Lo-Fat, Light-Weight

By Stewart Home, 10 July 2000
Image: from Brick Lane,Photo by Simon Worthington

Here are two more books which try to re-spin or de-spin that endlessly promiscuous entity called popular culture. As Stewart Home discovers, getting far enough down off the high art horse to understand the material whilst resisting the temptation to role around in the mud of pop-slavery is a hard distance to gauge.

Heated debates about the influence of the market on cultural production have been raging for several hundred years. No surprise then to find two recent books exploring this territory, albeit from rather different perspectives. Despite the erosion of cultural distinctions being noisily denounced for centuries, the fact that John Seabrook specialises in lightweight journalism, while Julian Stallabrass produces serious art criticism, shimmers through every sentence of their respective tomes.

‘High art lite’ is the term Stallabrass uses to describe what more often (and less accurately) goes by the name of young British art. For Stallabrass, this is conceptualism with a pop content calculated to attract media attention and facilitate sales in the art market. Exhaustively listing my disagreements with High Art Lite isn’t possible here, but some of the problems Stallabrass needs to address can be seen in the following passage about Sam Taylor-Wood: "She fly-posted the Brick Lane area of London, an area where the population is largely Asian, with a picture of herself wearing a T-shirt bearing a swastika and the name of the symbol written in Sanskrit. While the swastika was the original kind, not the reversed version used by the Nazis, such niceties were lost on the inhabitants of the area, for the posters were swiftly defaced... To paste such a work up around Brick Lane which, though subject to a slow process of gentrification, is still the site of potentially murderous conflict between its Asian and white population, was...frivolous and irresponsible."

The problem of overt racist intimidation in the Brick Lane area has to a large extent been resolved not through gentrification, but by community self-defence against fascism. Here, as in other places, Stallabrass can be read as equating racism with the working class - although it seems unlikely that this is something he consciously intends. In fact, the gentrification of Brick Lane may well have served to exacerbate the effects of the systematic discrimination suffered by the local Bangladeshi community in terms of both housing and jobs. While Stallabrass acknowledges what Eddie Chambers and others have to say about institutional racism in the art world, his readiness to assume that individual cultural workers are innocent of (what is often unconscious) bigotry, indicates he hasn’t properly worked through the issues involved.

In the instance of Sam Taylor-Wood plastering Muslim homes and businesses with swastikas, Stallabrass should not presuppose that because her posters were defaced, those targeted missed the ‘niceties’ of the symbol being used in its Hindu form. Thousands of people died in Hindu/Muslim conflicts on the Indian subcontinent before Pakistan was established as an Islamic republic in 1947. Eastern Pakistan broke away to become the separate state of Bangladesh in 1971. These events would have formed an important part of the background that shaped the reception of Taylor-Wood’s ‘art’ among Brick Lane’s Sylheti speakers. Long-standing Hindu/Muslim conflicts mean that members of Brick Lane’s Islamic community were likely to have had a more nuanced understanding of the Taylor-Wood piece under discussion than those who attend her private views. By not addressing the specificities of Brick Lane’s Bangladeshi community, Stallabrass avoids making a critique of Taylor-Wood that might undermine his assumptions about the art world having less need to tackle the issue of racism than working class communities.

Elsewhere, after mentioning hybridity theory, Stallabrass claims: "multiculturalism... is just what the establishment wants to hear from black artists, being a good deal less threatening than the cultural expression... of separatist and Afrocentric ideas..." Since separatism cannot exist without hybridity and vice versa (they are two poles of a single struggle for black liberation), to claim that one is more ‘threatening’ than the other is pointless. Hybridity and Afrocentrism usefully produce different effects in different places. Likewise, Stallabrass has been seduced by right-wing rhetoric when he defines so-called political correctness as "inverted vulgar Marxism". Political correctness is a term of abuse designed to short-circuit debate and derail social struggles. Obviously, it is foolish to let reactionaries cordon off whole swathes of everyday life with empty snubs about whinging and ideological irrelevance. Addressing specifics while simultaneously making sure that contestation takes place on all fronts is infinitely preferable to indulging in vulgar Marxism — as Stallabrass does — at the very moment he denounces it.

Having set out to attack commodity culture, Stallabrass would have made a more effective critique if he’d stepped back from the art world. His academic rigour is undermined by the weakness of his social thinking and a lack of interest in popular culture. Nevertheless, Stallabrass pisses on John Seabrook’s Nobrow, which reads like a cross between Dick Hebdige’s Hiding In The Light and Joan Shelley Rubin’s The Making Of Middle Brow Culture, recast in the form of a style journalist’s autobiography. Seabrook turns what might have made an acceptable 500 word article about Tina Brown’s stint as editor at the New Yorker into an unnecessarily distended book. Reading Nobrow, I was somewhat puzzled as to whom Seabrook thought he was writing for until I hit page 56: " thing I had noticed about The New Yorker under Tina Brown — she definitely put the magazine on my parents’ social map... The fact that my parents had a source of inside information on the goings-on at Tina’s much-talked-about New Yorker was a status advantage in their circles."

It is unlikely anyone who isn’t part of John Seabrook’s family circle will find much of interest in Nobrow. In the final chapter Seabrook writes about the failure of his first book Deeper, complaining that he got a huge advance but didn’t make the best-seller list — didums. Precisely because Seabrook is desperate for a place in what he styles ‘the buzz’, he is unable to create any distance between himself and the culture he sets out to explore. While Stallabrass doesn’t always succeed in shaking off the ideological baggage that comes with his background, he at least attempts to do so — and with the help of constructive criticism, he will hopefully work through some of the issues he urgently needs to address. Seabrook, unfortunately, never does more than go through the motions of ‘producing critique’. Despite serious flaws in his thinking, Stallabrass puts a great deal of effort into dealing with art historical issues, whereas Seabrook’s autobiographical musings make cultural studies plodders like John A. Walker appear sophisticated by comparison.

Stewart Home

Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite: British art in the 1990s, Verso, hb £20

John Seabrook, Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing the Marketing of Culture, Methuen, pb £9.99