'Joyless in the extreme' – I Object: Ian Hislop's Search for Dissent review
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2018-09-05 Size:
You know a joke’s in trouble when the audience needs to be ……

I spy … Ian Hislop at the British Museum, where he has curated the exhibition I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent. Photograph: © Trustees of the British Museum

You know a joke’s in trouble when the audience needs to be told to laugh. Canned laughter would probably be going too far in a British Museum exhibition, so instead an enormous speech bubble, placed next to an 18th-century portrait of Louis XVI wearing a red liberty cap, gives us Ian Hislop’s assurance that it is funny.

“The saying ‘Ridicule kills’ is usually an exaggeration,” says the Private Eye editor. “Not for Louis XVI. They have taken a well-known picture of the king and shoved a revolutionary hat on it. The effect is comical as the great Louis XVI is made to look as if he is a supporter of the revolution. Not so funny for him though.”

It’s not so funny for anyone. This is a political image from a lost place and time. If it was ever intended to be humorous, that humour has long gone. And anyway, is there actually a saying “Ridicule kills”?

But perhaps it’s asking too much of an exhibition that scours world history in search of objects and images that express “dissent” to be full of gags. Just because Hislop is famous as a satirist, why should we expect an exhibition billed as “Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent” to be a comedy rollercoaster? Still, I Object is joyless in the extreme.

Near the Jacobin picture of Louis XVI is a pink woollen Pussyhat that was worn on a Women’s March in January last year. With its pointy knitted ears, it is a sartorial riposte to Donald Trump’s sleazy remarks which came to light during his campaign for the US presidency. On a march, this must have been a powerful bit of headgear, just as it must have been stirring to see the Paris crowd all in red liberty caps in 1789. In this exhibition, however, it is shown on a mannequin head in a glass case with a label that sombrely alludes to Trump’s use of misogynist language. It has the street life crushed out of it.

Street life crushed out of it ... Pink Hat (Pussyhat), USA, 2017, knitted wool.

That text on the Pussyhat is not one of Hislop’s remarks. As is carefully explained at the start of the show, his words are in speech bubbles to distinguish them from the museum’s official labels. It all adds up to a lot of reading. What with that and the strait-laced presentation of objects in cases, this exhibition creates the opposite of a subversive mood. It bangs on about dissent in an almost authoritarian way.

Worse, it takes this didactic line without making a convincing case that its theme even exists as a single global thread. What is dissent? In Britain, this word started out as a term for radical religious minorities and became a political word partly because they were associated with political protest. That’s one example of the infinite local contexts and nuances this show ignores. How can you speak of dissent in the abstract? People protest against, mock or subvert authority not just in very different ways but for different reasons. Authority itself takes different forms. This show insists that somehow it’s all the same impulse. That flattens history.

At the start of the show, we see an obscene ancient Egyptian image. Hislop claims it is satirising the pharaohs but it could also be a fertility image or just a bit of fun. Or perhaps, if they allowed their artists to make rude jokes, the pharaohs weren’t that bad. Equally implausible is the claim that a late 18th-century coin defaced with an image of the pope being hanged is supporting Napoleon. Maybe – but there was also a savage Protestant popular culture that exploded in the Gordon Riots in the same era. Is hating Catholics a dissenting view?

A large part of this show is taken up by indirect, hidden messages, for as Hislop says in another speech bubble: “For most of history in most places dissent was dangerous.” The trouble is, indirect subversion makes for a dreary display. Anyone expecting a raucous, riotous gathering of protest art may be disappointed by a case full of Catholic religious images that were buried to save them in the Reformation. There’s nothing subversive about these holy images in themselves.

Joyously rebellious art ... James Gillray (1756–1815), A Voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion, UK, 1792.

It is similarly hard to see the subversion in a ravishingly beautiful 14th-century Chinese painting called The Fascination of Nature. We’re told its creator, Xie Chufang, is commenting on the destruction of China’s culture by the Mongol invaders in his richly observed depiction of insects and amphibians preying on vegetation. All I can see is a marvellous portrayal of nature.

When we actually get to see some explicitly dissenting, joyously rebellious art, the exhibition momentarily flares into life. There are a couple of fantastic cartoons by James Gillray, including a monstrously surreal picture of a man’s huge feet lying on top of much smaller female ones. The meaning of this 1790s satire on the private life of the Duke of York may be obscure now, but its mad energy and monstrous imagination is alive and kicking in the same way as the writings of Jonathan Swift. The British Museum has the best collection of British satirical art in the world – why choose so few examples?

Keeping it funny would have been a good idea. The history of satire, which Private Eye is part of, is worth telling. Instead, this exhibition invents an aspect of human nature that does not exist. There is no universal impulse to dissent. There are different reasons to rebel, in different times and places. The complicated mapping of those reasons is called history and you can’t reduce it to a few speech bubbles.

• I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent is at the British Museum, London, from 6 September to 20 January.

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[Editor] 张艳

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