Jeremy Deller's The Battle of Orgreave: Politics as Art Therapy

What should we make of Jeremy Deller’s recent Orgreave project, the ‘historical re-enactment’ of the confrontation between striking miners and the police during the 1984 miner’s strike?

Was it, as many commentators suggested, a welcome revival of political art? Certainly, whatever Orgreave was, it generated overwhelming approval, with some suggesting that with Orgreave, Deller had become a major contemporary artist. The gushing praise of uncritical column inches suggests that Deller’s extravaganza hit a nerve, satisfying the current demand for art that is momentous, serious and social engaged.  Indeed, the runaway success of the project is worth examining, as the response tells us a lot about contemporary attitudes to art, political life, and the relations between the two.

It’s been suggested that Deller’s Orgreave is some sort of retooled History Painting.[1]  This is a fair idea as far as it goes; Deller’s Orgreave depicts one of those decisive moments whose representation implies and condenses a wider historical drama, and like History Painting, its meaning and impact is dependent on our knowledge of an external narrative, hooked into the form which then stands in for it. But if that’s the case, then the meaning of Orgreave depends on the place that the events at Orgreave hold in the consciousness of contemporary British culture.  For all the idiosyncrasy of Deller’s varied output, Orgreave’s significance and popularity turned on its assimilation of a widely accepted version of history, a narrative already established prior to the work. 

But if Orgreave is a kind of History Painting, which history did it represent?  History Painting narrates defeats as well as victories, and these are always significant within a general narrative of national history or cultural identity.  History painting, like Historical re-enactment societies, depicts those confrontations that signify within our commonly established consciousness of history. For their part, re-enactment societies parallel this structure, confining themselves to those battles that are safely assimilated to an established version of national history.  Whether the Roman conquest, the English civil war or the battle of Waterloo, historical re-enactment retreads those fields where the original conflicts have long been laid to rest, and the battles popular with re-enactment societies are often those which are decisive in the establishment of a mythology of national identity.

At first glance, Orgreave appears to hijack the form of re-enactment, and its comfortable distance from the conflicts of the past, and to oppose to it an event that is singularly about the collapse of any sense of national identity, or historical continuity. For all its pretensions to factual accuracy, ‘authentically’ re-creating every detail of the battle, Orgreave’s emotional and moral charge is derived from our inability to treat the events of 1984 with any distance or objectivity.  It’s simple enough to point out Orgreave’s aesthetic and formal emptiness; re-enactments, even clever, culturally subversive ones, offer nothing beyond the recognition of the fact of the events: They do however gain significance through the emotional and moral attachments we invest in them.

This is of course the traditional function of both History Painting and of re-enactment; General Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn for example, is as important an event to American national identity as is the signing of the Constitution. What has to be revealed within Orgreave is not only the place this defeat hold in British cultural consciousness (by which I mean the commonly held interpretations we tend to share about our recent past), but what contemporary meaning is at stake through Deller’s use of it.

The common motifs that run through all the writing on Orgreave are, somewhat surprisingly, the notions of trauma and psychological shock.  Writing in Tate Magazine, a confused and emotional Tim Etchells wonders ‘what it means to be part of a generation whose symbolic, psychically defining moment is not a victory (the overthrow of a regime, the end to an unjust war), but a defeat’[2] With more insight, Dave Beech notes that Orgreave was ‘the moment that Thatcherism did away with opposition, the trauma of which New Labour is the symptom.’  Psychological shock seems to be the lasting legacy of a political defeat that happened fifteen years ago.

This of course ignores the rather obvious fact that if anyone has the right to talk about psychological shock or unresolved trauma, it should only be those who were directly caught up in the violence of the battle itself. It also refuses to elaborate quite how such a traumatic experience should have insinuated itself into the psychological life of a whole generation.  These problems are stated as if they were fact.  But why should diverse critics and journalists be so united in their belief that we are all profoundly, psychologically affected by the unhealed wound that is Orgreave? 

Part of the answer lies in how Orgreave signifies within a broader consensus narrative about the legacy of the 1980s and the Thatcher administration, one which ultimately has little to do with simple historical record. For many, Orgreave epitomises the subsequent destruction of the old working-class communities of the north during the Thatcher years. It is no accident that this motif has taken on a wider significance in both contemporary politics and culture; the representation of an event such as Orgreave has become an effective symbol for the wider destruction of the old social bonds of working class Britain.  And as the theme unravels further, this generalisation invariably turns into a expression of the widespread and melancholy sense of mourning for a bygone age of social consensus and strong community:  One has only to note the sentimental representations of doomed working-class communities in films like The Full Monty, Brassed Off or Billy Elliot to suspect that there might be more at stake than mere disinterested historical inquiry, and that these meanings aren’t confined to the preoccupations of contemporary artists.

Nor is it difficult to see how such a common preoccupation with a point in history translates back into political discourse, particularly in its relation to what is now the party of government; for the ideologues of New Labour, the collapse of social coherence during the Thatcher years is the ‘wound’ on the body politic that must be healed by the political project of the Third Way.  In this particular drama the working class communities of Old Britain bear the burden of representing the social violence wrought more generally on society by the Tories and the free market, particularly as for New Labour, the revival of this supposedly ‘core constituency’ is a constant source of anxiety. New Labour’s metropolitan elite are caught between their strategic marginalisation of the labour grass-roots and their desire to connect with a more abstracted and pacified ideal of ‘the people’.

