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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > Art for Social Spaces > Themes > Contexts
 
CONTEXTS

Introduction

This section invites you to consider various contexts for public sculpture in the period. It introduces a number of key concepts, contemporary debates and issues with which you need to be familiar if you are to study sculpture in the public environment.
 
…the true historical sense confirms our existence among countless events, without a landmark or a point of reference.
M. Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, [first pub. 1971], in P. Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1991, p. 89.
 
The grand narrative has lost its credibility….
J.F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition : A Report on Knowledge, [first pub. 1979], Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1984, p. 37.
 
The ‘history of art’ is defunct. There is no longer history - only histories.. The past is no longer viewed as a fixed set of events but is in a state of flux. As we continually revisit the past from our perspective in the present, histories are revised.

Since the 1960s, the intellectual climate of deconstruction and postmodernism has liberated a host of pluralistic approaches to studying culture in general and art in particular. Foucault declared that history presents us with a ‘profusion of events’ – any or all of which might be considered as important or trivial. These ideas raised important questions about attempts to assess or evaluate the past. Towards the end of the 1970s, Lyotard announced the ‘end of the grand narrative’, with his seminal essay, The Postmodern Condition, in which he argued against the idea of a single progressive or linear account of history. In 1972, the independent Marxist critic John Berger made an early contribution to opening up – and popularising – alternative sociological perspectives on art with his BBC TV series and book, Ways of Seeing.

ASS is informed by these ideas. It starts from the assumption that a range of conceptual frameworks can be brought to the study of art in society. ASS presents historical images and data and suggests a series of ways of looking. The selection of material presented for study in this module has been determined by various factors. Other public work, different settings and a range of alternative theoretical perspectives could have been explored.

With this in mind, this module looks at a selection of work which might be considered as part of the canon alongside less well-known work and settings. It looks at stories and histories, narratives, meta-narratives and episodes.

Individuals ‘make’ art – but so do partners, groups, communities. Art is not made in isolation, it is conceived, made and received into wider communities. ASS is fundamentally concerned with studying art in society at a particular historical point - art as a social product.
 
Works of art…are the product of specific historical practices on the part of identifiable social groups in given conditions of existence of those groups and their representatives in particular artists.
J. Wolff, The Social Production of Art, [first pub. 1981], Macmillan, London, 1993, p. 49.
 
Since the 1980s, Wolff and others such as T.J.Clark, associated with New Art History, have underlined the paramount importance of ideology in relation to the structures and institutions operating within the sphere of art practice and criticism. To this end, ASS offers the opportunity to address issues relating to ideology and sculpture in public space in the post-war years.
 
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Political – Social - Economic

Key contexts to consider -

- the particular time-frame

- the political, economic and social setting on the domestic and international front
 
Living in Cities- Ralph Tubbs ASS00223 Living in Cities- Ralph Tubbs

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Living in Cities- Ralph Tubbs ASS00224 Living in Cities- Ralph Tubbs

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From 1945, Britain was experiencing the aftermath of the Second World War. A major programme of social and economic reconstruction was required. The wartime economy needed to be transformed into one geared to peacetime. In domestic politics, the end of the war was marked by a swing to the left and to social democracy. In the general election in July 1945, Clement Atlee was voted into office with a landslide victory - alongside 393 Labour MPs, there were 2 MPs representing the Communist Party of Great Britain.
 
Display title from New Schools Section; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00237 Display title from New Schools Section; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Demands for prosperity, jobs, new homes, schools and education for all needed to be addressed. Social reforms had been instigated and continued with the Education Act in 1944 and the creation of the ‘Welfare State’ in 1945. The ‘reconstruction’ of Britain had begun.
 
Lion and Unicorn Pavilion; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00234 Lion and Unicorn Pavilion; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Dome of Discovery; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00230 Dome of Discovery; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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In reality though, through the 1950s, shortages, rationing and a prolonged housing crisis proved to be disappointing. Many sections of society experienced ‘austerity’ rather than ‘affluence’. Optimism ended in discord and frustration. By 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, the Conservatives swept to power.
 
Northern Ireland, Farm and Factory exhibition; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00245 Northern Ireland, Farm and Factory exhibition; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Lion and Unicorn Pavilion by night, Epstein at front; Southbank Exhibition, Festival of Britain ASS00247 Lion and Unicorn Pavilion by night, Epstein at front; Southbank Exhibition, Festival of Britain

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On the international scene, a divided Berlin quickly became a focal point of the tension and fear created by the ‘Cold War’. With world politics dominated by the escalation of nuclear arms, psychological ‘weapons’ and ideological propaganda were employed on both sides. In terms of art, the ‘official’ Soviet model - Socialist Realism, a strongly figurative style which glorified labour - was posed against Western modernity, typified from a Soviet perspective by abstraction. Such perceived alignments and associations are superficial – there were dissidents and individuals who expressed artistic independence on both sides – but political perspectives and ideology affected practice and criticism in the period.
 
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Cultural

 
Leigh Library ASS00178 Leigh Library

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In early post-war Britain, there is evidence that the role of ‘the arts’ in society was an urgent issue for debate in political, intellectual and popular circles. Whether or not post-war political ‘consensus’ was as widespread as is sometimes suggested, the renewed interest in democracy extended to an increasing demand for wider access to the arts and to ‘culture’ more generally. Public access to artworks, elitism in the arts, the expansion of opportunities for studying art and operating as an artist – all these issues might be considered in relation to the various case studies.


The idea of ‘Britishness’ must be considered in relation to culture in the early post-war years.
 
The question of ‘Englishness’ and art was specifically addressed by Nicholas Pevsner in the Reith Lectures, originally broadcast on BBC radio in 1955. The construction and reconstruction of national identity as expressed through cultural events, artefacts and buildings is particularly pertinent to Designing Britain. The contribution of sculpture and sculptural objects at the Festival of Britain and the Britain Can Make It exhibition (ASS 189 and ASS 191 images) will, for example, be considered in relevant sections of this module.
 
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Questions for discussion

How might the aftermath of war affect the production of art generally and sculpture in particular?

What might the effect of a Labour government be on the arts?

How do you think the onset of the Cold War might have affected the production and reception of art in Britain?

What role might art/sculpture have in forging/welding national identity or regional identity?

Texts

M. Garlake, New Art New World – British Art in Post-War Society, Yale University Press , New Haven, U.S.A.,1998

R. Hewison, In Anger, Culture in the Cold War 1945-1960, [first published by George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd., London, 1981], revised edition: Methuen, London, 1988

R. Hewison, Culture and Consensus, England, Art and Politics since 1940, Methuen, London, 1995

E. Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London, 1994

P. Lewis, The Fifties, The Cupid Press, London, 1989

C. Lindey, Art in the Cold War, The Herbert Press, London, 1990

N. Pevsner, The Englishness of English Art, [originally broadcast on B.B.C. radio in October and November 1955 as ‘The Reith Lectures’], The Architectural Press, London, 1956

J. Spalding (ed.),, The Forgotten Fifties, (ex. cat.), Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, 31 March – 13 May 1984 (and tour)
 
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Next

This section should have given you the opportunity to think about the overall theoretical framework of the module. It should also have introduced some of the contexts for studying public sculpture in the period. Some of the questions and issues raised will be addressed later in this module.


We still need to ask:

How do we define social or public space?

What did sculpture look like generally in the period?

What is/was ‘urban regeneration’ ?


The other Theme sections will address these questions.

Next, you should look at the Regeneration theme.
 
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