Art for All: British Socially Committed Art

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During the early and middle decades of the Twentieth Century, the tradition of social realism in the West extended the realism, naturalism and social realism schools of the preceding century but with a more explicitly advocatory role. Inspired by the Russian Revolution, the foundation of the USSR and development of Socialist art in Mexico, these artists had specific ideals to work towards, with the hope that such changes could be enacted in the West. Christine Lindey’s Art for All documents the work of British socially committed artists working from 1930s to 1962 – the height of the period when social realism was disapproved of by the British establishment and when realism was under attack from Modernists.

It should be said that Art for All is a necessary book, exploring as it does the overlooked history of politically committed left-wing art during the mid-century era. In the ideological war of the period, realism decisively lost to Modernism. Consequently, the true span of art of this period has been obscured because of a concentration on explaining the development of Modernism over this period. The efforts of social realists during the period are irrelevant for tracing the development of abstraction and Modernist schools, thus they have been dropped in most accounts. Art history is more École de Paris than École de Manchester.

There is the question of quality. In many historical accounts the only glimpse of inter-war realism in Britain one gets is Stanley Spencer’s figure paintings. Yet this obscures the fact that Spencer himself was an eccentric for the period. Spencer is one of the more engaging artists of the period and his Modernist credentials make him acceptable for Modernist-inclined studies. But Spencer was neither typical nor representative of realism in Britain. In some ways the realism of the artists in Art for All is more representative of the blend of Modernism and realism that characterised non-academic figurative painting in the period.

Lindey describes the socially-committed artist as a stylistic realist with some of the following attributes: documenting working people and ordinary life; highlighting specific social inequities; campaigning in favour of pacifism; agitating for improvement in working/living conditions of the poor; advocating adoption of socialism or socialistic policies; opposing the British Empire; opposing Fascism; supporting Socialist nations. While Lindey rightly stresses the gender-equal aspirations for Marxism, she leaves unmentioned the movement’s hostility towards the traditional family. One of the principle foundations of socialist states (deriving primarily from Engels) is the destruction of the family as a root of iniquitous inheritance, private loyalty and traditional morality.

Lindey’s list of artists is assembled transparently (excluding left-wing Modernists and the intermittently committed) and the spread of artists seems representative. Artists selected include Peter de Francia, Priscilla Thornycroft, Paul Hogarth, Clive Branson, Cliff Rowe, James Boswell, Josef Herman, Eva Frankfurther, George Fullard and Ruskin Spear. There is no doubting the seriousness of these artists. Many endured poverty for their principles or imprisonment for their conscientious objection. Felicia Browne died fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Lindey does well to cover the problems artists faced to survive and make work. World War II was the first time when Social Realists felt their anti-Fascist position matched their country’s policies, though many were ambivalent until the invasion of the USSR made it a clear the war was an anti-Fascist enterprise. Some artists enlisted, others became war artists or designed posters. Exhibitions selling low-cost prints proved both artistically and financially satisfying, spreading the word and allowing ordinary people the chance to own art. The book mentions the endless cycle of May Day demonstrations, Spanish Republican fundraising exhibitions, banner painting for protest marches and the role of organisations such as Artists International Association and publications such as Left Review and The Daily Worker. In addition to the official art of the USSR, British realists took as their models Grosz, Dix, Kollwitz and the Neue Sachlichkeit, Mexican Muralists and graphics, Frans Masereel and art of previous generations, such as Daumier, Meunier and others.

The twin blows of 1956 (the revelation of Stalin’s terror and the Invasion of Hungary) led to the haemorrhaging of support for Socialism. The UK and US support for the plurality of Modernism undermined realism stylistically, while the increasing influence of US popular culture undermined Socialist values and post-war material prosperity undercut the Marxist economic case. The 1950s and 1960s marked the long decline of social realism in the UK. While France and Italy had strong Communist parties, the already weak British branch rapidly diminished into insignificance, leaving British socially committed artists isolated morally and financially. Leftist artists had ambivalent attitudes to socialist realism. Some maintained it was an ideal only to be undertaken in Socialist states; others claimed it infringed on artists’ independent courses towards raising class consciousness. The charge that social (and Socialist) realism was a political imposition which contrasted to the true freedom artistic Modernism offered became a difficult claim to refute. The point that most people preferred realist art was also being quickly eroded by changes in taste (or fashion).