In choosing the form of the historic re-enactment and then populating it, not with disinterested actors, but with many of the men involved in the strike, Deller turned the meaning of ‘re-enactment’ into its psychotherapeutic parallel. It’s not surprising that for many of the participants, the event could only bring back ‘bad memories’ of the miners’ defeat and the experience of its aftermath.  But whilst the bad memory of Orgreave was undoubtedly ‘burnt into the community consciousness’[3] of those individuals involved, Orgreave sought to turn the personal experience of trauma into a an act of group therapy, conflating the emotional experiences of a locally defined community with the nebulous group-consciousness of contemporary British cultural anxiety.

That this should occur is in part due to our culture’s current obsession with trauma and victim-hood.  In an age that values passivity and emotionalism over the capacity to overcome the challenges that face society- whether personal or political- Orgreave reduces the political defeat of the miners to a public display of emotional catharsis, sliding from the politics of social confrontation and defeat to the cathartic psychological register of the post-traumatic.  Defeated workers have become damaged goods, and the analogy with therapy is more than incidental; As Jonathan Jones put it, ‘the Battle of Orgreave turns out to be not a joke but and elegy whose every absurdity hurts – of course we can’t refight the struggles of the past, can’t change what happened.’[4] As every good psychotherapist knows, ‘coming to terms’ with the consequences of our history is what we do when we are powerless to change them.

The common thread in this recurring motif of sundered community is its projection of the essentially contemporary pessimism about social stability and coherence onto past events. Critically however, the form this projection takes in Orgreave is itself the contemporary symptom of social atomisation. The disconnection between the individual and society is in Orgreave played out in the terms of an already individualised and subjective trauma, one that is resolved, not through practical action in the present, but through cathartic reconciliation with the hurt of the past. 

This is where any conception of Orgreave as a ‘representation of politics’ has to be rethought.  Dave Beech has questioned Orgreave’s meaning with reference to Victor Burgin’s old distinction between the ‘representation of politics’ and the ‘politics of representation’.[5]    But the only politics that Orgreave properly ‘represents’ is the contemporary, ‘post-political’ politics of mourning and anxiety outlined above, for the simple reason that if there was seriously a question of representation at stake, one might expect that the work presented some evidence of thought, investigation or analysis, and a possible vision of how to act in the future.  Instead we are presented with the idiotic suggestion that representation is no different to a mindless facsimile ‘re-enactment’, when in fact the facsimile is itself the highly charged vehicle that serves a consensus of received ideas about what it supposedly represents.

Is it unfair to demand that Deller’s project account for itself on these terms?  Deller’s activity has always been cautious not to align itself with any explicit political position, even though it flirts constantly with the many forms of grass-roots radicalism.  But whatever Deller’s intentions for his Orgreave, it was clear that the event would inevitably be drawn into this context.  When the Independent reported one spectator as saying, ‘Friends became enemies, families broke up and neighbours turned against each other’[6], it was clear that this personal reminiscence was to be read as a broader lamentation of the lost social idyll of Old Britain. Indeed, such was the precision with which it intersected with a mainstream narrative concerning the events of the miners’ strike, that the documenting of Orgreave became a significant part of the work itself.  It’s perhaps for this reason that so much of the coverage of Orgreave never went beyond simple description, because this second (mass-media) layer of representation was effectively the vehicle by which the work’s meaning was conveyed.  That the meaning remained unspoken, repeated uncritically and unconsciously, was a measure of how far Orgreave’s meaning is culturally already determined.

Metropolitan intellectuals (and Deller is one of these, regardless of his endless fascination with the cultural products of so-called ordinary people) have recently made a habit of patronising the former working class with their affections, embalming the communities of yesteryear in mawkish sentiment and dewy-eyed nostalgia.  It’s easy to romanticise the bygone solidarity of working communities now that they no longer pose any threat:  It can easily be forgotten that in Britain today, days lost to industrial action are the lowest on record, and that on average people work more hours a week than they did 30 years ago.

It is a paltry testament to the people who fought at Orgreave that their battle to defend their wages and living standards should be reduced to a session of (art) therapy. And as a work of contemporary art Orgreave signals a radical and perverse negation of the visual in art.  Unless you were one of the lucky few who saw the event on the day, the meaning of Orgreave has come to you through its many textual representations in the art and mainstream press, a work of art that was solely designed to exist in the mass media.  Instead of using the form of the work to investigate the artistic, narrative and political potentials of social life, Orgreave press-ganged the ‘authentic’ emotions of its participants to produce an on-message collective grief-fest about the sad State of New Britain. Like other televised spectacles of vicarious collective mourning, from the death of Diana through to the recent terrible events in America, Orgreave exaggerates our individual vulnerabilities and mutes our ability to change the present and the future.  The irony of Orgreave is that this was, after all, what the miners at Orgreave were fighting for.

[1] Jonathan Jones, Guardian 19/06/01, and Dave Beech, Art Monthly, July/August 2001

[2] Tim Etchells, Tate Magazine, Autumn 2001

[5] Dave Beech, Art Monthly, July/August 2001






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all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated