PRINT April 1977

Troubles With British Art Now

WHAT HAS GONE WRONG with the visual arts in Britain during the 1970s? According to many art world spokesmen and women, nothing at all. Writing recently about British art in the current “Elizabethan” era, Lawrence Gowing said, “Britain has not had anything so positive and attractive to offer since the time of Burne-Jones and Beardsley.”1 (Burne-Jones, positive?) Lady Vaizey, peeress and art critic of the leading “high-brow” Sunday Times, also apparently believes that British painting is “vital and exuberant,” “optimistic and full of energy,” “alive and kicking.”2

Last summer the painter Ron Kitaj organized a quaint exhibition, “The Human Clay,” for the Arts Council of Great Britain. Much of it consisted of work by the sweatiest life-class traditionalists, painters who still seem to wear the Euston Road spectacles of the 1930s: William Coldstream, Patrick George, Euan Uglow. Their work inspired Kitaj to write in his catalogue, “There are artistic personalities in this small island more unique and strong and I think more numerous than anywhere in the world outside America’s jolting artistic vigour.” He then went on to suggest proclaiming and championing “a School of London” which would be able to deliver “potent art lessons for foreigners.”3

But this sort of jingoism is analogous to the kind of comments that nurses make to terminal cancer patients. Whatever Britain’s historical future, the 1970s will be seen, in retrospect, as a time when the visual arts came to represent only a handful of anachronistic and decadent residual forms.

The degree to which the leading painters and sculptors of the 1960s (especially Richard Hamilton, Bridget Riley and Anthony Caro) were overestimated is now more widely understood. Increasingly, their work is being related to the prevalent illusions of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and to the obsolete ideology of the Affluent Society. The extravagant “esthetic” claims made for these artists when their work first came into prominence are now regarded as neither relevant nor tenable. Who wants to look at Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956), Hamilton’s most famous collage, at a time of rising unemployment and falling living standards?

This reassessment is evidently not just the familiar process by which a new generation challenges and—in practice—supersedes the achievements of its predecessors. Not one new painter or sculptor of other than marginal significance has emerged through the traditional channels of the British art world since the late 1960s. Although the shallowness and ephemerality of so much produced in that decade is now apparent, its relative vitality is beyond dispute. Then artists were still culturally effective: new work was widely exhibited, written about in general magazines, and influential in determining fashion and design. Today, the visual arts in Britain have become a thin, sterile, lifeless tradition, lacking in creative contradictions and imaginative oppositions, with no real audience except the contracting “art world” itself.

Apart from clusters of tendentious ideologues—such as Art and Language and its splinters—or the behaviorists grouped around Control magazine (most of whom produce no visual images) there are no vigorous, creative groups of British artists.

Painting is living almost entirely off its own past. Differentiation between tendencies has become almost meaningless. At the major mixed exhibitions of this decade—without exception, dispiriting affairs—increasing numbers of painters could be seen to be taking painting itself as the content and subject matter of their work—which applied to self-styled “realists” and formalists alike. Painting has become a magic, self-reflecting, charmed circle. The number of artists under 35 who have made a perceptible impact through the medium is negligible. I can think of only one, Stephen Buckley, for whom even a qualified critical case could be made. It is no coincidence that of the handful of others who have exhibited with any consistency, one of the most successful should be Alan Charlton, who paints nothing but gray monochromes. And Charlton’s work may be taken as a metaphor for the condition of the visual arts in Britain in the 1970s.

Neither is there much point in looking to older artists for sustained development of work originating earlier. Hamilton has recently turned to painting decorative pictures of human excrement and toilet paper, in the apparent belief that he has tried every other “major pictorial genre,” and therefore has nothing else left to do as an artist. Neither Hamilton nor Charlton is gesturally or polemically opposing himself to a vigorous tradition, in the way, for instance, that Manzoni did by canning his own shit, or Klein, by producing his monochromes. They themselves are all there is to the tradition. (Both have received support from the Arts Council of Great Britain for the pursuit of the projects described.)

