Portrait of the artist as curator

Grayson Perry selects from the Arts Council Collection.

 

A question: what links the following three individuals? Hans Ulrich Obrist. Daniel Birnbaum. Matthew Higgs. I'll give you a clue, it's what all three do for a living. On the tip of your tongue, right? I'll put you out of your misery: they're curators. The three most influential curators in the world, in fact, according to Art Review's 2009 "Power 100" list.

Obrist,"co-director of exhibitions" at the Serpentine Gallery (among many, many other things), actually topped the list. The most powerful figure in international art. And you didn't recognise his name.

There's a reason for that. Like cinematography, set design, or even sub-editing, curation is a noble profession, defined by craft and hard work rather than celebrity, utterly lacking in the household names that populate apparently more glamorous (but arguably no more creative) career paths in "the arts". A truism which means that my immediate reaction, when confronted by a project such as "Unpopular Culture: Grayson Perry Selects from the Arts Council Collection", which opened at Warwick Arts Centre's Mead Gallery this time last week, is one of suspicion and cynicism.

"Less recognised [by the international art scene] is Perry's role as a curator," the exhibition literature announces proudly. "This exhibition highlights this recent aspect of Perry's practice."

Perhaps. Does a single exhibition ("The Charms of Lincolnshire" in 2006) a curator make, though, just because he's a Turner Prize-winning artist? Does the world think of George Clooney as an actor/screenwriter just because he co-wrote (as well as directed and starred in) Good Night, and Good Luck?

Like the American constitution, visual art invariably benefits, as does most culture, from a separation of powers -- from artists working with curators working with gallerists, all experts in their field, to construct exhibitions. Which does mean that when those categories become blurred, there is a risk that something might be lost.

 

"Taste on the line"

This is the case, I fear, with "Unpopular Culture". Physically winding its way around Queen's Bitter and Head of a Fallen Giant, two pieces Perry made in response to the work on display (this a curious paradox, I think), it feels less like a collection of work in its own right than it does a sustained reflection on the potter's processes and interpretations, an almost biographical account of his relationship with 20th-century British art.

So, a Tony Ray-Jones photograph, Brighton Beach, 1967, becomes something that "very much reminds me of family days at Southend or Clacton . . . I could be the little boy on the breakwater in the cardigan." And a complex, disturbing piece by Jack Smith, After the Meal, is accompanied by an altogether reductive caption: "When looking at this painting, I feel I take on the viewpoint of a working-class patriarch."

The problem might have been partly sidestepped, of course, had Perry been more willing to adopt the anonymous stance of the curator even to a partial extent. He isn't. At all. Mischievous little references to his own experiments with individuality -- photographs of Sixties and Seventies transvestites, more complex depictions of transformation (such as Ray-Jones's Blackpool, 1968, which features a couple seemingly melting into a gaudy neon attraction), a number of twisting Paolozzi, Caro and Elizabeth Frink brass sculptures frozen in the middle of an act of metamorphosis -- these are fair enough. Continuous attempts to entrench one's working-class credentials with references to the Kitchen Sink School and so on, perhaps less so.

Certainly not fair enough is the way an Arts Council video detailing how Perry came up with his curatorial ideas booms out over the second half of the exhibition, obliterating one's opportunity to appreciate a magnificent Frank Auerbach. Perry looms over "Unpopular Culture" -- hardly surprising, considering that shameless displays of his own identity have always been at the heart of his work.

That irritating video also offers a solution to the problem, however. "Here is my taste on the line . . . It's more interesting what I leave out than what I leave in," he explains at one point. "I don't know if it's all mixed up in my nostalgia . . . In a way, I've edited [the collection] to reflect how I see the period between 1940 and 1980."

This is an exhibition about choice, rather than curation. About mischievous subjectivity, rather than formal dexterity. The biggest joke of all being that, behind Perry's highly characteristic and self-focused choices is the desire to evoke a period when, "unlike today . . . stories about art did not feature daily in the broadsheets or contemporary artists crop up frequently in gossip columns".

Framed in this way, the show is considerably more successful. And its simple, personal structure ensures that visitors can enjoy its varied pleasures without Grayson getting too much in the way: a peculiarly elegant Barbara Hepworth -- Spring, say -- or Edward Burra's "Winter", like a surreal watercolour take on thermal imaging, or a couple of hilarious Martin Parr photographs. Yet if I were a professional curator working for the Arts Council, I'd be a little irritated by the way this eccentric collection is being advertised.

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Anti-Semitism is a right-wing problem

The spiritual home of Jewish persecution is not on the left.

We have been conned into believing that anti-Semitism is now a disease of the left. In reality, it is still found mostly in racism’s historic home: on the right. But right-wingers use coded language for it.

