TEN REASONS FOR A TRADITION OF MODERNITY
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Britain is unique. Really, who can possibly deny it? It is also very much true, although not so universal that the image Britain projects overseas is rather inaccurate. Mostly because the traditional opinion is that Britain lacks modernity, that it is caught in a golden Victorian cage, and this cage, in spite of its material, is restricting the way towards whatever is considered modern. WRONG.
Why is it so wrong (and in capitals)? Because of at least 10 reasons.
Chronologically speaking, the first reason that comes to mind is
1. J. M. W. Turner, who can be considered as a painter with nerve. When everyone's' paintings were oils on canvas "photographing" important personalities, he had the impulse to use watercolours to paint ships caught in storms. "His paintings are … so different and often [painted] in such an ambiguous manner, were often misunderstood by contemporaries", say Fleming and Honour in their "A World History of Art". And being misunderstood by contemporaries is often the sign of modernity. A modernity that strikes at the first sight of a painting by Turner. One cannot believe that they have been painted in the first decades of the nineteenth century. As one cannot believe that Caulfield or Hodgkin’s works are so resembling and have so "vital links" with the past, with the traditional methods of painting, when they have shocked the art community. Turner even finds a disciple in what concerns the preference for marine themes in Tim Stoner. Turner stopped time for a ship, Stoner stopped time for a couple of kids in a garden plastic pool: the modern ships are too ugly to have the time stooped for them, and besides nowadays the sea means the holiday there during the summer , not pirates' adventures. Centuries apart, all these modern painters support the idea of a Britishness in British art, of a certain sense of insularity. And this is tradition.
The mind's track often brakes loose from the dominance of time, so let us abandon the chronological trail and follow the white rabbit through the mirror.
2. Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bennet and Bridget Jones. You are probably wondering what two fictional characters and the author of one of them have in common. They are all modern women. This first two are actually more modern than the latter. For Jane Austen, modernity meant independence, being able not to depend on a husband to make a living, and writing. For Elizabeth Bennet, modernity meant a marriage with a peer not in station but in mind. As for Bridget, modernity means… Oh, Bridget is rather special. She is so traditional in her quest for a husband, that makes one wonder whether she is the real daughter of Mrs. Bennet. In fact, Bridget is not modern at all, except that she, unlike her other nominee in this category does know how to use a computer. She actually determines the reader of her Diary to scream " Are all British women 30 year-olds in search of a husband and a job?" Apparently for Bridget being British is like being called Heathcliff: you have to go outside and bang your head on very tree you find, while yelling "Catherine!"
The trend nowadays is that old is new. Old mentalities, old things in general. Everything traditional is remixed, redesigned and morphed into the sensation of the month.( Often on the catwalk). This leads us to:
3. John Galliano, or Stella McCartney , or any other British designer. The reason: for using at least once in their collections the corset. For a whole century, women all over the world, including Britain, have tried to sack the corset, mostly due to its symbolism. British designers never let it go for good, they just put it on hold. The Goth image at the end of the past century gave them the opportunity to put it out back in the open. They waited for the symbolism to blur and vanish, and there it is: different colours, textures, but nevertheless a corset.
The verb "blur" used above sends to music. British music. And when talking about British music, one must talk about:
4. The Beatles. As a matter of fact, they should be reason number one on this list. They are the symbol of Modern Britain, of a certain Britain that used to dare and that was part of the “Avant-garde”. They were so modern for such a long time , they became tradition.
5. Guy Ritchie. Film Director. The traditional British movie was either Sir Laurence Olivier or Alfred Hitchcock. From time to time , directors used to make a name out shocking puritans, as Peter Greenaway did. Ritchie follows this unspoken tradition and tries to catch its bare essence: to make a couple of hit-movies, shock everybody, get famous and marry Madonna.
6. Madonna – this one is actually a “negative” argument. She does not prove Britain is modern , she proves the image the world perceives of Britain is wrong. Madonna is the epitome of modernity, the trend-maker. Now she wants to have a normal life, although her idea of normality is more resembling to Tony Ray-Jones’s photograph – Glyndebourne ( a couple smartly-dressed, having tea in a field , amidst or among cows). The critics said about this photo that captures the “introverted , self-contained lives in contrast to the more expressive world of the cattle”. So, Madonna wants a normal life, to be a mid-aged wife with a couple of kids, to live in Scottish manor, to spend her mornings giving orders to the butler and her afternoons having tea with some high-class pure British ladies, and during the holidays to go to Bath.
Actually this is not Britain, it is the celluloid version of Britain. As for celluloid, it has the tendency to exaggerate.
Speaking of movies:
7. The Full Monty .
Tradition : In Sheffield, steel is produced.
Modernity: In Sheffield, “Hot Steel” is produced.
The difference: “Hot Steel” is formed of male strippers, who actually are ex-steel workers.
for Modernity in this one.
