Rick Poynor | Essays

Britain and America: United in Idiocy

In Britain, certain sections of the media love to talk about the "special relationship" - the special relationship, that is, between the British and the Americans. This is primarily a political notion, though naturally, since we speak the same language, share many of the same reference points and have some significant historical links, the relationship is bound to feel closer - more special - than our relationship with most other nations. Do many Americans feel the same way, though? Does this idea of a special relationship matter in the slightest to the average American? Leaving aside the positive sentiments which Blair's support for Bush and the US caused some to feel, my own hunch, as a regular visitor, is that for probably the vast majority of Americans the question is simply irrelevant.

And, somewhat disarmingly, that's more or less what we are told in only the second paragraph of an introduction to a new book that sets out to explore, in drawings and handwritten quotations, what the British think of the Americans and what the Americans think of the British. "You're only on our radar in broad strokes," writes New York-based TV commercials director Judith Krant. "But know this: when we are alone, amongst ourselves, we don't talk about y'all at all."

So it's no surprise that the artist and illustrator behind Us & Them, Paul Davis, is not an American but a Brit. Why would an American artist even bother, unless he or she was a total Anglophile who knew Britain unusually well? The book is already out in the UK and it will be interesting to see how it's received in the US when Princeton publishes it in September. Davis has emerged in the last few years as one of the most ubiquitous and distinctive of British illustrators and the book is another sign of his growing popularity.

Davis himself wants to assure us of the book's veracity - "because it's impossible to make this stuff up". His method in both countries was the same. He approached people wherever he happened to find himself and asked them what they thought of the Americans or British. He drew the speaker - sometimes later, based on photos or video - and wrote down a quotation. I'm afraid it's bad news all round. Americans see the Brits as formal, snobbish, pear-shaped, imperialistic has-beens who have bad teeth and don't breed lookers, though two or three people think we are civilised, articulate and smart, and, yes, someone loved the accent.

If the Americans often seem baffled by the question - "It's so kinda like I dunno" retorts one space cadet (sorry, I'm being snobbish) - the British response is a little more detailed and a lot more judgemental, whether psychological ("They're fearfully over-confident based on profound paranoia") or wildly apocalyptic ("They are nothing but evil"). There are still plenty of Brits in the book with nothing to say about the US, though, and this is peculiar because whereas Americans who haven't visited Britain know virtually nothing about the place apart from the "broad strokes" (Benny Hill, Monty Python, Diana, Blair), the British are awash with American culture.

Here's a list of just some of the US TV series watched avidly in Britain in the last 20 years: Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, Cheers, LA Law, Homicide, NYPD Blue, Frasier, Seinfeld, Friends, ER, Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, 24, Six Feet Under, Will & Grace, Malcolm in the Middle, CSI, The Shield, and not forgetting The Simpsons, from which my own daughter is not alone among British kids in being able to quote huge chunks of dialogue. I take it there's no need to start listing films, music, software, sneakers, soft drinks, fast food and military initiatives. After all of that exposure to the American way you would think we could manage something a bit more insightful than: "How come their cheerleaders are ever so slightly chubby?"

In Davis' world, the two nations do have one thing in common: we are both equally stupid. I'm not sure this tells us anything very useful about Britain or America. In terms of its revelations, is Davis' exercise anything more than a case of ultra-selective quotation? "It's a very bizarre system you guys have," says one American. The joke here is that the man himself, with his long grey locks, little pink face, all-black clothes and silver pendent, looks pretty bizarre. But was this really the only thing he could find to say to Davis? Even after further questioning? Almost anyone could be made to look like an idiot if you startled them from their thoughts in the street with an unexpected question.

A few of the people Davis draws look normal enough, you might almost say pleasant, but on both sides of the Atlantic many of his characters are grotesque: ugly, angry, vacant, empty-headed, consumed by anxiety, totally deranged. The man who barks out "I love the Brits - but, you know, we kick ass" has mad eyes, piranha teeth and a face like an overheated furnace. The woman in the Chicago hotel who accuses us of arrogance - "AH HATE IT!" - gets screwed-up features and a shrivelled body. The guy who suggests that Americans are like children is a Nike swoosh-wearing thug, his portrait scratched on to the page with even more loathing than usual. Davis doesn't do compassion, nor is he exactly a satirist. He's a master of misanthropic disgust. Clearly a lot of Davis' fans share his acerbic vision, but we shouldn't be too complacent. He would lash us, given the chance, with the same barbed and ferocious pen.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

Comments [13]

Well, casting the Other in simplistic roles is universal. How much do most average people really know about those from another country, town, or neighbourhood beyond the constructed stereotype?

When the Other is bigger and more powerful, the awareness (but not necessarily knowledge) of the minor partner becomes extreme. Canadians are obssessed with Americans. I grew up obssessing about Americans—it's part of what makes me Canadian.