In the 1930s, campaigners for a deal with Hitler started by arguing that Britain should not fight the “Jews’ war”. Then they got cleverer. My father was one of them, and Richard Griffiths, an expert on the far right, writes that John Beckett and others used the terms “usury”, “money power”, “alien” and “cosmopolitan” as coded references to Jews.

Today, one code is “north London metropolitan elite”. Danny Cohen, until 2015 the BBC’s director of television, was furiously attacked by newspapers for firing Jeremy Clarkson, and the Times called Cohen a “fixture of the north London metropolitan elite”. The comedian David Baddiel tweeted: “Surprised Times subclause doesn’t add, ‘and y’know: a rootless cosmopolitan of east European stock’.” Dave Cohen, the author of Horrible Histories, tweeted: “Times calls Danny Cohen ‘part of north London metropolitan elite’. We hear what you’re saying, guys.”

The tradition is that of Dornford Yates and Bulldog Drummond, memorably satirised by Alan Bennett in Forty Years On: “. . . that bunch of rootless intellectuals, alien Jews and international pederasts who call themselves the Labour Party”. Clarkson is a perfect opponent for a member of the north London metropolitan elite – a privately educated, British Bulldog Drummond figure for our age.

Another fully paid-up member of the north London metropolitan elite is Ed Miliband, and the attacks on him before the 2015 general election had an unmistakably anti-Semitic edge. Colin Holmes, the author of Anti-Semitism in British Society, points to the Daily Mail’s
attack on Miliband’s academic father, Ralph.

“The word ‘Jew’ doesn’t have to be mentioned,” says Holmes. “All you have to do is make it clear that Ralph Miliband was a refugee from Nazism, and then suggest he has no loyalty to the hand that succoured him. His allegiance was to Moscow. He was one of those rootless cosmopolitans. That theme of Jews owing no allegiance can be found throughout the history of British anti-Semitism. The depiction of Miliband drew strength from the prehistory
of such sentiments linked to Jews, treason and Bolshevism.”

So the Mail article tells us, correctly, that Ralph Miliband was an immigrant Jew who fled Nazi persecution. A couple of paragraphs further on, in case we have forgotten that he wasn’t really English, we read about “the immigrant boy whose first act in Britain was to discard his name, Adolphe, because of its associations with Hitler, and become Ralph”.

It follows Miliband to Cambridge, where he was no doubt taught by several tutors, but only one of them is mentioned: the Jewish Harold Laski, “whom some Tories considered to be a dangerous Marxist revolutionary . . . One is entitled to wonder whether Ralph Miliband’s Marxism was actually fuelled by a giant-sized social chip on his shoulder as he lived in his adoptive country.” What exactly is the purpose of the last seven words of that sentence?

Calling Ed Miliband “weird” was another code, and the argument that we should have had David Miliband, not Ed, because he looked and sounded better was a coded way of saying that he looked and sounded less Jewish.

Yet when, come the 2015 general election, I worked for the Labour candidate in my north London constituency, Finchley and Golders Green (which has a higher proportion of Jewish voters than any other), I found not anger at anti-Semitic attacks on Labour’s leader but a belief that anti-Semitism was Labour’s virus. In vain, I pointed out that we were offering not just the first Jewish prime minister since Disraeli but a Jewish MP in Sarah Sackman.

The constituency was awash with rumours – none of which have ever been substantiated – of Labour canvassers saying anti-Semitic things on the doorstep.

On voting day, I did the early morning shift at my polling station. The first words that my Conservative counterpart said to me were: “I hope you’re ashamed of the way your party has campaigned.” It turned out that the tabloid press had run a story that morning to the effect that Labour canvassers had telephoned Orthodox Jews to tell them that they should not vote for the local Tory MP, Mike Freer, because he was gay.

He is gay, but no evidence has been offered to back up  the story. I have written to Freer (still, alas, my MP), asking for chapter and verse. He has not replied.

Labour isn’t guiltless. Shami Chakrabarti’s widely attacked report last summer made that clear, and the home affairs select committee found disturbing instances. Part of the reason why Labour gets more than its fair share of the odium is the eagerness with which its warring factions use the charge of anti-Semitism to smear their rivals.

But, as no less an authority than Deborah Lipstadt, the pre-eminent historian on Holocaust denial, has said, “It has been so convenient for people to beat up on the left, but you can’t ignore what’s coming from the right.”

My foolish father started out as a left-wing Labour MP in the 1920s. But once he embraced anti-Semitism, he quickly moved to the right in all of his other opinions as well. For then, as now, the spiritual home of anti-Semitism, as with any form of racism, is on the right, not on the left.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge