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The Gothic Mode in England’s Dark Dreaming

By Paul Watson on .

detail from the first drawing in the series

In which I make some initial notes looking into the Gothic mode in my England’s Dark Dreaming series of drawings.

About the word “Gothic”

I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s clad in black (and the occasional paisley shirt) and listening to the Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division, Bauhaus, the Fields of the Nephilim, and so on. As such my view of the Gothic (at least so far as it is represented in music/subculture) is very much from the inside (or “an inside”, as I will explain below), which colours my perception somewhat.

The trouble with the term Gothic is the myriad of different meanings it has to different people - and that’s after you exclude the barbaric tribes rampaging in the Roman Empire in the 5th Century, the architecture of the High and Late Middle Ages, and the Victorian novels.

An example from my own experience is that back in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Midlands of England there seemed to be a change occurring within the goth subculture - the pointed boots, tight black jeans, shirt/t-shirt, rivet belt, and leather jacket predominant in the 1980s that evolved from post-punk started getting replaced by a pseudo-Victorian style of dress seemingly inspired by Hammer horror films. I suspect this was also a regional variation - the Northern English post-punk gothic style being replaced by a Southern English (by which I probably mean London) take on the subculture, or perhaps the influence of US Deathrock. Wherever it came from I didn’t really fit with this new interpretation, and by the mid 1990s this newly-established definition of the word Goth didn’t fit me.

In later years I’m told that those same horror-film-inspired goths were similarly irked by the rise of goggles and glow sticks amongst their community, and then by Marilyn Manson fans, but my self-identification as a goth had long since stopped by then (even though I still have a tendency to wear a lot of black and listen to a lot of the same music that I used to back in the late 1980s and early 1990s).

But that’s the nature of the Gothic - it always seems to renew and revive itself. As Catherine Spooner says in the introduction to her 2006 book Contemporary Gothic:

There is no ‘original’ gothic; it is always already a revival of something else…these revivals seldom take exactly the same shape they possessed before.

In short: goth will eat itself.

It is therefore with great care about definitions that I’m setting about this short analysis of my own artwork and its relationship to the Gothic - I don’t want you thinking of Dracula capes and a coffin obsession when I’m thinking of the Joy Division’s Day of the Lords or the Sisters of Mercy’s Reptile House EP.

Gothic as a Mode rather than a Genre

Spooner (2006) raises another important (at least for my purposes in this post) point in her introduction:

A text may be Gothic and simultaneously many other things. The X-Files, for example, is a detective series in the Gothic mode, but it is also science fiction, conspiracy theory and a buddy cop drama.

The Gothic is not a fixed genre or classification that excludes other classifications, but rather a mode in which a piece of art can be made.

This non-exclusory relationship to the Gothic feels to me like a more accurate explanation of the relationship of the England’s Dark Dreaming drawings to the Gothic: a series of drawings, created from life-drawings, using mythic and folkloric elements for socio-political commentary, in the Gothic mode.

Defining the Gothic

But why would my drawings be considered to be “in the Gothic mode”? There are no vampires, coffins, crumbling castles, or similar motifs. In the 2014 BBC4 documentary series The Art of Gothic Andrew Graham-Dixon called Francis Bacon the greatest Gothic painter of the 20th century and Bacon wasn’t painting Dracula either. So how do we define the Gothic?

Spooner (2006) cites the definition provided by Chris Baldick in The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales as the most satisfactory so far:

According to Baldick, a Gothic text should comprise ‘a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration’.

And that’s probably very accurate for the Gothic literature Baldick was defining, but it doesn’t really cover the gothic mode in contemporary visual art (or indeed music/subculture).

In the same chapter when Spooner looks specifically at the music/subculture she identifies:

A more general tension within Goth subculture between performative identities expressed through costume and the quest for authentic (and sometimes anguished) self-expression.

Incidentally this picks out one interesting point about the Gothic: the seeming paradox between authenticity in self-expression (which is primarily a Modernist trait) and the knowing use of costumed performance at the expense of the “real” (which is arguably Postmodernist). Depending on your perspective this could make the Gothic simultaneously Modernist and Postmodernist, Post-Postmodernist, or simply outside of all of these wider cultural movements (this last status of “outsider” would probably suit the Gothic just fine, but that’s one for the academics, though.)

Paul Hodkinson, in the Gothic Music and Subculture chapter of The Routledge Companion to Gothic (2009) suggests that:

The dark mix of emotion, angst and energy often associated with Goth music, for example, may be linked by some elements to Gothic literature, but has at least as much to do with the influence of longstanding themes from within contemporary popular music.

All of which tells me that:

  1. You can instantly recognise the Gothic when you see/hear/read it, but
  2. It keeps changing depending on artform/medium and time, so
  3. It’s a mug’s game to attempt to define it in a way that crosses all artforms and media.

For the purposes of my artwork I’m picking-and-mixing a definition:

  1. A dark mix of emotion, angst and energy
  2. A general knowing tension between performative identities expressed through costume drawing style and the poses, props, lighting of the figures and the quest for authentic (and sometimes anguished) self-expression
  3. An impression of sickening impending descent into disintegration

And that’s as close as I’ll probably get.

Now in the grand tradition of 80s goth bands I should probably disavow any connection whatsoever with the Gothic lest people starting thinking it’s all black velvet capes and graveyards.

References and further reading

Groom, N. (2012). The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grunenberg, C. (1997). Gothic: Transmutations of horror in late twentieth century art. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Spooner, C. (2006). Contemporary Gothic. London: Reaktion Books.

Spooner, C. and McEvoy, E. (2009). The Routledge Companion to Gothic. London: Routledge.

The Art of Gothic, (2014). [TV programme] BBC Four