Vancouverites wage a private war against Torontonians in a storm of jealousy and rivalry of which Toronto is completely unaware. They barely think about us at all.

In Vancouver, Davis could easily draw caricatures of people from East Van and (vs.) the West Side based on detailed, unanimous descriptions of each other; they would both have crazed expressions.

The world could be full of books like this: what Pakistanis say about Indians; New Zealanders about Australians; Austrians about Germans. They would all be the same, and largely only of interest to those in the country of origin.
marian bantjes

It's difficult to make further comment without actually reviewing the book myself. However, based on Rick's description, I have to question the cynicism and negativity that appear to be present in Davis' book. Is this exercise in free speech ultimately directed at anything constructive? Just because Davis can depict people's ugly or ignorant side, does he really have a greater purpose in doing so? While I'm no fan of trite back-slapping or empty praise, I personally would rather see our communication skills directed to builing understanding between people, not giving voice those who lack it.
Daniel Green

"building understanding" that is...(I hate when I do that).

BTW, though I may question Davis' use of free speech, I do respect his right to it. (One more thing we share across the Atlantic.)
Daniel Green

I wonder how well one would describe their next door neighbor or even their mother to a total stranger.

To me, this is interesting purely as an excersise; the rest begs for dismissal.
Andrew Twigg

the cultural colonialism that rick poynor refers to is not unique to britain, it is a worldwide phenomenon. i studied in spain for a year, and had the advantage of not passing as an american. americans are very much on the minds of europeans, as they are on the minds of asians, south americans, and africans. but the reverse may not be true, at least on the surface. gertrude stein, from paris, once described oakland as having 'no there there'. now oakland is arguably far more influential worldwide than paris is, being a thugland and hip hop capital.

but i think i think that many americans still look "across the pond" as a cultural reference point. you still run into young americans at parties who affect british accents in order to sound ironic and sophisticated, and tho judith krant might not want to admit it, heads still turn when a british accent enters the room. the british accent, regardless of whichever class it indicates, is still capable of inducing swoon here, much how superman somehow has super powers on earth because he is from krypton. i think the british are more likely to dismiss the USA as a former colony than americans are to reject GB as the fatherland. a colonial mentality still persists, anglophilia is just an extreme manifestation of it.

my thoughts on britain: never been there, but in a way it is sort of a musical homeland, i spent hours and hours in tower records and cellophane square hunting down and listening to 80s manchester and london bands like joy division, new order, the stone roses, happy mondays, the sex pistols, the smiths, the cure, that petrol emotion, and more. and ali g is the best talk show on earth, or at least HBO.

just my 0.02 USD ( or .0.0109685 GBP).

Manuel Miranda

Thank you for your comments. The book is also supposed to be funny. And yes, we are mostly morons. Myself included.
Paul Davis

Paul - as a humour book, this makes more sense.

FYI, I prefer the british spellings of many words: realise, humour, calibre, aeon, etc. Does that count for anything?
Andrew Twigg

I think it would've been more accurate and interesting if there were also an American doing the street asking (to Brits about Americans and to Americans about Brits...)

If a Brit asked me I'd mumble something about better spelling and how I say "brilliant" and "half nine" for no good reason. If an American asked me I'd gripe about the word "cheers" and wonder why "Posh & Becks" are so much more famous they are in the world than any pop icons we're manufacturing these days.

do they say "my 2 pence?"
and why do Canadians use British spelling?

In any case, for those unfamiliar, here is some of Davis' work and a neat Heller article.

Does someone who has read the book have any comments on how Davis' particular graphic language informs the text?

Andrew Breitenberg

Or is it all solely illustrations of the comments themselves?
Andrew Breitenberg

Let's not confuse two Pauls here... The one Heller is writing about is def. someone else...

I happen to like both of them...

I especially like Davis' massive walls of Post-it notes...


Thank you! Pardon my mistake -
Andrew Breitenberg

It's a book of drawings, not like a post modern essay! Like don't have a cow, man!

Q: What are the differences between Americans and the British?

A: None, we are all going to descend into a hopeless spiral of our own mortality. Or something...
Sam Ayres

I'm a little behind, I wonder if anyone is still checking this topic? I'm an American, studying graphic design in England. I came over 2 yrs ago (bad timing with the war - not the most welcoming time to be an American living abroad!) Anyway, all of this has got me thinking a lot about the differences between American and British designers. And, what is it that makes American design 'American' and British design 'British'?

I know a lot of designers that pay attention to this site have worked on both sides of the pond, or at least have worked with both British and American designers. Maybe you could voice your opinions? What is the difference? Is it in education? Method? Opinion? Theory? Practice? Audiences? Craftsmenship? Typography? If you have any opinions or views on this - please help me get my head around it!

Amy Sobek

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