‘The immediate past can frequently seem very distant and very alien; that strangeness can only be perceived through the medium of the present.’ Thus Bryan Appleyard, conscious of the difficulty of his project, which is to sketch the history of British art in the post-war years.
The sentence occurs in an apologetic introduction, and it indicates some of the difficulties inherent in the author’s approach to his book. To say that the past can only be perceived through the medium of the present is a truism, and to add that what is now perceived as strange can only be so perceived at the present moment is to add nothing at all. The point of such a history as Appleyard has attempted must presumably be to explain why the immediate past seems strange – even stranger, it is implied, than pasts less recent, on which there is at least some agreement as to what ought to be argued about – and in so doing to make it less strange. To achieve that end the author will be obliged to impose familiar patterns on the material, working according to inherited ideas which may well have eluded critical inspection. Only thus can he discern some sort of coherence in works that seem strange largely because they appear to have none. Historians are professionally prejudiced in favour of order; they cannot simply record chaos; sequences are what interest them, and connections, as many connections as possible, so that disparate events will be seen after all to belong together in their time. And before long, in exercises of this kind, the Zeitgeist, or something resembling it, is likely to make an appearance.
This is an endlessly recurring problem in cultural historiography, and it has over the years been the subject of lucid comment by Ernst Gombrich. Some aspects of that scholar’s work are discussed in The Pleasures of Peace, but nothing seems to be said about what Gombrich has called ‘the Hegelian habit’ (of course you can acquire it without being consciously Hegelian). Among other things, this demands ‘that everything must be treated not only as connected with everything else, but as a symptom of something else.’ There are many ways of going about it, but all are subject to one constraint, which Gombrich expresses with perfect simplicity: ‘whether we know it or not, we always approach the past with some preconceived ideas, with a rudimentary theory we wish to test.’ And this will be true even if the author has the mature and ranging reading of an Appleyard; and even if the rudimentary theory started out as a hunch that things don’t really hang together in any of the ways they used to, or as people in the past may have thought they did.
For instance, it is now fashionable to profess a bias against coherence, continuity and so on, and to affirm the ‘bewildering plurality’ of the period you’re discussing: but what you come up with in the end is always a name for, and a theory of, the period. An obvious instance is Post-Modernism. Even the proponents of that latest of historic periods cannot escape the need not only to demonstrate a coherent incoherence in Post-Modern arts, but to suggest, with whatever degree of irony and blague, a perhaps similarly oxymoronic relationship between those arts and everything else.
Appleyard starts his book with an impression of Britain in 1945. Bombsites are made to symbolise a culture itself reduced to rubble, the national thanksgiving services are innocent but false assertions of cultural continuity. The peace (it is true to say) was in its way dismaying, even, as Appleyard calls it, shocking, especially as it included the bomb, and perhaps he had to say so somewhere. But one is glad to come to the end of such catalogues of pious impieties, such large generalisations about the culture and the politics of Britain, and pass on to more concrete and arguable instances, by means of which we are to be shown how the writers of the time illustrate the context and mood of the time – Wodehouse agreeably exploiting British pastoral illusions, Rex Warner, in his parable The Aerodrome, warning us against a parochialism that could be dangerous in a hostile and regimented world, and so on. And now the business of making everything hang together, not only in the arts but in the political present and its drab or fearful visions of the future, is under way.
For the cultural historian must assume a connection between the bewilderments of the peace – the loss of empire, economic decline, the comforting but deceptive historical myths – and the contemporary practice of the arts. It is an assumption current in various forms, not least the neo-Marxist; they are only a little different from the many forms it has taken in the past, and are equally open to question. We may all feel that this assumption must be true somehow, that common sense requires it to be true: but it turns out to be very hard to demonstrate that it is so.