The situation in sculpture is hardly different. The critique of Caro’s work is now advanced. The claims made on behalf of this sculptor by American critics—especially Greenberg, Fried, Whelan, and most recently Rubin—are now widely rejected by those interested in sculpture. These writers seized on a number of alleged aspects of Caro’s work—“radical abstractness,” “dematerialization,” “horizontality,” and so on—which, they claimed, constituted an effective epistemological break for sculpture. According to Fried, “All the relationships that count are to be found in the sculptures themselves and nowhere else. . . . It is as though the beholder bears no literal relation whatsoever to Caro’s work.” Thus Fried claimed to have identified immanent values within the syntax of particular Caro pieces.

Today, however, it is much easier to see just how far Caro’s forms were historically determined. In a recent paper I tried to show how his work in the 1960s was the product of a highly specific conjuncture: the initial impact of American hegemony over certain aspects of British culture, and the high tide of Keynesian economic optimism.4 Indeed, Caro’s sculptural and spatial notions can easily be correlated with other superstructural manifestations. For example, Caro’s first one-man exhibition of “radically abstract” sculpture was held at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1963 (although the “breakthrough” had actually occurred some years previously). This was the same year in which Harold Wilson captured the imagination of the Labour Party Conference with his now notorious speech about the need for “dynamism” and the “white heat of the technological revolution.” It was also the year which saw the publication of Honest to God, a book by the Bishop of Woolwich which sold over a million copies because it “radically abstracted” God, saying that he was not “the Old Man in the sky,” popularizing Tillich’s hypothesis that he was instead “the ground of our being.” Today the similarity between such notions as Caro’s “horizontal” sculpture and the Death of God theologians’ “horizontal” God and their mutual dependency on specific historical conditions are much more apparent than any allegedly “immanent” values within Caro’s work.

Caro’s conventions are, in my view, being systematically discredited by a new generation of critics. Nevertheless, they have not been challenged in practice at all. William Tucker, a former associate of Caro’s, spent much of his time between 1969 and 1976 crusading on behalf of the values of the Caro Revolution in books, articles and exhibitions. He did so not against a new tendency or movement in sculpture, but against the dissolution of the medium altogether. “I have found it more or less impossible to persuade students at St. Martin’s,” he wrote, “to actually make anything at all. They have been so busy taking photographs, digging holes, or cavorting about in the nude.” In this situation, Tucker attempted to represent the values of early ’60s formalist abstraction as holding “not merely for our time and place, but for any time and place,” indeed as representing “the condition of sculpture.”5 As Tucker pointed out—before leaving, in some despair, for Canada last year—very few sculptors under 35 have done any work identifiable as sculpture. Sadly, the majority of those that have appear to accept his view that formalist abstraction is the realized, universal style for the medium. Thus, David Evison, Nigel Hall, Julian Hawkes, Jeff Lowe, David Seaton and Anthony Smart are all producing “Caroist” works.

The radical newness of Caro’s work, much more than any congealment of immanent values within his syntax, led to his success. (The London Times greeted his 1963 show with the headline “Out and Out Originality in Our Contemporary Sculpture.”) This, of course, could never be said of the present, second generation of imitators. Their work, whatever its syntactical value, deservedly remains almost entirely unknown outside the immediate circle of the British “art world.”

When a massive exhibition of British art went to Italy last year, the sculpture section included only two young artists who were doing work outside the shadow of “Caroism.”6 One was Carl Plackman, playing games with goldfish in tanks. The other, Tim Mapston, a 22-year-old just out of art school, makes ingenious toys and pieces of furniture—shallow parodies of the sort of thing Robert Morris was doing more than a decade ago. In the absence of any competition, Mapston found himself precipitated into one-man shows with prestigious galleries and the international exhibition circuit. Mapston would be a good designer of kids’ playgrounds. It is hardly his own fault that his derivative ingenuity has been inflated to the level of major sculptural innovation, but it does give some idea of the condition of the art in Britain.

