A slightly different kind of post here on the Ramblings today, but one I’m very happy to present! Anyone with only half an eye on the blog will have noticed me developing a serious fondness for documentaries over the last year or so, and also for Iconoclasm and books thereon… I’ve been particularly interested in the work of Richard Clay, who of course presented the wonderful “Tearing Up History” documentary back in 2014. He was also responsible for a fascinating documentary on Graffiti and the excellent three-part series “Utopia: In Search of the Dream” in 2017, which I have of course gone on about regularly…

Richard is also, of course, the author of “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris” (a monograph which caused me much stress and strain tracking down) and in fact has contributed to a number of scholarly books on the often controversial subject of iconoclasm, as you can see from the little selection below:

Currently a Professor of Digital Cultures at Newcastle University, Richard has had a distinguished academic career: after studying at York and UCL, he joined the University of Birmingham in 2002, where he was based for a many years, being responsible for a range of innovative projects, most notably the Digital Humanities Hub. Appointed AHRC Research Fellow in 2014, he moved to Newcastle University in 2015 where he’s continued to foster cross-disciplinary working, as well as developing his television career.

Richard presented a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 last autumn, “Two Minutes to Midnight”, which I have of course covered extensively on the blog.  I was curious to find out how his interesting ideas came to be formed, and as he has a limited online presence and no Wikipedia page as yet, I ended up with a *lot* of questions. When I found out that he also had a new documentary in the pipeline I contacted him to see if he would be prepared to be interviewed for the blog, and I’m delighted to say that he agreed. So ahead of his new programme “Viral”, I’m very pleased to welcome Richard Clay to the Ramblings!

KBR: Richard, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed! I’d like to start by first asking you about your training. I understand that you originally intended to study History but switched to History of Art. I wondered what drove that particular change?

RC: Yep, I went to University of York to read History. I’d been hoping to learn about theories and methods, but felt in my first year that that focus was missing. Plus, I was a little overwhelmed by the vastness of history. Where do you start and where do you stop with your research? I took an art history module and realised that the discipline was really theoretically engaged and that essays could start with an object (or objects), explore historical contexts, and return to the object. Somehow, that helped bring focus to my thinking. To be honest, as a nineteen year old, I also liked the idea of only having to write one essay a term for History of Art and getting a free trip to Paris; it sounded like decadent efficiency!

Having made the switch to History of Art, your specialism developed with the study of iconoclasm during a specific period of revolution in France. Was there a particular trigger for this focus – perhaps an interest in the revolution itself? Or was there another motivation in choosing this aspect?

As an undergrad, I was interested in how audiences responded to works of art and how those responses shaped art works’ production. But it was often the case that lower class reception wasn’t recorded in the past and we were left reading about the views of the wealthy and educated (even if the works of art were on public display, say, in churches). However, I was very impressed with Thomas E. Crow’s ‘Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris’ – a book that triggered interests that I pursued as a postgrad and beyond. Crow helped me realise that, despite the Ancien Régime’s censorship, there was a vibrant, often illegal, and cheap pamphlet culture of criticism. These cheap publications focused on the biennial art exhibitions, the Salons, held by members of the Royal Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Engraving in France.

From the 1730s onwards, the Salons were held in the Louvre royal palace. As entry was free of charge, audiences were large and diverse; people attended as much to observe one another as to see the art. Salon pamphlets’ discussions of the art works and audiences often used carefully coded language to articulate arguments about society, politics, and culture (in the broadest sense) in ways that avoided arrest. The Salon gave me a route into exploring the interactions of emergent ‘enlightenment’ ideas and more established modes of thought and to do so in ways that weren’t focused solely on elites.

When I went on to do my MA, PhD, and then to be a Henry Moore Fellow at UCL, my focus shifted to revolutionary France. I wanted to write ‘art history from below’, to examine how less privileged members of society thought about, and made use of, art in their day-to-day lives (especially during times of struggle) and how educated elites responded. By asking why people chose to attack art in public spaces during the Revolution, and why authorities often responded by passing iconoclastic laws, I could also critique some of the more reductive art histories that I find so patronising to people of the past.

Why the first French Revolution? Partly because of the Salon culture, partly because of the rich archival holdings, but perhaps mainly because I felt that the very worst and the very best of human nature can be found in periods of conflict. Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by military history – especially the ‘worm’s eye view’… Despite being the son of pedagogues, I didn’t read until I was seven. I just wasn’t interested in Peter and Jane. My mother noticed that in family photos I was often pointing at the sky because I loved aeroplanes. So, she bought me a doorstep book about military aircraft and I devoured it; it led to a fascination with the human stories of conflict and contestation.

I believe you spent time in Eastern Europe following the Velvet Revolution of 1989. I wondered whether this informed your study of French iconoclasm, with the constant toppling of monuments which was taking place, or whether you had a specific interest in the changes which were happening there?

Yep, I went Inter Railing on my own as an undergrad in 1992 and spent most of my time in Prague and Budapest. My sister is a couple of years older than me and had read Russian and French at Cambridge. As an undergrad, she had spent 6 months in Leningrad and she was there when half the city’s lights were turned off by the population as a declaration of support for Gorbachev’s reforms. She is built like me (skin and bones and then vital organs) and she returned home looking grey, having lost a stone, and she wept when we took her to Sainsbury’s on the way back from the airport because she had left her Russian friends who were hungry. I was deeply struck by her stories of Russian generosity, of stoic defiance, and by getting to meet some of her Russian friends as Perestroika took hold and they could visit the West (my father paid because we owed them so much).

