RADICAL BRITISH ART IN THE 1970S: ART IN CRISIS DURING A DECADE OF CRISES

John A. Walker © (2009)

(Cover image: Jordan in Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee (1978), reproduced courtesy of the BFI; photographer Jean-Marc Prouveur.) ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Histories of visual culture in Britain during the 1960s abound but that of the 1970s – despite several, nostalgic revivals of interest in the decade – is still neglected. The neglect is unjust: in a list of the best British advertisements of the twentieth century, complied by Campaign magazine in 1999, the top three dated from the 1970s. Such has been the decade’s invisibility that it has been dubbed: ‘the undecade’, ‘the decade that style or taste forgot’, and the critic Peter Fuller once wrote an essay that asked: ‘Where was the art of the Seventies?’ After the decade ended, it was widely believed that no fine art of note had been 1

produced, or that there had been no major movement/dominant style, simply a condition of fragmentation and pluralism (itself a consequence of a paradigm shift from modernism to post-modernism). It is certainly true that there were various mini-movements and tendencies running in parallel rather than a single mainstream or spirit of the age. However, in my view, what was new and significant about contemporary art in Britain during the 1970s was its leftist repoliticisation (including the impact of feminism and the gay movement), its attempt to reconnect to society at large (even though this was not exclusive to Britain because similar developments occurred in Germany and the United States). These developments were evident by the middle of the decade after the rejection of minimal art and the decline in influence of conceptual art. The latter had began in the mid-1960s and reached its apogee in ‘The New Art’ exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery in 1972. Christopher Booker, in a history of the 1970s, argued that it was a highly important decade for three losses of faith: in the modern movement, the benefits of technology and the ‘grand narrative’ of progress. Most radical artists had reservations about modernism, especially the ‘modernist painting’ theory, a narrow version associated with the American critic Clement Greenberg (see my essay on Greenberg and his influence on the British), but they retained a belief in progress because they thought a different kind of art could help build a better society. In this respect, they continued the utopianism of the 1960s. Because of their desire to rediscover a social role, radical artists rejected the purely formalist view of art and began to stress the importance of subject matter/content and social relevance/function. (New kinds of art gave rise to new 2

subjects; for instance, feminist artists made works about housework and menstruation; homosexual artists made art about the struggle for gay rights.) However, it was not simply a question of representing politics because radical artists steeped in the history of avant-garde art also realised that they had to address the politics of representation, to perform work on representation. The result was two varieties of political art: one depicted political events in a straightforward manner or performed agit-prop functions; the second was self-reflexive regarding representation and was, therefore, more complex and demanding. Thus, a conflict or tension emerged between the demand for accessibility and political utility on the one hand and the need for reflexivity on the other.

Cosey Fanni Tutti of Coum Transmissions, Press release leaflet for Prostitution Exhibition, ICA London, October 1976. Photo courtesy of Cabinet, London. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------3

The label ‘political art’ became current but it had certain disadvantages: some theorists argued that its use to designate a subcategory of art was misleading because ‘all art was (already) political’. The label also embarrassed left-wing artists because they feared it was simply the name of the latest art movement, one that was destined to be replaced by a new ‘ism’ in a few years time. Radical political artists and groups of the period included: Rasheed Araeen (from Pakistan), Conrad and Terry Atkinson, Derek Boshier, Stuart Brisley, Victor Burgin, the performance group COUM Transmissions, Rita Donagh, the Greenwich and Wandsworth Mural Workshops, Margaret Harrison, Mary Kelly and John Dugger (two Americans), Peter Kennard, Jamie Reid, Derek Jarman, Dan Jones, John Latham and the Artist Placement Group, David Medalla (from the Phillipines), Gustav Metzger, Jonathan Miles of the Poster/Film Collective, the Public Art Workshop, Tony Rickaby, Michael Sandle, Jo Spence, John Stezaker, Stephen Willats and the Womanpower group.

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Monica Sjoo of the Womanpower group, God giving birth, (1972). Oil on hardboard, 183 x122 cm. Anna Nordlander Collection. Skelleftea, Swede. Photo courtesy of the artist and A. Nordlander. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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Michael Sandle, A Twentieth century Memorial, (1971-78). Sculpture - bronze on painted wooden base. 5.7 m in diameter, 1. 4 m High. Photo Tate Britain. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

John Dugger, Chile Vencera banner in Trafalgar Square, London 1974. Photo courtesy of the artist. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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Margaret Harrison, Rape, (1978) mixed media, main canvas 70 x 90 inches. Photo courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, Spence in the nude, middle aged, (1979). Photo courtesy of Dennett and the Jo Spence Memorial Archive, London. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Three interconnected ambitions recurred: first, to change art; second, to use that new art to transform society; and third, to challenge and alter their relations of production and art world institutions. Conservative artists and critics, of course, poured scorn on these ambitions and defended the status quo. However, critics such as Guy Brett, Rosetta Brooks, Richard Cork, Paul Overy, John Tagg and Caroline Tisdall supported the radicals in their columns and by curating exhibitions such as ‘Art for Whom?’ and ‘Art for Society’.

John A. Walker, Capitalism Works, could you wish for anything more? Photomontage (also issued as a poster) shown in the ‘Art for Society’ exhibition Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1978. Collection of the Wolverhampton Art Gallery. 8

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Many of the new developments in art responded to the events and issues – economic, ideological, political and social – of the period. For instance, work was produced in response to the civil strife in Northern Ireland, strikes and the imprisonment of trade unionists, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the 1977 battle of Lewisham between anti-racists and the police, and the killing in 1979 of Blair Peach. Art was open to external forces – it reflected society but it also reflected upon society and influenced people’s ideas and behaviour; consequently, it was a minor social force in its own right.

