Conrad Atkinson


Conrad Atkinson’s subjects so far have included unemployment on Merseyside, a strike at a thermometer factory in West Cumbria, the incidence of pneumoconiosis and asbestosis in miners and factory workers, poverty in Britain, and the refusal to withdraw the Royal Warrant from the Distillers’ Company after the announcement of their responsibility for the thalidomide scandal. He can also claim a measure of success in a number of different areas—compensation in a lawsuit against the Arts Council of Great Britain for suppression of the “thalidomide” print, the unionization of whole departments of factory workers, a gallery contract in New York. Yet the paradoxes involved in making an art-world career out of social campaigning have not changed. If Atkinson’s strength is his ability as a troublemaker, stretching the political immunity of artists—as well as the British tradition of free speech—to the limits, it could be argued that his persistent choice to operate within the context of art does not bring him a wide enough audience, and that he can only hope ever to reach a fraction of the public that exists in Britain for a well-directed television documentary or a cleverly written magazine article.

The same complaints have always been leveled against Atkinson—too much writing in his pieces, a lack of wit or poetry, a sheer unwillingness to condense his raw materials. “At the Heart of the Matter,” shown with a selection of recent work, showed that he has become more “visual” in his approach; an attempt has been made to distill meaning into compelling formats. Unfortunately, the pieces are all either wordy, repetitive, or badly made. Atkinson is shown at his best in For Dublin: Outside the Golden Triangle and the Weight of History, 1980, a three-part wall-sized work contrasting Ireland’s poverty-stricken condition with that of the wealthy “golden triangle” at the center of the European Economic Community, and in “At the Heart of the Matter” in which he uses packaging and advertisements from pet foods, fertilizer, and slimming aids to stress the unfairness of food production in Western society. The information is crucial; the presentation—a cross between a blackboard diagram and a church-hall notice board—does not do it justice. Dog food packages are arranged to form a dog. The “golden triangle” is represented by a golden triangle. Empty bowls mean poverty, guns mean guns. The problem is one of sheer banality. To be as effective as advertising, propaganda must be as intelligent and have as high a degree of finish.

Atkinson may be going through a period of overextension. Nothing in “At the Heart of the Matter” has the impact of such details in his “Work, Wages and Prices,” 1974, as stock-exchange reports contrasted with a story from the Times about an old woman found dead in her house on Christmas Eve, after she had tried to eat cardboard. Now, Atkinson spends his time juggling with imponderables on a “Faith, Hope, and Charity” level, which leaves his audience nodding coolly. He has become less local, less concerned with the kind of detail a novelist would relish, less impassioned, less moving. The Third World and the Common Market are deserving subjects, admittedly; but Charles Dickens, a favorite writer of Atkinson’s, would not have spent a paragraph on either of them. He was well aware that while Mrs. Jellyby (of Bleak House) was engaged in charitable work on behalf of the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, her children were running wild and young Peepy’s head had gotten stuck in the railings.

Stuart Morgan