Advertisement

The anatomy of memory politics: a formalist analysis of Tate Britain’s ‘Artist and Empire’ and the struggle over Britain’s imperial past

  • Eric Taylor WoodsEmail author
Original Article

Abstract

In this paper, I propose a new approach for understanding the meaning of memory politics, which draws upon the archetypal literary criticism of Northrop Frye. I suggest that the four archetypes elaborated by Frye—comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire—can be used as a heuristic device for interpreting the contested historical narratives that are associated with the politics of memory. I illustrate this approach through a case-study of Artists and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, an exhibition held at Tate Britain in 2016, amidst increasing contestation over the meaning of the British Empire. In sum, I find that the exhibit narrated Britain’s imperial past as a comedy, in which a key theme was the progressive cultural mixing of the British and the people they colonized. To conclude, I discuss the implications of such a narrative for constructing an inclusive, postcolonial British identity. As an alternative, I draw on Aristotle to suggest that a tragic narrative would have been more propitious.

Keywords

Collective memory Formalism Northrop Frye British Empire National identity Tate Britain 

Notes

Acknowledgements

This article would not have been possible without Dr Helen Kim’s unwavering generosity, encouragement and support, as well as her willingness to discuss and debate the meaning of Britain’s imperial past for many long hours. Thank you, Helen. I would also like to thank Professor Jeffrey C. Alexander, Professor Philip Smith, and Dr. Chris Moffat for their comments on an earlier draft. I am also grateful for the reports of the three anonymous referees. Their close reading of the manuscript, and their incisive yet collegial comments, is a testament to the kind of intellectual community that is coalescing around the American Journal of Cultural Sociology. My thanks are also due to Managing Editor Anne Marie Champagne, for her excellent proofreading of the text.