What of the alternatives to painting and sculpture? In 1972 Anne Seymour presented “The New Art” at the Hayward Gallery. Her exhibition included work by such artists and groups as Arnatt, Art-Language, Burgin, Fulton, Gilbert and George, Hilliard, Long, Stezaker and Tremlett.7 Up until about that time it had been fashionable to argue (I was guilty of this mistake myself) that the poverty of the traditional media was of no real significance because creative energy within the art sector had been withdrawn from them only to be reinvested in the new forms of “non-object” work—including film, performance, video and environmental work “in an art context,” and every kind of conceptual, theoretical and documentary art manifestation. “The New Art” was the beginning of the end for that cozy illusion.

The original mythology of these new forms stressed that the “idea” might become all-important, and that the mere object or signifier through which the idea was expressed in the world could be relegated to its rightful second place. It was often suggested that the new forms offered relative freedom from the influence of the art market, since the ways in which they were realized could not easily be adapted to the demands of dealing and collecting.

The “conceptual” movement fragmented into diverse and heterogeneous tendencies, all of which, in various ways, have become degenerate. To detail their separate paths into narcissistic confusion would require a separate article. Suffice it to say that not one of these artists has ever found an interested audience for his work other than that provided by a small sector of the art world itself. One result of this has been complicity with the commercial fetishization of documentation—even when the manifest content itself protests against such fetishization of art as a commodity.

The suggestion that these artists were exploring a “third area,” somewhere between the traditional preoccupations of art and those of the natural and social sciences, can no longer be supported. Much “theoretical” art denies the sensuous and concrete world in its content; often enough it displaces the object (or representations of it) with loose ideational abstractions which are, in turn, reified and packaged in such a way that the packages can themselves be offered for sale as commodities. Those who declare that their work in such media has a “social purpose” (or even that it represents “true” socialist or Marxist art practice) are parading their bad faith. The conceptualist tendency and its various tributaries suffer from the same critical symptoms as the tradition they rose against.

Creative energy has effectively vanished from the art sector altogether; many contingent signs show the sterility of the whole “modernist movement” over here. For example, there is not one women’s art journal, and no effective women’s artists’ group, in existence in Britain. Similarly, “community arts” are nothing but a travesty of the term: rarely do they rise above the level of heavily over-subsidized party games inflicted on reluctant “community” members by grant-fed freaks. Interestingly, this criticism does not apply to alternative and community theatre projects, whose real value and effectiveness often contrast with the effeteness and pretentiousness of the visual arts.

Against this uniformly dispiriting background, it could be said of only a few isolated and atypical individuals that they failed to find recognition because their images successfully reached toward ways of seeing which will be comprehended in the future but which are therefore unrecognized now. The distinction between a “mainstream” and an “avant-garde” has effectively vanished with the implosion and withering away of the art tradition as a whole.

Many of those working in the visual arts are privately prepared to admit both the fact and the extent of the crisis. But it is still considered bad form to acknowledge it publicly. Thus even radical critics—like Caroline Tisdall of The Guardian—are now talking about the need to acknowledge the validity of “pluralism.”

In his poem “The Hunting of the Snark” Lewis Carroll wrote:

But the valley grew narrow, and narrower still
And the evening got darker and colder,
Till (merely from nervousness, not from goodwill)
They marched along shoulder to shoulder.

The British art world, as a whole, has become like a “community” art event. A few huge but aged walruses, still impressive despite the length of their teeth, and a diminishing tribe of quarrelsome beavers and carpenters all shuffle along uneasily together, trying to pretend that they have an interested audience. But the evening is dark and cold. In one sense, of course, the “pluralists” are right: in the present situation, one cannot conceive a critical framework based on urgent support for particular artists, tendencies, or media. Which is also why the vulgar critics—like Lady Vaizey—bestow their hazy enthusiasm on all and sundry.

