‘Two Days in Oxford – A View of the City in the Thirties’ by John Goto

Expo @ The Old Fire Station: Oxford, 15 Jan – 27 Feb, 2016

John Goto’s Two Days at Oxford – A View of the City in the Thirties (1938) has the admirable aim of subverting the cosy Brideshead view of Oxford as the city of dreaming spires and disinterested scholarship. This was inspired by his reading of John Betjeman’s An Oxford University Chest. Goto’s work is a reminder of the class-struggles which occurred at the time of Betjeman’s cosy evocation though, symptomatically, Goto writes not of class, but of status and privilege.

The exhibition consists of negative photographs of iconic Oxford architecture onto which are superimposed images emblematic of these struggles: workers and the skyline of a factory; a red clenched fist; rampaging Bullingdon Club thugs.

The exhibition is accompanied by a leaflet which gives useful links for such issues as the Pressed Steel Strike, the struggle over the Cutteslowe Wall and Oxford volunteers defending the Spanish Republic against counter-revolution. I certainly found these to be valuable and informative.

What message are we to take from this juxtaposition of iconic Oxford images with these reminders of dissent? As these reminders are reminiscent of characters in South Park (primary colours, 2D cut-outs) then a viewer innocent of the enframing text could only read its meaning as being that traditional Oxford is indeed fixed and timeless, but is occasionally enlivened by ephemeral flashes of rootless dissent. The exhibition is not just a failure; it is a grotesque insult to the struggles which its author purports to memorialise.

Why does the exhibition fail so badly, given that the author is in the words of his own comment a person ‘of good will … working for social justice’? Part of the reason is the cosy notion that humour can be a subversive weapon against the English elite. I find it incomprehensible that Goto can hold this view, especially given that one of his images references Waugh’s Decline and Fall a work which uses satire not to undermine the elite’s existence, but to urge the need for its moral regeneration.

As charitable as I wish to be, it is unforgivable that his portrayal of working-class militancy and the politics of the volunteers for Spain is to portray them as Stalinists

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