“An Ideal for Living” Finds Britain in Search of Its Self

Photo: Bagga (Bevin Fagan) Hackney, East London, 1979 © Syd Shelton image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley.

Forty years ago, on July 20, 1976, childhood friends Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook attended a Sex Pistols concert at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in England. The next day, Hook borrowed money from his mother to buy his first bass guitar, and from the ashes of the Pistols’ searing flames, a new band was born. Stephen Morris and Ian Curtis joined the group, originally christened Warsaw. They renamed themselves Joy Division, then dropped their first EP, “An Ideal for Living” in June 1978, becoming one of the first progenitors of the post-punk movement.

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Sumner later told Mojo magazine that the Pistols, “destroyed the myth of being a pop star, or a musician as some kind of god you had to worship.” It was this anarchistic spirit that appealed to the young, disaffected Brits. The desire to shed the strictures of respectability and appearance politics cast a strong light of doubt on the illusion of civility promulgated their native land.

Picnic in the car park on Derby Day at Epson Downs Racecourse, June 2001 © Peter Dench image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley

Yet, the illusion endures and as such, “An Ideal for Living” has become a clarion call for freethinkers and artists alike, who are willing to suspend their beliefs in the search for truth. In light of BREXIT and its political fallout, the world once again looks at Britain, curious to see what happens when the white man’s burden falls square on his own shoulders—and nowhere else.

Beetles + Huxley, London, presents An Ideal for Living: Photographing Class, Culture, and Identity in Modern Britain, on view now through September 17, 2016. Using photography from the 1920s through the present day, the exhibition, curated by Flora La Thangue, presents the work of 20 artists including Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Philip Jones Griffiths, Martin Parr, Elliott Erwitt, and Raymond Depardon, among others.

Parloumaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner, 1936 © Bill Brandt image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley

La Thangue observes, “The expansive historical scope and variety of styles amongst the photographers represented in An Ideal for Living underlies a constant preoccupation with what defines British identity. The exhibition has been curated with the breadth of cultural identities within modern Britain in mind, but also reveals historical and geographical patterns emerging through the photographs.”

With An Ideal for Living, we see the British as they see themselves as their empire crumbled throughout the course of the twentieth century. The search for identity within an imperialist nation that sought to whitewash the earth is a curious pursuit. There’s a profoundly hermetic air that exists in these works, as we stay safely ensconced in a world that seeks to reinforce a coherent and consistent picture of its self.

New Brighton. From ‘The Last Resort’. 1983-85 copyright Martin Parr / Magnum Photos image courtesy of Beetles + Huxley

Taken as a whole, An Ideal for Living is a study in mythmaking, twenty-first century style. Perhaps this is a form of patriotism, one that is postmodern in its embrace, one that could prove a welcome respite from the political realities of the current day. In refashioning a history of the past century, we see Britain through the lens of liberal ideology, embracing the narratives that the more conservative would gladly deny.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.