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ANARCHY & CULTURE

 

In tandem with the events taking place to mark the 150-year anniversary of the publication of Matthew Arnold's Culture & Anarchy, in this blog participants in Sussex English's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies choose and reflect on an image connected to either 'culture' or 'anarchy'.

By sussexenglishencs, Oct 11 2016 12:52PM

Culture & Anarchy holds an ambiguous position in the history of aesthetics. On the one hand it is a powerful moment in the growth of what is now termed ‘aesthetic democracy’, the radical imagining of a society centred around and animated by aesthetic experience. In this vein Arnold’s work follows the revolutionary fervour of Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) and Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s plans for a ‘Pantisocratic community’ in late eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, and anticipates William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) and even the later anarchist culture referred to by Tom Wright below. On the other hand, however, Culture & Anarchy is also an extremely influential instance of the problematic hardening and gentrification of aesthetic experience that takes place around the mid-point of the nineteenth century. It is this latter aspect of Arnold’s thought that I want to dwell on here briefly, and it is William Turner’s Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845) that I want to use to exemplify my point.


If one compares early nineteenth-century accounts of aesthetic experience with that given by Arnold in Culture & Anarchy, then, what one finds is that the former are significantly more egalitarian and pluralist than the model Arnold formulates. This is because the earlier accounts of aesthetic experience configure any encounter with the natural world, however brief or restricted, as full and profound moments of access to the realm of aesthetic freedom and its breadth and harmony of consciousness. Think, for instance, of Coleridge’s suggestion that his youthful, urban experience of the ‘sky and stars’ sparked his later immersion in natural beauty. Aesthetic experience, furthermore, is understood as innate in every individual, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as works as diverse as Lyrical Ballads (1798) and Sartor Resartus (1833-4) demonstrate. Even as late as 1848, John Stuart Mill’s Political Economy can claim that society must promote the individual’s access to natural beauty for the same reasons elaborated by Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads. Aesthetic experience engenders moral consciousness, and thus guards against the problems attendant on commercial society by guaranteeing an individual’s psychic harmony.


In the thought of Arnold, and of his contemporaries John Ruskin and Walter Pater, however, a far-reaching reconfiguration of aesthetic experience takes place. For in common with Pater, Arnold renders aesthetic experience, and breadth of consciousness, a matter of book learning above all else. The ‘man of culture’ must be acquainted with ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’. He must read, observe and think about every ‘voice’ from ‘art, science, poetry, philosophy, history’ and ‘religion’. And, on top of this daunting library catalogue of material, he must then, ‘through this knowledge, turn […] a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’. Arnold’s version of how psychic harmony and breadth of consciousness are arrived at has become a life-long programme of study and then reflection, in other words. As for Ruskin and Pater in the 1850s and 60s, therefore, aesthetic culture is professionalized, gentrified and rendered a matter of elite experience. For the thought of these three figures gives almost no place to natural beauty, and no credence to the previously near-universal idea that aesthetic consciousness is spontaneously engendered when any individual is faced with natural beauty.


This hardening and narrowing of aesthetic experience in Culture & Anarchy might be explained by the fraught political context of the middle decades of the nineteenth century. For hardened conceptions of aesthetic contemplation seem to flare up — in the early 1850s after chartism’s climax and the European revolutions of 1848-9, and in the late 1860s after the Reform League agitation that led to the Second Reform Act — in direct response to moments of civic unrest around the questions of reform. Ruskin’s architectural criticism sits in the first of these moments, Arnold’s Culture & Anarchy and Pater’s Renaissance in the second. The accessibility and instantaneousness of aesthetic experience thus give way, in these fraught moments, to a more studied, a more professionalized, and therefore a more elitist model of cultural education and training. And aesthetic consciousness is no longer conceived as offering instantaneous moral consciousness, and as therefore promising political stability, because the physical and material wants that stand behind contemporary unrest are now understood as more pressing than — and as too concrete to be touched by — issues of psychic attitude or an aesthetic state of mind.


Turner’s Norham Castle, then, should be read as a late example of the pluralist, egalitarian model of aesthetic experience that Arnold and his contemporaries reject. The painting’s subject, Norham Castle in Northumberland, was first seen by Turner in 1797, but was then revisited in 1801 and 1831. The painting's fragile, dream-like quality thus evokes the transcendence from physical beauty to spiritual consciousness that early nineteenth-century literary thought also dramatizes. The composition’s sparseness, simplicity and even vagueness seem to me its most important qualities, however. For the mode of seeing captured and crystalized in this canvas is not one that requires specific historical or architectural knowledge of its subject castle. Neither does this style of vision rely on the kind of politics of landscape invoked by John Clare’s broadly contemporary poetry of ‘enclosure’. Instead, transcendent vision occurs here from a point of view that is plain, untutored and open to any spectator. The painting’s range of near-primary colours casts its experience as somehow unelaborated, unadorned, but nevertheless both pure and powerfully other-worldly. The Arnoldian counterpart to this image could be Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Dante’s Dream (1869-71) in which, in common with other Pre-Raphaelite art, aesthetic fervour must be worked up by layering literary-historical reference and by moving as far away as possible from the plainness of everyday vision. Turner’s work is thus an open and general invitation to experience, and to attain breadth of consciousness. Arnold’s thought, and the kind of artistic practice that follows it, is an invitation to read, to travel and to study — if you have the leisure and means for these tasks — and to thereby begin the long process of attaining authority in the elite world of ‘culture’.