I realised that the Russians really do love their children too and that Cold War rhetoric had often dehumanised the potential victims of Nation State struggles. Reflecting on this now, it reminds me of what my mother had said when I was in trouble at High School for proudly wearing a Soviet badge on my braces. ‘Why do you want a Revolution?’ she asked, ‘The best way to change the world is to change the mind of the person in front and the person behind and to ask them to do the same.’ Watching the Wall fall and the statues being toppled on TV stuck with me as real world evidence that she was right (again). I could sense the hope of those involved, but I also knew just about enough about history at that point to feel anxious about the potential consequences of such conflict down the line.

By MD [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Hence, I headed to Eastern Europe. Prague was amazing in 1992, it felt buzzing, optimistic, open, and it was staggeringly cheap (5p for a beer!). The graffiti still covered the Wenceslas statue in the centre of town and the Lennon wall. The children’s art of the Jewish cemetery, dating from the World War II Prague ghetto, also left its mark on me. In short, I was fascinated both by the changes taking place in Eastern Europe and by the roles that art had played in those and earlier struggles. But, I lacked my sister’s aptitude for foreign languages and I’d already learned French. Hence, my French revolutionary turn…

Your later career has involved a considerable number of digital aspects, from your role at Birmingham in the Heritage and Cultural Learning Hub to your current post of Professor of Digital Cultures at Newcastle. Yet I’ve heard you state that people are even more keen to embrace the real in the form of authentic artefacts as the digital develops. Is that a statement you still stand by and do you believe that there will always be a human need for the analogue or physical to sit alongside the digital?

Well, it might just be a coincidence but, museum and gallery attendance has continued to go up as the digital has become ever more embedded in our lives. And my students are buying record players and vinyl. I think that my old friend, Richard Davidson Houston (Head of All 4, C4), nailed it when he said that ‘the “digital” isn’t through a door somewhere, it’s part of our day-to-day lives.’

At its best, the digital enhances ‘real world’ experiences rather than replacing them. It also offers us new ways of thinking and, in some cases, of being. But this isn’t the first communication revolution that we’ve lived through (and worried about), it’s just the largest scale and fastest (hence, perhaps, increased anxiety). For the first time in human history it is possible to imagine that all humans might have access to the means of production and reception that allow them to share information. My parents’ generation invented the internet technologies that made that possible, my generation got it up and running, and my students’ generation are working out how to put it to the best use. But hey, I’m told that I’m an optimist.

Your step into documentary presentation began with “Tearing Up History”, first broadcast in 2014. I sense that the programme may have been some time in the making. Was the concept of making the transition to TV presenter one that was particularly appealing and did you encounter any difficulties with this?

I liked the idea of presenting because I care about the issues that I explore and I wanted to engage with larger audiences than I can reach in lecture theatres or seminar rooms. In part that is just selfishness, I love the questions that audiences raise and the ways they provoke me to rethink and question my own assumptions. But yep, there were difficulties with making the transition.

I think we filmed ‘Tearing’ in 6 days, but I’d been thinking hard about the subject for almost 20 years. Condensing it all down to 59 minutes was the main challenge. Plus, I needed to start to think visually about where to shoot and why, and to avoid certain terms (I’m still having a long running argument with broadcast execs about discussing semiotics on camera). Fortunately, I’m not in the least bit fazed by the camera and I love the buzz of working with such talented crews, although I very occasionally find some of the broader TV bullshit frustrating.

In my first meeting with a commissioning editor I ended up with my head on the table and, when they finally asked if I was okay, I said ‘No, I’m not okay. It’s taken me 3 hours to get here, I’ve got tons of actual work to do, and you don’t want me to do eighteenth century art, you want me to do contemporary art in ways that are youthful, edgy, and contemporary. How the hell can I explain the Chapman Brothers without explaining Goya? You need to understand that if I wanted to be a TV star, I’d have been a TV star in my twenties. I want to lecture to lots of people and I only want to lecture about things I care about. If you don’t want that then I’m more than happy to focus on the job I love.’

They ended up commissioning a short taster film about French revolutionary iconoclasm, bits of which we used in Tearing, but the full film was commissioned by a different broadcaster – the BBC. The Beeb was a breath of fresh air. I remember thinking ‘this is right’ when I got into an argument about Hegel with a commissioning editor, asking him ‘but how can an age have a “spirit”? I’m not even sure that humans have got spirits?’ But on balance, despite the early frustrations with making the transition into broadcasting, it’s been enormously worthwhile.

“Tearing” was well received, although perhaps slightly controversial – iconoclasm is an emotive subject and also you do tend to wear your left-wing heart on your sleeve. Did you ever feel any compromise whilst making the programme?

Not really. I’m never been asked to compromise for TV (apart from avoiding semiotics!) and I wouldn’t be making documentaries if that wasn’t the case. Yep, some ideas and some positions are controversial, but a film is just one contribution to a public debate – and debate is good. As for my left-wing heart, you should meet some of my colleagues! You’d realise that I’m a pretty moderate social democrat who’d just like to see a somewhat fairer form of capitalism.

*****

In part two of the interview, which will follow on the blog soon, Richard goes on to talk (amongst other things) about his other film projects, his foray into radio, lecturing vs. seminars, and future plans. Stay tuned, as they say, for more fascinating insights!

Richard is also due to make an appearance on BBC4’s Front Row programme tonight at 7.15 p.m. ahead of “Viral” – so do check it out!

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

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