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

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.

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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.

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Woods, E.T. The anatomy of memory politics: a formalist analysis of Tate Britain’s ‘Artist and Empire’ and the struggle over Britain’s imperial past. Am J Cult Sociol (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-019-00081-y

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Keywords

  • Collective memory
  • Formalism
  • Northrop Frye
  • British Empire
  • National identity
  • Tate Britain