Rita Donagh, Bystander (a painting about events in Northern Ireland), (1977), Oil and collage on canvas. Photo © the artist and Jerry Hardman-Jones ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Within the art world itself, what occurred was an often-acrimonious struggle between various groups: traditionalists and formalists versus left-wingers and feminists, abstractionists versus figurative artists, blacks versus whites, 9

practitioners versus theorists and critics. These groups argued passionately about the character, social function and future direction of art and its institutions. Even those who shared a leftist political perspective indulged in factional disputes: there were Anarchists, Labour party supporters, Maoists, Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists and every shade in between. Within feminism too there were at least three strands: liberal, radical and socialist. The decade was particularly notable for its intellectual ferment and ideological struggles, its many conferences and public meetings, and for significant developments in theory and criticism. Many radical artists wrote papers as often as they made images or objects. In some instances, theory was not simply a discourse developed by artists in parallel to making art objects but was itself imbricated in the processes of production and consumption. For example, films such as Penthesilea (1974) and Riddles of the Sphinx (1978) by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, two independent filmmakers, writers and university lecturers, were described as ‘theoretical films’ because they were extensions of intellectual work the directors had previously undertaken in the realms of cinema, feminism and psychoanalysis.

Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey, Still from Riddles of the Sphinx (1977). 10

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------While American art and criticism continued to influence certain British painters and sculptors (primarily those associated with St Martin’s School of Art), the radicals focused on national issues, such as immigrant labour and the Grunwick strike, or, in the case of community artists, the people and concerns of inner city areas.

Poster Film Collective, London. Poster in support of the Grunwick strikers, 1976 or 77. 11

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------However, they also turned to Europe for inspiration: German artists such as Joseph Beuys, Hans Haacke, John Heartfield and Klaus Staeck became influential. The theoretical writings of the Frankfurt School philosophers (Walter Benjamin in particular), the Situationists and French thinkers such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan were also significant. Thus, developments in fine art echoed those in the social realm, that is, Britain joined the EEC during the 1970s. Even so, international events were not completely ignored: critical art was made about events in Chile, the Philippines, South Africa and Vietnam, and support given to liberation struggles around the world. The decade was also a period of intense self-reflection regarding the concept and institutions of art, and the condition of British art: critiques were undertaken of art criticism, art magazines, art education, state funding and private patronage, galleries and museums, and the art market. Demands were made for more artists to be represented on the visual arts panels of the Arts Council and for more women to be included in exhibitions sponsored by the Council at the Hayward Gallery. When dissatisfied with existing arts organisations, many artists founded their own. Examples included: Camerawork, the Artists’ Liberation Front, the Artists’ Union, Hackney Flashers and the League of Socialist Artists. (The proliferation of such ‘alternative’ and self-help organisations began in the late 1960s.)

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Camerawork magazine No 8. Special Lewisham issue 1977. British police guard racists marching in Lewisham where they were confronted by crowds of anti-racists. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------To hold meetings and exhibitions, artists found and occupied new spaces in London such as the Artists Meeting Place, The Gallery and the Communard Gallery. They also established new magazines such as Artery and Block. Even painters opposed to so-called ‘social functionalism’ were forced to turn to writing and to start their own magazine: Artscribe.

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John A. Walker reading a variety of 1970s art magazines. Picture spread imitated advertising imagery and appeared in the article ‘Internal memorandum’ , Studio International, 192 (983) Sept-Oct 1976, pp. 113-18.

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The 1970s was a period of expanded media and materials: instead of pigment and clay, many artists began using banners, bodily waste, books, concepts/language, flags, film, mixed-media installations, mirrors, patchwork, performance, photocopies, photography, photomontage, posters, the postal system, sound and video.

Stuart Brisley, And for today nothing, (1972) Performance/Body art, Gallery House London. Photo courtesy of the artist. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------As a result, traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture experienced identity crises and were subject to critical analyses by both friends and enemies. Arguably, the crises in the visual arts paralleled the ones afflicting Britain’s economy and social order. A recurrent challenge facing the radical artists was how to reach audiences beyond the narrow confines of the art world, beyond the middle class, how to convince political activists, local communities, campaigning groups, and workers in 15

employment or on strike, that art could be a valuable additional resource or weapon rather than merely an ornament or instrument of the Establishment.

Desmond Rochfort and David Binnington, The Public Art workshop. The construction workers, (1976-77). Detail of mural on flyover, Royal Oak, Paddington, London. Photo courtesy of the artists. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Art that was partisan – that sided with the exploited or foregrounded the experiences and needs of blacks, gays, the unemployed and women, for instance challenged the conventional wisdom that art transcends such divisions and is universal in its appeal. Consequently, it was not simply a matter of increasing the size of the audience for art, but of developing new forms of art appropriate to the needs of underprivileged groups, ethnic minorities and subcultures. Attempts were also made to enable ordinary people to represent themselves and to involve them in 16

the creative process; hence the emergence of such tendencies as behavioural, community and participation art. Despite the problems of writing histories in terms of decades, what happened in British art during the 1970s is worth recording because, while much of the new art was crude or mediocre, there was a sustained and worthwhile attempt to renew its social purpose. It was a period when idealistic artists and groups struggled to impose their idea of what art was or ought to be.

Meeting of Artists' Placement Group led by John Latham (centre) and Joseph Beuys (with hat) at Documenta VI, Kassel (1977). Courtesy Tate Archives © Edition Staeck. Photo: Caroline Tisdall -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------What occurred is fascinating in its own right and is still relevant today because so many of its leading figures continue to practice, because so many younger artists 17

have been influenced by what they achieved, and because the questions posed – ‘Art for whom? Art for what social purpose?’ – remain pertinent. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------(This a summary of the contents of my book Left Shift: Radical Art in 1970s Britain published by I.B. Tauris in 2002.)

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