Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Mixed Media: Richard Hamilton at the Tate Modern (2014)

The Mixed Media Column from the October 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Richard Hamilton at the Tate Modern

There was a major retrospective of the work of Richard Hamilton at the Tate Modern in 2014. He is acknowledged as the inventor of 'Pop Art' which he described as 'popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business.'

The exhibition reconstructs his installation Fun House, originally shown as part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s 1956 show This Is Tomorrow. It incorporates film, music, distorted architecture, op art and Hollywood film imagery and pin-ups such as Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe, and Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet. It is an homage to 'Americana', as well as a celebration of the new youth and 'pop' culture of 1950s capitalism.

In his 1956 collage Just What is it that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? Hamilton has a muscle-man provocatively holding a lolly with the word POP and a woman with bare breasts wearing a lampshade hat, surrounded by emblems of the affluence of 1950s capitalism from a vacuum cleaner to a large canned ham. Capitalism is portrayed as 'cool', it was riding high in its 'golden age' of the post-war economic boom, the reformists believed capitalism could work in the interests of the working class, and Macmillan proclaimed 'people have never had it so good.' Hamilton particularly admired the German electrical company Braun and its Chief Design Officer Dieter Rams whose 'consumer products came to occupy a place in my heart and consciousness that Mont Sainte-Victoire did in C├ęzannes', and in 1964 he began to base works on Braun's marketing images.

After the failure of Keynesian capitalism in the 1970s, Hamilton was horrified by the 1980s capitalist restructuring under Thatcher, and the reintroduction of unfettered free market capitalism. His 1984 installation Treatment Room is inspired by the bleak, clinical style of the capitalist state reflected in the DHSS office or NHS hospital waiting room. A TV monitor where the X-ray machine would be repeats footage of Thatcher from the 1983 Tory Party Conference. His War Games (1991-92) used TV news footage of the 1991 Gulf War which portrayed the war as a sport for viewers and reminds us of the BBC Newsnight coverage with Peter Snow's sandpit and models. Later Hamilton portrays 'war criminal' Tony Blair as a gun-toting cowboy against a backdrop of military inferno in Shock and Awe (2010).

The Hamilton retrospective has some salutary lessons: you cannot 'reform' capitalism to work in the interests of the working class, and war is endemic to capitalism due to competition between capitalist groups for raw materials such as oil in the Middle East.
Steve Clayton

Mixed Media: ‘Kill Your Darlings’ (2014)

The Mixed Media Column from the September 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Kill Your Darlings by Austin Bunn

Director John Krokidas and writer Austin Bunn’s 2013 film Kill Your Darlings draws on Jack Kerouac’s novel Vanity of Duluoz, portraying the early years (1943-44) of the ‘Beat Generation’ in New York City of Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), William Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).

We meet Allen Ginsberg at home in New Jersey with his poet father Louis and his mother Naomi. Louis was a socialist, his parents had been active in the Yiddish Arbeiter Circle, and he went with his father to lectures by Eugene Debs, IWW founder and Socialist Party of America Presidential candidate. Louis named his first son after Debs: ‘He was magnificent. All the ironies of the capitalist system came blazing forth. He was a brilliant man.’ Allen’s mother was a member of the Communist Party.

Allen goes to Columbia University studying to be a Labor Lawyer, meets Lucien Carr (‘blond, eighteen, of fantastic male beauty’ (Vanity of Duluoz), William Burroughs (Harvard educated St Louis patrician), and Jack Kerouac, ‘the stocky Breton with blue eyes and coal black hair’ (Gerald Nicosia, 1983), football player, poet, Merchant Marine, and originator of ‘First Thought Best Thought.’ Jack and Lucien liked to sing together folk songs, Leadbelly’s country blues, communist work songs, and with Ginsberg and Burroughs ‘they would have Dostoyevskian confrontations, endure horrors out of Kafka’ (Nicosia). Their artistic endeavours are inspired by Yeats, Whitman, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, the pleasures and wild sensations of marijuana, alcohol, Benzedrine and the Bebop Jazz music revolution of Charlie Parker (Bird).

Kerouac was a ‘Canuck’, a French-Canadian from the textile manufacturing mill-town of Lowell in Massachusetts, 13 miles north of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Ann Charters described Lowell as ‘poor, dirty and rundown, both working-class and obstinately bourgeois, belligerently provincial.’ In the 1920s and 1930s Lowell entered economic decline when companies relocated to the South where labour was cheaper, and in 1931 Harpers Magazine called it a ‘depressed industrial desert.’

Kerouac’s first language was ‘joual’ the French of the ‘Canucks’, a dialect of working-class Quebec French, and he would overcome the handicaps of his working-class ‘Canuck’ origins to become the greatest writer since James Joyce, ‘not even 72 hours a week of underpaid mill work could keep these people in their place’ wrote Nicosia. Ginsberg overcame being a ‘spindly Jewish kid with horn-rimmed glasses’ (Vanity of Duluoz) to become the poetical heir to William Blake, a 1960s Counter-Cultural guru and New Left icon. As Dave Kammerer says in the film ‘under the right circumstances he might change the world.’
Steve Clayton