Herbert Read; The Flood Gates (continued).
hundreds of thousands to meet their deaths. Their cowardice and military
ineptitude, which ought to have led to them facing military tribunals and being shot
– as indeed many a poor shell-shocked soldier was shot for ‘cowardice’ – was a
significant nail in the coffin of the old order. The consequences of their apparent
contempt for the lives of their men (which would have had the Duke of Wellington,
whose principle was to win by keeping his men alive, groaning in his grave), was
witnessed first hand from both sides, by their sons and grandsons who as junior
officers led from the front and suffered as a class the highest casualty rate, and saw
the full reality and horror of the war. This was the younger upper class generation,
many of whom could no longer believe in the certitudes of the old order.
In terms, though, of the actual causes, rather than the conduct, of the war, the
romantic and nationalist ideas which formed Europe from 1860 to 1914 were just as
much to blame. Certainly German nationalism and the ruthless machinations of
Bismarck and von Schlieffen were among the obvious direct short- and long-term
causes of the war, as least as much as the personality defect of Kaiser Wilhelm.
In this context it is perhaps curious that it was only the old established order which
got it in the neck from history and from the survivors of the First World War.
It is even more of a pity when we remember that it was nationalism – rather clearly
rooted in the ruthless romanticism of Nietzsche, and in the totalitarian fantasies of
Rousseau – which thrived and then led directly to the most awful of wars soon to
follow, which claimed 50 million lives.
I choose to write about Herbert Read here, not only because of his influence, which
was great but which has waned, and not because his ideas are extreme in one
direction or another, but because he is representative of a trend in thinking which
came to form our own. Many of his ideas are now taken for granted by the average
gallery visitor or theatregoer. Herbert Read sits unnoticed, and unrecognised, at
many a middle class dinner party. His ideas and opinions are now the commonplaces
which form the orthodoxy to which most middle class people, especially those
interested in the arts, adhere.
In 1936 Herbert Read, art critic and poet, and decorated veteran of the trenches,
defended the Surrealist Exhibition against its detractors, among them J B Priestley.
He wrote an introduction to the catalogue in which he claimed that surrealism had
decided the classicism-romanticism argument for good.
I think it is interesting to look at what he said because it is part of a turning around of
our attitudes and judgements – in morality in general and in art in particular. Read
didn’t have the benefit of hindsight – I imagine I might have written as he did – but
looking back I see that future developments do indeed shed some different light on
his judgements as they do on our contemporary attitudes and presumptions. It is
time we began to look at them differently.
Surrealism itself does not maintain a very active or significant position in British
minds, but its existence did form many of our ideas, not least because of its role in
weakening the values of the social order that went before.
‘The Surrealist is opposed to current morality because he considers that it is rotten’,
wrote Read in his Introduction to the Surrealist Exhibition. He goes on to list
inequality of wealth, the waste of the world’s resources, the starvation of many and
the existence of war, hypocrisy, and the repression of sexual instincts as the ‘most
general features’ of this morality, ‘for which the surrealist has nothing but hatred and
scorn’. (He doesn’t specify which of the surrealists he has in mind as being driven by
these philanthropic concerns; Dali was a fascist, Breton et al were Trotskyists who
nevertheless denied the priority of the proletarian struggle.) At any rate the
surrealist's code of morality, he says, is based upon liberty and love:
it is his belief that the whole system of organised control and repression which is the
social aspect of present day morality, is psychologically misconceived and positively
This little quote alone might be said to summarise the opinions of the middle class
left in Britain today, insofar as they regard ‘morality’ as the remnants of the previous
morality (They do not call their own set of values a morality).
The Surrealists had the solution though:
|Helping Themselves - the Left Wing
Middle Classes in Theatre and the Arts
by Gregory Motton