We can only begin to understand the present state of the tradition in terms of history. This involves both long- and short-term analysis. Many British critics and art historians speak about an unending “continuum” of art dating back to the Stone Age, using this idealist argument to support a fantasy that “everything will be all right.” But the present malaise of British art is inseparable from the development of a specific tradition which itself arose in specific historical conditions. There are some grounds for believing that we are now approaching a decisive rupture in that tradition. This is a function of a specific conjuncture of “long-term” superstructural threats to the tradition (such as the development of visual and optical technology and the mechanical means of reproduction, and related cultural shifts) with an immediate, “short-term” economic crisis. The two have, in my view, interacted with peculiar violence. Of course, there have not always been professional artists in Europe, and there is no reason to assume that there always will be. John Berger has argued that the professional artist, as opposed to the craftsman, or so-called “primitive,“ only became fully distinguished during the 17th century.8

The relationships of these professionals to the cultural hegemony of ruling classes have been complicated and varied—both from individual artist to individual artist, and from one historical and geographical situation to another. Such factors cannot be simplified into a single formula. However, this much can be said with certainty: prior to the 20th century, professional artists had always been trained in visual conventions (composition, drawing, perspective, chiaroscuro, anatomy, pose, symbolism, etc.) which they learned to regard not as historically transitory modes, but, rather, as ways of visually representing “objective” universal truth. Insofar as it has been dominated by professional artists, the visual tradition—including its internal contradictions—has thus tended to correspond to the experience and literal point of view of those minority classes which held power.

Some artists, of course, tried to reach out toward the experience of the powerless and dispossessed. This did not effectively happen in England. Perhaps because of Britain’s insularity, its absence of an indigenous peasantry, and the strength, vitality, and historical precocity of the British bourgeoisie in its emergent period, there is a peculiarly close identity here between the values of the ruling classes and the evolution of artistic tradition. In 19th-century Europe Goya, Daumier, Courbet, Millet all reached out to the experience of the oppressed. However, even Daumier or Courbet could never fully express the way the world appeared from within the constellation of facts that comprised reality for a washerwoman or a stone-breaker. Whatever their intentions, the technical skill they had acquired in their professional training firmly attached them to the representational ideology of another class—and one which stood in opposition to the peasants and the proletariat, toward whose experience they endeavored to reach.

In Britain this fundamental limit on the possibilities of visual art comes into even sharper focus. Consider the most famous of all images of working life, Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1852). John Berger has written of Brown’s picture: “The optic of all the visual means he was using with such care preempted the possibility of depicting manual work, as the main subject of a painting, in any but a mythological or symbolic way.”9 This, of course, was a recurrent contradiction in all subsequent social realist attempts, especially in the short-lived academic social realist episode that involved Frank Holl, Hubert Von Herkomer and Luke Fildes, in the 1870s. Today in Britain, however, we are in a situation where the conventional visual means are themselves falling apart. The bourgeoisie is relinquishing its historical function of training the artist, and paying him to represent the world: the artist is no longer the automatic inheritor of an optic which he can choose to accept, or endeavor to extend.

In part, this is related to the development of mass media—film, photography, television, printing and advertising. The camera, for example, repeatedly demonstrated that

the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings). What you saw depended upon where you were when. What you saw was relative to your position in time and space. It was no longer possible to imagine everything converging on the human eye as on the vanishing point of infinity.10

Despite the ideological uses to which the camera itself was often put, its mode of representing reality thus repeatedly revealed (through contrast) the fictions of the professional tradition of painting as historically determined conventions rather than “objective” truths.

Under the changed conditions of a rapidly expanding mega-visual tradition, the images of the professional artists (as opposed to those of the new professionals in photography, cinema, advertising, design, etc.) no longer occupied a strategic position in the service of the ideology of perception. The artist was no longer necessary to the bourgeoisie, and he therefore found himself much less restricted than before. Thus the history of British art after Pop and formal abstraction is the history of the dissolution of a tradition, not of further contributions to it.

