Popery and Politics in 21st Century Britain

It may be something of a surprise to the regular reader of these pages to learn that I have no interest in watching coverage of the British royal wedding this weekend. Certainly I wish Prince William and Catherine Middleton well in their marriage, but I cannot bring myself to be as enthralled by it as is virtually every pin and cog of the media juggernaut on both sides of the pond. I would never favor abolition of the British monarchy, much as I am quite happy not to live in a monarchical system. Yet as a Catholic I cannot help but turn up my nose a bit at it, since in its present form it represents the continued power of institutionalized British anti-Catholicism in the more than 300 years since Catholics were removed from the line of succession upon passage of the 1701 Act of Settlement.

Recently Deputy British Prime Minister Nick Clegg nixed the idea of abolishing the prohibition on Catholics, following pressure from Church of England leaders. As Peter Hutchinson reports in The Torygaph today Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scottish National Party, has called for Mr. Clegg to issue a formal clarification of the government’s position on the issue. The reader will no doubt note the curious fact that Mr. Salmond is not himself a Catholic but a member of the Church of Scotland; even more curiously, Mr. Clegg is an atheist who is married to a Catholic Spaniard, and whose children are being raised as Catholics. Make of this what you will.

The issue of the British succession came up last evening in the context of a discussion among friends regarding Prince William’s decision not to wear a wedding ring – a practice very widespread among the married Englishmen I knew during the time I lived in London. One of the gentlemen in our conversation was surprised that I did not really care either way whether he wore one. My response was simply to state that my position on matters related to the Saxe-Coburgs is one which I can only describe, for lack of a better term, as “Jacobite”.

Jacobite views were well-regarded in my family; indeed, one of my siblings has “Stuart” as one of his middle names for this reason. The attempt to try to get the Stuarts back on the throne is one of those great lost causes of history which still inspires the romantic, as indeed is the Carlist cause in Spain. In both cases, these wars of succession are still being fought, albeit off the actual field of battle, in the trenches of constitutional law, where the anti-Catholic reaction to the Jacobites came to be formally enshrined at the dawn of the so-called Age of Reason.

Subsequent attempts to abolish or reform the Act of Settlement in order to allow Catholics to succeed to the throne have been considered and dropped numerous times. This is partly due to the complicated legal maneuvering that would be required, and partly due to the continued opposition of politically conservative British Protestants. Thus the re-emergence of this issue in recent weeks has been more interesting to me than questions about whether Prince William ought to wear a wedding ring or whether the tune “Coal Miner’s Daughter” should be played whenever Catherine Middleton enters a room.

For unlike the romantic notions of putting a Stuart back on the throne of Britain or a Hapsburg back on the throne of Spain, the Act of Settlement is a blatant instance of institutionalized anti-Catholicism that is still enforced today. It remains the law of the land not just in England and Scotland, but throughout the British Commonwealth, since any attempt to change it must be passed by the respective governments of each of the members of the Commonwealth, from Canada to Australia, New Zealand to Jamaica, and so on. It is so ancient a prejudice as to be deeply embedded in the fabric of the entire empire.

Those in Britain, the U.S., and other northerly climes who look at the ongoing arguments between Catalonia and Castile in Spain as being anachronistic remnants of the Carlist and Bourbon conflicts of the early 18th century, have only to look at Britain’s own history for an example of deliberate policies of exclusion that date back to precisely the same period. The key difference, of course, is that in Spain religion did not directly enter into the question of succession. In Britain, by contrast, religion is very much at the heart of the matter.

The Church of England is very right to point out that to allow a Catholic to ascend the throne could create a potential constitutional crisis. That fact would seem to suggest, to a reasonable mind, that the flaw is not in the idea of opening the succession, but rather in the anti-Catholic language of the Act. To undertake what is difficult, but just, may result in tears or worse, but that does not mean that apathy or inaction are the better choices.

Portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart
by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1748)
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
About these ads

Parading Past Your Screen This Friday

>Next week being Holy Week, The Courtier intends to use each day to reflect on some aspect of Christ’s Passion through examining selected works of art, as he did last year in an effort which was well-received by the gracious readers of these pages. We often forget when we go to museums and galleries and view sacred images that they were intended for public/private devotion and meditation. They may be works of art, but they were created to point to something eternal; considering them individually may allow the reader to finally see them as something very different from something like a landscape or portrait painting.

That is for the week ahead. On this Friday however, when the work day often drags on interminably toward its close, oftentimes we need some extra reading material if there is little going on at the office. Here in the Nation’s Capital it is both a government holiday and furlough day, meaning that a number of people are not even at their desks today. For those of my readers who are, your attention is drawn to the following:

- TAKING A SPILL: I am neither a military man, nor a British subject. However as my English friends know, after many visits to the House Guards Parade I commonly remarked that had I born on the other side of the pond and been given the opportunity, I think I would have enjoyed the chance to serve in the Household Cavalry of the Life Guards. Part of this is the romantic, chivalric notion of wearing armor and riding a horse, but nevertheless there is something very majestic about this branch of the services. Therefore I had great pity for a jockey-sized young soldier in the Life Guards who happened to fall off his mount today, during rehearsals for the Royal Wedding on April 29th.

- DAVE BRUBECK IN GEORGETOWN: Every time the great jazz pianist Dave Brubeck comes to play at the Blues Alley jazz club in my neighborhood of Georgetown, I seem to find out about it too late to get tickets. Of course, when tickets go on sale they tend to sell out in a matter of minutes, partially because Mr. Brubeck is now 90 and we do not know how many more opportunities we will have to enjoy his genius, and partially because the intimate venue cannot possibly hope to hold all of the people who would give their right arm to be able to see and hear him up close, instead of in a large concert hall. Mr. Brubeck is giving four concerts this weekend, and as you might imagine they all sold out almost immediately. Those of you willing to resort to scalpers will probably find this your only option – no one who has tickets and is not on their deathbed will miss him, and possibly not even then.

- MISS NANCY WILSON IN BETHESDA:
Another jazz legend from the 1950’s and 60’s, Nancy Wilson is one of the few remaining singers from back in the day who is still touring, and showcasing her sassy, elegant, and smoky singing style for new generations of audiences. Her rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” off her 1963 album “Hollywood – My Way” is my favorite recording of this swinging classic. If you are interested in catching this legendary performer – who BTW during the Kennedy era sold as many albums as The Beatles – she will be at the Strathmore on April 23rd; as of this writing there are only a very few seats left.

- STOLEN EL GRECO, GOYA RECOVERED:
So far details in the press have been few, but news outlets in Spain are reporting this morning that the Guardia Civil has recovered two important Old Master paintings stolen back in the 1990’s, after learning that they were about to be taken out of the country and brought up for sale on the black market. The works, an “Annunciation” by El Greco and “The Apparition of Our Lady of the Pillar” by Goya, had been lent out for international exhibitions, but after the shows had ended and the works shipped back to Spain, they disappeared before they could be returned to their rightful owners. The paintings were seized from a private residence in the city of Alicante. Nice job, Spanish police. Maybe we can borrow you to help us out on this side of the pond? We’ve got a little cache that’s now been missing for 21 years

Tangled Questions in British Art

Yesterday a good friend and fellow blogger sent me an article from The Daily Mail, which details an interesting but unscientific experiment conducted recently at Tate Britain in London. Four works by deceased, well-regarded artists of the preceding centuries were contrasted with the works of four British contemporary artists, based on observations of how long people stopped to look at each of the works of art, and providing anecdotal evidence of the comments of visitors about the pieces they looked at. The results, so far as they go, are interesting but not surprising: people generally like to look at attractive images. Unfortunately, the article is fatally flawed in that it demonstrates a poor grasp of art history, its methodology is suspect, and it fails to ask the right questions.

To begin with, the article refers to the deceased artists in this experiment as “the great masters”. However, this is not really a precise or useful term, and somewhat slapdash-shorthand. One can be a “great master” of just about anything – a great master cabinetmaker, for example, or a great master chef. If we are going to use a term for purposes of comparison, then we need to be a bit more careful about what we mean.