By sussexenglishencs, Jul 28 2016 07:09AM

In 2015, a peculiar rare book came up for auction in Stroud, Gloucestershire. It was inscribed by its author, carried signs of smoke damage, and was stamped as the former property of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Though seemingly nondescript, it was an item that told a fascinating international story.


The book was Signs of Change (1888) a collection of speeches on socialism and art and by the British writer and designer William Morris. It was a copy that he had presented in person to the American anarchist activist Lucy Parsons when they met in London in the year of its publication. As a gift it was very apt. It symbolised their shared anger at social injustice and their common calling as public speakers, and for the modern scholar, provides a window into the rich global culture that surrounded late nineteenth anarchist thought.


When Morris presented her with the book, Parsons was one the most notorious radicals in America. For over a decade she had been active in Chicago labour politics as a writer and an orator, often urging her audiences to use violence to resist their oppressors. In 1886 her husband Albert and four other men had been charged with inciting a riot in which six policemen died in a dynamite attack. Despite not having been present at the scene, Albert and three others were convicted and executed the following year. The incident became known internationally as the ‘Haymarket Affair’, after the square in which the deaths occurred, and Lucy Parsons became one of the chief commentators who would try to shape its historical meanings.


From the moment of Albert’s imprisonment, Lucy had begun to tour the US giving speeches proclaiming her husband’s innocence. Her arguments for free speech soon made her a first amendment cause celebre. By all accounts she was a remarkably powerful speaker, and her mixed black, Native American and Mexican heritage made her an exotic and glamorous figure to many audiences. Her fame was soon global. In 1888, she was invited to London by anarchist and socialist organisation, and spoke at various meetings and open air rallies, telling the story of Haymarket and the suppression of the American anarchist movement. At Speaker’s Corner and Victoria Park, she shared platforms with fellow anarchists such as the Russian Peter Kropotkin, and spoke at a meeting at Morris’s Hammersmith home, where she was presented with her inscribed copy of Signs of Change.


The gift reveals several key aspects of anarchist culture. It reminds us that this was an international movement, linking the Russian émigrés of London with the German and African-American radical ferment of Chicago. Parsons remains a cult figure of the American left, and a writer whose provocations against the excesses of the police resonate particularly strongly in 2016. But this copy of Signs of Change is a vivid reminder that she was also part of a broader culture and flow of ideas, linking the seemingly disparate strands of the medievalist anti-modernism of Morris with the futuristic industrial radicalism of Parson’s Chicago, or Kropotkin’s “propaganda of the deed” in Geneva and Moscow.


The book also testifies to how radicals of the time saw themselves as part of a broader cultural project of social education, attempting to teach broad publics about how power structures could be shaken off. The book was a tribute from one orator to another. The fact that it is a book of speeches reminds us that performance, oratory and street theatre were just as important as pamphlets and newspapers to the culture of fin de siècle anarchism. As Morris’s writings of the 1880s such as the novel A Dream of John Ball (1888), and his later masterpiece News from Nowhere (1890) reveal, he was fascinated with the potential of oratory as propaganda and the difficulties of public persuasion. In Parsons he found someone approaching ideas similar to his own from a divergent cultural and racial perspective, through language whose vehemence shook him. The gift of Signs of Change was potentially one way of urging a less ferocious but no less committed route to social progress.


But what is the story with the smoke damage? Why the FBI stamp, and how did the book get back to England? Only some of this is clear. In 1942, the 89 year-old Parsons died in a house fire in Chicago, and since the police still considered her ideas and words a threat, her belongings, books and papers were seized, and have been long thought destroyed. Their loss is one of the reasons that Parsons is not better known today. Yet the re-emergence of this book at auction in England tells us that her possessions were not destroyed. Clearly, some were eventually released and somehow found their way into the hands of British enthusiasts.


