PRINT September 1977



Peter Fuller, writing in your April issue of Artforum, asks, “What is wrong with visual arts in Britain?” What is wrong is the likes of Peter Fuller, a critic who puts politics first and foremost.

The main thrust of Peter Fuller’s argument is that 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, and for whom.” This is all leftist political nonsense, the kind that Peter Fuller has been carping at the last few years in London.

England has a vigorous and vital art scene, relative to its domestic financial problems. Caro, Hockney, Kitaj, Tom Phillips, Boyd and Evans, Mark Boyle, etc., etc., etc., are producing probably some of their best work—as good or better than anything produced anywhere else. The audience for this work in Britain is not large, but neither is the audience for contemporary art very large in other countries, including the United States. When Peter Fuller says that this work is neither relevant nor tenable, he speaks of things he obviously knows very little about because he is consumed with his so-called “hate” for what he calls “the British bourgeoisie.”

Who, exactly, is this “bourgeoisie”—The British Arts Council, the art dealers, the critics, the art schools, or the collectors in Britain of contemporary art? Fuller never tells us who they are because, I am sure, they seem to him to be everyone who totally ignores what he says because his criticism is neither relevant to the work being produced nor tenable as fair and just art criticism.

Martin S. Ackerman

Thank you for publishing Peter Fuller’s article on the problems in British art today. It is an extraordinarily well argued representation of where painting and sculpture have been overrated in this country and how younger artists have been unable to retrieve any sense of meaning out of these two areas of practice of any value except to a shrinking and increasingly isolated art world audience.

However, the article argues by extension that there is nothing of creative value going on in the U.K., which is totally misrepresentative of the actual situation, which, apart from the chronic lack of support for any art activity by either public or private sources of finance, is extraordinarily healthy, and has reached depths of exploration far beyond anything yet reported from the U.S. or Europe, still stuck with “conceptual” approaches for work beyond painting and sculpture.

Fuller’s article acknowledges two exceptions, and is ignorant of a third: the derisory paragraph which claims that apart from Art & Language and “the group of artists around Control magazine,” both of whom are suspect to him because of “tendentious ideologies,” there is little creativity in England. He cites these exceptions and writes them off in 30 words, which cannot be fair representation of what is happening in the U.K. He also forgets, or had no knowledge of, the feminist movement in the U.K. that is part of the Women’s Free Arts Alliance, a movement he claims does not exist in this country! In fact, the feminist movement here has a strong depth of purpose and is far advanced; simply because many of its members do not conform to the easel and plinth strictures of his article does not mean that he should be allowed to mislead your readers into thinking that there is not extraordinary work being done by this group.

I have not backed up my argument by examples. Art & Language have been well exposed in the U.S. through their own magazine The Fox as well as exhibitions. I do not feel I can properly represent the feminist point of view in the U.K. other than to point out that it is strong and creative. But, for the “artists around Control magazine”: there are no artists grouped around Control magazine other than its editor, Steven Willats. Ten years ago, through the magazine, Willats set out to publish ideas and approaches by artists, including himself, based around the notion of interaction with the audience, where the artist acts as the instigator of changes in social cognition. To cite his own work, which operates on two basic levels: the “wall pieces,” which Fuller has seen and dismissed, which are theoretical models of social interaction; based on the work and discoveries from these first pieces, the practical application of these models takes place in projects outside the gallery structure in which the “concepts” of the practice are shown.

A recent example—and far from the first he has done—is reported by Richard Cork in an article in the London Evening Standard on April 21st which explains how the practice that Willats has advocated for so long actually works, and thereby extends the audience for art far beyond the strictures and anemic approaches of Western art world culture in general. Peter Fuller calls it a “tendentious ideology” but seems to admit to its creativity, happily burying it without a further word. Willats is not the only person operating out of England with such an approach, though he is perhaps its leading theoretician. Stuart Brisley has worked by direct intervention in the town of Peterlee; Peter Dunn and Lorraine Leeson are in the middle of a project covering the relationship of Peterlee and Ruislip as new towns.

I simply want to point out the very real dangers in leaving Peter Fuller’s generally accurate piece as the last word on the U.K. There is too much here for an obit yet!

—Martin Rewcastle

Peter Fuller’s dyspeptic effusion on British art prompts one to reflect on the peculiar development of his critical career, having gone from adolescent zeal to misanthropic disillusion without passing through maturity. It is a pity that his own personal bitterness toward British art for its ungrateful reluctance to adopt his consecutive programs for its betterment has led him into such distraction that he could not assemble any evidence for his case. In his bizarre assault on R.B. Kitaj’s “Human Clay” exhibition, he names three painters as representative of the work on view: Coldstream, Patrick George and Euan Uglow, sneering at these Bloomsbury relics, whom he presents Kitaj as championing, when two of the three were not in the exhibition. (Clearly Fuller looked only at the Arts Council catalogue, in which Coldstream and George did appear, and not at Kitaj’s show, in which they did not.)