So the job Appleyard has volunteered for is even more taxing than he himself says it is. The ardours of the task show through the writing. Although individual works – especially examples of the visual arts – are often discussed with sensibility and precision, there is a certain flatness in the book, probably caused by the sheer difficulty of giving the evidence of artistic diversity the form of a coherent presentation of period.
Another difficulty is that there is no firm consensus to which he can appeal in support of his valuations. Of course he must talk about Henry Moore and Wittgenstein and Auden etc, topics on which it is not always easy to avoid repeating received opinions: but, as might be the case whoever was writing, there is a certain arbitrariness in the choice of less institutionalised works selected for close examination, especially at the end of the chosen period – virtually yesterday. And obviously there are constraints in addition to those that might be called theoretical or methodological: for instance, Appleyard sensibly leaves out music because he knows he is incompetent to treat it, and he refuses to go into popular culture on the less persuasive ground that it has been gone into elsewhere, and anyway has nothing to do with this subject. In principle, actually, there is very little that could not be said to have to do with his subject, and this particular omission is one that many might think serious. Appleyard’s artistic habitat is predominantly what might be thought of, with or without disgust or dismay, as the higher culture: but the interactions between high and popular aren’t confined, as a reader of this book might be led to suppose, to Festival of Britain decor and Pop Art. If, in the interests of context, he finds it necessary to deal, however briefly, with Youth, the hippies, and so on, he might have thought it proper to glance, in the appropriate place, at the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, all of whom have had their high-culture connections, if only through such lofty sponsors as Wilfred Mellers and Christopher Ricks. And other reasons will doubtless be adduced as to why they are all relevant to the theme of this book. Still, as the Introduction remarks, ‘many things had to go if this book were not to be an impenetrable thicket of names and dates.’
Appleyard divides his period into four sub-periods: 1945-1951, 1952-1963, 1964-1973 and 1974 till now. Within this framework he manages to make a remarkable number of connections, and to discuss a remarkable number of books, films, buildings and paintings. At the very outset you find within a couple of pages The Great Tradition, A Girl in Winter, a poem by Kingsley Amis, Four Quartets, Brideshead Revisited, Nineteen Eighty-Four, William Cooper, Angus Wilson, Horizon, architectural Modernism and the Festival of Britain. Just as you think something important is going to be left out it turns up: the bourgeois intellectual love-affair with France, the nascent aspirations towards internationalism in art. It is all impressively researched and well if not thrillingly written, though the feeling that here and there it verges on the factitious is never far away. The author’s touch seems most certain when he is writing about painting, sculpture and architecture. They are often treated in separate sections which give a straightforward account of their history in the sub-period in question (‘the influence of Picasso is detectable’ ... ‘From the beginning Bacon was an oddity’ ... his ‘figures represent isolation and abandonment on a heroic scale’). Poetry gets something like the same treatment, perhaps with less enthusiasm and penetration though with the same serious application. Some of these sections or chapters could come from a decent survey course much less ambitious than this book.
Appleyard’s second sub-period starts off with another rapid and equally unfortunate historical prelude featuring the Coronation, rationing and inveterate British insularity, before tackling the Movement, with special attention to Lucky Jim, ‘Church Going’ and so on. Then there come in turn Look back in anger, the ‘smart playfulness’ of Nigel Dennis, later developed by Orton and Stoppard, cultural despair variously expressed – for instance, by Herbert Read and Kingsley Amis; and then to the sorts of things about which Appleyard enjoys talking, such as Brutalism and Pop Art. He does not neglect Russell, Ayer, Popper etc; he neglects very little. Indeed the quantity of material he doesn’t neglect is impressively great: he comes near to being the ideal spectator of high-class contemporary trends.
I feel that the introductory chapters are significantly and damagingly weak. Appleyard opens his third sub-period with formal death notices for Auden, Eliot, Waugh and Churchill – ‘emblems,’ we are told, ‘of a passing world’. It was clear that ‘some change was in the air.’ What prompts these fits of journalism is probably the writer’s sense that something must be done to suggest the vast vague context in which all the holding-together is to take place; they are unwelcome emanations of the Zeitgeist.
