Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, Pankaj Mishra and Kirsty Gunn.

Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson

How do you break the intellectual consensus that Britain is a front-line developed economy, and must lower its public and private debts simultaneously and dramatically as a precondition for a return to growth? “To deleverage simultaneously is to invite protracted depression,” Will Hutton writes in the New Statesman’s special London issue this week. “The challenge instead is to develop our economy as much as make it grow”. Hutton considers Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, with its thesis that “such epic economic mistakes have been made over the last generation, compounding those of the past 100 years, that the productive sinews of Britain’s economy – and its ability to renew that productive capacity – have shrunk to such a degree that Britain can no longer be considered a developed economy”. In many ways Britain’s reliance on foreign direct investment and an obsession with vacuous, charismatic leaders are characteristic of a developing economy. Elliott and Atkinson find a Britain wedded to a “no-strategy strategy”. And yet Elliott and Atkinson also find themselves in a predicament. They “describe what has gone wrong brilliantly but their economics is descriptive rather than purposefully analytical,” Hutton laments. “They lack a solid political economy with an accompanying vision of what a good British economy and society would look like”. Hutton urges economists to give us a convincing vision of a new kind of capitalism. Until Elliott and Atkinson can better answer the question – what is this wealth for? – “they will do no better than draw with their opponents”.

Andrew Adonis, writing in the Financial Times, also finds the argument of Going South a “brutal and eloquent” expression of declinism in the current crisis. Adonis cautions the reader: “This is a movie in black and white – mostly black”, he warns, “when shades of grey would in my view be more realistic”. Furthermore Elliott and Atkinson “have few concrete suggestions” for how Britain’s leaders can keep their country in the developed world.
The Economist is wary of how far Elliott and Atkinson are really forecasting the loss of developed-economy status. “The authors do not really suggest that Britain’s GDP per head will plummet to the levels of sub- Saharan Africa, or that the country will lose the title of “advanced” economy bestowed on it by the International Monetary Fund”, the Economist review observes. “Instead, Britain’s third-world status is signified by a bunch of qualitative factors”. The underlying analysis is sound, but the broad definitions used by Going South tend towards overstatement and allow Elliott and Atkinson “to be grumpy old men and indulge in some fierce complaining about various aspects of modern British society”.

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

The zero-sum game of the east-west clash of civilisations remains the darling of Anglophone historical polemic. Julia Lovell, writing in the Guardian, considers From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra. Mishra looks to the non-western voices telling the other side of the story – the attempts by Asian thinkers to rebuild identity after colliding with the imperialist west. From the Ruins of Empire “gives eloquent voice to their curious, complex intellectual odysseys as they struggled to respond to the western challenge”. Nor does Mishra look to indulge in broad accounts of success. “Instead, he is preoccupied by the tragic moral ambivalence of his tale”. For Mishra, there is “no triumphal sense of “eastern revenge” against the 19th century’s “white disaster”, but rather one of self-doubt, inconsistency and virtuous intentions gone badly wrong”. Mishra blends accounts of Asia’s thinkers – Persia’s Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China’s Liang Qichao, India’s Rabindranath Tagore – along with luminous details that “glimmer through these swaths of political and military history”, from Indian villagers naming their babies after Japanese admirals on hearing of Japan’s decisive victory over Russia at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, through to the history of the fez. Mishra’s conclusion meanwhile is a bleak response “to those who read China’s and India’s embrace of capitalism as a comforting sign of their reconciliation with western ways”. Mishra’s warning is one of environmental apocalypse – “the final consequence of these centuries-old collisions between Europe and America”.

Noel Malcolm, writing in the Telegraph also finds From the Ruins of Empire a fascinating exploration of the origins and consequences of Asian anti-Westernism, and the ideological legacies that we have been left with today. But he does find some aspects of Mishra’s narrative open to criticism: “The account of Asian anti-imperialism here tends to gloss over the imperialism of the Asians themselves”. Mishra’s description of Western behaviour in Asia “too often relies on the heated complaints of Asians, whose rhetoric is presented as quasi-historical statement”. But John Gray, writing in the Independent, notes how well placed Mishra is to explore the paradoxes of the east-west interplay: “Based in London but living part of the time in India where he was born and grew up, he views the rise of Asia from a standpoint that pierces through the illusions that have shaped perceptions and policies on both sides”. At the heart of Mishra’s ironic story is “the need for Asian countries to adopt western models of statehood in order to avoid being crushed by western power”. From the Ruins of Empire has no comforting message. The retreat of the west today “is unlikely to bring peace, for the Asian powers have their needs, rivalries and scores to settle”.

The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn

The elusive task of writing about music lies at the centre of Kirsty Gunn’s novel, The Big Music. Michael Bywater, writing in the Independent, observes that Gunn further magnifies the task by exploring in prose a kind of music many find inaccessible – the formal music of the Highland bagpipes. “To take that, and to show us at its heart a love-song and a lullaby: she is a brave woman even to try”. The Big Music is presented as a series of “papers” complete with footnotes which Gunn encountered while researching a piece set in the Highlands. Beyond this academic conceit, it is Gunn’s ability to live inside the music itself that makes The Big Music a masterpiece: “Gunn solves the problem she has set herself, not by writing about the music but, by some strange meticulous magic, writing within it”. Opening with John Sutherland, sixth in a line of pipers, set on finishing his own “Lament for Himself”, Gunn’s narrative, “blurred, luminous, a tightly-disciplined poem as well as a set of variations upon a theme”, is perpetually interwoven with the forms, rhythms and melody of the music.

Susan Elderkin, writing in the Financial Times, also praises the ambitious task of “attempting to recreate, no less, the inimical sound of bagpipe music” in words. “It’s an amibition that harks back to the great modernists of the 20th century”, Elderkin observes, and in that tradition, “there is also a story here, a moving one, involving emotionally distant fathers and self-exiled sons, of bagpipe music being handed down through generations, along with loves that cannot, or will not, be expressed”. Adam Thorpe, writing in the Guardian, finds that The Big Music, “its charms as subtle as a piper’s grace notes, brilliantly fulfils its own definition”. In Gunn’s story, “time devolves its tyranny to space rather than chronology, mainly through the temporal dissolutions of memory”. It is a remarkable feat: The Big Music “is not just influenced by Scottish bagpipe music, it seeks to inhabit it”.
 

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ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage