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.

As her title suggests, Garlake is fascinated by the connections between art and society in the postwar era. However, her book offers not a chronological history of the period but a set of linked thematic essays which prove to be catch-alls for interesting but loosely related matter. This attempt to sidestep chronology might have been more effective if Garlake’s subject had not been so closely tied in with contemporary events, and with sudden stylistic changes which were themselves related to a tightly packed group of exhibitions. The problem becomes most acute when she discusses the debate between realism and abstraction in the Fifties. The two movements need to be treated together in order to show that the demise of one was directly related to the triumph of the other and in this the exact order of events is vital.

The critics of abstraction in the Fifties included those who felt that non-figurative painting and sculpture undermined art’s humanity. ‘Painting is made out of a love for the subject,’ John Minton repeatedly told his students at the Royal College of Art, in defiance of an abstract tradition that had resurfaced with Victor Pasmore’s 1948 abstracts. Pasmore became a leading member of the Constructionists: abstract artists who abandoned nature as a source of inspiration, in contrast to the avant-garde painters and sculptors associated with St Ives, where, as the critic Lawrence Alloway wryly noted, ‘the landscape is so nice nobody can quite bring themselves to leave it out in their art.’ Critical debate was lively and healthily factionalised, with Patrick Heron upholding a formalist approach in opposition to John Berger’s advocacy of realism. Berger not only promoted figurative realists at every opportunity in his pieces for the New Statesman, but was also involved with the three Looking Forward exhibitions held at the Whitechapel in 1952, 1953 and 1956, which Garlake doesn’t mention. Garlake does observe that Berger’s promotion of realist artists was ‘extraordinarily eclectic’, though her rider – that, as a result, realist artists ‘proposed no coherent urban alternative to the central romantic-pastoral tradition’ – is a rather swingeing dismissal of the Kitchen Sink painting that represented Britain at the 1956 Venice Biennale. To exclude any discussion of Joseph Herman’s images of Welsh miners, Joan Eardley’s Glasgow tenement scenes or Peter de Francia’s political paintings further weakens the realist cause. But Garlake’s assessment of Berger’s stance seems fair, recognising as it does the difficulty he had in formulating criteria to match his beliefs. He focused, she argues, on the transformative power of art to enhance what he called ‘our awareness of our own potentiality’. As his political attitudes hardened, his appreciation of art became more severely critical, until the question ‘Does this work of art help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?’ became his criterion. For him a valid work of art, as Garlake sees it, had to be what she describes as ‘truthful, analytic and specific’.

In the same year that the Kitchen Sink artists were honoured in Venice, one of them – Jack Smith – won first prize at the John Moores exhibition in Liverpool, with his Creation and Crucifixion. Thanks to these successes, 1956 could be said to have marked the apotheosis of realism; it was also the year that the death-blow was delivered to the movement by Modern Art in the United States, an exhibition organised by the Museum of Modern Art and shown at the Tate. In the final room of the show were 28 Abstract Expressionist paintings by 17 artists. Their massive size, bold reductionism and physical impact instantly made much English painting seem domestic in scale, gutless and dilettante. The Soviet invasion of Hungary had already created a new crisis for supporters of the USSR, and English social realism, however distant its association with Socialist Realism, now became not only passé but tainted. The effect of this on several artists’ careers was dramatic. The fishermen, lorry drivers and printers in Prunella Clough’s paintings vanished, and only traces of the industrial environment remained in work that is otherwise abstract. It was a pivotal moment in Clough’s career, as in that of so many artists of the period. Garlake analyses Clough’s Printer Cleaning Press effectively, but fails to discuss her subsequent engagement with abstraction, and clough remains in this account a token figure rather than – as she increasingly seems – a key player.

Not since Roger Fry’s two Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 had the art world been so divided. American Abstract Expressionism aroused violently opposed responses. ‘I was instantly elated by the size, energy, originality, economy and inventive daring of many of the paintings,’ Patrick Heron wrote. ‘Their creative emptiness represented a radical discovery ... we shall now watch New York as eagerly as Paris for new developments.’ ‘Suddenly art was future-oriented,’ Robyn Denny, then a student at the Royal College of Art, recalled.

