Book review: LEFT SHIFT Radical Art in 1970s Britain

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Left shift provides a fascinating year by year analysis of how artists responded to left politics, women’s liberation and the gay movement in the 70s. Many artists at this time were seeking to re-establish a social purpose.

Some of the work produced was truly innovative. The work of Brisley and the lifestyle adopted by the mavericks Gilbert and George crossed into performance. Brisley produced a disturbing effect:
At Gallery House, Brisley converted a large room into a kind of filthy prison cell by splashing walls and windows with black and grey paint and covering the floor with debris, dirt and slop water. He occupied the room for two weeks while living on a restricted diet and with no amusements or external communications.
Clearly, the performance was a metaphor for the existentialist predicament of man, an isolated, nameless individual reduced to a National Insurance number and imprisoned in squalor, with no history and a future limited to survival.(p.72)

The boundaries of art were being stretched in other ways too. Artists were seeking to take art to new audiences with community art, art working within industry and agitprop art linked to social movements. As the author points out community art:
reflected a strong desire on the part of many artists to escape from the isolation of the studio, the existing gallery system and its middle-class audience, in order to reach out to new audiences who either had no experience of the fine arts or were hostile to them.(p.132)

The motivation was clear. John Stezaker is quoted in regard to avant-garde artists but in fact his observations apply much more widely:
The avant-garde artist has simply become a business man, wheeling and dealing in a restricted cultural circle and to a specialist clientele“. (p.76)

The problem of absorption or incorporation runs as an understated theme throughout this history. Most art seems dependent on the indulgences of Capitalists (Alistair McAlpine and the Saatchis being obvious examples). Most of what is left is funded from public money dispensed by groups like the Arts Council.

The arrival of video “challenged the monopoly of existing broadcasting institutions and, by enabling children and laypeople to use video equipment, the medium and technology of television were demystified.
Thus, the passive consumption of television was replaced or supplemented by the active production of images.
(p.151) … Or didn’t, as it turned out. Even where grants or the grace and favour of wealthy patrons played no part the corrupting pull of the market made itself felt:
“As in the case of so much photomontage art of the 1970s, radical film and video often had a love/hate relationship with mainstream media because they were the dominant forms of communication and because they provided – if access could be obtained without compromising artistic integrity – the opportunity to reach a much wider, non-art world audience.” (p.152)

How far “artistic integrity” had been compromised during the 70s is not really seriously examined. There are, however, few examples of outright censorship documented – one of the few being the closure of the Art Theory course in 1973 at Coventry. This might indicate a surprising liberality or it might show that the process of funding art or its relationship with the market were enough to ensure that any questioning of the status quo was within clearly understood boundaries.

There are a few areas where I feel radical art broke out of the box. Jamie Reid: “the man who more than any other created the cut-and-paste graphic-guerilla style associated with the punk era, particularly in his record sleeves for the Sex Pistols” according to Esquire (June 2002) did communicate a radical message to new audiences. His work is briefly considered in Left Shift but others working in the same field are not on the basis that that David Laing and Jon Savage have already done so.

We all come from somewhere ….

What I find interesting is that Left Shift places Reid in a context. He came from somewhere (as we all do) and I don’t just mean Croydon:
Reids activities during the first half of the 1970s can be considered part of the community arts movement that was then gathering momentum having started in the 1960s. The Suburban Press was only one of many such small, alternative printing presses, photography and poster workshops. Community art, of course, was defined and limited by its local character. However, in Reid’s case, the advent of punk enabled his experience of community publishing, printing, politics and agit-prop graphics to find a new lease of life in one of capitalism’s most powerful cultural industries – the music business – consequently, his ideas, images and slogans were to reach a huge, transatlantic audience.(pp.42-43)

Even in the case of Reid the effect was not long-lasting. At the time of writing this review 50 years of royal parasitism is being celebrated. Art from the last ‘Jubilee’ in 1977 has therefore made something of a comeback. The difference, however, is very noticeable. The bad guys are getting all the good press. The only thing being abdicated is responsibility as the public switch into zombie mode. Political content or import scarcely rates on most people’s list of considerations – entertainment value is now the key criteria.

I was disappointed that Left Shift did not analyze mass art more. I remember the late 70s as a time of people wearing badges, and political posters, graffiti and stickers of both Left and Right (in the form of the National Front) being highly visible. I recall attempts to subvert commercial adverts (by both feminists and racists) by blanking words out to change meaning or adding words with spray-paint. There was an excitement, a confrontation and a buzz going on. Left Shift is interesting and well documented but it doesn’t get the feeling of the period over to me.

Ultimately, in order to judge whether the Left had made any real challenge in the 70s we should consider what happened next. As the author points out “the shift to the Left in the British art world during the 1970s was not sustained during the following two decades.(p.253) Politically, there was in fact a shift to the Right with the election of Thatcher in 1979. The reasons for this are briefly examined but the knowledge of outcome should have led the author to re-examine far more the significance (or lack of it) of Left art in the 70s.

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