The point that the School of London painters “convey the malaise of the helpless, alienated individual” is the common Marxist accusation. What the Marxist means by this is that the ordinary man has to deal with life whereas the middle-class bohemian can indulge his emotional frailties. Surely the point about existential art is that it applies to every person living in the world, regardless of class and background. Why cannot the working man address the acute internal fear and doubt he experiences? Why should a baron but not a bricklayer relate to this type of art? Opening the door to matters of private revelation, inner searching, individual reflection and philosophical contemplation contravenes the Marxist’s social-economic model, leaving the subject dangerous latitude in matters of private self-interested morality and personal conduct. Refusal to suborn discussion to the Marxist level leads to general attacks, of which this is a common one: Comrade, the working man is a cheerful capable fellow who requires more labour councils and does not deserve to have his head bothered with this personal angst nonsense. This displays the Marxist’s terrible fear of individuals dwelling upon the meaning of life and concluding that Marxism does not provide what they require. It is extra evidence of the paternalistic attitude of Marxists towards to subjects of its charity.

By and large, if one accepts the premise of the approach, then politics are not too intrusive in the narrative. Even so, at times the relentless class warfare can grate. Making jibes at a society portrait compared to portraits of working women is not any kind of considered criticism – it is inverted snobbery and lessens one’s respect for the author’s judgment in matters of discrimination. It would have been possible to engage a debate on aesthetic merits of portraits but serious debate is never entertained.

Illustrations are plentiful and enlightening. On matters of fact, Art for All is informative, using a broad range of sources to provide documentation of the activities of artists. Interpretatively, the book is less reliable. Lindey does not given an unbiased presentation of the parallels between art of National Socialism and Socialist Realism, claiming that the latter allowed more variety in subject and style and was therefore entirely dissimilar. Actually, it is only a toleration of more stylistic variation that distinguishes Socialist Realism. In Fascist and Socialist states we find the bureaucratic management of public art, persecution of dissident Modernist art (“degenerate formalism”), imposition of punitive sanctions on artists, complete control of artist associations, publications and education, all directed towards the production of politically directed realist/heroic art. The two authoritarian ideologies converge in their utilitarian functionalist attitudes towards art.

So, is the art any good? Some is appealing and thoughtful. Herman is striking; de Francia is a skilled painter (though too close to Guttaso); Fullard’s realistic sculpture is effective; Rowe’s compositions are strong and well handled, as seen in his murals; Spear is a top-drawer portraitist. Much is indifferent; some is awful. It would be a difficult proposition to suggest that this art deserves a place in a general art history, other than as isolated examples of the currents of political and realist art. The truth is that there is nothing really compelling or exciting about this art. One cannot help thinking that all the artists who were genuinely ambitious and committed to art over politics had already joined the Modernist movement, leaving the social realists rather shorthanded when it came to the ability to make first-rate art. In an open market of art, people buy more posters of Picasso, Mondrian, Van Gogh, Monet, Rothko and Chagall than realist art. The human appetite craves pungent tastes, originality, eccentricity and élan – all the accoutrements of bourgeois formalism and individualistic self-absorption, if one were to get Marxist about it. For all the social realists’ grousing about capitalistic individualism, one El Greco or Rembrandt on their side would have won over legions of supporters. While the social realists have been unfairly written out of history, the evidence seems to be that they lost to the Modernists – in part – because they failed to recruit and retain the best artists.

Christine Lindey, Art for All: British Socially Committed Art from the 1930s to the Cold War, Artery Publications, 2018, paperback, 224pp, col. illus., £20

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

Edited on 26 Feb. 2019: grammatical errors

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