Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Empire of the Celts

The British Museum is currently exhibiting the Celts, while Tate Britain offers an exhibition entitled Artist & Empire. The former is subtitled "art and identity" and imagines an informal empire of soft power extending across both space and time. The latter is subtitled "facing Britain's imperial past" and suggests a reevaluation of the propaganda of empire. The two institutions are of course treasure troves of imperial looting and monuments to exploitation, from the Benin bronzes to sugar, and both embody the notion that identity and social relations can be captured in material objects, which is fundamental to the fetishisation of commodities. Though the exhibitions appear to be quite distinct, with only a slight overlap in the history of Ireland, they are essentially about the same thing: British identity. Of course, that's British identity as seen by the upper middle classes who curate exhibitions.

The Celts, as a people without their own written history, have been manipulated for political ends since classical times. Much of what we know from the "sources" is merely the projection of Roman political and social concerns, from the words put into the mouth of Calgacus by Tacitus in his Agricola ("To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace") to Cassius Dio's ventriloquising of Celtic female desire ("we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest"). In recent years we have interpreted these as anecdotes of native pride and sexual equality, back-projecting a "civic nationalism" that is no less romantic than the imaginings of Walter Scott, when they were actually meant to chide the Roman elite for its cupidity and lack of moral fibre - i.e. the failure to be sufficiently Roman, to the point where you could be lectured by barbarians. Victorian Britons got the intended message: "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din".

In the nineteenth century, the Celts were recuperated for nationalism, most notably in France. In 1789 the Gauls were the embodiment of ancient rights that predated the Frankish kings, and then a symbol of national defiance during the counter-revolutionary wars. Gauls and impending war became a recurrent French theme: in 1865 a statue of Vercingetorix was built on the site of ancient Alesia as tensions with Prussia mounted (in 1875 the Prussians built a statue to Hermann the German, aka Arminius, in the Teutoberger Wald in part to celebrate the victory of 1871); in 1910 the Gaulloises brand of cigarettes was launched, with its distinctive (and archaeologically unfounded) winged helmet marque; and Asterix first appeared in 1959 at the height of the Algerian War. Yet parallel to this, Celtic identity was also used to advance regionalism in Brittany against the French state, mirroring similar developments in Wales and Cornwall. Thus the national "Gaul" co-existed with the regional "Celt".

After World War Two, the idea of a common Celtic civilisation, stretching from Ireland to Turkey, became popular not just as a precedent for an emerging cooperative Europe, but as an alternative basis for a shared origin that wiped away the nonsense of Aryanism. While genetic research has shown the idea of a Celtic ethnicity to be nonsense too, the idea of a common culture continued to be popular, particularly as archaeology showed the Celtic peoples to be more sophisticated (i.e. luxury-goods fondlers) and bourgeois (oppida becoming mini-cities) than the caricatures of Caesar's Gallic War. Over the course of two centuries we see the employment of the Celts as symbols for regional identity, national identity and a supra-national identity. All three ideas remain current, which explains the contemporary difficulty in pinning down this elusive "people".

By the late-1980s, the Celt was in danger of becoming the prototypical EU citizen. The I Celti show in Venice in 1991 was apparently "conceived with a mind to the great impending process of the unification of Western Europe" with the Celts "being the first historically documented civilisation on a European scale". Though there has since been a turn away from the idea of the Celts as constituting a unitary civilisation, the idea that they were more technologically advanced than classical writers allowed, and that they were also traders on a continental scale, has continued to grow. The recent BBC series (The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice) advanced the fashionable theory that the Atlantic coast was the backbone of Celtic art, a pre-echo of the epochal shift away from the Mediterranean in the 16th century. The British Museum show makes much of this skill in the crafting and trading of luxury goods, to the point that the exhibition occasionally feels more like an upscale jewellers than an academic discourse, a sense heightened by the Clannad-like ambient music.