However, once those visitations are over all goes more smoothly. We are given the necessary information about the likes of Hockney, Ted Hughes, John Berger, Germaine Greer and Noam Chomsky. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism (‘a logical enough outcome’) are briskly explained, Barthes, Lacan and Derrida rush by, Foucault and Althüsser get a rather breathless mention as part of the ‘post-modern landscape’. Appleyard sometimes appears to think of soi disant Post-Modern art as a sort of re-run of Baroque – which is to describe one period in terms of another of which the exact description has long been a matter of dispute. But, once established, this and similar period terms impose themselves on historians, incidentally providing critical ammunition to later historians, who may be better at showing the defects in other people’s usage of them than at themselves doing without some form of them.
Having got over the introduction to the fourth section (entry into the Common Market, the OPEC oil coup, the miner’s strike brings down Heath), the author confronts the art of the last few years. He starts with sculpture: Caro first, and then the people who dig big holes or photograph the tracks they make walking across fields. Needless to say, these experiments ‘had their correlatives in literature’ – in Malcolm Bradbury, as it isn’t perhaps needless to say, and Martin Amis. Perhaps there is wisdom in Howard Brenton’s observation that what binds us together in this period is nothing more than ‘a profound unease’.
It is here, approaching the end of his study, that Appleyard chooses, or is compelled, to make some independent valuations. Speaking of Paul Scott, J.G. Farrell and V.S. Naipaul in relation to the death of Empire, he expresses a special enthusiasm for the last-named. Then come people for whom he has apparently no more than a cautious respect, but who are important because of their period role, which is to counteract the excesses of the Sixties – Sisson, Hill, Scruton. Now the Martians arrive, commended for having reacted against ‘the drabness and gloom of the Movement and ... the “difficulty” of modernism’. By so doing, according to Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, they helped to ‘extend the imaginative franchise’. Here the author missed an opportunity to develop an earlier point, a good Post-Modern point about the desirability of making casually selective use of the past and the cultural heritage: for the Martian conceit is a revival of ‘Baroque’ concetto, especially the kind that goes in for surprising and, as Croce called it, ‘myopic’ observation, trying to see objects as they haven’t been seen before, detecting unnoticed aspects by unexpected comparisons. Its English practitioners include Cotton and Marvell, whose ‘Upon Appleton House’ ought to be acknowledged as a Martian ancestor.
The New Right, the Falklands, the rejection of Modernism, ‘the impoverishment of national culture’, as the admired Peter Ackroyd calls it, dominate the final section. But the period has its heroes, and Appleyard’s choices of hero seem to coincide with those of Ackroyd: they are J.H. Prynne, ‘the most comprehensively gifted of living British poets’, and, on loan from New York, Kenneth Koch, who not only supplied Appleyard’s title but serves also to remind us that gaiety and virtuosity may still occur in the midst of the aforesaid impoverishment, and require, in an enterprise of this kind, to be related to everything else that is going on, however sour. Appleyard also has good words for Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard, for Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract and Denis Potter’s The Singing Detective, as well as for Richard Rogers and Will Allsop – indeed for all who demonstrate what is rather vaguely called ‘the real, unfettered play of imagination’, who are not ‘programmed’, though capable, in the author’s odd phrase, of assimilating ‘the enemies their age has bequeathed them’.
If I understand this remark, it bears the unextraordinary implication that the best art should be regarded as that which appears to resist as well as to comply with the external forces under which it is produced. Successors in the field of cultural history will want to show that in spite of, or even in consequence of, this apparent contradiction, artists of unfettered imagination, who assimilate the enemies bequeathed them, do hang together with everything else that was going on at the time. And perhaps only those who were around in the days when the compliant-resistant art was being produced could have missed this truth. But historians normally have to write of times when they were not around.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.