about Tory Party chairman Oliver Dowden auctioning off a champagne bottle signed by Boris Johnson as a “souvenir of partygate”, and of other acts equally devoid of empathy. McCann’s opening lines are chilling, his subject wakes up, ‘dry-eyed with excitement’ on their ‘special day’. This image is immediately followed by the parenthesised lines ‘This morning another ex-squaddie’s/ Found dead in another doorway’. The brackets function as an afterthought or aside, performing the pushing away, closing off and containing of this unpalatable piece of information. It isn’t allowed to intrude upon a scene of happy anticipation, and the poem’s subject will not allow themselves to perceive its relationship to their own privilege and pleasure.

‘Dry-eyed’ is telling, unblinking and unaffected. ‘Your special day’ is telling too. It conjures both a hopelessly self-involved narcissism and an absolute identification with the Queen, whose ‘special day’ it really is. The repetition of ‘another’ achieves two effects: to signal the dailiness of what should be a shocking and nationally shaming incident, and to dramatize the numbness with which such news is actually met. In this context ‘squaddie’ feels sneering, a way of reducing the human being at the centre of the tragedy to a faceless and expendable unit. The irony is sharp: how many times have British soldiers been – often posthumously – recruited for the purposes of jingoistic propaganda and monarchic spectacle? Is working-class life only valuable if expended in the service of the military industrial complex? Are those who have survived such service not worthy of care?

Throughout McCann’s poem repetition is used to superb effect. Lines five to eight lead us through a litany of delightful surprises, from the ring at the doorbell, to the appearance of guests bringing wine and beer, linked together in rapid succession with the conjunction ‘and’. Lines thirteen to sixteen mirror this listing, but link their incidents with the phrase ‘out there’: ‘Out there the cupboards are empty,/ Out there someone takes their own life,/ Out there every state celebration’. The effect is to contrast what is happening ‘inside’ the subject’s insular and insulated bubble of privilege with the horrors visited upon those who struggle to exist outside of it, while also signalling the entanglement of these two worlds. Because both sets of repetition have the same metrical structure with the same number of syllables, McCann creates the sense that the events they describe are unfolding at the same time; that the latter is the consequence of the former.

In the second poem of this short sequence there is a powerful shift of perspective, also achieved through mirroring. The poem still uses direct address to an unnamed ‘you’, but one who wakes up ‘hungry and tired’. The bracketed thoughts this poetic subject wishes to push away and enclose are those that bring despair in their wake, ‘Every morning’s the same’, tea and toast for breakfast ‘Ditto lunch and your evening meal’. This shift from privilege to poverty is both an accusation and an invitation towards empathy: imagine this was you, waking up cold, tired, broke, with little to look forward to. It asks the cold, complacent middle-classes evoked in the first section to make the imaginative effort to see themselves in another’s skin. Lines seven to nine repeat McCann’s list formula, connecting this time a terrible set of circumstances through the conjunction ‘and’. The subject aches and is exhausted; they cough but they cannot afford to turn on their heating. This is the most affecting point in the poem. While the Queen celebrates seventy years on the throne, many elderly people in Britain are living in dire poverty, undeserved but unlamented. It is a moving contrast. It reminds us why we should be – and remain – furious.

All four poems in their various ways capture the oddity and the horror of living in a country without class solidarity, encouraged to identify instead with an elite authority who could not give a toss about you. But the poems also provide a strategy and a space of speaking back to that experience, of holding it to the light and exposing it for the cheap trick that it is.

Jubilee (01.06.12)
By Al Hutchins

It is still daylight and the string
Round the meat has been thrown
Under the bridge all the blood
And water went
Workless
Drawn down to a bead of
Victoriana
Before the avalanche of toil:
Jesus, shoeless, on the London Orbital

My desire for drink
Has gone
Oblivion will not mend
This
I dream of a ha ha
And howl
Good enough for a plague of kings
Hard pretend to happy
Ape interest in the regular
While the water levels in me
like a duel

And my birds lose wing…

What is the merriment of
60 years like this?

Good food thrown for
Spite
Meat and eggs crumped
Like old letters
Red rude
Ruby lips
Pressed against us while
We try to sleep?

…Well, that was extensively apologised
There were logistical errors…

I listen

And the rain slaughters
Clatters
Its cattle down

Al Hutchins is a West Midlands-based poet, performing “stuff” since 1997. His rhythm, holler and tune-mongering thing, The Courtesy Group has been lauded by the likes of John Peel, Stuart Maconie and John Cooper Clarke. His poetry and fiction have been published by New River Press, Eccentric City, Tindal Street Press, and by Culture Matters.