This book interests me because I am in the process of trying to write an account of this transnational flow of anarchist ideas and public speech during the 1880 and 1890s. To see what this context can tell us about both the intellectual and political life of late nineteenth-century, but also to relate it to contemporary global climates of radicalism. Objects like this are crucial in allowing scholars to make new connections and unravel forgotten histories. The inscription, smoke damage, posthumous confiscation and eventual resurfacing in the auctioneer’s marketplace all tell their own complex stories about the evolving relationship between culture and anarchy, performance, power and commerce.



By sussexenglishencs, Jun 27 2016 06:51AM

In this photo (a still from a short news clip, below) taken fromThe Guardian website, some primary school children sit with their backs to us, on bare tarmac in south Bristol. They are uniformed, and arrayed in a line: someone, perhaps a teacher, has instructed them to take up these positions; other, larger, societal or educational forces have caused the pupils to be dressed as they are. They are in the playground of a school, and they are all looking at an image, spray-painted onto the school wall in front of them. In visual terms, this image marries the complex and proficient, with the simple and off-hand; the faux-naif with the virtuoso-expert; the spontaneous with the deeply meditated. Graffiti art, by the Bristol artist Banksy, it is a child’s stick-drawing of a child, by a stick-drawing house; the stick-child holds a stick-stick, and is playing with a burning tyre. The tyre is the only element in the image to be represented super-realistically: it could almost be a photo. Taken as a whole, Banksy’s art spans the spectrum of artistic culture’s ability to represent: from the starkly suggestive, just-decipherable daubs of a child, to the artist’s almost magical ability to re-present the real in mimetic terms.


Art and the real meet and clash in Banksy’s image, then, as well as in the news photo of the children looking at Banksy’s art. Culture and anarchy are present too, at many levels. Most obviously in the image of the child playing with fire: an image which subverts all our conceptions about childhood, play, innocence and violence. It disturbs us by crossing boundaries and mixing categories which we want to separate; by pollinating the safe world of childhood with the violence and chaos of the global disorder. The promise of childhood is the promise of culture in broadest terms: of growth, of becoming, of potential nurtured and realised: these are promises whose burden is largely carried, in our culture, by education. Yet both in Banksy’s image, and perhaps also in the photo of the children looking at the image, this promise risks being doubly short-circuited. The stick-child is not nurtured, but rather inhabits a dangerous world of anarchic forces, where play is violence and violence is play. Perhaps this inversion is why the child is represented through the too-short, abrupt lines of a child’s drawing: art itself assumes the failed development which is sketched for the child, and by implication, for the world she inhabits. As a child’s drawing produced by an adult, the Banksy work is a regression against cultural expectations of development, expertise, maturity. Art here is impeded, it is not cultured: it does not lead towards a promised future, an ideal, but is arrested. But at the same time, even though it is before its time, the image produces an effect in arresting and shocking us. It transcends its limits: it is more than what it is. Like a child, it gestures beyond its own form, to a possible achievement of what it might be. Graffiti art, like the child, is already what it hasn’t yet become.


This traumatised or broken art – an art which has regressed to childhood, but which remains art – is, in the news photo as a whole, placed in dialogue with the on-looking school children. With their backs to us, faces not visible, only uniformed bodies, the children are as de-personalised, as anonymous, as the stick-child herself. The fact that these children are organised in the collective act of looking at the Banksy art suggests the work of culture, of education: the scene is staged for the study of culture. The children are perhaps about to copy the art work, replicating its childish art with their own. Their regimentation in the processes of education and acculturation reassures us, and softens the threat of the starkly drawn image which they contemplate: the children represent an attempt, perhaps the best we have, to heal the broken world with whose anarchic forces they are being confronted. This, Matthew Arnold (school inspector and son of a head teacher) might have said, is what culture is for, but as staged here, the confrontation appears a potentially troubling and dangerous one. What is going on in this cultural lesson - what meanings might these children glean from their study? It is impossible to tell, and it seems significant in this regard that, due to the foreclosed perspective from which the photo is taken, we cannot see the space between the children and the artwork. What exists between them and it, what is taking place between them and it, occupies an unseen space, beyond representation.


In the short news clip from which this photo is taken, the primary school head teacher described the Banksy work as ‘beautiful’. An almost imperceptible hesitation, followed by a too-confident insistence on the word, betrays his realisation that this word doesn’t fit, because ‘beautiful’ is the last thing the Banksy is. Nevertheless, the word is valuable, because the teacher’s use of the word marks the Banksy as ‘art’, and enables cultural work to take place. As that process begins, we might hope that these children cannot fully see what Banksy has made visible, in disturbing ways, on their school wall: that they do not discern, between the childish lines, something of what it might be like to be that child, playing with fire, in a world which is also their world; or consider that that child is in fact each of them, and each of us, and reflect on the conditions of our world, in which innocence and violence, safety and danger, precariously co-exist. Something here has been writ large, if only they can see it, and the work of culture is certainly asking them to look.


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