No, satire isn't destroying politics

Don't blame Ian Hislop for the lack of respect we show politicians.

Martin Kettle has an interesting piece on Comment Is Free today, arguing that "the current satirical onslaught against politics as a whole . . . amounts sometimes to monomania and increasingly to cliche". He argues that the relentless mockery of shows such as Have I Got News For You conditions the public to view all politicians as greedy, venal liars:

There is never any sign that [Ian] Hislop allows of exceptions; or that he has a political hero; or even, with the occasional honourable mention for Vince Cable, that there are politicians whom he respects. The impression he always gives is that today's politicians are uniformly unworthy of their inheritance, not to be compared with some previous golden age of statesmanlike effectiveness.

Kettle makes the valid point that one effect of this remorseless sledging is that the public drastically overestimate the number of MPs engaged in active skulduggery. And that's fair enough -- who doesn't feel a twinge of remorse when an audience member on Question Time berates some perfectly blameless backbencher about how "you're all at it" instead of letting them talk?

But I can't help feeling that it's not the tone of satire which has changed but its reach and frequency. There's a tempting idea that we live in the coarsest age ever, where people swear all the time, make rude jokes, show no respect and generally won't get off my lawn. But it's historically inaccurate, as a quick skim of Catullus or Juvenal (look up the translation of the phrase at the heart of this news story, if you dare) or Pope and Shelley will tell you.

Here's Alexander Pope on the death of Queen Caroline from an intestinal ulcer in 1737:

Here lies, wrapt up in forty thousand towels,
The only proof that c*** had bowels.

Try to imagine Carol Ann Duffy writing the same on the death of a member of our beloved monarchy and then argue that this is the "age of disrespect".

If anything has killed off the idea of "political heroes", it's surely the intrusiveness of our round-the-clock, ever-watching, public-interest-is-what-interests-the-public style of media. To appear heroic, you need to be distant, otherworldly, remote -- something that is very hard to achieve when the modern politician's every move is photographed, even while they're in chinos-and-cappucino holiday mode or picking their nose in the House of Commons.

Instead of a "straight" media providing material for satirists, low-level satire -- not very funny, not very pointed -- abounds. Martin Kettle comes close to acknowledging this when he says it "suits many in the media very well indeed to depict politicians as objects of contempt", but then seems to argue that satire is therefore the problem: "Plato wanted no place in his republic for artists -- and that probably included satirists, too."

But that's not quite right, is it? The problem isn't satire, with comedians putting a twist on the news; the problem is with the news itself. If journalists can't take politicians seriously, why should the public?

The final word goes to Rory Bremner, who was part of a fascinating FT roundtable on the subject last year:

One problem is that everyone is a satirist these days: a kind of weary, "come-off-it" cynicism pervades most news media, constantly blurring the line between news reporting and matey, "aren't-they-all-silly" editorialising, with the BBC's Nick Robinson one of the chief culprits. This, and politicians' behaviour, leaves satire (of our MPs, at least) almost redundant. Certainly if there is no respect, no deference, any more, much of the tension, the element of shock or outrage is dissipated. "You've got so much material these days!" people constantly say to me. Which may be true but also means that the reality is now beyond parody and, of itself, ridiculous.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle