A Lost Generation Digression

 

To what flaw in social time does the elegiac phrase ‘lost generation’ most aptly apply? The equivocally titled Great War perhaps? Or the yet more universal conflict two decades later? Such glaringly tragic periods are obviously wasteful and direction changing – as well as having drastic effects on population graphs. Plagues and disasters could also provoke the expression, as more contentiously, could the mind-numbing effects of successive waves of technology. Who knows what could have been lost rather than found by these! In my youth, kids spending too much time in front of the “Box” appeared the rampant anxiety. From the 80’s, the role of the Box was ousted by computers and related games: the zombies were being super-charged! More recently, the internet and social media – their potential for good cheapened and misused – have multiplied the effects of distraction and fragmentation infinitely. Soon everyone will be able to find a label for themselves. If you haven’t suffered post-traumatic stress, then what about pre-traumatic stress – it’s common among the sensitive and over-imaginative!

In this dividing world, with its illusion of connectedness, its isolating bins of desire and pleasure, torture and thrill, who cares about literature and art? Yet the overall decline in what’s likely to appear on our mainstream cultural radar – the fact of which, like climate change, most of us seem to be either in denial about or grudgingly resigned to – hardly seems the stuff of generational tragedy. With cheap air-flights still available and so many precious specialisms accessible on-line, it’s easy to feel there’s nothing to complain about. On a foreign beach or from the dubious privacy of our own homes, the most particular of backwaters, (signal permitting), can now be entered – making it easy to feel complacent about the growth of an unshared culture. It’s even possible to be tolerantly forgiving of the enjoyable trash franchises at quite the other end of the spectrum. As usual under Capitalism comes the totalityranny of the marketplace. This rough beast shuffles and slouches on a nearing horizon, and with monotonous regularity we’re foisted its latest mound. No-one who thought about it long enough, could actually want this stuff – yet together, we all feed the beast!

A list of cultural items of so much less value than their prominence justifies, brought to celebrity by the marketplace, could persist over several long paragraphs. Suffice for the nonsense of say Harry Potter, to serve as an example. If that entire phenomenon could be magicked away tomorrow, but for a few diehard fans, no-one would suffer, society would not lose out. Excluding the waste of time of those in thrall to such vacuity, no lost generation would be caused by its disappearance, no damage done to the rest of us. In any case, some equally derivative soufflé would bubble up to fill the vacuum in moments.

But the reason for these general thoughts, stemmed from the specific situation of contemporary painting, so I’ll shut up about totalityrannies and try to avoid bleak summings-up. Shut up!

The day before yesterday I had to journey to a city some hundred miles from where I live. An early morning train, journeying through high moorlands, gradually filled up with travellers and commuters. Relaxed and almost silent at first, new passengers had whole tables to themselves and the leisure to look up sneezing from their various screens to stare out into the elemental mist or down from the huge viaducts over the vanished shanty-towns of the railway’s builders. But time became more urgent, escalating into commuter hour. At the service’s termination in Leeds, every coach was packed to standing-room and about ninety per-cent of the passengers looked like they needed to be in bed.

A connection to Wakefield was imminent, but being one of the few travellers fortunate not to have to be somewhere else, I thought I’d wander a bit, and explore a city not known to me.

From a distance, Leeds had been a disappointment. Like so many cities roughly scanned on grey days, it appeared to have lost most of which would have once made it distinctive. However, walking in a more easterly direction I discovered a region of less ameliorated streets and buildings in middle orbit of the striking dome of the Corn Exchange. The next pleasant surprise was Kirkgate Market which opened in 1857, about five years before the Corn Exchange, and whose interior intricacies were strongly reminiscent of Edward Bawden’s linocuts of Covent Garden and Borough Market.

Returning to the station to check connection times and regain my bearings, next I walked north and while musing on the anarchism and art-related theories of Yorkshire-born poet and polymath Herbert Read, chanced upon the city art gallery – whose collection of 20th-century British Art is recognised as being “of national importance”.  Unfortunately, the gallery was closed. Major roof repairs will be completed this autumn and the galleries reopen on Friday the 13th of October!

Outside the gallery, a strong contrast to overcast skies, I was easily struck by a poster for an exhibition of work influenced by India by the painter Howard Hodgkin, who died earlier this year. Back in the 1980’s and 90’s Hodgkin had vaguely intrigued me for a while, but without wishing to speak ill of the dead, easily struck was always for me, the problem with Hodgkin. So beautiful though his best work can be, most of it floats away rapidly. However, by chance, this exhibition was on at a gallery in Wakefield called The Hepworth (www.hepworthwakefield.org/), a gallery that I’m ashamed to say, I was quite unaware of. Being a disillusioned member of a lost generation myself and feeling – no doubt like numerous others – completely disenfranchised from the whole gallery system, I’ve only noticed the most obvious of new galleries. Idly, I wondered if I’d misjudged Howard Hodgkin. Idly, I wondered where the Hepworth would be in Wakefield, and whether I’d have time to look in and pay my respects to the artist Adrian Searle once hilariously queried in The Guardian (December 4th, 1996) as the Norman Wisdom of painters!

