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May 06, 2014

Solid Air: Jeremy Deller curates at The Mead

Hucknall miner's welfareI thought it was worth dusting the blog off to write about the new exhibition in the Mead Gallery at Warwick Arts Centre, All That is Solid Melts Into Air. The show connects with a number of the issues I’m engaged with in my research on taste and the politics of cultural participation, as well as touching on some of the broader concerns we think and teach about in the Centre. It is a touring selection of pieces from the Hayward Gallery in London, curated by Jeremy Deller. One of the more intelligent and provocative British artists of his generation, Deller manages to be both of ‘the Art World’ (he won the Turner Prize in 2004) and also at a distance from it, in that his work seems more likely to reflect on ‘big P’ political struggles than that of some of his contemporaries. The items curated here evoke these struggles in depicting the often surprising collisions between the grand ambitions of the industrial revolution and the ways in which that revolution was and continues to be experienced, lived with and even resisted.

The title, as students of Marx will know, is lifted from a famous passage in The Communist Manifesto which extemporises on the creative, transformatory powers of the bourgeoisie to shatter existing orders and usher in new ones. The tensions and ambiguities – or contradictions we should probably say – in this process are evoked in the exhibit through some telling juxtapositions between the past and the near-present. The grand-masterly painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin (1852) for example, reveals the anxieties of romantic intellectuals of the 19th century about the human consequences of the rise of industrial capitalism. Exhibited close by is a two-faced grandfather clock, one face measuring time and the other productivity, which also reminds us of the structures and techniques which underpinned this rise. Time-keeping mechanisms of various kinds, as the historian EP Thompson famously described, emerge as fundamental tools in the industrialists’ armoury, ideal for transforming people into their measurable and commodified labour power. Rather than being condemned to the past, though, this process is perhaps completed by the technologically managed workers depicted in Ben Robert‘s photos of Amazon’s vast warehouses. We can also see up-close the wrist-held device that monitors the rate at which the tasks in this kind of workplace are performed. With a nod to an earlier work, Deller plays with the imagery of a trades-union parade banner decorated with the words ‘You can have day off today’, sent by text to a zero-hours contract worker. Such juxtapositions raise powerful questions about the real labour that underpins our weightless economy – and the extent to which our apparent freedom to have whatever we want, whenever we want it, is worth the cost of the other hard won freedoms – of collective bargaining, security and dignity at work- which can be compromised to provide it.

The show is far from a lament, though. There is also a playful, celebratory air to it, not least in its exploration of the role of various forms of popular culture in British industrial history. The exhibition charts the journey from the ‘solid’ world of the industrial revolution to the ‘air’ of the cultural economy in relation to music. It does so in part by exploring the iconography of heavy metal as a music that emerges from the manufacturing heartlands of the UK and indeed - as visitors to the foyer of the Ramphal building will know -from our very environs in the West Midlands. An album cover from Birmingham’s own Judas Priest echoes a kitsch, exaggerated version of the imagery of Gomorrah. The photo of Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, minus one of the fingertips he lost in an industrial accident, reminds us that workers were and are always more than the sum of the labour power of their bodies. The short historical distance from ‘solid’ to ‘air’ is also depicted in the family trees of musical icons, displaying the professions of the ancestors of Slade’s Noddy Holder, Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays and Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music. That the latter has gone from generation upon generation of blacksmiths, domestic servants and miners located in a distinct and narrow geographical region of the North East to the very archetype of the suave cosmopolitan elite perhaps makes him the embodiment of the journey Deller is charting here.

Finally the iconic Dennis Hutchinson photograph of the South Waleian professional wrestler ‘Exotic’ Adrian Street represents a defiant two-painted-finger-nail salute to the romanticization of working class life. He is depicted returning, in spectacular costume and make-up, to the mining village he ‘escaped’ and, as a glance through the autobiography displayed nearby reveals, the father he despised. There are no comfortable, nostalgic resolutions here, but a hopeful reading might at least recognise the power of performance and creativity to subvert, reconfigure or melt the solid strictures of gender or class. It is timely, in the year of the passing of two giants of the Cultural Studies tradition, Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart, to be reminded that popular culture has been, throughout history, a keen indicator of and resource for revealing the tensions in the political formations of its day (whether through the bawdy folk songs or broadside ballads of the 19th century, or TV wrestling, or commercial pop music). The exhibition has certainly raised questions for me about where those tensions might be visible in contemporary cultural life. It is on until the 21st June and it is well worth skiving an hour off work to see it.

You can follow my research via, or see my[author page on Warwick’s WRAPrepository.

