The great art critic T.J. Clark visits a pair of Modernist art exhibitions in London. One is coyly titled Picasso and Modern British Art, prompting Clark to wonder what Tate Britain curators were thinking by staging an exhibition on Picasso’s influence on British painting, which was negligible, at least in comparison to his impact on the Dutch and the Czechs.
Clark, a Marxist critic, attributes British painting’s inability to adapt in any meaningful way Picasso’s innovations to class, or more specifically, “the special hold [in Britain] of class on culture.”
The culture of art in England is genteel. It is tied to Home Counties, late-imperial class values and attitudes in ways – with a depth and tightness of affiliation – that mark it out from Turin or St Petersburg or Prague or Paris, or even Habsburg Vienna. This has nothing to do, need I say it, with the actual vileness of any particular bourgeoisie. It depends on the means – the insistence, the ‘givenness’ – of that bourgeoisie’s hegemony. And of course there are art forms in which gentility is not (apparently) debilitating. The novel, for one: it can make gentility its subject. The subject may strike one, the more one rereads, as a minor and exhaustible one, if put alongside the accounts of being-in-the-social-world available to the Irish, say, or the Russians or Americans. I used to laugh in California at the way American students of modern literature were more likely to have read the (ludicrous) accounts of class in Mrs Dalloway or Howards End than that of race in Light in August. But the English novel in the 20th century, I concede, is something. It has the power to offend; it has the courage of its class convictions. There is no visual art in the same period of which this can be said.
Clark is careful to point out that not all British Modernism was so tame. Twentieth-century British sculpture, for example, was ahead of painting. Painting is a special case because it “hovered constantly, constitutively, on the edge of complete assimilation to an upper-class ethos of aesthetic novelty, refined cuisine, ‘daring’ entertainment.”
While Clark’s explanation seems reasonable to me, it raises a question about another visual art form in which the British lag behind their rivals: the cinema. Film studies specialists have often wondered why the British cinema has never been as innovative as the French cinema. The usual explanation is that British visual culture has lagged behind the French since 1860. In other words, film is analogous to painting. However, the audiences for painting and movies are not the same. Furthermore, art cinema has never enjoyed upper-class favor, in Britain or in France. So the question remains: Why doesn’t Britain have a tradition of visually innovative cinema?