Study event to ‘Don McCullin’ at Tate Britain, 20 April 2019
I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: ‘I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.’ That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.’
What is a gallery like the Tate Britain for, other than a place to display art objects? You go to be educated, don’t you? Tate certainly presents itself as such, so I took it at face value and shared a chapter from Susie Linfield’s ‘A Cruel Radiance’ on the study visit forum thread beforehand. Linfield writes elegantly about how photographs of suffering contain both a dialectic – ‘this is so’ and by implication ‘this must not be’; and a paradox – photography has made violence more visible but that exposure hasn’t translated into action. But my first thought when confronted with the exhibition was how irrelevant this text appeared to the actual experience of looking at the photographs. Both were an experience of reading, but I realised that you can’t use Linfield to approach McCullin. You just read Linfield and then you read McCullin. I wanted to read McCullin ‘from the beginning’.
But how do we read it? I’d suggest that we’re supposed to have a private experience of reading, and this is actually reflected in most of the online reviews I’ve seen. At ‘Don McCullin’ you’re not supposed to think so much as feel. But the other function of an art gallery, besides educating us, is surely to provide a public space for debate and criticism. And I’d like to concentrate on that part now, rather than the private response, because what is there to say about our private responses to those photographs except that they’re valid?
In the public space of the exhibition it seems to me that there are three things – the images of suffering (I’m not going to worry about the other work at the fringes, seasides and such like, because it becomes far too complicated), Don McCullin himself, and the Tate. Don McCullin is the easiest – we already know him well from a slew of biographical portraits over the last few years in print, film and TV, and now from carefully chosen quotations on the text panels surrounding the work. An Englishman; a product of his generation (he reminds me of my own father – same time, same place). Seems like a nice guy. Complicated, like all of us. Trying to make sense, make meaning. Seen things we’ve never seen and wouldn’t want to see…
Except we do see – in his photographs, which are presented as fine art prints. The reason for saying that we’re supposed to read them as fine art are pretty clear and are nothing to do with them being in an art gallery – the definition of art is still open isn’t it? Rather the low lighting, the museum mounts and frames, and most of all the wall texts. Example –
‘The ethical dilemma involved in producing beauty from tragedy has been a concern for the field of photography almost from its inception’.
This is the Tate now, making curatorial decisions about how to present the work (and itself) in the text panels, and in a few other ways of course, notably the educational events surrounding the show. Yes, they are careful to provide evidence of the original ‘channel’ for the images as well – you can’t change the viewing mode so easily. Sunday Times editions from the period in the vitrines and an audio-visual presentation, together with a kind of basic history lesson of 20th century conflict in the wall texts, makes this a historical show as well as an art exhibition.
I’ve spent quite a long time reading and thinking about the wall panel texts during and after the show and probably the Tate is a master of subtlety because I wasn’t quite getting what it wanted to say. So eventually I decided to try a technique that I sometimes use when listening to politicians or the news. It was invented by Isaac Asimov in his classic science fiction novel ‘Foundation’. I’m not pretending it’s academic.
Mayor Hardin is addressing the Board.
‘You see, there is a branch of human knowledge known as symbolic logic, which can be used to prune away all sorts of clogging deadwood that clutters up human language’.
‘What about it?’ said Fulham.
‘I applied it. Among other things, I applied it to this document here.’
Hardin removed a few sheets of paper from the pad under his arm and spread them out. ‘I didn’t do this myself, by the way,’ he said. ‘Muller Holk of the Division of Logic has his name signed to the analyses, as you can see.’
The treaty ran through five pages of fine print and the analysis was scrawled out in just under half a page.
‘As you see, gentlemen, something like ninety percent of the treaty boiled right out of the analysis as being meaningless, and what we end up with can be described in the following interesting manner:
‘Obligations of Anacreon to the Empire: None!
‘Powers of the Empire over Anacreon: None!’
Again the five followed the reasoning anxiously, checking carefully back to the treaty, and when they were finished, Pirenne said in a worried fashion, ‘That seems to be correct.’
Now of course I’m not suggesting who Anacreon or the Empire might be in this fictive or metaphorical example. That’s part of the critical debate I suppose. I’m also not saying that I thought the photographs themselves were ‘meaningless’, because in the galleries and in the café afterwards we shared our private responses to individual photographs in the way that was intended. I was enriched by that and I hope others were too. But I do wonder why the Tate chose to present the work in that way. Surely it can only be that they (and McCullin) wanted to neutralise them in some way. I think they may have succeeded.
All the wall texts are online at https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/don-mccullin/don-mccullin-exhibition-guide
‘Photojournalism and Human Rights’ by Susie Linfield is on the forum thread here:
Lewis Bush’s review of ‘Don McCullin’ on Disphotic is here:
Image: Don McCullin, Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin 1961,Tate © Don McCullin.