The purpose of the exhibition is to show how the exceptionalism/individualism in the English character that created the industrial revolution had an echo in the art produced there. As Hoozee puts is his fine introduction to the lavish catalogue,At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Voltaire was already full of praise for the climate of freedom he encountered in England. With respect to religion, he wrote in 1726 that"England is properly the country of sectarists... An Englishman, as one to whom Liberty is natural may go to heaven his own way".
Until well into the nineteenth century, artists and critics were fascinated by the specific circumstances under which art in Great Britain was able to thrive. One of these, Théophile Thoré wrote in 1863,“Self-Government is complete in English Art, just as it is in all the institutions and all the customs of this proud people, where individuality asserts itself. It is this that lacking in French artists, who almost always obey some higher authority, tradition or prejudice”.
He claims, with some justification that in Britain art followed a distinctive path from that on the Continent, charmingly he describes it as ‘marginal’, which has as its mainstay the empirical experience of reality and otherwise wild flights of fancy and the visionary.
What would Voltaire make of us now?—a poor, cowed people who barely understand the concept of freedom.
Would Thoré see now a "proud people" or a sheep-like race of uneducated, ignorant imbeciles, raped by the state and unaware of what "Self-Government" might even mean, let alone how they might strive to maintain or regain it?
How the mighty are fallen.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
—Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Such is Britain and its people; a ruined shell of something that was once great, awesome and terrible. The spark of individuality has been stamped out, and increasingly any joy in life is going the same way, the spirit of our people destroyed by successive homogenising governments who believe that they know best how people might live.
Fuck them all: I hope that the politicians and civil servants and QUANGOcrats might one day look down from their ivory towers and, the scales fallen from their eyes, see and understand what they have done. At that point, had they any honour or decency, they would take any sharp implement and use it upon themselves, a precaution against the ensuing self-defenestration failing to kill them.
But the people must also take some of the blame—when will we tear our eyes away from Big Strictly Come X Factor Me Out Of Here, Brother and let the anger course through our veins? When our history is once again taught in schools, perhaps, and the British realise what has been taken from them, and what we have exchanged for our temporary security.