You can see a webcast of Jeremy Deller talking about the exhibition on an earlier stop of the tour in Nottingham here.

May 30, 2013

Comparing tastes in the UK and Finland

Sibelius monument, HelsinkiTwo papers published this month, written with colleagues from the University of Helsinki, Semi Purhonen and Riie Heikkilä, and supported by the British Academy, represent the culmination of a project on comparing cultural tastes in UK and Finland.

Why compare tastes? Principally because one criticism of the most influential account of the social patterns of taste, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, is that its analysis is tied to a specific time and place and therefore its insights are not transferable to other times and places. Comparison between nations is one way to explore that further.

Why the UK and Finland? Here the answer is partly practical. Many of the comparative studies I’ve read on other topics are prefaced with accounts of their difficulty. Whilst, of course, we had our struggles, our path was eased by the fact that two studies with similar questions, methodologies and a similar relation to Bourdieu had been recently conducted in the UK and in Finland. This made comparison something of a natural next step.

The first of the two papers, written with Semi Purhonen, appears in a special issue of the journal Cultural Sociology on ‘field analysis’, edited by Mike Savage and Elizabeth Silva. Field, along with habitus and the more familiar capital is one of Bourdieu’s conceptual triad, with fields representing the overlapping spheres of human activity in which capitals are struggled over. Field, capital and habitus are always inter-related for Bourdieu – an element of his approach which is often forgotten, at least by some of his critics. In order to be analyzed fields need to be constructed or demarcated somehow – and the special issue shows some great examples of how this can be achieved, in relation to such diverse topics as comedy, fell-running and the digital worlds of musical tastes. For comparison, though – and especially for comparing something as complex and hard to pin down as ‘national taste’ - the fields that are being compared need to be constructed in similar ways. Our studies allowed that to happen, but not without some problems. These problems included how to interpret the different items which are asked about in national surveys of taste and participation, and the different positions of those items in local or national cultural hierarchies – assuming such surveys can’t just be identical (asking about schlagers in the UK would be as meaningless as asking about cricket in Finland). In the paper we explore how Multiple Correspondence Analysis (MCA), the statistical method which underpins Distinction -which produces those infamous diagrams and which Bourdieu describes as ‘thinking’ in terms of relation – allows a partial resolution of these issues by revealing the underlying structure of tastes. Regardless of which items or activities are liked in the two countries, the MCA produced by both projects showdivisions which can be similarly interpreted in both nations, and which relate to class, education and age. The activities themselves are less important, then, than their relation to other activities. We back this up by analyzing the in-depth interviews of people located, through their survey answers, in different bits of our national ‘fields’, so that we can explore how people feel about their likes and dislikes, illustrating how a position in a field is experienced – and importantly reminding us that people are more than an accumulation of their variables. It was an interesting process – and might provide a model for comparative work of this kind in the future.

The second paper, written with Semi and Riie, appears in the journal Comparative Sociology. Here our concern was to use taste to critically explore the notion of ‘cosmopolitanism’, which has emerged as a somewhat hopeful and optimistic form of post-national identity, characterized by tolerance and openness to difference. It is a concept which has been more theorized than empirically explored, though, and taste might be where it is visible. The value of comparison here is that, for all their similarities, the UK and Finland have distinct collective histories shaping their national cultures and are differently positioned in global flows of people and things. We used the interviews and focus groups produced by the two projects to explore how the tensions between the national and the global are played out. We find lots of examples of what the sociologist Ulrich Beck refers to as ‘banal cosmopolitanism’ – i.e. the presence in everyday life of items and people from beyond ‘the nation’, simply by virtue of the globalization of the cultural industries and migration of various forms. Interestingly we find little evidence of rejection or suspicion of ‘global culture’, or at least its US version – which might have been present in studies of this kind in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Age seems to be an important indicator of cosmopolitan attitudes – especially in Finland where learning languages, including English, appears to give ready access to work and travel abroad. In both countries, for younger more educated, professional groups (those with, roughly, more cultural capital), identifiably ‘national’ forms of culture were less attractive than more exotic forms. Older people and those with lower levels of education seemed more attached to the nation (although in Finland, older people who might be identified as elite also seemed to exhibit particular pride in national cuisine). These kinds of findings might indicate some of the ambiguities of cosmopolitanism – it might spread with the cohort effect of younger generations and the inter-connections of global culture, but it is equally likely to be marked by inequalities in cultural capital, although on a global scale.

Producing both papers was a very rewarding process – and hopefully these conversations, about the UK, Finland and elsewhere, will continue.

Warwick staff and students can access the papers via WRAP

You can find links to the articles and follow my research on


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