Don’t be fooled by the “Caring Right”

bunny 1

Remember when they used to sneer and call the rest of us ‘Tree Huggers’ and ‘Bunny Huggers’?

Well the latest P.R. blitz by the political Right is to portray themselves as People Who Care, as the ‘good guys’. So suddenly they espouse causes, for which they flood-meme social media, that a handful of years ago they couldn’t have given a hoot for, such as the environment, animal welfare, and so on.

And of course there’s Freedom of Speech. Only the Right doesn’t believe in freedom of speech at all – what they believe in is free and unfettered access to any and every platform, which is NOT the same thing. And of course there’s Democracy, about which they only actually care when they’ve won something, so they can say “We won, so shut the f*** up you whining snowflake!” as though their winning something negated our right to protest. They’d soon whine themselves if the boot were on the other foot! In fact they do. A lot.

I was alerted to the phenomenon of the “Caring Right” by the fact that I found that a left-wing acquaintance and a right-wing acquaintance had ‘liked’ the same charity on social media. Don’t get me wrong here, I believe that many of the people who join their ranks do have a genuine regard for some of these issues, and may have been attracted to the organisations who put out these flood-memes because of these issues. But dig a little deeper, and you will find these posts originate in groups who are anti-refugee, anti-immigrant, anti-anyone-with-a-brown-face. Yep, the good ol’ neo- crypto- whatevero-fascists of today.

So don’t be fooled by the “Caring Right” and their cynical astroturfing. No matter how thin you slice it, it’s baloney.

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Consuela (my Tejana maid), having finished sweeping out the teepee, is, as usual, reading this over my shoulder. Now she’s telling me I’m ignoring history, and that the Third Reich was bigly into charity work. “What about the Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt and the Winterhilfswerk?” she challenges. Aye, right – I bet they helped a lot of people with brown faces!

Alexei

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Danger – Nymphs at work

Hylas
‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ by John William Waterhouse

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!

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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.

Interpretation is a poltical act

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:

Eccles 4

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.

Alexander Wilson Long Millgate Rushcart 1821

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…

Morris_dancers_Thames_at_Richmond

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“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.

The_Monarch_of_the_Glen,_Edwin_Landseer,_1851

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!

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*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

1MY 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.