The idea of the Celts as a loose federation of traders, peripheral yet highly influential, has obvious ideological resonance in Britain, just as the idea of them as the origin of the nation remains strong in France. What the exhibition doesn't do is reconcile the profusion of wealth with the contemporary and later depictions of Celts as half-naked, blue-painted savages, with barely a pot to piss in. In other words, the economic context of Celtic society is largely absent, even though it is central to the historical records of late Celtdom in Early Medieval Ireland (the point about Brehon law is not its sophistication or recognition of women but its obsession with property and financial dues). The explanation for this is that British ethnography from Elizabethan times onwards emphasised the backwardness of the Celtic fringe to justify empire, while the riches that adorn continental museums were the result of nineteenth century state investment in national archaeology.

Where the exhibition is better is in tracking the employment of different images of the Celt to suit a political purpose, which is neatly encapsulated in the competing Protestant and Catholic narratives of Cu Chulainn: a defender of the Irish against the British, and a defender of Ulster against the rest of Ireland. The Tate Britain exhibition also opens in Ireland, with the siege of Enniskillen Castle in the late 16th century, and includes Marcus Gheeraerts's remarkable portrait of Captain Thomas Lee in which his bare (and rather chilly looking) legs are meant to reference both the Irish "style" and Roman heroic models. This is an early example of the British tendency to see empire as an excuse for dressing-up (or down), part of the wider cultural appropriation that links the 44th Regiment making their last stand at Gundamuck in 1842, attired in their recently-acqured Afghan coats, back to Captain Lee in 1594.

The Celts of the nineteenth century Celtic Revival were an invention whose roots lay not only in the search for a distinct Irish (and Scottish) national identity but in the growing British unease with the nature and course of empire. Like the contemporary fascination with the decline and fall of the Roman imperium, the Celtic Twilight was a projection of British fears as much as Irish hopes, which is why so many of its central figures were Anglo-Irish. Though mercantilism had been successfully laundered through the ideology of free-trade, and the naked economic purpose of colonialism had been obscured by Christianity and the "civilising" mission, there was still a sense that Britain's empire was a temporary role, fortuitously acquired and reluctantly assumed (the white man's burden etc), whose ultimate purpose was to oversee the development of native self-rule at some indeterminate future point.

While Anglo-Saxon history was (and still is) framed in terms of kingdoms and their "forging" into a national whole, Celtic history was seen as essentially tribal and wedded to concepts of familial loyalty and blood revenge (a view that runs from from Rob Roy through The Playboy of the Western World to Braveheart). This was used to both justify empire as a historical necessity in the transition from archaic to modern social forms (the example of the Romans in "birthing" West European kingdoms being stressed) while suggesting, through the persistence of atavistic habits (from cattle-rustling to vendettas), that the tribes were not yet ready for self-determination, and quite possibly never would be. The legacy of this way of thinking can be seen in the fascination with tribal or clan loyalty and honour killing in the popular characterisation of Pakistanis (and Afghans, and Albanians, and Africans etc).

The British Museum Celts exhibition suggests that "Celtic" is essentially a style, synthesised from many European influences and still being refined today, embodied in commodities from prehistoric torcs to modern tattoos. While it recognises the role of nationalism in influencing the style, it ultimately prefers to see it as supra-national, a product of the market for fashionable goods (initially European, now global). This same approach is evident at Tate Britain, where the propaganda of empire is rehabilitated as a collection of ironic commodities or recuperated in self-aware commentaries: keep calm and raise a wry smile. As you leave Artist and Empire, some of the exhibits reappear in the gallery shop in the form of tote-bags and prints. From strong-arm "traders" and expropriators justified by native outrages (the Indian Mutiny looms large as ever in the imagination), we arrive at the cliché of a nation of shopkeepers.

1 comment:

  1. David,

    As a reviewer of good literature, I thought you might be interested in my new novel - 2017, which is now available.

    Just in time to read over Christmas!