8.Football – It was invented in Britain, it’s a tradition in Britain. And 1966 was a great year for British football: Cantona was born. Considering British football is still one of the most praised, it has won the honour to be also considered modern. And if Beckham isn’t modern, who is?
9. London. “Traditionally” speaking, London is supposed to be permanently foggy, with no other means of transportation but double-deckers and cabs, populated by men wearing bowlers or looking like James Bond. Well, it’s not. What is really traditional about London is its scent, its atmosphere, it’s the arrogance to have an area named so pompously “The City”, it’s the mixture of trends, it’s the possibility of having Virgin records and Harrods in the same part of town and it’s having the Changing of the Guards happening just the same for such a long time, may it be under the flashes of the last generation of cameras or under the curious eyes of people that seemed to jump right out of Dickens’s books.
10. Cars. Especially Rolls-Royce. Probably the most British car ever, it is impregnated with the glow of “Britishness” and yet it is equipped with the latest discoveries in car technology.
Here were the ten reasons meant to show that Britain is a wonderful blend, like a Lady Grey tea. Tradition never excluded modernity, and modernity never excluded tradition. So, there is no place for a “versus” between them. They were never parallel, never had each a separate life. Some things are so new that they become tradition, and some things , although obsolete for a while, become so modern all over again.
Conclusion: Britain is not the celluloid image of Britain. And for once, it has the power to say through the voice of Robbie Williams: “I will talk and Hollywood will listen!”
Frayling, Christopher – “100 Years at the Royal College of Art – Art and
Design”, Collins & Brown, 1999
Graham-Dixon, Andrew – “A History of British Art”, BBC, 1996
Hounour, Hugh & Fleming, John – “A World History of Art”, Calmann &
***The Photography Book, Phaidon Press, 1997
The list of all the sources mentioned in this text and found in the British Council Library is rather long, and I honestly think that only the catalogue of the Library would cover them all. Nevertheless here are at least fur that have had an impact on this article.
Austen, Jane – “Pride and Prejudice”
Fielding, Helen – “The Diary of Bridget Jones”
Carroll, Lewis- ”The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland”
***The Full Monty , VHS & DVD
*** Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Directed by Guy Ritchie
As I am sure you have noticed, most of the things we buy these days are labeled “Made in Taiwan” or China or even better Bangladesh. Rare are the moments when we actually get a hold of a “Made in the U.K.” product. “Made in Britain” seems to withhold a content that is more than a label. A Cadbury chocolate is not just any ‘chocolate’ and a Royce isn’t exactly a Dacia; well it depends on how you look at it!
What are the first ideas that enter our minds when we think “The United Kingdom?” Apart from the images that everyone seems to embrace such as the royal family, Shakespeare or the British weather, people tend to understand Britain from two angles: of tradition and modernity.
According to the ¹survey undergone by the British Council in 2001, the U.K. is viewed as being traditional in high-income countries while in the middle and low-income countries it is seen as modern. The same survey shows that the image of the U.K. is also different in the cases of those people that have or haven’t visited the country. The former tend to see the British society as modern, while the latter, gather that the U.K is more ‘traditional.’ Using this information we can conclude that people draw up an image of another country according to many factors such as the level of development (of that certain country), the degree of education and also on personal experience and information.
Comprehending the two terms ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ is essential in fully analyzing their relationship in the U.K.
Does one know the old saw about the secret behind the loveliness of English gardens? Asked to explain a lord replied: ‘ Simple, take ordinary grass and turn the soil regularly for five hundred years.’ This, metaphorically speaking, has created the image of tradition in the U.K.: regularity, permanence, devotement, and rigor, a continuous glorification of the past and a constant appraisal and opening to the future.
Hi-tech gadgets that make the society „technologically advanced,” so to say, do not represent modernity in the U.K., or anywhere else in the world. Modernity refers to the character of life under changed circumstances; on one hand having the capacity to make the moment one lives in as vibrant as possible, while on the other hand, strongly maintaining traditional values.
When one visits the U.K. one is bewildered by how everything around from houses to museums or shops are beautifully conserved but at the same time astoundingly modern. Taxi’s are no longer a sober black but full of colour and personality, double- deckers move rather fast on the little, narrow streets so picturesque that one has the impression they wont fit or that only a 19th century carriage would. History is everywhere you turn in Britain but the ‘decorations’ bring light and individuality to the picture. The U.K. has never lagged behind in the process of modernization nor in the process of keeping traditions alive: in architecture, in design, in fashion, in car making, in its gardens, in its literature, in other words in its ‘image’.
In my opinion, Britain is not all about Manchester United, kings and queens, the blue blood phobia or five o’clock tea.
British design for example is a topic that well enhances the liaison between tradition and modernity.
² Frederique Huygen sees British design as: “… Burberry raincoats, floral interior fabrics, Jaguars, Shetland pullovers, Dunhill lighters and Wedgwood pottery. Tradition, respectability and quality.” But later in the work we discover that even though traditionally that is what British design stands for, modernisation does not make this image disappear.