The bourgeoisie is embarrassed by the continued presence of the artist in its midst, just as the artist himself no longer has any idea of what he should be producing, how he should produce it, or for whom. In Britain last year this led to some extraordinary situations. Two performance artists, P. Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti, exhibited used sanitary towels, bloodstained clothes, and obscene photographs at the Institute of Contemporary Arts—supported not just by the Institute, but indirectly by the Arts Council and directly by the British Council. Spokesmen from these various public bodies all made it clear that they did not like the work in question, but that it was the duty of such institutions to hand out money to the artist to do whatever he wished to do, because he was an artist. The bourgeoisie does not patronize or commission modern art anymore: it pays the socially redundant artist to do anything, however ridiculous or degenerate, to justify the ideological fiction that what the bourgeoisie has given the artist (by taking everything away from him) is his absolute and unconditional freedom. Evidently, this situation cannot last. Since he is denied the possibility of pursuing useful or effective projects, the artist will inevitably “abuse” his so-called freedom. Understandably, performances like Orridge’s produce widespread anger at the waste of money. No one wants such events; no one defends them. But just what is the professional artist supposed to be doing for whom?

In all the confusion of post-immanence, one tendency recurs. Some artists accept that the bourgeois visual conventions have been dismantled, seeking to put in place of images theorizations of one kind or another. Such works seem to give centrality to another class and imply that the artist’s future lies with that class. In different ways, this is true of the work of Conrad Atkinson, Victor Burgin, Art-Language, and John Stezaker. Now because this work is always presented as art (within the atrophied bourgeois tradition) it always becomes a travesty of itself.

The problem remains, however, that a new optic cannot be created merely by willing it, in vacuo. The case of Terry Atkinson is particularly interesting. Atkinson has recently returned to painting, after a long involvement with the leftist-theoretical art tendency. His last exhibition consisted of a series of social realist “history” paintings—in the style of an official war artist—showing soldiers of the First World War in battle. This exemplifies the paradox of the professional artist’s position. He needs the now obsolete visual conventions of the bourgeoisie, in order that he can reach out to make any representational contact at all with the working class. Yet these conventions, since they were designed to refer to the world as seen through bourgeois eyes, inevitably involve a distortion of the world-view and experience of those to whom they are used to refer. Atkinson endeavors to evade this difficulty, by stretching backward in history toward a time when this contradiction was less evident than it is now. The price he pays, however, is the immediate invalidation of his project: the conventions he desperately wants cannot simply be reinstated by pretending that we are living 60 years ago.

If the British economy reflates, some sort of temporary revival of the bourgeois tradition, resembling the Pop-plus-Formalism of the 1950s and 1960s, is probable. A shrewd guess is that this “revival” would be based on one of the regressive photo- or hyper-“realist” tendencies, perhaps with Hockney as its Grand Old Man. (He is certainly the only artist who came to prominence after 1960 who has any sort of following outside the art world itself.) In such “realist” work, of course, the exchange-value of the painting is supported not by chimerical, “immanent” formal qualities, but by the visible amount of labor invested in it.

But whatever happens, we will remember that in the 1970s the British bourgeoisie had no use for its contemporary artists. Ironically, the artist who dares to affirm a possible historical future will find that the collapse of bourgeois hegemony over the conventions of art may strengthen rather than dissipate his project. For the very marginality of the visual arts at present creates opportunities which those in the new media do not have. The critic’s function is to acclaim those artists who seize the time.

Peter Fuller is an art critic living in London; he has contributed to numerous British art publications.


1. Lawrence Gowing, “Images of the Age,” The Sunday Times Magazine, (London), Jan. 30, 1977.

2. Marina Vaizey, “Signs of Life,” The Sunday Times, Sept. 20, 1974.

3. R.B. Kitaj, The Human Clay, Arts Council of Great Britain catalogue, 1976.

4. See my extended review of William Rubin’s Anthony Caro, in Studio International, Jan-Feb, 1977.

5. William Tucker, The Condition of Sculpture, Arts Council of Great Britain catalogue, 1975. (See also, William Tucker, “Confessions of a Formalist,” The New Review, Vol. 3 No. 27, June 1976).

6. See Arte inglese oggi 1960-76, British Council/Commune di Milano catalogue, 1976.

7. Anne Seymour, The New Art, Arts Council of Great Britain catalogue, 1972.

8. I am indebted to John Berger’s recent articles on the tradition. See, especially, “Primitive Experience,” New Society, December 16, 1976, and “City Experience,” New Society, December 23, 1976.

9. John Berger, “Primitive Experience,” op. cit.

10. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, London, 1972.