Wednesday, 9 April 2014
Keywords and 1980s Art
William Morris gets a mention in Raymond Williams’s indispensable 1976 volume Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (over his choice of Communist as a political self-designation in the 1890s), and I went along to the Liverpool Tate exhibition ‘Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain’ with high expectations. The curators have picked thirteen of Williams’s keywords: these feature on the walls in a flamboyant script, while a rich selection of 1980s art – for the most part of a politically committed variety – is lined up opposite to them.
Well, that’s the theory, though there is in fact some slippage in the practice. David Hockney’s fine portrait of his parents, for instance, which according to the exhibition brochure should be aligned - rather boringly, one can’t help thinking - with ‘private’ actually hangs opposite the term ‘structural’, which certainly has you racking your brains to make connections between the two (the Oedipal triangle was the only linkage I could come up with). Similarly, Stephen McKenna’s painting of ‘An English Oak tree’ which according to the brochure belongs with ‘folk’, actually hangs opposite ‘violence’, a rather more challenging montage-effect. And Stuart Bisley’s untitled oakbeam and soft wood installation, which alludes to the heavy labour of the mining and shipbuilding industries in Sunderland, certainly touches on important Williams preoccupations (work and working-class experience), but is oddly placed opposite the term ‘myth'.
I think that in the end this is more a show about 1980s political art than about Raymond Williams’s historical semantics. But given the slant of its choice of keywords – criticism, formalist, materialism and theory all feature, for instance – there is something of a bias towards conceptual art by politically motivated artists who probably did have some general awareness of Williams’s work. Some of the artefacts on display themselves focus on issues of language – Rose English’s ‘Plato’s Chair’ performances interrogate such terms as death, the sublime, soul, representation and so on – so there is a nice fit there with the Williamsite framework . Overall, this exhibition is a salutary reminder of how varied and resourceful the radical art of the decade was (black, feminist, gay, lesbian, Irish and ecological as well as socialist voices are represented here), and how shrunken progressive political prospects were in the epoch of Thatcher, Regan and Kohl. Only Gorbachev’s coming to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 gives a flicker of hope, but then, look how that turned out.