ARTYFACTS: Rude Britannia – Tate Britain

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rude Britannia – Tate Britain

I’ve always found British self-judgement of its humour and satirical talent exaggerated and sure enough, this was a hotch-potch of a show that takes itself too seriously. It was in desperate need of some laughs. The show also lacked focus. Was it satire? Cartoons? Humour?

Much is made of Hogarth but I find his work too literal and the Rake’s Progress a set of clichéd images. What was interesting about the earlier 18th and 19th century material was its obsession with arses and farts. There were people kissing bare arses, exploding farts and no end of metaphorical puffs. In some ways, they were way ruder than the modern proponents.

Cruikshanks The Worship of Bacchus is described by the Tate as a work of genius – it is not. Crudely executed, it is a laboured work of Victorian moralising. It is given a sort of religious status in a room of its own, when what it deserves is an attic.

The modern stars were VIZ (two fat slags) and Steve Bell. VIZ was, and still does, have the ability to make you laugh out loud and read bits out to your wife on the sofa – that’s class. Steve Bell, who lives round the corner from me, has been canning politicos in underpants and bell jars for years. He deserves a Tate show all on his own. The seaside postcards were fine, but there were not enough of them, and the attempt to caricature them as sexist and racist was modern moralising.

But is it art? One problem with satire is its need to be explicit. Art is implicit, meanings are often hidden, subtle and have to be sought out by the viewer who interrogates the work. Satire has to be immediate and obvious. The tension between the two often means that first rate satire is second rate art and vice-versa. The final room was a good example of this, where the attempts at art meant that the works were neither rude, funny.


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