Political Purposes

Frances Spalding

  • New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society by Margaret Garlake
    Yale, 279 pp, £35.00, July 1998, ISBN 0 300 07292 9
  • Cultural Offensive: America’s Impact on British Art since 1945 by John Walker
    Pluto, 304 pp, £45.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 7453 1321 3

‘I do not believe it is yet realised what an important thing has happened,’ Maynard Keynes announced in a BBC broadcast soon after the foundation of the Arts Council in 1946. ‘State patronage of the arts has crept in. It has happened in a very English, informal, unostentatious way – half-baked if you like. A semi-independent body is provided with modest funds.’ Modest, too, was the almost passive role which the Arts Council adopted as a conduit between artist and public: a policy, Margaret Garlake remarks, ‘designed less to inspire than to avoid giving offence’. Despite this, the major exhibitions which the Arts Council mounted at the Tate Gallery during the immediate postwar years greatly enlivened its near-moribund exhibition programme and aided London’s gradual takeover from Paris as a centre for the international art market. Simultaneously, an increase in art education and art publishing offered further proof of Britain’s postwar vitality. The Whitechapel Art Gallery became a major venue after Bryan Robertson took over there, and the British Council, founded in 1934, also held important exhibitions, though it operated mostly abroad, becoming, as Garlake observes, an unacknowledged arm of the Foreign Office. Garlake quotes a letter, first brought to light in Frances Donaldson’s history of the British Council, in which a member of the Foreign Office admitted that the Cold War ‘is in essence a battle for men’s minds’ and that ‘the British Council is one of our chief agencies for fighting it.’ From the artist’s point of view, however, to be taken up by the British Council meant a significant increase in reputation. The re-establishment of the Venice Biennale, in 1948, resulted in further opportunities for international acclaim. The Venice and São Paulo biennales, and other international cultural events, had, Garlake argues, ‘immense symbolic significance at a time when governments were desperate to cement the fragile political reconstruction of Europe’.

In a 1952 essay for the Venice Biennale on the forged metal sculptures of Chadwick, Armitage and Butler, Herbert Read wrote that they displayed the ‘geometry of fear’ and found allusions to snares, teeth and claws. In the wake of the atom bomb and revelations about the concentration camps, Read’s description helped to determine an angst-filled interpretation of this spiky, semi-figurative work, although, over the years, it has come to seem emotionally lighter, even, in some instances, almost playful in its formal inventiveness. But if art could be hijacked for ideological purposes, it was also associated with social reconstruction at home. The Attlee Government’s social policy was concerned with the building of swimming pools as well as libraries, the creation of the National Health Service as well as the Arts Council. But the optimism of this period was often in stark contrast with reality. In 1946 the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted an exhibition of manufactured goods for export. Its title – Britain Can Make It – elicited a mocking ‘Britain Can’t Have It’, as coal shortages, a severe winter and economic problems began to undermine Labour’s reforms.

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