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To Hell With Culture

Rosie Lavan


To Hell with Culture
Dir. Huw Wahl
Queen’s College Literary Society, Oxford
10th June 2014

To Hell with Culture, a new film which was presented and discussed at Queen’s College last week, takes its provocative title from an essay by its subject, Herbert Read. Read—poet, art critic, co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and self-professed anarchist—was arguing in 1943 against the capitalist co-option and commodification of culture, and the increasing separation of art and society. Huw Wahl, the film’s director, hopes to bring this central idea back into public debate, along with various other convictions which emerge from Read’s extraordinary and varied body of work. The discussion had already begun with the film’s premiere at the ICA in April, and it continued in Oxford. Wahl was joined after the screening by Michael Paraskos, who has written extensively on Read, and by Ben Read, art historian and son of Herbert, in a Q&A chaired by Michael Whitworth, Fellow in English at Merton, whose work has examined Read’s place in literary Modernism.

The film has justly been described as an immersive portrait of Read; what is fascinating, and also very beautiful, about it is the way it manages to represent and evoke time and place. Instead of a narrative voiceover guiding us through the facts of Read’s life, shots of the beloved North Yorkshire countryside where he was born, and to which he returned in later life, are threaded together with interviews with his children, friends, and contemporaries, as well as with academics. Archive footage is put to powerful use: most notably, Read himself is made present through extracts from a 1956 television interview with George Woodcock. Other passages of film account for wider shifts in the times in which he lived: soldiers in the trenches remind us that Read served with distinction in World War One; a peace march in the 1930s, with banners reading ‘Scholarships not Battleships’, ‘Sheffield Women for Peace’, and ‘Never Again’, indicate that his ideas about art, politics, and society were formed and first received between those two watershed conflicts. Footage of marching soldiers during World War Two is set to Read’s own reading of his poem ‘To a Conscript of 1940’. When he has finished reading, the footage, and the sound of marching feet, continues.

The film also emphasises Read’s place in the archive as an object of study and does so by representing the materiality of the archive itself. An academic at the University of British Columbia, which holds a major collection of Read’s papers, rifles through files marked with the names of his correspondents—among them the artists Paul Nash, Henry Moore, and Augustus John. One of the questions the film raised and the discussion pursued is why Read’s theories never took hold in cultural studies: the advent of structuralism, and the arrival of French theory in the Anglophone academy at the time of his death in 1968, may in part be accountable. The film aims to bring Read’s ideas back to the fore. A conference in October which Wahl is organising with Danielle Child, art historian and contributor to the film, will use the essay ‘To Hell with Culture’ as a means of addressing how, and why, culture has been commodified in neoliberal democracies, distorting and compromising the function of the artist, just as Read warned it would in 1943.

Read argued in that essay against the very word “culture”, which had been sullied for him by the political mainstream. The artist was to be reasserted as artisan—a maker and a worker. The echoes of William Morris’s socialist convictions are strong, and indeed it was in that English tradition of radicals that Read’s own politics followed. At first glance there is something rather quiet about his anarchism—he had a deep love of nature, and in the Woodcock interview he appears bow-tied, touchingly proper and awkward. But, as the film emphasises, it would be wrong to simplify his politics by forcing him into an English line in which he does not altogether belong. Intellectually he was always ahead of his time: a champion of the avant-garde and early supporter of the surrealist project, and well read in continental philosophy decades before it made a real impression in this country. His anarchism was attended by a perceptive sense of responsibility towards collective social life. In ‘Education Through Art’ (also 1943), Read outlined the importance of fostering creativity in the education of young children: struck with the intuitive expressiveness of children’s drawings, he saw in them the potential for an enriched and more mutually sustaining social existence, provided that the creative capacity of the child was not stymied by a conventional education.

Several contributors to the film note the diversity of Read’s intellectual engagement and professional output: one casts him as a twentieth-century Renaissance man, while Paraskos notes that when you try to summarise his life you end up with a series of contradictions. The inscription on Read’s gravestone captures this brilliantly: ‘Knight Poet Anarchist’. The knighthood—awarded for services to literature in 1953—always rankled with some of his contemporaries, who felt let down by the anarchist in him. The contradictions will no doubt continue to be reflected in the different audience responses to the film, which is now making its way around art schools, art centres, universities and festivals. The Oxford audience, apparently, was the first to laugh at the tombstone’s smiling summary.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.