Art in social perspective in Britain

This video is called Tribute to L.S. Lowry.

From SweetLadyTiger:

Since I am an Artist, I decided to do a Tribute to L.S. Lowry. He was told that he wasn’t a very good Artist and that all he could draw was Matchstalk Men. I am so glad he didn’t listen to the Critics.

The Song is Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs by Brian and Michael.

From British daily The Morning Star:

Art in social perspective

(Monday 30 July 2007)

EXHIBITION: Work, Rest, Play
The National Gallery, London

CHRISTINE LINDEY hopes that, by categorising art into recognisable daily events, the National Gallery will be able to draw more people to its free exhibition.

How long is it since you visited the permanent collection of your local art museum?

All too often, we make an effort to see their special exhibitions, which are often packed and overpriced, while leaving the free, permanent collections to tourists, school parties and the ghosts of past art lovers.

London’s National Gallery houses one of the world’s finest collections. This free exhibition aims to tempt us inside to reconsider its treasures by selecting some around a specific theme and hanging them in unexpected juxtapositions alongside borrowed works, mostly from other public collections.

This is the last stage of a travelling exhibition which some of you may have seen in Bristol’s City Museum and Art Gallery or in Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery.

The theme is Work, Rest and Play. It is explored via 32 works by 25 artists, spanning five centuries. You engage with the direct, quizzical gaze of Moroni’s 16th-century portrait of an elegant Italian tailor, while behind you lies The Traveller (1988), Duane Hanson’s lifelike super-realist sculpture of a podgy US citizen in holiday wear snoozing among his luggage in an airport or coach station.

Joseph Wright of Derby’s Iron Forge (1772), depicting a theatrically lit, idealised artisan’s family, seems to celebrate the wonders of the industrial revolution, while, next to it, LS Lowry‘s Coming from the Mill (1930) expresses the alienation of workers caused by capitalism’s use of such innovations.

The currently fashionable thematic approach to the display and interpretation of art stems from the now ageing New Art History, pioneered in the late 1970s partly by Marxist art historians such as TJ Clark.

Critical of patrician connoisseurship, which had focused on matters of style, attribution and iconography as if art existed on a separate plane from other human activities, Marxists placed art firmly within highly specific social and political contexts.

However, this social view of art has now been appropriated by a largely conservative or liberal profession, whose practitioners do not share the partisan ideological stance of the Marxist innovators.

This results in sometimes well-intentioned but often confused or superficial interpretations which are rooted in overgeneralised historical contexts and unexamined middle-class assumptions.

Here, work is largely defined according to the expectations of contemporary professionals, who view it as a means of fulfilment and self-definition.

So the exhibition’s emphasis on work rather than rest and play remains unexplained and there is discussion of the “nobility of labour” and of the fluidity of the boundaries between work and leisure.

There is little mention of work as a necessary means of survival, let alone of the alienation caused by the commodification of labour, apart from the token inclusion of the Lowry, which is rather confusedly linked to 1930s mass unemployment, even though it shows those in work.

The wall plaque which interprets Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1863), whose central figures are idealised depictions of navvies digging Hampstead drains, tells us that the artist “believed that society would prosper only if it allowed workers to fulfil their true potential.” Have you ever met anyone who aspired to self-fulfilment via digging drains for a living? A critique of Brown’s outlook is not included.

Feminism is similarly understood solely from the viewpoint of widening women’s opportunities to work outside the home and in hitherto male preserves.

Seventeenth century Dutch scenes of domestic labour are contrasted with Laura Knight’s famous painting Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech Ring (1943, pictured).

Ruby Loftus screwing a breech ring, by Laura Knight

We are told that Knight’s painting celebrates the young woman’s ability to conquer the most difficult task in the gun factory, one normally requiring eight to nine years training and hitherto reserved for men and that Knight’s painting was commissioned by the state from an officially appointed war artist. The noise, harsh working conditions or rates of pay of factory work are not discussed.

The exhibition engages with too many themes over too wide a time span with too few works without a clear ideological stance. Even a single theme over one century alone would have been difficult in this space.

This leads to confusing, sometimes contradictory and often superficial interpretations, particularly in the wall plaques, although the short film and very reasonably priced booklet provide a bit more context.

The selection of 20th-century work is particularly odd and we are not told why they are all highly representational in style, despite this not being that century’s dominant visual language.

Yet, at best, the exhibition does provide glimpses into a social interpretation of art and this may encourage some viewers to delve further into this approach.

It is refreshing to see pre-20th-century art represented exclusively in terms of paintings of everyday life rather than by depictions of gods, goddesses, aristocrats and saints. You see children sailing boats, people ice-skating or enjoying the seaside, shepherdesses, maids, prostitutes, building workers and farmers.

It is not too large, so you can allow yourself more time to engage with individual works. They are hung against plain grey walls with much space around them and top-lit by daylight, so that you can enjoy them at their best.

This could be a good way of making art accessible those who rarely bother with it. The unexpected juxtapositions can lead to insights and new connections and it does contain the seeds of fascinating debates and it provides the opportunity to engage with some stunning works.

Shows until October 14.

Women artists in Britain: here.

L.S. Lowry: here.

2 thoughts on “Art in social perspective in Britain

  1. Pingback: British young women’s history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: British artist LS Lowry | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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