Recently the Manchester Art Gallery has removed one of its most famous 19c paintings from public display, stating that the intention is for the gap on the wall to provoke debate about the painting. What a disingenuous statement! If it were so, they would not also have removed postcards of the painting from the museum shop. The fact it – and I wish they would be honest enough to say so, because it would have generated just as much of a debate – they have come to object to the subject-matter. They object to the ‘male gaze’ (over-used-phrase-alert!) of the artist upon the pubescent nymphs in the picture. Even I as a feminist and anarchist can see that this is muddled thinking. One does not learn anything about history by censoring its culture, nor by imposing our own cultural values on it. Our own contemporary schools of critical thought are not being written upon tables of stone, and will give way to other ways of regarding the world.
What is most disturbing about Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs is not the apparent pubescence of the nymphs, but their uniformity. They are, near enough, identical. And this tells us that despite the fact that they are luring Hylas because of his hebephilia, they are not mortal girls, but beings that are locked into a permanent state. It is that the painting is uncanny – unheimlich – that is truly disturbing. We cannot see the gaze of Hylas. His face is hidden, he has ceased to gaze and is at the moment of surrender – see where his male gaze has got him! In the painting, the fixed and overpowering gaze is that of the superficially, supernaturally female nymphs. Theirs is the power, but they are powerless to do or be otherwise.
There is so much to debate about this painting that has nothing to do with the way 21c society looks at women. What the Gallery has done is apply the criteria of ‘Operation Yewtree’ to art. Big mistake. Put the damn thing back!
As I type out the above, here in the teepee on the Sidlaws, Consuela (my Tejana maid) is looking over my shoulder. She always does that, and sometimes I wish she wouldn’t. But she seems to think I hired her to be my Jiminy Cricket. Anyway, the following conversation has just taken place:
“I wonder what they would have done if the painting had been, say, The Guitar Lesson by Balthus. That’s a much more disturbing work.”
“True. To my mind what we are seeing more and more is a de-focus on the intent of the artist and the privileging of the gaze of the interpreter. The result is a kind of guilt-by-denunciation school of criticism.”
“‘Gaze’ again! So basically you’re objecting to it on the basis that it is simple iconoclasm? What about the demolition of the monumental works of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union? Should they have been left standing?”
“I see what you mean – a question of where one draws the line. I do recall that when the Warsaw Pact fell, and what had been East Germany started to demolish the statues of Lenin, the sculptor mounted a one-man demonstration, holding a placard which read ‘Wann brennen die Bücher?’ He was mocked for that, but the irony is that Eastern Europe has now become fertile ground for neo-Nazism.”
“Aren’t we getting off-topic?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be doing the washing-up?”
“Guess I’ll go out in that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans, then.”
Exit, stage left.
On my old blog site – abandoned long ago and now becoming submerged in jungle foliage, much as an Inca temple or a forgotten Khmer wat might be – I ran a handful of articles about British folklore. More specifically, I dealt with English seasonal, ritual performances such as morris dancing. It’s a subject that often draws giggles* but which is actually very interesting to a folklorist or a researcher. In the articles I dealt with two controversial aspects of the tradition(s) – firstly the blackening of performers’ faces as a means of ritual disguise** in a few of the traditions, and secondly the level of participation of women in the morris.
It’s the latter issue to which I want to return, with a postscript to this 2011 post, in which I referred to an 18c painting which contained a mixed morris dance. At that time I couldn’t find it anywhere on the internet. However, since then I have been able to identify it, though its period is in fact early 19c. This is a detail from it:
It is by Joseph Parry (1744-1826) and depicts ‘Eccles Wakes’, in Lancashire, in 1822. It is, of course, dangerous to take ‘text’ as ‘history’, but the painting shows that the idea of women dancing was there in someone’s consciousness at that time. Parry lived most of his life in Manchester, so Eccles would have been a cock stride for him. ‘Wakes’ means a traditional annual holiday in Northern England, and this painting, which contains some two hundred figures supposedly portrayed ‘from life’, shows a traditional rushcart preceded by morris dancers. Some details, however, are giving me pause; the dancers are in street clothes for a start, and they are waving handkerchiefs, which is typical of a tradition from much further south in England.
A painting that is roughly contemporaneous, though in a much more stilted style, is Alexander Wilson’s depiction of a rushcart at Long Millgate in 1821. The only copy I could find of this painting is in too small a scale to reveal much, except that there seems to be a team of male dancers in a uniform costume.
Neither of these, I reiterate, is ‘history’, though both are certainly tantalising. As is this unattributed painting from two hundred years earlier, of morris dancers beside the river Thames at Richmond, dancing to a pipe and tabor. One performer is in female costume. That figure is usually explained as a ‘man-woman’, a man in female disguise. Whether it be a matter of perceived gender or perceived skin-colour, interpretation is a political act…
“Interpretation is a political act” is what Consuela (my Tejana maid) said to me a few days ago, as we stood in front of Sir Edwin Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’. In private hands until last year, the painting has been acquired by the National Gallery of Scotland and has been touring various provincial museums.