References

  1. Alexander, J.C. 2004. On the Social Construction of Moral Universals: The ‘Holocaust’ From War Crime to Trauma Drama. European Journal of Social Theory 5 (1): 5–85.Google Scholar
  2. Alexander, J.C., and P. Smith. 2003. The Strong Program in Cultural Sociology: Elements of a Structural Hermeneutics. In The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology, ed. J.C. Alexander, 11–26. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Alexander, J.C., and P. Smith. 2010. The Strong Program: Origins, Achievements, and Prospects. In Handbook of Cultural Sociology, ed. J.R. Hall, L. Grindstaff, and M. Lo, 13–24. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Aristotle. 1996. Poetics, trans. M. Heath. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  5. Baker, S.A. 2014. Social Tragedy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bal, M. 1994. Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Collecting. In Cultures of Collecting, ed. J. Elsner and R. Cardinal. London: Reaktion Books.Google Scholar
  7. Boyce, S. 1986. Lay Back, Keep Quiet, and Think of What Made Britain So Great. Charcoal, Pastel and Watercolor on Paper. London: Arts Council Collection.Google Scholar
  8. Brandard, J. 1835. Ikmallik and Apelagliu. Lithograph. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  9. Brendon, P. 2008. The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781–1997. London: Vintage.Google Scholar
  10. Brooks, R.L. (ed.). 1999. When Sorry Isn’t Enough: The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice. New York: NYU Press.Google Scholar
  11. Clifford, J. 1995. Paradise. Visual Anthropology Review 11 (1): 92–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Collings, M. 2015. Artist and Empire, Tate Britain, Exhibition Review: Face the Past. The Evening Standard, 24 November, https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/exhibitions/artist-and-empire-tate-britain-exhibition-review-face-the-past-a3121646.html. Accessed 20 June 2019.
  13. Condor, S., and J. Abell. 2006. Romantic Scotland, Tragic England, Ambiguous Britain: Constructions of ‘The Empire’ in Post-devolution National Accounting. Nations and Nationalism 12 (3): 453–472.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Conway, B. 2009. Rethinking Difficult Pasts: Bloody Sunday (1972) as a Case Study. Cultural Sociology 3 (3): 397–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Coombes, A. 2004. Museums and the Formation of National and Cultural Identities. In Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, ed. B.M. Carbonell, 231–246. London: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  16. Cumming, L. 2015. Artist and Empire Review: Illustrations Minus the Narrative. The Guardian, December 6. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/dec/06/artist-and-empire-review-tate-britain.
  17. Donagh, R. 1983. Lough Neagh. Pencil and watercolor. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.Google Scholar
  18. Dubin, S.C. 2006. Incivilities in Civil(-ized) Places: “Culture Wars” in Comparative Perspective. In A Companion to Museum Studies, ed. S. Macdonald, 477–493. New York: Wiley.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Duncan, C. 1995. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  20. Egonu, U. 1964. Northern Nigerian Landscape. Oil on Hardboard. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  21. Euben, J.P. 1990. The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Evans, R. 2014. Michael Gove Shows his Ignorance of History-Again. The Guardian, January 6, 2014.Google Scholar
  23. Eyerman, R. 2001. Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fante People (Unknown Artist). Asafo Flags. Cotton. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  25. Ferguson, N. 2004. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin UK.Google Scholar
  26. Frye, N. 1957. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Fyfe, G., and S. Macdonald. 1996. Theorizing Museums: Representing Identity and Diversity in a Changing World. London: Wiley.Google Scholar
  28. Gibney, M., R.E. Howard-Hassmann, J.M. Coicaud, and N. Steiner (eds.). 2008. The Age of Apology: Facing up to the Past. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  29. Gilbert, A. 2015. British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4 July 1879. Mixed Media. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  30. Gilroy, P. 2005. Postcolonial Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Gott, R. 2011. Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt. London: Verso Books.Google Scholar
  32. GOV.UK. Press release: Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt visits Singapore. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/press-release-foreign-secretary-hunt-speech-in-singapore. Accessed 28 April 2018.
  33. Hahn, C. 2017. Nailing One’s Colours: Tate Britain’s Artist and Empire. Identities 24 (1): 26–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Halbwachs, M. 1992 [1925]. On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  35. Hashimoto, A. 2015. The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Heath, M. 1996. Introduction. In: Aristotle. Poetics, trans. M. Heath. London: Penguin, pp. ii–xxxv.Google Scholar
  37. Hudson, M. 2015. Artist and Empire, Tate Britain, review: ‘Just not good enough.’ The Telegraph, 23 November, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/artist-and-empire-tate-britain/. Accessed 20 June 2019.
  38. Jacobs, R. 2000. Race, Media and the Crisis of Civil Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Jaggi, M. 2015. ‘Artist and Empire’ at Tate Britain. The Financial Times, 27 November, https://www.ft.com/content/6b7e47c2-92ba-11e5-bd82-c1fb87bef7af. Accessed 20 June 2019.
  40. James, L. 1994. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  41. Jones, J. 2015. Artist and Empire Review—A Captivating Look at the Colonial Times We Still Live In. The Guardian, 23 November, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/23/artist-and-empire-review-tate-britain. Accessed 20 June 2019.
  42. Jones, O. 2016. Is a Queen Victoria statue offensive? It’s about time we debated our colonial past. The Guardian, 7 March 2016.Google Scholar
  43. Joy, G.W. 1893. The Death of General Gordon. Oil on canvas. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  44. Karp, I. 1991. Culture and Representation. In Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. I. Karp and S. Lavine, 11–24. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.Google Scholar
  45. Lavine, S.D., and I. Karp. 1991. Introduction: Museums and Multiculturalism. In Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. I. Karp and S. Lavine, 1–9. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.Google Scholar
  46. Levitt, P. 2015. Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums put the Nation and the World on Display. California: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Locke, D. 1974. Trophies of Empire. Ceramic, Wood, Metal, Glass, and Other Materials. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  48. Locke, H. 2006. Restoration. Photograph with mixed media collage. London: Hales Gallery.Google Scholar