If David Icke Was Right
By P.V. Tims

Our grey, grieving Liz, tired of the lie,
Shuffles old Buck’ to a room filled with sun;
Takes off her skin with a lingering sigh
And admits to herself the deception is done.
In place of a Queen, a monitor lizard!
In place of a palace, a reptile tank!
In place of the Bake Off, flies and raw gizzards!
This is now Britain; we have Liz to thank!
What is unleashed by our scuttling Empress?
What fresh nightmare does Blighty now face?
And must we still court the hordes of tourists,
Flaunting our cold-blooded monarchist grace?
They queue round the block to see the glass wall,
Of Buckingham’s new hothouse renovation,
Where Princes and Dukes are having a ball.
Forked tongues and tails! All pomp and elation!
Not much to choose twixt a Prince and a gecko.
For either specimen, what price is fair?
“God Save The Queen” still resounds with an echo.
But at least with the reptiles our stamps have flair.

Paul Victor Tims is a Durham based sci-fi writer, cultural pundit and die-hard socialist. He sometimes does poetry (not very well).

The Subject
By Sabrina Lyall

is white
as a weak emergency.

The subject
has emptied her eyes
into ashtrays.

The subject’s body
is a neat briquette,
catching fire

(nobody minds).

The subject’s blood
is a meek scouse broth,
is a milky supper,
is a pale tea sucked
through a crazy straw.

The subject
is a bird
with lectern wings.

The subject
has a permit
for her face,

she is allowed
to park here;

is trusted
with the key
to the community
allotment.

The subject is
a little latte-stripling,
takes selfies in a Starbucks,
lengthens her lashes,
blogs about saving the bees.

The subject is
a twelve yr old girl,
trapped in the body
of a 53 year-old
daily mail reader

(she has hussy eyes).

Her world is a tiny Hell
enclosed inside
a Margate a snow globe.

The subject thinks Kate Middleton
looks beautiful in green.

The subject trails
her cursor
like a planchette over
the day’s indifferent news.

The subject is
in therapy,
but not really.

The subject is
kind to animals,
but only some animals
and not when they shit
on the floor.

The subject is
on a diet
since 1982.

The subject pretends
to have a peanut allergy
so people will think
she’s interesting.

The subject lives
in a wicker hamper,
she says doesn’t the queen
do a marvellous job?

Sabrina Lyall divides her time between Clonmel and London. She is new to poetry, but is currently working on her first collection.


Jubilee
By Kevin McCann

(Jubilee: from the Latin Jubilo = to shout)

1.

Wake up dry eyed with excitement
On this your special day
(This morning another ex-squaddie’s
Found dead in another doorway)
And now there’s a ring on the doorbell
And the first of your friends are here
And she’s brought a bottle of Moet
And he’s brought some rather nice beer
So you nip out and fire up the Barbie
And then pour a large G and T
And talk of the need for harsh measures
Because there’s no money tree:
Out there the cupboards are empty,
Out there someone takes their own life,
Out there every state celebration
Is another twist of the knife.

2.

You wake up hungry and tired
(Every morning’s always the same)
Make tea and toast for your breakfast
(Ditto lunch and your evening meal)
Then have a quick flick through the Ceefax
Because daily papers aren’t free:
And all of your bills have just doubled
And you can’t seem to shake off that cough
And though your cold bones are aching
You’ll still keep the heating switched off.


Kevin Patrick McCann has published eight collections of poetry for adults, and one for children: Diary of a Shapeshifter (Beul Aithris Publications). There is also a book of ghost stories: It’s Gone Dark (The Otherside Books), and Teach Yourself Self-Publishing (Hodder), co-written with the playwright Tom Green. Ov (Beul Aithris Publications) is a fantasy novel for children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bakshiram
Thursday, 13 June 2024 07:33

Artist and Empire

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Quille explores the relations between art, politics and empire, in the current Artist and Empire exhibition at Tate Britain.

Has there ever been a more successful engine of global exploitation than the British Empire? And has any other empire been better at reframing that exploitation as benevolent paternalism, moral improvement and the general all-round civilisation of savages?

At its height the British Empire was the largest in history, covering almost a quarter of the world's total land area. It has shrank over the last hundred years to a handful of overseas territories, but its legacy is everywhere. It is most obvious in the statues and monuments all over the country to cruel, thuggish and racist monarchs, admirals, generals, politicians and imperial administrators. They dominate and disfigure our public spaces: hence the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford.