It was a painting by Denny which caught the attention of his tutor John Minton during a Sketch-Club criticism at the Royal College in December 1956. Learning from the American example, Denny had created a large splashy abstract chiefly by pouring bitumen onto his canvas and then setting fire to it. A deliberate attempt to break with accepted standards, it seemed to Minton faddish, corrupt, self-indulgent and hollow. ‘You might as well call it “Eden Come Home,” ’ he mocked – Eden, then Prime Minister, had abandoned England and the Suez crisis in order to recuperate from illness in Jamaica. (Denny later used this title for another canvas.) Afterwards Denny and Richard Smith, whose work had also been criticised, spent the better part of a day in the V&A library composing an open letter in reply. Published later the same month in the Royal College Newsheet, the letter marks a decisive shift. ‘While welcoming your criticisms,’ they wrote,

we want to make clear our attitude towards painting, and our present situation (or predicament as you would prefer)... We are not disillusioned with the world. There is no God that failed us. To your generation, the Thirties meant the Spanish Civil War; to us it means Astaire and Rogers ... Our culture heroes are not Colin Wilson and John Osborne, rather Floyd Patterson and Col. Peter Everest are more likely candidates for the title. Painting is an activity you can accomplish alone, but being alone does not itself create an ivory tower. Our tower is no more cut off from the world than those in Manhattan.

The previous year a naturalised immigrant, Nikolaus Pevsner, had sought to define ‘the Englishness of English art’ in his Reith Lectures ‘None of the other nations of Europe has so abject an inferiority complex about its own aesthetic capabilities,’ Pevsner said. His observation is borne out by the fact that for the next two decades avant-garde developments in British art followed the path laid down by American artists and theorists. In 1959 another MoMA exhibition, The New American Painting, was shown at the Tate. It was the biggest display of Abstract Expressionist paintings London had yet seen and once more assailed accepted notions of taste, but this time it carried the imprimatur of the MoMA curator, Alfred Barr.

Like Garlake, Walker is alert to the political purpose of this cultural offensive. The recognition that culture could be more effective than straight politics encouraged the rich individuals who sat on the boards of museums or funded CIA front organisations to finance European tours of American art or music. John Berger has described the hard sell of contemporary American art as ‘one of the many chains of American cultural imperialism’. Both the 1956 and 1959 exhibitions were organised by MoMA in response to requests from directors of prominent Western European museums, but by promoting an artistic freedom not possible in regimented Communist societies, they pointed up the superiority of democratic, capitalist America.

Walker’s survey of the British art world’s reaction to American culture nicely balances Garlake’s: his factual thoroughness fills in some of the gaps left by her more ambitious pursuit of theoretical issues. Both draw attention to the record cinema attendances in the late Forties; in 1946, it was estimated, a third of the population went every week to the cinema, mostly to see American films. While rationing lasted, American magazines seemed to the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi ‘a catalogue of an exotic society, bountiful and generous, where the event of selling tinned peas was transformed into multi-coloured dreams, where sensuality and virility combined to form, in our view, an art form more subtle and fulfilling than the orthodox choice of either the Tate Gallery or the Royal Academy’.

Paolozzi’s enthusiasms fed into the Independent Group, which met intermittently between 1952 and 1955. Many of those involved, such as the architects Peter and Alison Smithson and the art critic Lawrence Alloway, went on to become leading figures in their respective professions. Another member, Richard Hamilton, drew up a list of definitive characteristics for Pop Art and in his own work played teasingly on the use of female sexuality to sell commodities. ‘The worst thing that can happen to a girl, according to the ads,’ he wrote, ‘is that she should fail to be exquisitely at ease in her appliance setting – the setting that now does much to establish our attitude to women in the way that her clothes alone used to.’ Walker’s account of the various exhibitions mounted by the Independent Group, of Alloway’s dismissal of the high/low art divide in favour of a continuum or that ‘long front of culture’, of Reyner Banham’s enthusiastic study of car styling (‘Detroit was to cars in the Fifties what Paris was to modern art, say, in 1910’), allows us to catch the infectious enthusiasms of the time. Thirty years later Peter Fuller had a markedly different view of American culture. Looking back from the Eighties on the sculptural revolution begun by Anthony Caro’s steel sculptures of the Sixties, he commented: ‘Caro’s work was nothing if not of its time’ – ‘it reflected the superficial, synthetic, urban commercial, American values which dominated the Sixties.’ Fuller’s denigration of American influence was connected with his desire to see a renewal of national traditions in British art. It could be argued, though, that British artists have a talent for marrying foreign influence with native interests: English Pop Art, for example, was more ambiguous, ironic, wry and mocking than its American counterpart. Walker goes further: admiring the receptivity of British-born artists of today, he argues that this ‘syncretic ability’ is British artists’ ‘native genius’.