“The degree of expression in a work of art is the measure of its greatness. A spiritual discernment is more essential than the reproduction of the obvious.” ~ Jacob Kramer, 1919
SATURDAY, 3pm. I’m looking on as men in white stand in line. It’s a big day, reverence anticipates celebration and repentance. Elsewhere at that moment, other men in white are also lining up, but there’s to be no joy and little to forgive in losing to Birmingham City. It’s a match I don’t witness because instead of being at Elland Road that afternoon I’m standing before Jacob Kramer’s painting, The Day of Atonement, at Leeds City Art Gallery. It’s what I’d hoped to see. A victory, albeit a personal one, on a day of defeat. Larger in size than I’d remembered it, Kramer’s 1919 depiction of a precession of Jewish males on Yom Kippur is a work of art every bit as enduring as the abstract concept known as Leeds United.
Downstairs from where it hangs is the very spot where Leeds celebrated the team’s 1992 league title after an open-topped bus parade through the city. Barely five minutes walk round the corner, left up Cookridge Street and right onto Vernon Street, takes you beneath the mosaic plaque of Leeds College of Art: named, from the year Don Revie guided Leeds United to its first major trophy until Howard Wilkinson lifted its latest, after Jacob Kramer. It’s a building I know well because I went there in the mid-90s just as Wilko’s influence over all things white faded to black. Kramer’s association with the college also seems to have eroded to the extent that his name is now absent from the college’s history on its own website.
After running away from home when his family fled Russian anti-semitism to Leeds in 1900, Kramer found art to be the perfect means of assimilation in his adopted city and the ideal expression of his Jewish roots. To his eye, a subject revealed both its physical appearance and its spiritual manifestation, an idea which took flight when he became involved with Wyndham Lewis’ Vorticist movement while at London’s Slade School of Art in the run-up to the First World War.
But it was after that conflict, the horror of which, it was thought, had expended all human emotion, that Kramer found himself in full tune with an art world busily rejecting realism and embracing expressionism. Like the Futurists of Italy and Swiss Dadaism, Kramer’s was the art of disillusionment, and he was making it in Leeds. With the paint barely dry on The Day of Atonement, he declared: “The degree of expression in a work of art is the measure of its greatness. A spiritual discernment is more essential than the reproduction of the obvious” – unwittingly providing us, in the very year of its birth, with the best expression of Leeds United’s DNA that I’ve ever heard.
Leeds United has never been at home to the obvious. If anything, the club specialises in the reproduction of the abstract, and we fans in the spiritual discernment of the absurd. There’s good reason it features so often in song, and on page and screen. At other clubs, football is spoken of in scientific terms, but Leeds United is itself a work of art which holds a mirror to a “beastly” city, a city Dickens reckoned one must either like “very much or not at all.” While we revel in the perception of Dirty Leeds, we do so knowing that we only excel when for every Bremner there’s a Giles, and for every Batty there’s a McAllister. Ferocity, yes, but with skill. Artistry always integral to success.
But the last decade has seen the art of Leeds United vanish into the cold and calculatedly impersonal world of Batesonomics, whose seemingly irreconcilable contradictions establish Leeds United as the product of an economic theory so ambitiously mediocre, its horror is almost incomprehensible. Just as conflict altered perspectives after 1918, so greed does today. Uprisings, occupations and strikes are all reflected in the art of the age in the world’s protest hotspots, and so it is in LS11. Faced with the spiralling cost and diminishing returns of Batesonomics, fans responded first with dissent, then demonstration, and finally the withdrawal of their support. Such a sacrifice, though born of the frustration so obvious inside and outside Elland Road, was more of a personal choice than a co-ordinated effort to make Batesonomics fail, but fail it has.
The result of a doomed experiment of football in the lap of luxury at Oldham Athletic in the late 1960s which has since necessitated liquidation at both Chelsea and Leeds United, Batesonomics is the tired manifesto of one man’s near 50-year grip on football. Having stifled the efforts of managers and players, it found that the new, social media meant that when its old, anti-social channels sought to stifle fans’ self-expression, it couldn’t.
When I and The Square Ball magazine exhibited sculptor Aidan Brown’s life-sized copper bust of Ken Bates after a particularly lifeless loss to Reading in December 2011, it was the moment I decided I couldn’t be at Elland Road if the chairman was. We brought Leeds the head of Ken Bates and briefly, art conquered Batesonomics as a few hundred fans came along on a freezing Saturday night a week before Christmas to drink together and laugh at an artefact which I happen to know its subject can’t stand – which made it all even better. On the walls that night were four years’ worth of posters, most of which I’ve designed as a form of protest; my art of disillusionment.
I don’t care where you’re from or how many matches you’ve been to, if you’re Leeds you’re Leeds, and that’s good enough for me. When we look at Leeds United, like Jacob Kramer we recognise not only its physical appearance, but its spiritual manifestation too because as fans, that’s what we are. New movements begin with the refusal of the old, and we can be proud of the collaborative spirit in which so many independent, affordable, fan-led initiatives are being supported during the club’s cultural drought. Great art is being made by the fans, for the fans; but Leeds United’s greatest art can only be made with the fans, not at their expense. When the club are finally able to realise this then that, for me, shall be the day of atonement.
Postscript: since this article appeared in The Square Ball’s November issue, Leeds United’s holding company was bought by LUFC Holdings Ltd, a firm based in the Grand Cayman owned by Dubai’s GFH Capital, a subsidiary of Gulf Finance House, based in Bahrain. With the introduction of an official @LUFC twitter account and half-season tickets, the new owners wasted no time in offering fans some of the basics which Batesonomics simply would not. Ken Bates remains club chairman until the end of the season, though his planned presidential role prolongs an association which has long since grown toxic. It’s too early to assess GFH Capital’s impact on the club, though both results and attendances indicate that much work is required to put right eight years of Batesonomics: to renew the club’s severed relationships with the media, the city and fan base at large, and to reinstate Leeds United as a football club, not an instrument of tyranny.