Other legacies of Empire lie in social structures, in the fault lines of contemporary global politics particularly in the Middle East, and in art and culture generally. One of the sad and sobering aspects of this exhibition is the way it reveals how the ruling classes have since the early colonial period co-opted most art and most artists, most of the time. Commissioned by the rich and powerful, artists have themselves been colonised, paid to promote, legitimise, and even glorify Britain's violent and rapacious foreign conquests.

Six rooms at Tate Britain tell the story through art of colonial conquest, collaboration, subordination and resistance. Various items of visual and material culture eg paintings, flags, sculptures, clothing and maps, are used to illustrate various themes.

In the first room, Mapping and Marking, we see how British cartographers and surveyors mapped occupied territory, erased indigenous ownership, imposed new names and new borders, and presented domination as civilisation.

The next room, Trophies of Empire, focuses on the various objects, specimens and other examples of material culture brought back by explorers, sailors, missionaries and traders. It shows how the looting, bartering and purchasing which accompanied the imperial project penetrated museums, elite collections, laboratories and zoos.

Next, Imperial Heroics explores the explicitly ideological mission of most British history painting, which helped shape popular perceptions of the Empire. They include representations of heroic struggle and martyrdom by tiny bands of brave British soldiers, surrounded by crowds of savages. Some of the representations of nineteenth century jihadists resisting Empire are unnervingly topical, and seem prophetic in the light of the current Islamophobia in the media. Just how much has actually changed in the way our mainstream culture views people with other religions and darker skins?

The room on Power Dressing is a fascinating insight into how the Western elite tradition of grand portraiture, developed to convey the power and dominance of representatives of the ruling classes, arrived in colonies along with the gunboats, machine guns and deceitful diplomacy. British diplomats and administrators were often portrayed wearing indigenous clothing such as Native American costume. Colonised peoples, whilst often forced to adopt Western styles of clothing, often modified and resisted it, or knowingly played to imperial expectations by wearing their own. Trans-cultural cross-dressing expressed the tensions and conflicts between homeland, colony, and imperial centre, in striking and sometimes humorous ways.

Face to Face contains some fine examples of portraits of Empire's subjects. Both Charles Frederick Goldie and Rudolf Swoboda paint colonial subjects sympathetically, giving dignity and identity back to them, and revealing elements of doubt, even guilt, about imperial conquest. Swoboda's 'Bakshiram' (reproduced above courtesy of Tate Britain) is one of the finest paintings in the exhibition.

And finally, in the artworks in the Out of Empire room (and occasionally pointedly positioned in the other rooms) we see how post-colonial and contemporary artists developed some effective artistic practices which challenged, ironicised and thoroughly demolished the deceitful ideology and iconography of Empire. Gradually, through long and difficult struggles by Black and Asian artists who were initially marginalised by the art establishment, modern visual art has freed itself from the shackles of misrepresentation and glorification of Empire. Now, it is a much more critical and truthful representation of the political and economic realities which underpinned it.

Artist and Empire is revealing, educational and entertaining, and shows how important it is to present art within its political and economic context. Curating art in this way clarifies how art is rooted in and reflective of its historical and political environment. It shows, sadly, how art sometimes works by supporting and glorifying racism, sexism and other kinds of class-based cultural domination which enable and legitimise the straightforward economic exploitation which is the core project of empire.

You will surely come out of this exhibition, feeling moved and enlightened, as I did, asking questions, like Brecht's Questions from a Worker Who Reads. Why are the relations between art, history and politics not commonly shown in our art galleries? How much more relevant and popular art would become if we were shown, for example, how artistic images of women throughout history are linked to the class-based oppression and exploitation of women from time immemorial?

What if the pictures of representatives of the ruling class in the National Portrait Gallery, and in all our local museums and stately homes, were presented in the context of the actual exploitative economic realities underpinning their elite status?

What if all curators – as they do in Artist and Empire – routinely unearthed and exposed the true nature of the relations between art, ideology and the politics of class-divided societies, where wealth accumulates from the economic exploitation of subordinated working people? Would it not be a public service if more art gallery directors, curators and other cultural workers joined the struggle for our cultural liberation?

Artist and Empire is a brave and satisfying exhibition, a great help with that cultural struggle. And its huge popularity with the general public as well as critics suggests that it is high time this kind of approach was adopted more widely.

Artist and Empire is at Tate Britain until April 10. Admission is £16 but concessions are available.