Britain has been the witness of several radical movements brought along by what is known as the “street culture,” such as the anarchy of punk and pop musicians such as the Sex Pistols whose music was a blasphemous treatment of the monarchy and country. Well-known pop musicians like Boy George, David Bowie or Adam Ant created a new statement in British fashion design by wearing shocking outfits created by young fashion designers. But such movements did not create profound changes in Britain’s image. In fact, design was known as the tonic for Britain’s economy that had drastically fallen after the two World Wars, and brought industry back to life by sheer unbridled competition. Actually British design became “shocking” rather late due to British reluctance to all that was modern. Even though the U.K. was the actual ‘generator’ of industrialization, the late arrival of a Modern Movement is often associated with the quest of acceptance of the machine.
British society pushed aside mass production and classless products over hand-made and small scale production, until it realized that tradition and modernity are not contradictory or exclusive thus learning how to make the two coexist. For example, a radical movement such as punk anarchy together with the art school’s creativity brought innovation to design in the U.K. The effects were that starting with the 80’s fashion was back in the international spotlight, the industry made a huge profit and alongside other industries it aided economy in regaining its strengths. Designs by Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, John Richmond, succeeded in finding their identity in the world of ‘haute-couture’ by creating a twist of tradition and modernity.
Another important branch of British design, is the car-making industry. I find car making in the U.K. to be a relevant example of the way in which it has always strived to combine the traditional and the modern. Well known for their class car manufacturing of models such as the Rolls Royce, Aston Martin, Walter Owen Bentley or the Jaguar, the term “Britishness” becomes self-explanatory.
Due to the fact that British approach to design is one of common sense rooted in the craft tradition, the cars have maintained that classic design and style that spell ‘British’ or better said ²´“well groomed and tame” as the Jaguar is described. But these types of cars are spicily priced and their affordability comes easy only to those who are willing and can pay large sums of money. An interesting fact is that according to ³ BBC News, in 2000 car makers in Britain were ordered to cut prices for they were up to 10% and even 20% higher than in other European countries. Still, the 2000 figure of sales was that of 2.21 million sold cars and in 2001 sales established a record sale of 2.33 million beating the record of 1989.
Although the class cars do not figure in the top ten most sold, they do appear in the top 30 and 40 which no doubt shows the relatively high living standard in Britain. Even though it is still considered to be a class-structured society, high-income rates have contributed to political tranquillity. ˉ To paraphrase the work “20th Century Britain,” compared to the 1900 when British society was sharply divided among class and gender lines, in Edwardian Britain this structured status quo was not meekly accepted by everyone (we are to remember the Suffragette movement). Therefore, we can see that as society evolved so did mentality and as living standards surged the class and gender issues dissipated and Britain ˉ “seemed to be moving towards a fairer, more egalitarian society.”
Modernity lies in the power to somehow shape mentality, much like modern ideas give a new and polished look to a classic Bentley or make the Range Rover more equipped to win the Paris- Dakar.
Art has no history because ˜ “history has an unchanging basic structure” and as car making, fashion or everything design represents is art, art knows no temporal boundaries. Because just like tradition is at times erroneously considered a “thing of the past” without any contemporary legitimacy, and modernity is often mistakenly understood as a synonym for modernism, art is timeless.
A tradition can be born today and referred to as being modern or not. Today we so often state that some clothing article is ‘modern’ when in fact it was also known to be ‘modern’ in the 60’s or at the beginning of the century!
By this I would like to conclude that ‘modernity’ is not necessarily something happening right now or in the future and ‘tradition’ is not just the docile transmission of some dead deposit but the living repetition that manages to suggest a fresh truth.
Ulrich Bez, CEO for Aston Martin describes this car in such a way that clearly elicits what tradition and modernity are in the U.K. Therefore, when you ever ask yourselves: “What can a car say about a country?” think of this:
“ Aston Martin is also about being British; the best of British. Those characteristics which appear to be opposites: Discipline with creativity…tradition with a new twist…respect of craft and love of modernity…traditions combined with free thinking inventiveness.”
This is how I see tradition and modernity in the U.K. A profound respect for traditional values, a promoter of creativity and an inborn pride in saying: “Made in Britain.” Now you can understand what I meant that this “is more than a label!”
2; 2’ Frederique Huygen “British Design Image & Identity” first published 1989 in Great Britain, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London – (page 15 (2), page 24 (2’))
BBC News, Sunday April 8th 2001(also exists in article form at www.bbc.com)
“20th Century Britain-Economic, Social and Cultural Change” edited by Paul Johnson, first published 1994 in London and New York, Longman,( page 123)
Peter Donaldson and John Farquhar “Understanding the British Economy”, Penguin Group 1988,( page 11)
“Art Has No History- The Making and Unmaking of Modern Art” edited by John Roberts, Verso 1994, (page1)
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