  49. Maori Roof Gable Figure. (18th/19th century). Wood. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  50. McClintock, A. 1995. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  51. Millais, J.E. 1874. The North-West Passage. Oil painting. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  52. Mishra, P. 2011. Watch this Man. London Review of Books 33 (21): 10–12.Google Scholar
  53. Mock, S. 2011. Symbols of Defeat in the Construction of National Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Muldoon, P. 2005. Thinking Responsibility Differently: Reconciliation and the Tragedy of Colonisation. Journal of Intercultural Studies 26 (3): 237–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Olick, J.K. 2013. The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility. Oxon: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Olick, J.K., and J. Robbins. 1998. Social Memory Studies: From “Collective memory” to the Historical Sociology of Mnemonic Practices. Annual Review of Sociology 24 (1): 105–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Paxman, J. 2012. Empire. London: Penguin UK.Google Scholar
  58. Pithawalla, M. 1878. Houseboy. Oil on canvas. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  59. Prösler, M. 1995. Museums and Globalization. The Sociological Review 43 (1): 21–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Rawsthorne, I. 1961. Three African Figures. Oil on Panel. Private Collection.Google Scholar
  61. Riegel, H. 1995. Into the Heart of Irony: Ethnographic Exhibitions and the Politics of Difference. The Sociological Review 43 (1): 83–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Roberts, A. 2006. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.Google Scholar
  63. Sant, J. 1842. Captain Colin Mackenzie, Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Affghan Dress. London: National Army Museum.Google Scholar
  64. Schudson, M. 1997. Cultural Studies and the Social Construction of “Social Construction”: Notes On ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’. In From Sociology to Cultural Studies: New Perspectives, ed. E. Long, 379–398. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  65. Scott, D. 2004. Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Singh, A., and R. Singh. 2009. EnTWINed. Gouache and Gold Dust on Conservation Mountboard. London: Museum of London.Google Scholar
  67. Smith, A.D. 2009. Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Smith, P. 2005. Why War: The Cultural Logic of Iraq, the Gulf War and Suez. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Smith, P., and N. Howe. 2015. Climate Change as Social Drama: Global Warming in the Public Sphere. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Stuart, G. 1785. Portrait of Mohawk Leader and British Ally Thayendanegea, Known as Joseph Brant. Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.Google Scholar
  71. Tagore, R. 1939. Head of a Woman. Watercolor on Paper. Nirmalya and Maya Kumar Collection.Google Scholar
  72. Tate Britain. 2015a. Wall Text, Gallery 1, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  73. Tate Britain. 2015b. Wall Text, Gallery 2, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  74. Tate Britain. 2015c. Wall Text, Gallery 3, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  75. Tate Britain. 2015d. Label for: British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  76. Tate Britain. 2015e. Wall Text, Gallery 4, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  77. Tate Britain. 2015f. Wall Text, Gallery 5, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  78. Tate Britain. 2015g. Wall Text, Gallery 6, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  79. Tate Britain. 2015h. Label for: A. Gilbert (2015) British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4 July 1879. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  80. Tate Britain. 2015i. Label for: S. Van de Passe (1616) Portrait of Matoaka. Print. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  81. Tate Britain. 2015j. Label for: U. Egonu (1964) Northern Nigerian Landscape. Oil on hardboard. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  82. Tate Britain. 2015k. Label for: R. Tagore (1939) Head of a Woman. Watercolor on paper. Nirmalya and Maya Kumar Collection. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  83. Britain, Tate. 2015a. Wall Text, Gallery 7, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  84. Britain, Tate. 2015b. Label for: A. Singh and R. Singh (2009) EnTWINed. Gouache and Gold Dust on Conservation Mountboard. London: Museum of London.Google Scholar
  85. Tate Photography. 2015a. M02729, Installation View of Artists & Empire Exhibition, Tate Britain November 2015–April 2016. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  86. Tate Photography. 2015b. M02735, Installation View of Artists & Empire Exhibition, Tate Britain November 2015–April 2016. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  87. Tate Photography. 2015c. M03336, Installation View of Artists & Empire exhibition, Tate Britain November 2015–April 2016. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  88. Teeger, C., and V. Vinitzky-Seroussi. 2007. Controlling for Consensus: Commemorating Apartheid in South Africa. Symbolic Interaction 30 (1): 57–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Tharoor, S. 2017. Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. London: Scribe Publications.Google Scholar
  90. Thornhill, T. 2015. The Art of Empire: New exhibition Breathes Life into Era When the Sun Never Set on Britain’s Conquests. The Mail Online, 24 November. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3331890/The-art-Empire-New-exhibition-breathes-life-era-sun-never-set-Britain-s-conquests.html. Accessed 26 June 2019.
  91. Torpey, J.C. 2006. Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  92. Turner, V. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  93. Wagner-Pacifici, R., and B. Schwartz. 1991. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Commemorating a difficult past. American Journal of Sociology 97 (2): 376–420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Ward, S. 2001. Introduction. In British Culture and the End of Empire, ed. S. Ward, 6–7. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  95. West, B. 1771. Sir Joseph Banks. Oil on Canvas. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  96. White, H. 1990. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  97. Woods, E.T. 2016. A Cultural Sociology of Anglican Mission and the Indian Residential Schools in Canada: The Long Road to Apology. New York: Palgrave.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Van de Passe, S. 1616. Portrait of Matoaka. Print. London: Tate Britain.Google Scholar
  99. YouGov. 2014. The British empire is something to be proud of. http://cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/6quatmbimd/Internal_Results_140725_Commonwealth_Empire-W.pdf. Accessed 12 August 2017.
  100. Younge, G. 2018. Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit. The Guardian, 3 February 2018.Google Scholar
  101. Zolberg, V. 1998. Contested Remembrance: The Hiroshima Exhibit Controversy. Theory and Society 27 (4): 565–590.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social SciencesUniversity of East LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations