Monday, 28 April 2014

Interview with Huw Wahl, director, To Hell With Culture (free screening at Federation House, Thursday May 1, 7pm)

From poet, novelist and critic to anarchist, educational theorist and co-founder of the ICA, Herbert Read was known as many different things at different times. From the First World War until his death in the late-1960s Read was responsible for a prolific outpouring of books and essays, with many of his ideas pervading the way art, culture and education were seen in relation to society after the Second World War. However, despite being a towering figure at the time, today Read is far from being a household name. A new film by Manchester-based filmmaker Huw Wahl, which premiered at the ICA earlier this month, offers a portrait of that re-presents some of Read's ideas and invites the viewer to consider what currency they might still have today.

While Read wrote on everything from child art and industrial design to existentialism and Jungian psychology, Wahl's film, entitled To Hell With Culture, takes as its starting point Read's 1941 essay of the same name, which launched a searing critique of an elitist notion of 'culture' as something which is rarified and separate from the rest of society. Another equally rousing assertion, 'to hell with the artist', derides the concept of an artist as a special person who stands above other types of workers. Read's message, says Wahl,  “seems quite complicated but can be very simple”: culture isn't something to be collected and set aside to be accessed in museums, but it's there everyday, as an integral part of life, and every person has the capacity for creativity.

It was Read's take on creativity, and the direct terms in which it was stated, which attracted Wahl to the essay. “'To hell with the artist' is a wonderful thing to say,” he says. “It's a very powerful statement. I liked that a very meek and mild man wrote a very strong essay about how culture should be something you shouldn't really have to talk about, saying 'it's just there'.” He adds: “One interviewee in the film said 'he writes very good English', and the the way he writes about creativity is very vibrant and direct. He allows contradictions in what he's saying, but there's also some kind of continuity. It's different from a lot of writing today. A lot of writing now is very embedded in the institution and critical theory, post-modernism, structuralism, etc, whereas Read's was a very modernist, vital, loving way of writing.”

More than seventy years after To Hell With Culture was written, the film presents Read's ideas in aesthetic form, as a visual essay which draws a line from modernism to the present-day. Wahl went back through Read's archives at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, which houses correspondence and manuscripts, and his library, which is now held at the University of Leeds where Read studied, to get closer to the man and his ideas. A shy, bookish figure emerges, who was completely absorbed in his work and avoided the limelight; very little footage of Read exists. “He was a poet so he knew how to communicate, which was probably a good thing as he wasn't a charismatic man by today's standards of mouthy celebrities,” explains Wahl. “Although he has a lovely presence on film, gentle and deeply thoughtful, he wouldn't have been on the Culture Show. He was lucky to be around at the time of men of letters.”

Although Wahl is a member of the Manchester-based Castles Built in Sand collective, which takes an anthropological approach to film-making and culture, To Hell With Culture is his first solo venture into full-length film-making. Wahl embarked on the film at the start of 2013, shortly after finishing an MA in photography at the University of Central Lancashire. As well as interviewing members of Read's family, including his son, the art critic Benedict Read, Wahl spoke with artists who were directly influenced by Read. Among these were Canadian artist Luis Jacob, as well as Wahl's father Ken Turner, a painter, performance artist and co-founder of radical environmental art collective Action Space, which took art out of the gallery and into everyday life; Turner read and was inspired by Read's work in the 1950s.

Something else which comes across strongly in the film is Read's connection with the Yorkshire landscape, and his ideas about the authenticity of nature. “He was very patriotic as a Yorkshireman,” explains Wahl. “He was very rooted to that land and to nature.” The voices in the film are also punctuated by Read's poetry, including a reading by the Mersey Sound poet Brian Patten of 'My Company', a love poem about Read leading his company into battle at a young age during the First World War. “I've never really been into poetry,” admits Wahl, “but I really got it. I was really touched.”

Although Wahl acknowledges that “many of Read's ideas have been carried out”, and he by no means agrees with everything Read had to say, he believes To Hell With Culture can still pose important questions about the way culture and creativity are viewed in society today. “I was told that 10/15 years ago people would laugh at you if you started talking about Herbert Read, but now people are going back to modernism because they want something a bit more solid again,” he observes. “In some ways society is a lot more free but in other ways there are a lot of restrictions. Systems are a lot more closed now.”

At the time Read was writing, and in the years immediately following the Second World War, there was concern that craftsmanship and British culture was under threat from cheap, mass-produced items and imported cultural forms. Educators and critics placed a strong emphasis on fostering skills of 'discrimination', promoting sincerity and honesty in design and attempting to 'improve' public taste. “Read was talking about beauty,” summarises Wahl, and though this type of discourse can seem na├»ve, paternalistic even, today, post-modern society has seen the culmination of the idea of culture as commodity that Read cautioned against, with creativity recognised insofar as it can be packaged and sold back to us. “We live in a disposable, consumer culture where culture is dictated to us and everything we're surrounded by is ugly,” says Wahl. “There is still a sense that some people know better than others – we place some people on pedestals and say others are scum. Culture is controlled as a commodity and it's all about the free market and what can benefit the market. The artists who do well are those who have a brand or who can shock. It's the opposite of what creativity's about: it's not about being successful or competitive. There is something very basic and human about being creative but it's been corrupted by the idea that money is a good exchange for creativity. Read was saying that culture should be there within society and that a very different society can be created through education and art.”

Wahl considers the three tenets of a natural society Read identified in To Hell With Culture – all production should be for use and not for profit, each should give according to his ability and each receive according to his needs, and that the workers in each industry should collectively own and control that industry – to be “very simple and incredibly relevant”. He also finds the idea of everyone being a special kind of artist to be “still such a strong and important thing to say”, and has been encountering present-day parallels in Ken Robinson's ideas that creativity is “something that is there to work on and something everyone should be given the opportunity for”.

To Hell With Culture has been kept deliberately short – it clocks in at just under an hour – so that space could be left for discussions afterwards where people can create their own conclusions and ideas. As Wahl says, the film is a way to “remember the person but take the ideas”. He explains: “Artists are always questioned about what they are trying to do and their purpose. It is useful for artists to think about what an artist is in society, what they do and what they might be aiming for.”

To Hell With Culture will be shown at Filmonik, 3rd Floor, Federation House, Balloon Street, Manchester, on Thursday May 1, 7pm for a 7.30pm start, free, followed by a Q&A with director Huw Wahl, art historian Danielle Child (who appears in the film) and Castlefield Gallery director Kwong Lee.

Keep an eye on Huw Wahl's blog for screenings around the country this year, as well as at Leeds International Film Festival.

Huw Wahl and art historian Dani Child are organising a screening and accompanying one-day symposium, 'To Hell with Culture? Re-examining the commodification of culture in contemporary capitalism', at Manchester School of Art on Thursday October 30 as an opportunity to discuss some of the ideas raised by the essay and the film further in a contemporary context.

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