REVIEW ARTICLE: CONCEPTUAL ART IN BRITAIN 1964-1979 EXHIBITION AT TATE BRITAIN MILLBANK LONDON: 12th APRIL-29th AUGUST 2016: REVIEWER LAURENCE HUMPHRIES.

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Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 is an Exhibition being shown at Tate Britain which shows a revolutionary approach to Art that emerged in the late 1960’s in Britain. It first emerged out of the art of Marcel Duchamp who questioned what Art should be rather than showing what type of representation it should represent.

” Spans the period from Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in 1964 and the Election of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979. Conceptual Art’s idealism was for an art that might reconnect with the World and act within it”. [1]

As the Tate Booklet explains ” Conceptual art is about ideas or concepts .It is not about objects or materials.it questions what Art is. How it was made , what its position in the World might be .It undermines the traditional view of art as something to be looked at and admired”. [2].

 The Tate curators have as they normally do split the Exhibition into various rooms with different titles and aspects of Conceptual art. New Frameworks is the First Starting point and introduces us to the Art and Language Group founded in 1966-7 by Atkinson and Baldwin. In previous postings I have discussed conceptual art and in Particular the Art and Language group which grew out of a series of presentations and the questioning of Art by a number of Academics interested in what art was or could be. Some were artists and others were academics in the field of Art.

Art and Language presented  their work from 1968, also involved in this area of Conceptual Art were artists like Stephen Willars  Bob Law and Hamish Fulton.

The Exhibition comments on their frustration with Modernism as practised by Clement Greenberg the foremost American  art critic of the time. I have referred to Greenberg in previous posts in my discussion of both Abstract Expressionism  and Modernism.

” Young artists frustrated by the current teaching of Art practices challenge the dominance of Greenberg and the prevailing art and Culture”. [3].

Textual forms and sculptural forms were considered by artists like Louew Bern and Bruce Mclean.

Art and Language presents several of their Works like ” Abstract no 8 , Mirror and canvass”.

” The map is not to indicate photographs but art as an act of retraction or self burial”. [4].

” Conceptual art directly questioned the nature of what the art object- of what art-might be. this work is painting but its content and appearance is of a particular kind of text” [5].

Keith Arnatt (1930-2008) is another artist whose work is displayed here. John Hilliard for instance present photographic images of a series of squares compressed into a larger image. David Tremlett produced spring recording, a series again of photographic images, and Hamish Fulton with his A Condor or the Pilgrim way presented alternative ways of how to challenge the art of Modernism.

” In the mid 1970’s there was widespread recognition and institutional support for Conceptual art. It was not a style or a movement , but instead a radical and  new approach to making art formed out of a range of critical strategies that questioned the making , role and place of art”. [6].

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Sue Arrowsmith with her untitled work and John Hilliard with Sixty seconds of light.

The Art and Language group of Philip Pilkington Baldwin ,Charles Harrison dominates much of this Exhibition . Harrison was a former Art Lecturer and Art Historian with the Open University , while studying for my Art History degree I learnt much from Harrison’s teaching and was  an authority on most kinds of art including art and Language.

Art and Language’s Index 003 is part of a fuller exploration of my previous postings on Art and Language. In 1975 art and Language presented a piece of work called Dialectical Materialism which represented a slogan from Leon Trotsky on Dialectical Materialism.

As the Tate Exhibition shows ” Although Art and Language recognised that the practice of Art was minimal”.[6]. This piece of work in my opinion incorrectly quotes Trotsky without really appreciating his true view of  art is a reflection of material reality. although the words used in the work refer to  Trotsky, it was only when he was fighting a life and death struggle  with  Stalinism that we can really appreciate the essence of Marxism and Art.

In Literature and Revolution Trotsky spells out the contribution of art and politics in this period.” Generally speaking art is an expression of man’s need for a harmonious and complete life , that is to say his need for major benefits of which society of classes has deprived him , that is why a protest against reality either conscious or unconscious always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion”[8].

” Conceptual art took elements  of other disciplines such as science , information theory and system based thinking .it used mapping , indexing and feedback sometimes examining social action or Behaviour”.[9].

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Conrad Atkinson used his photographic material to represent the war in Northern Ireland from 1968-1975.

as the Tate Booklet indicates ” The Troubles in Northern Ireland was commissioned by the arts posters and slogans Council of Northern Ireland and the Irish congress of Trade Unions showing both loyalist and Republican as well British army recruiting posters”.[10].

I will now conclude my review of this well laid out Exhibition with an in depth appraisal  of Victor Burgin , the American Photo realist and Mary Kelly  Conceptual artist.

Briony  Fer an Art Historian comments on Mary Kelly in Modernity and Modernism ,The Modern Fragments  .” But this one of many possible examples ( referring to Kelly’ s Post Partum Document) of work produced partly out of a political commitment to feminism (Identity Politics) but also out of a sense of antagonism with  what orthodox Modernism was to stand for. the Post partum document here displayed took maternity and subject. in doing so it contested the prevailing view of what was significant and appropriate in art in our culture”. [11].

I should explain the controversy surrounding Kelly’s Post partum document which is a text and writings displayed on a wall which describes in graphic detail her birth from an early age till she could write.

Paul Woods , a Senior Lecturer at the Open University and a Marxist also comments on Kelly’s post partum document. ” In England the greatest controversy surrounded Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document .this was a multi made documentation of the development of Her from birth to being able write her own name”. [12].

Steve Edwards a Senior Art Historian with the Open University , an expert on Modern photo realism and its contribution to modern twentieth century art and a Member of the Editorial Board of the Marxist Journal Historical Materialism  comments on Burgin.

”  Burgin working under the impact of the rediscovery of the revolutionary avant  garde and structuralist theories of representation argued that conceptual art had broken insufficiently with Clement Greenberg’s Modernism. According to him conceptual art played a significant role in the disintegration of Greenberg’s hegemony , turned away from handc rafted images in favour of photography and video and in some important instances stepped outside art’s exclusive focus on form and remerged with society and History”. [13].

This concludes my review of Conceptual Art at Tate Britain . It is quite a well presented Exhibition but a word of Warning, as a Marxist I would have serious disagreements with some aspects of Conceptual Art as presented. The very notion of Conceptual art is its association with Identity Politics which has been propagated by Jacques Lacan and other proponents of so called Western Marxism which has led to Art advocating   self subjective images which has consistently attacked Marxism . Lacan and others are subjective Idealists and although they may appear as critics of Capitalism in reality they accept its concepts by using Feminism and Identity as the main function in Society. That is wrong Class and Philosophical method of Marxism is the only solution to resolving Societies problems through the application of a Marxist method.

FOOTNOTES

  1. TATE BRITAIN BOOKLET CONCEPTUAL ART IN BRITAIN 1964-1979
  2. DITTO
  3. DITTO
  4. DITTO
  5. DITTO
  6. DITTO
  7. DITTO
  8. ART AND REVOLUTION A SERIES OF ESSAYS LEON TROTSKY PATHFINDER PRESS PG.110-111.
  9. TATE BOOKLET CONCEPTUAL ART IN BRITAIN 1964-1979
  10. DITTO
  11. MODERNITY AND MODERNISM THE MODERN FRAGMENTS BRIONY FER THE OPEN UNIVERSITY PG.144
  12. THEMES IN CONTEMPORARY ART INSIDE THE WHALE AN INTRODUCTION TO POST MODERNIST ART. PAUL WOOD PG.23
  13. THEMES IN CONTEMPORARY ART PHOTOGRAPHY OUT OF CONCEPTUAL ART. STEVE EDWARDS. PG.152

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