On Richard Hamilton
Richard Hamilton, who died on 13 September at the age of 89, invented the idea of Pop art, along with his colleagues in the Independent Group, more than 50 years ago. In ‘Persuading Image’, a lecture he gave in 1959, Hamilton argued, well before it was a commonplace, that consumer society depends on the manufacturing of desire through design, forever updated by the forced obsolescence of style. ‘Is it me?’ he wrote, mimicking the adman mimicking the customer: ‘The appliance is “designed with you in mind”.’ His ‘tabular pictures’, a central contribution to Pop painting, work over this interpellation of people by images, indeed as images, and they do so in a meticulous manner that shimmers between the analytical and the fetishistic. Today our life as homo imago seems almost natural, each of us, as Hamilton forecast, a ‘specialist in the look of things’, designer and designed in one.
Vol. 33 No. 20 · 20 October 2011
Almost everything Hal Foster says about Richard Hamilton demonstrates the now rather common critical method of reading into rather than out of any given art work (LRB, 6 October). Take his comments on the works which are supposedly about the Northern Irish Troubles. Hamilton does what any advertiser does: he removes all of the awkward, contradictory and difficult elements from the original images by prettifying and formalising his source material, and then informs the critics what he thought, or said he thought, he was doing. So he claimed of The Citizen that the image was ambiguous, though just what was ambiguous about a Christ-like image of a hunger striker, relentlessly used by the Provisional IRA as propaganda, is difficult to understand. The painting has two panels. The left-hand one is supposed to represent the prisoner’s shit-smeared cell but it is tastefully abstracted and painted, having none of the invasive potency of the actual photographs of faeces smeared on walls. In similarly reductive mode, the right-hand panel of The Subject reduces an Orangeman to a crudely painted cipher while the left-hand panel is an abstracted street scene based on a still of an armoured car driven through wreckage (though you would never know it). The equation, as with all of these diptychs, is crass: Orangemen equal rioting and the British presence. The State is even cruder. On the right is a British soldier, badly painted as ever, complete with a big gun; on the left is an image of a country road: big bad British soldiers with guns rule over Northern Ireland.
All of these works, acquired by the Tate, are perfect examples of state-supported salon art: deracinated images of the Troubles, stripped of disquieting elements, domesticated and made safe for mass consumption while the artists who actually did bear witness to the Troubles – and there are a lot of them – are resolutely ignored. As the art historian Fintan Cullen pointed out long ago, Irish art is often written out of art history, ‘thus encouraging the perpetuation of a metropolitan dominance’.
Downpatrick, Northern Ireland