When we saw it, it had been hung so that it was visible from two salons distant. One approached it as though coming into the presence of Apollo in his temple. Close up, this denizen of a million-million whiskey bottles became a work of art once more, showing how Landseer’s brush strokes have reproduced an almost-tangible texture of the creature’s hide.
Landseer painted it in 1851, part of a commission for the Houses of Parliament. The Honorable Members took one look at it and passed. “Beats me why,” I said to Consuela, “because this painting is a celebration of patriarchy!”
That’s when she came up with the above phrase. Really, I can’t take her anywhere!
*It always beats me too why the English are the only people on the face of the planet who laugh at their own culture.
**I deliberately do not use the term ‘blackface’ to describe this practice. I maintain that it differs in origin and substantial detail from the ‘blackface’ of minstrelsy, vaudeville, and the music hall, predating it, probably, by several centuries. This isn’t an argument I intend to rehearse here, having already taken it as far as it can go, and being satisfied that I have made my point. However I am dismayed to learn that attacks on the performers who do use that disguise have increased, and have even been made institutional/constitutional by some festival organisers over the past couple of years. I notice that the Shropshire Bedlam Morris Team have opted for black eyemasks; as they are what I call a ‘speculative revivalist’ team, I can accept that it’s entirely up to them how they modify their image.
MY HOPES FOR 2018 are very simple: That we will end privilege, not by cutting down but by raising up; not by deprivation but by sharing; not by leaving people bereft of purpose but by allowing and encouraging them to see new purpose.
[Seriously, I have to say that this “Top Tips” series is supposed to be ironic, satirical, y’know. But looking at the current shemozzle in Germany, well, you just couldn’t make it up!]
Many of my readers are American, and most, if not all, of those American readers are Democrat-voting liberals. In my Facebook feed too I get a fair number of anti-Trump, anti-Republican memes popping up. Fair enough. However, I recently read a piece in The Guardian* in which a reporter went to East Bangor PA to speak to Trump supporters. He found support still strong, and an irritation about the media focus on the Russia connection. Their attitude seemed to be to the effect: “Who cares if there was some cheating – it made sure that a bigger criminal didn’t get into the White House.” A direct quote from the article says that the Trump supporters feel this this:
Congress and the justice department are wasting millions of dollars on a politically motivated witch hunt to destroy the president, they feel, after the same establishment gave a pass to the alleged crimes of Clinton and Obama.
Now, what I want to know from my American liberal friends is this. What are the “alleged crimes” of Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama? And please, don’t say “None – it’s all fake news made up by the other side!” The phrase “fake news” has now been totally devalued by its constant use by both sides in the USA. What I would like you to do, if you can spare me the effort, is firstly to look at reputable news sources in the US (and maybe outside it to, if you know any good ones) and tell me honestly (i.e. no matter whether you believe the allegations or not) what these allegations are. Secondly is there, in any of these questions, the possibility that there is a case to answer. I don’t want to know whether you believe the allegations, or consider them spurious or vexatious, I want to know if a case could be made, even if refuting the case would be fairly simple.
I know it would be difficult for you to feel that you were, in any way, tarnishing the name of Hilary Clinton or, especially, Barack Obama who was, after all, one of the best front guys the US has ever had for ‘world opinion’. What I wish is to be able to form a cogent and fair picture.
Donald Trump may be making all the headlines over on Planet America**, but back here on earth the really important issue is that the 13th Doctor Who (actually the number itself is controversial, given the way the Whoniverse*** has been depicted over the years) will be female. Actor Jodie Whittaker will be the next regeneration of BBC Television’s most enduring sci-fi hero. The first twelve (does any Whovian*** remember that the Doctor was only supposed to have twelve regenerations?) were all played by men. Some of these men have given us Doctor Who as a larger-than-life character – Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker. Some of them have been plain damned charismatic – David Tennant, Peter Capaldi. Paul McGann even contrived to make him rather sexy.
The selection of a female actor to play the character has been hailed as a brave move, a step forward, a welcome break with the phallocentric patriarchy, etc. etc. etc. It didn’t take long for my Twitter feed to fill up with tweets under #DoctorWho13 saying “I can’t wait to bathe in misogynistic tears…” and the like – the irony being that they seemed to outnumber complaints by about 40 to 1, and at least half the complaints were from women. So basically you could have only filled an eyebath with the ‘misogynistic tears’. I would like to make a couple of observations, to get this into proportion.
Firstly, there is no shortage of female protagonists in televison sci-fi, mainly in American imports. The trend began in 1995 with the casting of Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager. More recently we have seen series such as Orphan Black and Dark Matter, where there is a female protagonist. Meanwhile, in the UK, although we have not produced much in the way of female-led sci-fi – or sci-fi at all, for that matter – our police drama has featured female leads with increasing regularity. Doctor Who does not exist in a broadcast vacuum, therefore, and hailing the first female protagonist in this particular show strikes me (for all my feminist credentials) as being hyperbole.
Secondly, what is actually brave about the decision is that it ditches a successful formula. Over the years we have seen the male Doctor’s companion develop from the original doctor’s teenage-angst-ridden granddaughter, Susan Foreman, through a handful of young women who did a good line in going “Eek!” whenever an ugly alien appeared, through a knife-wielding primitive (Leela), through an investigative journalist (Sarah Jane Smith) who ended up with her own spin-off series, through a Doc-Marten-wearing teenager who liked to blow things up (Ace), to a whole series of companions whose roles were dynamic and often served as a kind of bolt-on human conscience to the alien Doctor. With the introduction of a female doctor, the whole formula has to be re-thought. As a matter of fact, I am looking forward to seeing the result, to seeing whether a new formula can be found that isn’t simply a flipping of the male/female template. Doctor Who has worked very well when the format has been disrupted, as in the episode Blink, in which the Doctor and his companion hardly featured, and the bulk of the drama was left in the hands of two characters who only appeared in that single episode.
So bring it on.
Oh, by the way, mixed in with all those tweets was a fair proportion saying “Now for 007”. No. Please. Let’s just close the whole James Bond franchise. Some people say that Doctor Who is worn out. By comparison, the Bond franchise is totally threadbare. Enough!
Meanwhile I’ve been having a retrospective binge with a box-set of The Sopranos.
I know it’s a bit old hat now, as the series finished in the early 2000s, but if you haven’t caught this series, then I beg you to indulge yourselves. It is magnificent television.
It has, of course, attracted a fair share of criticism. It is very violent, beatings and murder being routine. It is predicated on a male-dominated culture – paradoxically that gives a chance for the female characters to shine, and whilst none of them break the male stranglehold, nor do they try to, the strength of the roles is such that the dynamism and tension never lets up. The characters in general are based very firmly on Italian-American stereotypes. All the gestures are there, Neapolitan oaths and expressions are thrown into modern American-English conversations, the sharp suits and the criminality of course are there.
However, the stereotypes in The Sopranos work as a dramatic device. The settings and the family relationships (ah, family! – yet another Italian-American stereotype) are exactly the same as those that make soap operas and domestic sitcoms work. And indeed the presence of such notable elements of soap and sitcom make the series compulsive watching. Unattractive though the characters are – deceitful, dishonest, mendacious, sybaritic, promiscuous, gluttonous, violent to the point of psychopathy – the viewer is made to care about them. Christopher, Tony Soprano’s inept but ambitious ‘nephew’, battles with heroin addiction, and we actually want him to pull through.
Some of the characters are engaging, if only for their awfulness. The psychopathic Paulie brings the show to life whenever he walks on. Tony’s self-pitying, ageing mother, to whom absolutely everything that happens or is said is a direct attack on her; Bobby, the quiet, almost gentle ‘minder’ for Uncle Junior; Doctor Jennifer Melfi, the show’s law-abiding liberal conscience; Anthony Jr. – where did they find an actor who could develop from a child to a young man without shifting his sullen, deadpan expression?
Not only does the show borrow tropes from the sitcom, it is actually funny from time to time. Sometimes the comedy is decidedly black. In rehab, Christopher finds a ‘buddy’ and they help each other through to sobriety. Back out in the world, the relationship continues, but when the buddy becomes addicted to gambling, joins a ‘family’ poker game, and ends up owing thousands of dollars to them, Christopher has him beaten up, and takes his sports car as part compensation – it’s just the way things are done in mob culture – but that doesn’t stop him driving the buddy to meet his sponsor, in the acquired sports car, and dropping him off with comradely words and hopes for his recovery. The funniest episode is where Christopher and Paulie get lost in a snow-filled wood for a long, cold night. To give you some idea of how funny, you could have written the same scene for Del Boy and Rodney from Only Fools and Horses.
The stereotypes are used in a self-referential way. The characters, whilst playing them up, complain about the public attitude to Italian-Americans. there is a scene where Tony Soprano, whilst on a golf course with a group of WASPs, gets frustrated at the constant questioning about how true to life The Godfather or Goodfellas were.
If you didn’t catch The Sopranos while it was being shown, make a point of seeing it now. Tony Soprano is the key to the whole show, and James Gandolfini played him with constant brilliance. The late actor is greatly missed. And he has a tenuous link to Doctor Who. Check out this encounter between ‘Malcolm Tucker’ and ‘General Flintstone’ in In The Loop.
*The Guardian is a liberal, centre-left newspaper in the UK with a reputation for reporting news fairly. My right-of-centre friends may say that statement is an oxymoron, but I would say that although the paper’s opinion columns may have a liberal bias, they have a reputation for fairness in their factual news items. I am not in a position, however, to comment on the editorial selection of news items – what is given priority, what is included, what is dropped or ignored. All news, from whatever source no matter what its supposed or real political or cultural bias, is narrated rather than reported.
** His latest coup de théatre being to suggest he could pardon himself if impeached. No. He should read Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution of the United States, and that would set him straight.
*** Whoniverse and Whovian. Do I really have to explain?