Reading Stella Gibbons’ novel “Conference at Cold Comfort Farm” from a position of ignorance of her previous work divorces it from its position in a series – preventing comparison or thematic contrast with “Cold Comfort Farm” or discussion of continuity – and considers it as a discrete text. This gives the novel’s own themes room to speak for themselves, and any continuity consideration must be implied. Taken on its own in this way, the novel is a critical depiction of modernity that does not hesitate to condemn both the artistic world and those who ignorantly criticise modern art. It is superficially an anti-intellectual novel parodying pretentious intellectuals, and similarly a criticism of anti-intellectualism. Comprised as it is of a series of lampoons of modernist and postmodernist political, philosophical and cultural thought, Gibbons’ deftness of wit disorients the reader and invites scepticism.
It would be too easy to accept “Conference” at face value, as a philistine excoriation of liberal thought and progressive, modern art. That is a superficial reading that takes its satire at face value. Modernity is observed and judged – and found to be obscure, insincere and privileged indeed – but at the same time there is something more to this critique than mere anti-intellectual railing against modern art. It is hard to take this strawman-esque satire, comprised of the very commonest anti-intellectual criticisms of the art world on a level equivalent to “a child could do it” – at face value purely because of how it is framed and depicted. The narrative voice is full of patronising contempt for scientists who produce nothing useful, poets writing nonsense, ugly sculptures that scare the children etcetera, and indeed the novel on the surface lavishes in blase philisitinism – but these pat dismissals dissolve under closer contextual reading. Perhaps the clearest example is the depiction of the book-reading, in which the pompous and inflated Mybug reads at great length from the dry and ludicrous modernist novel “The Dromedary”, a base pastiche of Kafka and his contemporaries. On the surface, this look at a lumpen slab of pretension about the ruminations (in the literal sense) of a camel, praised by certain critics as a look into the “human condition” is satirising the aspirations of the modernists. But setting the scene in its fuller context – as part of a reading where each reader reads only something they care about, and “The Dromedary” is set alongside industrialists reading from technical manuals and poetry that makes no sense – levels the criticism more on the readers than the text. The whole scene is second-rate writers and poseurish readers mutually praising each other with narcissistic readings, indiscriminate, undiscerning cultural consumption always in pursuit of the New and the trend. This is, perhaps, a critique of the critical act – but it is if anything a critique of the misapplication of criticism, of the over-reading into texts, of forming absurd conclusions in order to elevate the second-rate unduly. Mybug becomes a satire, in his constant pursuit of status through appearing well-read and critically adroit, of those who feign expertise. “The Dromedary” becomes a satire not so much of the great works, but of how introspective criticism can create a cycle of narcissism.
Beneath the broad-strokes satire, the obvious analogies to Britten and Kafka and others, “Conference” more subtly deflates the real targets of its venom. Preening narcissists who apparently embody everything wrong with modern art and culture in fact embody everything that is seen as wrong with cultural discourse, the culture of privilege and gatekeeping that shuts down healthy cultural debate. Substanceless art is turned into masterpieces by a privileged set of unelected tastemakers who use their supposed expertise to elevate themselves above others. It is hard to see this as anything other than a satire on insincerity and genuine pretension – not “pretension” as a sledgehammer used to destroy nuance and analysis, but the way in which feigned expertise is used to silence people who don’t fit in a social group. It is this aspect of “Conference” that is most timely today in the ongoing debate about “hipsterism”. At some point, holding esoteric and diverse cultural tastes – liking things outside the norms – became an insult because, I feel, it became tied up in materialism and narcissism. Appearing cultured by liking the right things and conspicuously consuming “trendy” things was more important than actual cultural nonconformism and it became easy to corporatise and make conformist the idea of not conforming. In turn, the idea of “sincerity” in cultural taste became its own toxic term, used to – as the Thinkers at Cold Comfort Farm seem to – alienate new blood and promote a cultural us-and-them. “Casual” taste becomes a criticism but there are no offered solutions to become less “casual.” Thus returning to the novel via Mybug and the other thinkers, all obsessed more with appearing cultured than genuinely being discerning and critical. This cultural ethos is in turn reflected in the novel’s setting – a genuine farm that is turned, by the workings of the “Whim Weavers’ Trust” (a satire on conservationist trusts like the National Trust) from a genuine piece of local culture into a grotesque caricature of what outsiders – specifically privileged, pretentious people from the classes being satirised at the Conference – think rural life is like. Thus in an entirely artificial world of stereotypes, artists promote their works inwardly to privileged peers. Gibbons may be unafraid to poke fun at the art world’s creative eccentricities, but her satire is far more strongly directed at the corporatisation of culture.
This is all the clearer when the matter of politics is raised; the cultured elite that make up the Thinkers debate a “Bill of Rights” in which good liberal progressive politics will be laid down. Instead, a hyper-capitalist magnate of the food industry turns the irrefutable rights to food, shelter and education into his own vision of a corporate monopoly on the essentials of life, whereby everyone who can pay will be given enough food to survive while he gets rich. In the modern world, where libertarian unregulated capitalism is sold as a liberal alternative to democracy and regulation, this speech – Ayn Randian in its extremes – is no less valuable. The political/philosophical mess is further mired by the Thinkers’ appropriation of a “Sort of Sage” from “The East,” playing on the faddish appropriation of Asian religion and tradition without understanding. This sequence comes early in the novel, and serves as as plain a political mission statement for it as is possible; this is a novel satirising the Establishment’s dominance of cultural and political discourse and the corruption of liberal and progressive ideals in the name of bettering the elite.
Thus modernity is shown to be the replacement of the “old” with a self-serving “new” dressed in cultured, liberal language. A new which consolidates power further away from the ordinary people – made clearest by the act of cultural erasure as a working farm is turned into a quaint, stereotyped museum of Olde Englishe signs. Local identity is replaced by the encroachment of an urban elite and the attendant cultural imperialism – cosmopolitan and continental as the ridiculous artists that come to the farm may be, they still play at the expense of the locals. Thus while the satire may indeed target “intellectuals”, it is less anti-intellectualism and more anti-corporate, anti-libertarian and pro-education. Modern art is worthless if it is kept hermetic within small social circles obsessed with status. Liberal thought is worthless if it is monopolised by corporate interests. The return of Cold Comfort Farm to its original owners is not silly yokels who know what they like getting rid of people with ten-dollar words, it is a return to actual identities and cultures and the removal of insincerity and cultural erasure, and it is this nuance that defines the novel. Buying into the work’s anti-intellectual satire relies on already having preconceptions about modern art – being the sort of judgmental person who is being satirised. And indeed the artists, and industrialists, and thinkers leave the novel unchanged. If they are the victims of its satire, they get off very lightly with only their opinions and mannerisms laid plain for mockery. What follows is left to the reader to decide – is an art establishment by the rich for the rich really a good thing?
Thus the novel provides two levels of satire; a jab at the self-indulgency of the art world (and it is not fair to say that one should entirely ignore the criticism of modern art in it – the lampooning of “The Dromedary” could be applied to modern artistic movements similarly self-absorbed and over-estimated by analysis like Alt Lit, for example) and its risk of irrelevance by becoming too distant from potential audiences, and a more pointed attack on the modern world’s class issues, where culture and access to culture become barriers to social mobility and corporate interests undermine political reform. Having esoteric taste and being discerning and critical are not shown to be bad things – being undiscerning, and following the crowd to fit in socially, are. Indeed, the artists almost seem more interested in puffing their own works than actually appreciating each others.