Thursday, July 24, 2008

Of Tiles, Teeth And Neocolonialism

Which reminds me: when I was in Birmingham recently, I paid a visit to the marvellous municipal Museum And Art Gallery; amongst the many beautiful pieces of art and examples of Brum's past as the home of industry, what caught my eye (and this marks me out as rather sad) was the collection of coloured tiles, crockery, miniatures, etc. (produced in a number of different materials, not just porcelain and bone china as many believe). In my wistful, food-deprived state, I thought that if (God forbid) I should ever own a property, I'd want a set of tiles like those coating the walls of the kitchen. But I suddenly noticed a number of tiles showing what are known as chinoiserie scenes - cliched pictures of rural China done in a crude imitation of the original Chinese drawing style; many of the pieces of crockery were decorated in the same way, or at least used the blue-on-white line style characteristic of Chinese crockery. Looking back over the cases, it occurred to me that to judge them aesthetically as harmless and quaint - with more charm than mass-produced tiles made today, the central point of the fetishism of all 'vintage' items - was stupid: they were, indeed, the products of an industrial complex deeply intertwined with eighteenth and nineteenth-century imperialism, and the racist assumptions that underpinned it. The intervening 150-250 years, marked by aesthetic streamlining and standardisation of production, have made such things look positively home-made, but they were as mass-produced as any supermarket plastic table. Their contemporary equivalent would be the mass-produced faux-modernism of Ikea - products designed to showcase 'your individual personality', but, lest we forget, are produced to a standard design in Third World mass-carpentries. I write reluctantly about the politics of domesticity because, quite frankly, I've gotten rather comfortable with the idea of having a home to live in; but it seems that it's precisely these commodities that populate the domestic state that make concrete ideology, hiding it beneath a sheen of 'harmlessness'. The suffering and exploitation inherent in the system's processes find themselves incarnate in its products - yes, that chair you're sitting on, too.

It should be slightly obvious, in the light of Foucault's studies of how ideology invades the 'private' sphere (if, indeed, there ever was such a thing), that this extends to what he called "the care of the body". Shows like Ten Years Younger - which I used to watch to avoid having to do homework - manifest this with alarming audacity: working women, usually mothers, skin and bodies decimated by stress, cigarettes, alcohol, and the poor diet that results from not having enough money or sense of self-worth, their wardrobes reduced to comedic levels by years of utilitarian concerns, are taken by the hand by fairy godmother Nicky Hambleton-Jones and 'set right'. All of the changes they could never afford - cosmetic surgery, professional make-up advice, an entirely new (and more expensive) wardrobe, a talented hairdresser - all descend in one fell swoop. The catch-up sessions, filmed several months later, usually have mixed results: some maintain their appearances, others slip back into 'bad habits' (often, though it's never explicitly stated, because they can't afford to do otherwise, or they feel unjustified in that kind of regular expense). The responsibility is placed back on the subject by the objective forces to undo the damage that they did in the first place; the entire emphasis on 'lifestyle' that obsesses middle-class print media (Sunday supplements, fitness magazines, fashion rags, the likes of I:D and Clash) is universalised, made natural, eliding the idea that economics or class might have anything to do with it. The likes of You Are What You Eat, in which prole turds are poked and inspected in that patronising, plummy tone that suggests the speaker has swapped teeth with a horse, are merely an extension.


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