Half an hour later, knowing I’d done Leeds no kind of justice, uncertainly I jumped a London express whose first stop was claimed to be Wakefield. Threading the low viaduct arches through the weed-strewn wastelands of disused junctions and railway areas south west of the central station, I was nervous that once it cleared the tight curves and speed restrictions, this train was set for London – why would it bother with Wakefield?

As I own no tablet device nor mobile (nor credit card for that matter) I was one of the few people concerned with the fascinatingly deconstructed world outside. Not that I blamed my fellow passengers for their interior exile: it was still grey, and at least ninety percent of them, also seemed to have a bad cold or perhaps hay fever? Due to my technological deprivation, I was probably one of the few people on that train who couldn’t find out in advance where exactly the Hepworth gallery was in Wakefield. No matter, ten minutes later I was walking from Westgate station, delighted to have found on a helpful tourist map, that not only was The Hepworth merely a mile away, but even more fortuitously, it was actually on my pre-planned route – a rough scrawl on the back of an envelope with a few street names and landmarks.

Though it may weigh heavily on many of its residents, the unreconstructed central area of Wakefield really appealed to me. The poshed-up bit around Westgate fades into a collection of architectural past eras, with an emphasis on the post-war. Some of these now reviled styles didn’t look in the best of repair, and I mourned for their youth and kicked myself for forgetting to bring a camera despite the poor light. Here was the afterlife of the new hope glimpsed in the background for example, by John Schlesinger’s film adaptation of Billy Liar (1963). But before I got too carried away by a semi-nostalgic reverse into the atmospheres of films, into false dawns and the period in which my lost generation of painters had its roots, I was generously distracted by the absolving scents wafting from a local bakery. There in the window was a type of pastry I’d never come across before. Spinach Florentines they were called. Two for a quid and warm into the bargain, I sat by Wakefield cathedral to eat one. As the pigeons gathered to peck up the flakes of pastry inevitably falling onto the stone flags, I felt like the fake blind man crumbling the cake in Fritz Lang’s, Ministry of Fear (1944). The brief gargoyle of Margaret Thatcher unfortunately crossed my mind followed by the false dawn of Tony Blair. I considered belonging and obscurity. Instead, having no device to contradict me, I choose then and there to believe, that like Pontefract Cakes, Spinach Florentines were a delicious Wakefield speciality . . .

After the florentines were finished, both my effigies and reminiscences were driven away by the bland, insistent optimism of a mainstream busker. The pigeons arose as I continued down the hill towards ‘Wakefield Waterside’ through an area of even more blatant post-war architecture: low curving arcades, certain to disappear soon. It’s easy to understand why locals might wish to raze this run-down serpentine of charity shops – after all, I don’t have to live in Wakefield. They must function as shops, not just evocative monuments. Sadly, whenever such areas are cleared, what we get in return, is only more anonymous – a criticism no doubt frequently levelled at expanded towns and rebuilt cities after the war. If only such areas could be restored instead of demolished, perhaps the cloying and somewhat Tory effect of Heritage Britain, would be diluted?

The river Calder winds through Wakefield beneath a busy racetrack of roads forking towards Doncaster or Barnsley and Sheffield. A hundred metres up the road more bridges cross the Calder and Hebble navigation – first dug in 1702 to set Wakefield up as an important inland port. The Hepworth Gallery, which opened in 2011 (and was a finalist in 2017’s Art Fund Museum of the Year) is situated between the two waterways, and faces, across a large grassy island, some strangely blanked warehouses, reminiscent of the paintings of de Chirico, their window apertures painted out. Amazingly, as I approached over the Calder, in the centre of the weir to which the angular, silvery-grey parallelograms of the gallery, form a castle-esque backdrop, a heron fished, quite unbothered by the roar of traffic, nor the excited child in a pushchair who looked down as her granny photographed its patient majesty. Briefly, a ray of sun hit the gallery beyond, which glimmered as if it were about to phase out – weary of the quotidian cycles of earthly life . . . to return to its distant star-system of origin.

Inside, up a grand flight of stairs, the Hepworth provides an impressive series of large white box galleries with occasional overhangs, airy yet secretive, looking across the river. The collection of works by early and mid-twentieth century British artists, transferred from the original Wakefield Art Gallery when it closed in 2009, is surprising, and the gallery claims to continue its support of emerging contemporary art – which would be fairly unique. Most large public galleries seem to play it safe, restricting themselves to internationally known artists, whose bandwagon is already well-rolling. The Hepworth has certainly done an effective job of displaying Hodgkin’s work – which though it always tended to heavily rely on a receding frames-and-borders formula to give it structure and draw the viewer in, at least has the emotional strength of colours as an elemental compensation . . . But oh! how one could wish for far better painters to be given the same space and respect!

So what of the lost generation of artists for whom nobody mourns? Those that struggled to follow Hodgkin’s relatively blessed and privileged generation?

It’s not only the effect of retrospect that crystallises art into concerted movements. Even at the time it’s being shaped by the random whims of critics, the strings artists can or can’t pull. If only it was a pure thing of quality. If only fashion could be forced to the side-lines. Recently I raised with a friend of mine the idea that we may not have the best ‘culture’ (for want of a more acceptable word) available. She seemed surprised, even amused by my naivete – as if it had always been obvious to everyone that the best art, the best literature, the best ‘culture’, was always likely to be somewhere out on the margins, or still further, out in the etheran ideal. As if the human race would always be likely to miss the best of it. As if society always got the art and culture it deserved. I was baffled by her apparent resignation. I could never hold such a relaxed viewpoint, not even as a child. I always trusted that our society and the wider human race had struggled and largely succeeded in discovering the best of art that was available. For years, despite all my misgivings, perhaps until I saw the surprise on her face that day, I’d complacently believed, that quality automatically rose to the top! Is it just me or is it also a generational thing – the modern scorn of relativism. Yes, what one likes may be a matter of opinion, I’ve always been democratically happy to agree with that. Some like rum and raisin ice cream while others hate it. But what is Good and True has never been a matter of opinion, and to me it never will be. You either understand it or you don’t. You either get it or miss it.

So how do you apply such an ideal to mainstream culture? With the world of film, largely a committee art form perhaps, it’s fairly simple to tell high art from trash immediately – yet there is still a large amount of instantly forgettable work that tries to include higher elements, just as there are obvious periods in the history of film, when fortunately for us, quality happened to be in fashion

In art, the shared forward impetus (as yet not fully undermined by gimmick content) clearly declined after the Second World War, to expire in the whimper of Pop Art. Almost everything powerful after that point has been done by individuals in isolation; individuals stranded between the poles of tradition and gimmick.

A few years back another friend, exasperated by my use of the phrase, asked me to define, roughly, what I meant by ‘gimmick art’. A longer list was cut down to two points:

1) Exhibitions/installations best left as a few lines on the back of an envelope and used to light the fire (like my written note to navigate Wakefield).

2) Exhibitions/installations that would be completely incoherent or meaningless without the accompanying catalogue or leaflet. Sometimes these catalogues are the only place where any ‘art’ that might attach to the work resides. They often contain one or two points of interest – usually in a political/polemical vein, occasionally vaguely philosophical or aesthetic – but the ‘artwork’ itself usually does little or nothing to expand upon this.

From the clever down to the incompetent, traditional representational art, largely lifeless with constricted skill and patience, still persists. On the other hand, dominating most of our non-commercial spaces – epic sheds capable of bestowing a divorced grandeur, such as Tate Modern or The Baltic – gimmick art continues to flourish despite public disinterest or even contempt.

So, what happened to the more searching stuff in-between this rigidly polarised framework? With a few second or third rate exceptions – formula artists it would be impolite of me to name, who can sell enough to keep commercial galleries interested – it has almost all been displaced to the margins. Perhaps this is inevitable in a sell or die world? Some would say, there have always been lost generations and we have no choice but to live with whatever cobbled history of art we’re stuck with. Or should we all be making a different kind of effort? Dedicated and essential artists continue to work, exhibiting in mixed-shows or in obscure locations, beacons amongst the jumble-sales of amateur aspiration and self-indulgence, scraping by with the odd sale, forced to take on all kinds of other work. Is it our melancholy duty to put up with such a situation? What will this mean in the long run for society as a whole: that we’ve ignored at least half of the artists and writers that matter? Can we really survive on baked-beans and candy-floss? Now that art of all kinds must either be politically correct in advance to the point of insanity, or a dipper ride of superficial thrills, does anyone even care anymore? No art can command the kind of engaged vilification that Peter Watkins shows Edvard Munch receiving in his 1974 television film. Perhaps it is for this rabid negative publicity that gimmick art continues to sell what little soul it has? As for its true artists, the world has little but indifference. Munch didn’t realise how lucky he was!

There’s little doubt that society’s cultural selection is haphazard and arbitrary.  As in everything, having influential connections is more than useful and after that, the choice is filtered by fashion and money – a fleeting of the forgettable. Are all the truest artists and writers shoring up in obscurity against the ruin of civilisation; retreating to liminal borderlands to preserve some unvalued light for future generations!

 

Lawrence Freiesleben


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