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By Jason Michael
Images of poverty when presented without reference to the realities of poverty verge on becoming voyeuristic poverty pornography. This was certainly the feeling I had seeing the picture of two beaming Glasgow boys.
Yesterday morning the National Galleries of Scotland tweeted a picture from David Peat’s 1968 An Eye on the Street collection depicting two little boys smiling before a background of broken down Glasgow tenement buildings and a scene of, quite frankly, disturbing urban squalor. Tweeting the words “Wonderful image of two beaming boys…” the National Galleries appears to have left the obvious to the viewer’s imagination. On the surface, and as can be read in the responses from the public, this is a sentimental picture that sparks happy memories for those who remember those days in the frowzy comfort of the tenements.
Wonderful image of two beaming boys in 1960s Glasgow, by the late film-maker & photographer David Peat 📷… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…—
National Galleries (@NatGalleriesSco) July 09, 2017
Eddi Reader’s comment is particularly poignant; “we were surrounded by our families and neighbours and felt protected… those tenement windows guarding us as we played.” With her own experience and memories of the tenements she goes further than the National Galleries in ending her tweet with the hashtag “#povertynotpoor,” bringing to the fore the contradiction of the image. This is a scene of poverty, and this is perhaps my issue with its use as “art.”
It is an important image. This is a social history that must be remembered and taught. These “beaming boys” and what they evoke and represent are integral to our national story. My gripe, if that is what it is, is not with David Peat and his photographic journalism of this Glasgow in the late 1960s. His interrogation of this poverty, as is seen in all of his work, is unflinching and yet heart-warmingly humane and – dare I say – beautiful. In this it is both memory and art, but it stands pretty much alone for what it is in the Twitter feed of the National Galleries of Scotland. It is, for all its beauty, also an ugly image. This is a record of an atrocious social reality that goes wholly unnoticed by its artistic presentation, a challenge perhaps too difficult for the Galleries.
Smiling children do not expunge the fact that a hellish reality has been imposed on the subjects of the photograph. Take for example the 1944 photograph of Istvan Reiner, the image of a beaming and adorable four year old boy. We could equally tweet this image with a comment on a beaming boy without mentioning the wider reality of the hell that had been imposed upon him. The reaction to such a tweet would be very different because Istvan is a boy in the striped pyjamas of an Auschwitz inmate taken shortly before he was murdered.
Life in the poverty of Glasgow’s slums and tenements was for centuries another kind of holocaust. Tens of thousands of children died as a result of sanitary and living conditions over which they and their parents had no control. Yes, there was great joy and community, memories and moments in the tenements, but nothing of that took from the suffering and the misery that poverty brought with it for the people trapped by it. True, as Eddi Reader says, these were good times; these were innocent and happy times, but they were never “the good old days.”
Poverty the likes of that experienced in Glasgow was never neutral. The poverty of today all over Scotland is not neutral. It served and serves a purpose, and that purpose has always been imposed on innocent people – on beaming children even – by the powerful, the privileged, and the wealthy. How often, I am forced to ask, did these two young lads saunter into the National Galleries of Scotland? Yet it is for the casual and seemingly unchallenging amusement and consumption of those who do that this image is now intended. That bothers me.
All the same, these images – those of the beaming Glasgow boys and that of Istvan Reiner – remain important. We must be challenged by them and still we must challenge their use by their custodians. In viewing them as art, and just as art, the viewer runs the risk of becoming an unaffected voyeur, but as a reminder of a reality that is still very much Scotland’s reality we have a responsibility to use them as heuristic instruments to begin the more challenging discussions of poverty and injustice. Reader is right; poverty not poor. Poverty is the weapon that was used against the people of the tenements. Even the memory of the tenements, as John Cleese is keen to demonstrate, is used as a weapon still, but it is poor only when we learn nothing from this experience.
Slums On Clydeside (1974)