Fuller’s own prescription for British (or, one assumes, any other) art seems to confuse, as does many a theology, logical contradiction for sublime mystery. If the artist cannot depict the real world without reifying it into the frame of reference of the ruling class (i.e. cannot himself, by definition, become a worker because to depict conditions is, necessarily, to remove oneself from them), then he must avoid depicting them in any way which is intelligible as realistic in the present and instead project his depictions into an anticipation of some future social conditions. (This is, so help me, an honest attempt to make some sense of Fuller’s thesis.)

If this is intelligible at all, it is certainly not comprehensible as an injunction to artists: “Paint with some unknown future reality in mind which, by definition, is neither visible nor intelligible to you now.” If the notion has any applicability at all, it can only be as a tool of art historical analysis. Art works can only be seen as having anticipated the future, in retrospect. I saw Peter Fuller put forward an instance of this sort of analysis recently at a symposium in which we both took part at the Royal College of Art. His suggestion that what was of value in Constable was the way in which he anticipated photography, caused a fair amount of hilarity at the time. Whether or not this curious view of the value of art works—a kind of Hegelianism gone mad—has much appeal, there is certainly no way in which it could function as a program for working artists.

Fuller’s own ideological nihilism has caused him to paint himself into a critical corner and he now finds, in the wake of his newfound disillusionment with conceptualist antics, that there is no possible ground on which he can make a case for art’s future. He does not make it clear whether he feels that art is in any healthier condition anywhere else in the West. Is London, because of its current economic paralysis, notably worse than New York (or Paris, or Rome?) And, a fairly crucial point, if Britain’s crisis of late capitalism is responsible for the collapse of its high culture, as Fuller claims, is that not precisely the desirable (and, indeed, inevitable) end for which he has been striving? Surely it cannot be just to launch into a vindictive diatribe against individual artists and critics when they themselves are mere pawns in the control of Fuller’s own historically determined grand design. This removal of moral responsibility from the hands of individuals results inevitably from a mechanistic historical determinism (to which Marx did not subscribe and for which he attacked what he called the “vulgar communists.”)

There is one statement in Fuller’s piece with which I agree although, unsurprisingly, for very different reasons: that the distinction between a “mainstream” and an “avant garde” has vanished in Britain. But this phenomenon is not due to the “withering away of the art tradition as a whole,” as Fuller claims, but to the fact that the virulent young Turks of the most doctrinaire book-burning avant-garde element have been allowed to take power in many mainstream institutions, and those which they do not actually run, they have browbeaten into submission. That the mainstream in Britain is so lacking in conviction, so spineless and decadent, is the true failure of the contemporary British art scene. But perhaps all is not lost. If Peter Fuller has gone off muttering alone into Carroll’s “cold evening,” it might be a sign that the forces of reason are regaining their nerve.

Janet Daley

Such a panic on board that boat of Englishmen!

Peter Fuller is talking about an art which is in the main English, not British. Unless there is a constructive decentralization of the arts in Britain, I can only suppose that this small incestuous community will go on reproducing its own kind.

Let us hope for two things: that the valley quoted as growing narrower can be opened up, perhaps even blown apart; and more importantly that the Snark is in fact a Boojun! “But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,/If your Snark be a Boojun! For then/You will softly and suddenly vanish away,/And never be met with again!”—Lewis Carroll.

—S. Nark
Edinburgh, Scotland

Allan Kaprow, in “Participation Performance” (Artforum, March 1977), depicts an audience at a Fourth of July parade on a very simplistic level. He then contrasts that audience with the audience at “artistic experiments conducted in idiosyncratic ways.” His attitude toward the former borders on condescension, which he justifies by stating, “The complex question of familiarity never arises in vernacular communal performances, in which the unfolding of events seems so innocent and folksy—even when aggressive, as in strikes. Everyone knows what’s going on and what to do. It is the outsider-scholar who reads the complexity and writes the script out in full.” But in his presentation of his own doorway piece he does exactly what he accuses the parade people of. He holds back from reading his own complexity and following through with what it implies.

Kaprow’s essay is really about value judgments of a very specific sort. He, like many of his contemporaries, treats whatever will heighten or intensify “perception” as intrinsically valuable. There’s a tendency to neglect the fact that inattentiveness has a role in survival too. An animal that’s totally alert to all possible stimuli will die of exhaustion. Life depends on screening out as well as attending to. Kaprow realizes that when the man in the example, part III, focused on his own state of attention he behaved self-consciously and created awkwardness in a routine social situation. Kaprow leaves it at that and switches to situations in which the participants all know to be self-scrutinizing, which presumably makes everything fair and open. But the choice the man in the example made—the choice between heightened self-awareness and effective action—is almost a paradigm of the problem faced by current art. We have the choice of delving deeper into our own world, our own area of familiarity, or re-establishing links with the bigger world, links art always used to have.

—Lawrence Lash O’Cue
Fargo, North Dakota