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Artwriting, Nation, and Cosmopolitanism in Britain

The ‘Englishness’ of English Art Theory since the Eighteenth Century


Mark A. Cheetham


Farnham: Ashgate, 2012

Hardcover. xiii+182 p. ISBN 9781409420736. £60.00


Reviewed by Jacques Carré

Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV)




In this surprisingly short book (only 132 pages of text, with Gargantuan footnotes), Cheetham tackles a potentially vast subject: English distrust of art theory. Many writers on art in the past three centuries have indeed argued that the English approach to art is empirical rather than intellectual. And the only grand narrative emerging from ‘artwriting’ from Hogarth to Ruskin, from Fry to Read, seems to be the pursuit of ‘Englishness’ (a term coined by Pevsner in his famous book of 1956, The Englishness of English Art). In an exciting introduction Cheetham seems to set out to challenge these views, first by reminding us that empiricism itself is a theory, and secondly by suggesting that an essentialist conception of Englishness is absurd. The proposed method is to consider that ‘art theory and art practice are mutually constitutive, not opposed’ [2]. Theory, Cheetham argues, is not purely textual, but emerges from the ‘continuum’ between text and image suggested by W.J.T. Mitchell’s coinages ‘metapicture’ and ‘imagetext’. So far, so good.

Yet the book, erudite and subtle as it is, is somewhat puzzling in its organisation as well as disappointing in its argument. Its two chapters are broken down into subparts bearing an apparently precise title. Still, the author strangely fails to stick to his announced topics, and keeps returning to earlier issues, which tends to confuse, not to clarify, the argument. More seriously, at the conceptual level he seems to confirm rather than criticise the time-worn clichés he had identified in his introduction, although he dresses them in modern garb.

The first chapter deals with ‘Englishness, Foreignness and Empire’ in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cheetham rehearses the understandable ambition of Georgian artists to emulate European masters of the past, their awareness (and often approbation) of continental art theory, as in the case of Richardson and Reynolds. He makes the provocative plea that in Hogarth’s work ‘cosmopolitanism and nationalism not only coexisted but in some ways supported one another’ [23]. Yet Cheetham’s interpretation of the word cosmopolitanism is not made clear before the very last pages of the book [139]; at first it seems to amount merely to a knowledge of continental theory, which is rather unsatisfactory. Still, he has interesting comments on The Analysis of Beauty, where the text and the plates form ‘a radically mixed, impure amalgam that enacts his version of seeing’ [39]. Hogarth’s book is rightly praised as a defence of the freedom of the eye, which (in plate 1 of the Analysis) daringly juxtaposes antique statues and living characters, abstract and living nature. Far from being xenophobic, Hogarth’s political vision of English liberty is said to lead him to universalist pronouncements on what art is about. Thus the Englishness of his conception of the artist’s task has little to do with his professional feud with Italianate aristocratic connoisseurs, and is allied to a defence of a national political ideology. In the case of Hogarth as well as other English artists, art theory has a tendency to look for support in other kinds of theoretical discourses. This is one of the more convincing generalisations of the book.

Unfortunately, Cheetham has a weakness for the more modish critical concepts, that he sometimes uses recklessly. For example in one of his attempts to reveal the ‘continuum’ between text and image, Cheetham concentrates on Reynolds’ painting of Theory in Somerset House, a female allegorical figure holding a scroll on which are inscribed the words ‘Theory is the Knowledge of what is truly Nature’. For Cheetham, this figure

paradoxically embodies the imperialism of the male gaze of the time; the artist sees through Theory to a true vision of nature as a body of observations and ideals to be manipulated for the purposes of art. My contention is that Theory is female because she maintains an essential affinity with female Nature. [ 52]

Why the male gaze should necessarily be ‘imperialist’, or why theory should be female is not quite clear from what we read.

Imperialism crops up again in the pages on the treatment of landscape in Gilpin, Constable and Ruskin. Their common emphasis on the virtues of observation in the Lockean tradition is duly emphasised, but it is rather artificially connected to imperial expansion. We read on p. 48: ‘Landscape theory, I argue, is frequently an active middle term between the empirical attitude that characterised much English artwriting in the eighteenth century and imperialism as the technique of empire’. Before embarking on this kind of argument, one could at least be reminded that the English obsession with landscape in those days was above all connected with the social composition of the art-buying class, which was largely made up of landowners large or small. Also one may doubt that ‘empire was a determining category for Ruskin’s art theory’ [66]. Is the fact that Ruskin found Scottish textile design superior to that of India sufficient proof of that? One would have thought that the link between art and morality which runs from Pugin to Pevsner through Ruskin and Morris (as demonstrated by David Watkin) was a more important feature of his art theory.

The second chapter, entitled ‘Indigenes, Imports and Exports’ takes Cheetham on the more familiar ground of the 20th and 21st centuries, and offers useful comments on the continuing defence of empiricism and distrust of theory, in spite of the broadening of Britain’s artistic horizon. Fry’s rejection of the idea of linking art and life, and his Whistler-like insistence on the autonomy of art, are duly acknowledged. If ever there was one Englishman with an interest in art theory, Fry was the man. But, as Cheetham remarks, he remained ‘apologetic’ in his effort at clarifying the principles of art. Such was the general attitude even of those who defended the modern movement like Read or Pevsner. In fact we get the impression that the Georgian ambivalence about continental theory was resuscitated in the 20th century on this particular issue.

Although very selective, the pages on recent developments in the multicultural artistic scene in Britain introduce an interesting contention, which is that cosmopolitanism is now no longer seen as treacherous or un-English, but that it can perfectly well be anchored in the local: ‘Rethinking the category of nation within cosmopolitanism has the potential to acknowledge not only multiplicity but hybridity and specificity, to mediate affiliations and affinities without recourse to hyphenated identities’ [141]. Much more conservative is the choice of works of art discusssed, since they are still in the century-old narrative tradition of Hogarth’s series: Shonibare’ Diary of a Victorian Dandy cries out for commentary, as well as Starling’s post-imperial Island for Weeds.

Altogether this is a fascinating but irritating book, not just by its terseness and convolution, but above all by its failure to distinguish theory proper from mere associations. Perhaps its subject is simply self-defeating, as ‘Englishness’ in art theory turns out to be a desperately heterogeneous concept, pertaining to such various things as xenophobia, climate, geography, class structure, gender bias, geography, political liberty as well as imperial dreams. On the other hand, whatever theory Cheetham manages to squeeze out of his authors is always so closely interwoven with a general prejudice against systems that it seems hardly worth the name.


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