State of the Arts – Guy Fawkes’ spectacular & enduring failure

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

21st century dissent as lead by a medieval bungled anarchy plot

I used to love Halloween because like a lot of people from my generation I was raised on the Hilarious House of Frightenstein, Hammer horror movies and HR Pufnstuff in which the character Witchy Poo became an icon to me. I have always had a penchant for the Gothic. Now however Harry Potter, the new Sherlock and the new Dr. Who  have turned what was once a shabby little Englishy Victorian subculture into a multi-gazillion dollar industry pushing all that was questionable and eccentric into the dust. Although I appreciate the steam punk movement (why wouldn’t you wear spats if you could?), I have moved on from the ghoulish to something that I think is far less likely to become a world wide corporate directive.

Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 has now become my new favourite cultural touchstone for this time of year. While I have long known about this historical event, most people know it because of a comic phenomenon.  I never actually read the original comic strip V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd from 1980 but I believe their idea of having the main character wear a mask that represents Fawkes is brilliant. I think it might be one of my favourite art works that blends media, politics, history and theatre. That mask now represents civil disobedience everywhere, be it on the streets or on your computer.

The other reason I love Guy Fawkes is because of the bonfires. It is a tradition in England that Nov. 5th is bonfire day.  At one time the bonfire represented a puritanical eschewing of all things Popery, but over time it became kind of anti-Catholic and divisive so eventually it turned into bonfire night. In fact I am certain there were loads of people who participated in it over the years but not knowing why. That is until V for Vendetta came along.

The comic that started it all, or actually the comic that continued the gun power plot.
The comic that started it all, or actually the comic that continued the gun power plot.

Where I live you can have a fantastic Guy Fawkes party. This year I plan to go to an annual one started by a British writer friend of mine. Last year his effigy was over ten feet tall and when it went ablaze flamy bits went everywhere. It was spectacular. My partner and I had to repeat who Guy Fawkes was to people over and over all night as most of the group had no idea what we were doing. But, like all parties that happen in the bush where I live, the meaning or why rarely stops anyone from burning things and drinking copiously.

It seems to me that one of the jobs of an artist might be to galvanize a community through a visual indicator. If you take this as a definition of art then the Guy Fawkes mask and its continued notoriety does exactly that. The mask continues to have impact. The Canadian government has actually banned the public from covering their faces at protests which some believe is a direct hit at the group Anonymous’ use of the mask. While there are all sorts of discussions you could have about the mask I think that it is because the original plot failed that there is an allure. The goal was really spectacular: blowing up parliament and installing a Catholic sovereign. So, Fawkes wasn’t some radical anarchist chanting liberty and justice. But he did represent the idea of insurrection with big vision. Rebels everywhere have taken note.

In many ways a big idea like blowing up parliament fits into our 9/11, tsunami, breaking ice shelves world where the spectacular is de rigeur. That it didn’t happen allows our imagination to soar. The ritual of a bonfire can represent a micro destructive event as the burning of things has atavistic overtones – fires were both hearths and weapons for centuries. Combine these two rituals, the imagining of something spectacularly ruined, use a facsimile and then set it afire. Bingo! You have the ingredients for a night dedicated to anti-heroes, anarchists and rebels everywhere.

Or you just have a chilly night ignited by fire sending its shimmery shards into the universe like our ancestors once did; a pre history moment made new by the continuing tradition of wanting to put light into the darkness.

Image from Goggle images.

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