Today's docusoaps compare badly with art that patronised the masses in the past, writes James Heartfield
Art for the People, an exhibition featuring scenes of ordinary life, was organised by the leftish Artists International Association (AIA) back in 1939. The AIA was part of a movement of 'social realism' in painting, inspired in part by the heroic representations of workers and peasants in official Soviet art. Translated into the hum-drum Britain of the 1930s and 40s, social realism became a celebration of the con-tribution of working class people to the nation's wealth, and later to the war effort. Paintings exhibited by the AIA carried titles like 'Children of the Gorbals' (John Minton), 'London street scene' (Barnett Freedman), 'Washing up' (Stanley Spencer), 'Ruby Loftus screwing a breech ring' (Laura Knight), and 'Selling the Daily Worker outside the projectile engineering works' (Clive Branson).
It was remarkable to see ordinary lives depicted in the oil and canvas once reserved for middle class interiors and country estates. Some of the work of the social realists was more than remarkable. Stanley Spencer's vast panels 'Shipbuilding on the Clyde', commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee, teem with men and women, bent to their purpose, illuminated by the light of their welding torches. The heroism and the humanity are not caricatured, though the scene carries all the strange menace of Spencer's religious allegorical paintings.
At the GPO film unit the interest in the lives of working people was a creative impulse. John Grierson innovated a new style in documentary film that was honest to its subject matter, and did not turn away from what was discomforting to its audience. Humphrey Jennings and WH Auden worked with Grierson, as did Carol Reed, who went on to direct The Third Man. There was comedy among the social realism at the GPO unit, as when the arch Auden did not have the heart to explain to an innocent Jennings what was wrong with the line 'the workers lay down their enormous tools'. Meanwhile Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop put ordinary lives on the stage, along with Brendan Behan's Quare Fellow.
There was a lot wrong with social realism. It often descended into a titillation of middle class audiences with patronising reflections on working class squalor. When the War Department sent Shakespeare to the Welsh Valleys the actors called it 'missionary work'. The propaganda films that Grierson's apprentices made, of common people pulling together to beat Hitler, did not tell the real story of class tensions in the midst of the war, but sold a myth of merrie England and maypole dances. Like their Soviet counterparts, the social realists were in danger of romanticising social conditions that were degrading and plainly unheroic.
But for all that the social realists of the 1930s and 40s were progressive-minded people, with a real concern for their subjects. The influence of social realism in the European arts was sufficiently alarming to the US Central Intelligence Agency for them to sponsor abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock as a counterweight to the imagined influence of 'Soviet-inspired' art.
By contrast, today's social realists and docusoaps have a less ambitious project, and a more awkward relationship to their subjects.
Scottish painters Ken Currie and Peter Howson (currently gracing the cover of The Beautiful South's album Quench) consciously plundered the imagery of the original social realists, but as a requiem to a defeated class. Currie's mangled bruisers are a record of an industrial class thrown on the scrap heap. Howson's vicious caricatures of an overweight, scrofulous underclass wear sneers, sneakers, and backward baseball caps, sport pit-bull terriers and even, in one flight of fantasy, string up a saintly, white-bearded intellectual from a lamppost. In America writers like Raymond Carver and actor-playwright Sam Shepard trawl the trailer-trash for their gritty realism, while James Kelman's novel How Late It Was, How Late takes us on a nightmare journey with a Glaswegian jakey blinded by drink and violence. It is worth bearing in mind that Britain's social realist filmmakers, like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, play as arthouse cinema in America.
In television the docusoap is the most remarkable venture in putting ordinary life centre stage. The stars of Airport, Driving School, Lakeside are as far from Hollywood glamour as they could be - and quite a distance from their grandparents, as depicted by the Artists International Association and the GPO film unit. This is a post-industrial working class that works in services, like shopping malls. There is little danger of a bogus celebration of the heroism and dignity of labour in the docusoap. Its heroes, like smirking Jeremy in Airport, are camp, self-deprecating and often media-conscious, making witty asides to the camera. Not a great deal of work seems to go on in Britain's service industries - more bitching about colleagues and socialising than Spenceresque Glasgow-shipbuilding graft.
At its best the observational format has supported some compelling television, like Lucy Blakstad's Lido. But sad to say, these are exceptions to the rule. There is no doubt that observational documentary is popular, and the very banality of the problems of the everyday hold vast audiences transfixed. But the gravitation towards this kind of 'People's television' is a celebration of the passive and small-minded side of folk like us.
The docusoap has rushed to fill the vacuum where the filmmakers' own creativity should be. They find their own lack of ambition reflected in the modest quirkiness of the unrich and 15-minute famous - but now transformed into valuable airtime, and on the cheap.
The old social realism descended into a celebration of the very conditions of working class life that ought to have been done away with. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky warned, 'Those who believe in a "pock-marked" art are imbued with contempt for the masses' (Ann Arbor, Literature and Revolution, p204). The new 'People's television' redoubles those faults, without even a romantic misrepresentation of working class life to vitiate it, and makes a virtue out of the banality of the everyday.
Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999