Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547 At the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, until 18 January 2004 Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547 At the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, until 18 January 2004
Writing at the end of the 19th century, the German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel wrote that 'the flow from subjects through objects to subjects, in which a metaphysical relationship between subject and object takes on historical reality, can lose its continuity. The object may move away from its mediating activity in a more fundamental fashion than has been indicated so far.' The main reason for this was the division of labour brought about by industrialisation, resulting in the 'isolation and alienation' of individuals from the fruits of their production - cultural objects shorn of their implicit meaning.
The 'Gothic' exhibition at the V&A, and the accompanying jamboree of events and merchandise, seems to represent a nostalgic hankering for a day, long-gone, when this was not the case - when labour-intensive, beautifully crafted material objects played a crucial role in symbolising and communicating fundamental truths about society, politics, and cultural ideology, especially religious beliefs. Certainly, wandering around this treasure trove, one can only marvel at the beauty and elaborate workmanship of the objects that have been brought together.
The opening sections of the exhibition place heavy emphasis on the authority of the Crown (not unchallenged, for this was a period of intense political instability) and its heavy reliance on the production of lavish objects of display, specifically intended to instil awe, wonder, and allegiance, and to nurture a mythology of power. Such expenditure, enormous by the standards of the day, would never be tolerated in the modern age, underlining the difference in our own attitudes towards authority from those of our ancestors.
Yet, at the same time, this exhibition presents the Gothic era as in some ways a precursor of our age, notably in the relationship between people and material things.
Subtitled 'Art for England', the message is that this was a proto-consumer era, when suddenly there was much greater access to 'consumer durables' for 'the people' of England than there had ever been before. This, the exhibition suggests, was due to a surge in affluence, so much so that there was 'an enormous demand for art', and even 'peasants had surplus cash to spend on themselves'.
This latter proposition sounds most improbable . The rhetoric of 'surplus cash' in a feudal age seems deeply suspicious, and there is absolutely no substantiation of the claim. Notwithstanding an enormous catalogue, suggesting a solid foundation of extensive research and expertise, one wonders if this is not in fact Gothic-lite - a romantic fantasy taken to extremes, whereby every Gothic peasant's house is blessed, just like our own, with a TV set, or at least its equivalent of a few 'mass-produced' devotional objects.
The billing 'our Gothic heritage' suggests that there was pressure to make the material accessible to a 21st-century audience.
According to curator Richard Marks, 'the elusiveness and complexity of the art produced in and for England between 1400 and 1547 stems partly from the inescapable fact that so many of its products had functions and meanings utterly removed from those of the 21st century'.
In which case, the absence of any account of the economic circumstances of the time seems all the more glaring. If peasants really did have spare cash, the questions of where, and in what manner, they could have spent it on art objects also go unanswered. But the presentation of this exhibition demonstrates something of a fetishisation of consumables, without any elucidation of the production processes that brought them into being.
It is true that the catalogue contains a chapter on craftsmen and commissioning, but in the galleries the emphasis is on the larger themes of politics, royalty, national and regional identities, religion, and the artistic relationship with the continent, rather than the circumstances of everyday life, economic existence, and production among the masses.
This further reflects the dominant hand of art historical discourse in the curatorial strategy;
notably its anxiety concerning the qualitative relationship between English Gothic (insular and stiff ) and the European Renaissance trends (sophisticated and naturalistic).
But perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this exhibition is its apparent lack of interest in the architecture of the era, compared to 'consumables'. Marks speaks of 'elusiveness and complexity' in the art of this time, but the Gothic architectural legacy represents an incredibly direct channel of artistic and cultural expression, which is fundamentally familiar to all strata of society through its continued visibility across the landscape.