Culture moves in cycles. Now one of its forms comes to the foreground at the expense of others, now it fades away and loses its adherents. In France over the last fifty years, most of the people who in previous eras would have automatically become Úcrivains have instead chosen to practise philosophy, and the latter discipline has boomed on the Left Bank of Paris while the former has wilted. Ask yourself: how many great novelists and poets did France produce in the second half of the twentieth century? And how many of these could compare in stature to Derrida, Deleuze or Badiou? Not many.
I would argue that a similar thing has taken place in the UK. Of course, we still have novelists and poets here; it's just that they're not very good. More than that, they're not very literary. Whenever I meet mainstream writers of my generation and the one above, I'm always amazed at how little they've read. Faulkner, Joyce, Kafka, Conrad, CÚline or Celan are complete anathema to them as they deliver competently-written, sub- or supra-journalistic accounts of life in Britain under Thatcher, Blair, Brown or that other guy who used to be a bus conductor and now gives after-dinner speeches about cricket. That's not to say that proper literature isn't still important here: it is, and is devoured by large hordes of people whose work it directly inspires. But these hordes aren't, for the most part, writers: they're visual artists.
Talk to a contemporary London artist about their influences and you can be sure that Beckett's name will come up in the first five minutes. You could also bet good money that the names of Blanchot, Burroughs and Ballard will pop up before long. And that's just the Bs. Two artists I know have recently done projects based on Huysmans's Against Nature. Three years ago, more than twenty artists displayed work that, in one way or another, engaged with the labyrinthine architecture of Alain Robbe-Grillet's novels. Quite paradoxically, art rather than publishing has become the arena in which literary history is actively – and creatively – transformed, debated, carried forwards.
The work of the contemporary London artists who most interest me invariably turns around the big themes of literary modernism: alienation, fragmentation, catastrophe and, above all, repetition. To my mind, the most dynamic trend to emerge here in the last decade is the penchant for artists to set up ‘re-enactments' of historical events. From the miners-versus-police Battle of Orgreave meticulously reconstructed with a cast of hundreds by Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller, to the rousing speeches of cult leader Jim Jones or the Obedience to Authority ‘experiments' of psychologist Stanley Milgram recreated by Rod Dickinson, to the gig by the infamous punk group The Cramps, originally performed to the inmates of the Napa Mental Health Institute and re-enacted by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard in London's Institute of Contemporary Arts in front of an audience of genuine mental health patients (the most extreme piece of art I've ever witnessed) – such works display a Beckettian or Burroughsian logic whereby history is ‘over', all that's left are the recordings, and these are ours to repeat: again and again and again, until they become symptoms and we take on the role of trauma-victims endlessly reliving our disaster.
Another artist whose work I admire is Mark Aerial Waller. His short installation film ‘Midwatch' was shot in darkness on an infra-red camera; in it, we see two men in the hold of a warship returning from nuclear tests in the Pacific. They are clearly contaminated, and bump into one another like diseased rats as they debate whether or not to abandon ship and rant, poetically but derangedly, about ‘balmy Aryan lands' and ‘one-eyed Moby'. Another of Waller's film, ‘Sons of Temperance', shows agents of an unnamed organisation meeting beneath London's bridges late at night and talking in code as, like junkies, they exchange small phials, ones in which culture itself has somehow been preserved. For me, their exchanges are allegorical of art in our era.
Things move in cycles, as I said. Perhaps, over the next fifty years, a new generation of writers – proper writers – will draw inspiration from the visual arts. Or maybe we'll all become philosophers, or film-makers, musicians, spies or junkies (Burroughs, come to think of it, was at some point or other all of the above). Maybe sky-rocketing housing prices will force cultural players out of London altogether; already there's an exodus of younger artists to Berlin, where rents are roughly a quarter of what they are here. For now, though, London is an exciting place to be in exciting, if odd, times.
Tom McCarthy is a writer and artist. His novels Remainder and Men in Space are published in the UK by Alma Books. His non-fiction book Tintin e il Segreto della Letteratura is published in Italian by Edizioni Piemme.
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