What should a critic do? I’m sure there must be rules: don’t take backhanders from galleries. Don’t get too intimate with artists, especially not dead ones. Declare any conflicts of interest (no conflict, no interest, I always say). Keep up to date and don’t be late, and wear black at all times. I could go on. The public expects certain standards, and a degree of aloof hauteur from the arbiter of taste – it adds gravitas and readers like a touch of disdain; it gives one’s judgments that extra little bit of critical oomph.
But what if the critic has somehow found themselves on the streets of Beanotown? The artist I’m up against is Dennis the Menace, straight out of the pages of the comic. Thanks to the Beano, and artist and curator Andy Holden, my carefully constructed critical persona has been for ever ruined. Drawn by the Beano’s Nigel Parkinson, my all-too-recognisable cartoon avatar has been inserted into the storyline of a Beano strip, reviewing the very exhibition I now find myself standing in.
“We’ve already written your review,” Holden tells me, pointing at my cartoon self, deliberating on the wall. The situation is worthy of one of those metafictions by Jorge Luis Borges or Paul Auster. I might never escape. It’s a nightmare. Or, rather, an Aaaarrghhh!! moment, accompanied by a shout – I am in the Beano! This is my biggest accolade, compared to which my various real-life embellishments – the fellowships and honorary doctorates, the critic of the year badge I never got, the Golden Lion at Venice I secretly yearn for – are but the merest gimcrack baubles.
The Art of Breaking the Rules, at Somerset House, is a thoroughgoing homage and exploration of the world of the Beano comic (which first appeared in 1938 and is still going strong) its influence on art and popular culture, and its place in the psyche of anyone who has ever picked up a copy over the last 80-odd years.
The comic strips in Beano are all about railing against authority, and Holden, like Picasso, sees anarchic wilfulness and disobedience as the keys to creativity. Holden has encouraged the Beano’s artists and story-writers to include various denizens of the art world in the comic’s strips, produced specially for this exhibition.
Good lord, there’s art dealer Larry Gagosian, Damien Hirst and Gilbert and George. And here comes that famous art critic, yours truly, flouncing in on the back of a swan. Holden also becomes a character. His hand-drawn Toontown double first appeared in his marvellous hour-long 2017 animation Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape. The animated Holden appears and reappears at Somerset House, both as curator of the exhibition and of Beanotown’s Museum of Modern Art, where actual Beano-esque art works by real artists are on display, overseen by cut-out museum guards.
The Beano’s designers have also reconstructed the comic’s Dundee HQ and editor’s office, opened up their archives, and otherwise abetted the artist-cum-curator. Helpful signs alert the young to boring bits of the show, or advise guardians that Ed Atkins’s CGI slurping, squashing, human meat-compressing sandwich-preparation animation might be too disturbing for kids. I think they’ll love it.
No Beano, no Viz. No Beano, no Heather Phillipson’s The End on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square. No Minnie the Minx, no Sarah Lucas’s fried-egg tits on her T-shirt. Or, at least, that’s what the show suggests. I might also refer readers to the cover of the 1966 album by the Blues Breakers in which Eric Clapton is seen reading the comic, and that David Bowie cited the Beano, along with Madame Bovary, as a major influence. Already inspirational, Beano might also nurture the creative streak and anti-authoritarian leanings of a current generation of young readers whose artistic yearnings are being stifled by current educational policies, just as the strips in the late 1950s punctured my own childhood docility and subservience to authority.
Always a bit edgy, with its Bash Street school slackers, its tomboys and characters like Dennis (just the kind of kids my parents wouldn’t let me play with), the Beano was never much encouraged when I was a child. But unlike American superhero comics, and the endless jingoistic war comics which I never enjoyed, Beano was rooted in a familiar world of small living rooms, suburban streets and washing lines, overbearing adults and frightening authoritarian teachers.
Holden’s approach is historical and archival (there are lots of displays of defunct rival comics, and of now-relegated Beano characters, such as Lord Snooty, the top-hatted toff, who has returned here as an art collector); sociological (including a great promotional video of Beanotown, based on a 1960s film extoling the delights of Stevenage new town); and scatological. An entire section is devoted to food and food fights in the Beano, and the culinary preoccupations of postwar, post-rationing austerity Britain. A mountain of mash is pierced, like St Sebastian, not by arrows, but by sausages. Holden even cites Michel Foucault in a section of the show titled Discipline and Punish, after the French philosopher’s terrifying 1975 book. Here, the slipper and the cane, the domestic equivalents of the rack and the whip, are used to reinforce order in the home and the classroom. In a scene from the Bash Street Kids, Teacher has all the kids on their knees, bare bums in the air, as he raises his cane. It’s like a scene from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s gruesome 1975 Sadean allegory Salò.
Corporal punishment has, of course, disappeared from the latter-day Beano, as it largely has from schools and homes, and Walter the Softy is no longer bullied by Dennis the Menace in the comic’s pages, because it might be seen as homophobic – and, in any case, bullying is bad. This is wokeness gone mad. “Comics aren’t art! The curator’s an imbecile!” sniffs Walter. He reminds me of someone. In 2018, Beano wrote to Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, requesting that he summarily cease and desist from infringing the intellectual property rights of Walter Brown, AKA Walter the Softy, whose dress sense, attitudes, glasses and hair parting have clearly been lifted, wholesale, by the MP.
Cause and effect, the relentless surge of one thing leading to another, exemplified by the great Leo Baxendale’s drawings of the Bash Street Kids, is complemented by Swiss duo Fischli and Weiss’s 1987 film The Way Things Go, with its studio experiment of burning tyres trundling down ramps, things whacking other things, pendulum swings and constant round of calamitous interactions. The terrifying toy-train ride in Nick Park’s 1993 film The Wrong Trousers is part-Beano, part Buster Keaton’s The General. Beano has also inspired Steve Bell (who wrote a great obituary of Baxendale in The Guardian), and cartoonist Martin Rowson turns Brexit into Brexo, in homage to the Beano. Everything leads to everything else, which is why, in this exhibition, Billy the Whizz takes us to Philippe Parreno’s floating, helium-filled speech bubbles, and Richard Wentworth turns the search for knowledge into a compost heap of old books, studio sweepings and a tin of paint-stripper.
Conceived during lockdown, when we were besieged by ever-changing rules, Holden gives us the full Beano. It is a riot in there. But we must have rules, and artist Peter Liversidge has, with the help of Beano readers, produced a forest of placards to which visitors to the show can also contribute. “Never Go to Bed”, they say, “We Want a Future”, “Visit Museums” and “No More Rules”. Critics are all about having rules, or at least opinions. As my cartoon self says in the comic strip: “It’s a MESS-TERPIECE!” How could I possibly disagree?