why Blake is terrifying

The Vision of the Last Judgment

Last December, when I was in London, I spent a good deal of time at the Tate Britain’s big exhibition of Blake’s work, and found it frustrating. I ended up writing a long reflection on the exhibition, and on what it doesn’t tell us about Blake’s career, which has just been posted at the Harper’s website. (Why it took several months to be posted is a long and odd but not especially interesting story.)  

One point I didn’t pursue in the essay, but which I think is important, concerns why the curators of the exhibition might have worked so hard to downplay Blake’s religious sensibilities. In the catalogue for the exhibition, they emphasize that their goal was to display “a Blake for all,” and hint that their choices were constrained by the need to construct an exhibition that would attract corporate funding. A weirdo mystic who had visions of angels in trees and “the Ghost of a Flea” doesn’t fit the bill.

The Guardian’s review of the exhibition, by Jonathan Jones, enthusiastically echoes the exhibition’s view of Blake: 

The poster for Tate Britain’s exhibition of William Blake uses the three Rs to sell this icon of the Napoleonic age to the turbulent Britons of 2019: “Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary.” It may seem an over-eager attempt to contemporise him – but Blake was all these and more. You could add pacifist (albeit a militant one who once got arrested after a heated debate with a soldier) and anti-racist, for as Blake’s devastating portrayal of a hanged slave in this show illustrates, he passionately protested against Africa’s subjugation.

And how about feminist? There is even a book of children’s stories that he illustrated for Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the 1792 manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This hackish kids’ book wasn’t the finest hour for either, but it shows their connection through the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, while Blake’s great frontispiece to his own original work Visions of the Daughters of Albion, done in about 1795, shows what he learned from Wollstonecraft: a man and woman are chained back to back, the woman’s head lowered in despair. “Enslaved, the Daughters of Albion weep …”

This is not an exhibition of some old master honoured by kings and collected by aristocrats. It is a raw encounter with a heretical artisan who was ignored and despised in his lifetime and whose self-taught genius comes out of the popular culture of 18th-century London.

Politically radical? Check. Pacifist? Check. Feminist? Check. Pop culture maven? Check. In short, Blake was basically a Guardian reader. And that’s the kind of “Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary” that the corporate world is happy to support. Meanwhile, the visionary imagination that drove Blake’s entire career, which he believed to be pursuing in response to a Divine command — all that is to be passed over in discreet and embarrassed silence. Rebels, radicals, and revolutionaries can be commoditized and can therefore be “for all”; but ecstatic visionaries? The less said the better. T. S. Eliot found Blake “terrifying,” for reasons which the Tate exhibition tried to obscure. Fortunately, the attempt was not wholly successful. 

April 23, 2020

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