The term “Old Masters”, for example, which may be what the article intended to reference, can be generally defined as European painters working between the dawn of the Renaissance and the end of the 18th century, though the endpoint is somewhat imprecise. Of the now-dead artists whose works were selected for this experiment – William Hogarth, John Millais, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeil Whistler – only the 18th century satirical illustrator Hogarth may technically fall into the time frame for Old Master painters, though personally I would hesitate to include him as a member of that body of artists. The English painter Millais was a member of the mid-19th century Pre-Raphaelite movement, and therefore not an Old Master. Sargent and Whistler, two American painters working from the mid-19th into the early 20th century, are definitely not Old Master painters either.

Another flaw in the experiment is that not only are the “great master” works selected for the purpose of comparison all paintings, but as evidenced above they are all in completely different styles. Of the four works by contemporary British artists selected – Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst (two works), and Rachel Whiteread – only one is a painting. The remaining three are, respectively, a photograph, an installation piece, and a sculpture, leaving us with something of an apples and oranges situation. Had the article compared Whiteread’s sculpture to one by, say, Flaxman, then we might be getting somewhere, although even this would be a problematic comparison for various reasons.

We must also consider the issue of how both art criticism and general popularity can change over time. The article describes how popular Millais’ famous “Ophelia” from the Royal Academy exhibition of 1852 was with the visitors observed for the experiment, and recounts the positive comments of the painter’s lush treatment of the landscape and the costume of the figure. Yet this painting, beloved as it is today, was ridiculed by many when it was first exhibited.

John Ruskin, possibly the most influential art historian-critic of the 19th century, castigated Millais for having painted a “rascally wirefenced garden-rolled-nursery-maid’s paradise” in this picture. The contemporary Atheneum magazine, in its critique of the painting, thought the figure of Ophelia herself was terrible:

The open mouth is somewhat gaping and gabyish,–the expression is in no way suggestive of her past tale. There is no pathos, no melancholy, no brightening up, no last lucid interval. If she dies swan-like with a song, there is no sound or melody, no poetry in this strain.

The point is not to suggest that future generations will view the work of Emin, Hirst, and others in a rosier light; in fact one hopes that this will not be the case but that sense will finally prevail. Rather, it is further evidence, if it was needed, that this article is not only poorly-informed but fails to ask the right questions. As amusing as it is, the experiment is of little practical use in the consideration of contemporary British art.

The amount of time one spends in looking at a work of art in a museum can certainly be an indicator of its attractiveness, but it is not necessarily an indicator of whether or not that work of art is any good. Beauty is an important consideration when considering the worth of a work of art, but not when placed in a vacuum. What turns many people off to contemporary art is its profound ugliness; there is an embrace of the unpleasant image in a way which could not, at first glance, seem to be more distant from the slick and sensuous portraits of Sargent, for example.

Yet attractiveness can just easily become a fetish, as Roger Kimball points out, if it is disconnected from life. There are plenty of paintings that are admittedly unpleasant to look at – Goya’s “Black Paintings” for example, or the horrifically hellish torture scenes of Hieronymous Bosch, or the crucifixions of Matthias Grünewald, and so on – but which nevertheless are very great works of art. The decoupling of long-held Western ideals of civilization from practical, technical achievement in the plastic arts is what has led, in large part, to the mess that we see in contemporary art today.

While arguably well-intentioned, this experiment at Tate Britain fails because it does not actually tell us anything that we do not already know. It also engages in what has always been, in art history terms, a problematic exercise, i.e. using popularity as the best gauge of whether or not something is a work of art, instead of questioning whether the art is good, and if not why not. Indeed, the article might have been more cogent if it questioned how contemporary Britain sees itself, as reflected in the art it puts on display in a museum dedicated specially to British art. These are the types of questions that need answering, and remain unanswered in this piece.

If we are to go down the road of popularity being tantamount to artistic achievement, then the National Gallery will be filled with Norman Rockwells, still life bowls of fruit, and dogs playing poker. That would be a very bad result indeed. There is certainly an enormous problem in the fact that our culture has gone down another, rather tritely passé-Marxist and nihilistic road, which is reflected in the art it places on its plinths. But while popular opinion can be instructive in common-sense terms, if it is considered as dispositive in and of itself of the relative worth of a work of art outside of any deeper contextual analysis it is, in its way, just as superficial a consideration as the art at issue.

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais (1852)
Tate Britain, London