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Whose art is it anyway?

Niru Ratnam tackles the thorny question of what constitutes British — or should that be English? — art

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

Niru Ratnam tackles the thorny question of what constitutes British — or should that be English? — art

In the past few months there have been two large-scale exhibitions showcasing British art. The first was the British Art Show at the Hayward Gallery; the second Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy. On show at the former were an elegant suite of works by Wolfgang Tillmans (born in Germany), a tapestry by David Noonan (Australia), the much-lauded film ‘Clock’ by Christian Marclay (America) and the delicate paintings of Maaike Schoorel (Netherlands). The latter boasted an impressive array of colonial plunder displayed next to British sculpture, a neat juxtaposition of Chinese bowls with works by William Staite Murray, Bernard Leach and Barbara Hepworth, and a Damien Hirst vitrine paired with a Jeff Koons vitrine.

In short, the striking feature about both shows was their recasting of Britishness as an all-encompassing globalised ideal. Equally striking was that, in terms of Britishness, this is all they had to say. There was no other assertion of what the ‘British’ in ‘British art’ might signify or how the works shown might be representative of a national character. This is odd given the starring role of ‘British’ in each exhibition title, and also because throughout the 20th century there were a number of competing theses about what constituted ‘British’ art. It would seem that we have come to some sort of theoretical cul-de-sac in attempting to articulate an argument about art and national character.

It’s not just the British who are struggling on this front. Indeed, the whole idea of the nation has been debunked by thinkers such as Benedict Anderson who has recast it as being something merely imagined. But as people still fight in the name of national sovereignty, the concept of nationhood is impossible to shake off entirely. In the art world, the result has been a muddle.


Last year, the Sao Paulo Biennial cast off the age-old system of national pavilions. While over in Venice this year, national pavilions continue but in a post-national way. So Poland’s representative is the Israeli artist Yael Bartana. This follows in the footsteps of Germany, who, at the last Bienniale, chose the British conceptualist Liam Gillick as its representative (though it was hard to separate Gillick’s post-national presentation from the history of the German pavilion — a building that was hastily redesigned in 1938 in accordance with the Nazi party’s visual ideology).

Curators in Britain seem particularly good at getting into a pickle about the concept of ‘national’. In part this is because of the clumsiness of the category ‘British’, which the art historian Charles Harrison memorably described in an essay on British art as an ‘essentially administrative and coercive category’. Harrison also noted that most discussions of British art centred on ‘work produced by artists based in England and exhibited in London’. Here he was alluding to the refusal of contemporary art historians or curators to talk about English art or use that phrase in the titles of exhibitions. In recent years, as the British Pavilion lumbers on regardless, the emergence of the Scottish Pavilion and the Welsh Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has made this erasure more striking.

But this is a relatively recent development. Books such as Dennis Farr’s English Art 1870–1940 (published in 1978) and Harrison’s English Art and Modernism 1900–39 (published in 1981) offered competing theses as to what English art might be. A number of commentators noted that English art has taken place at a remove to modernism. Resolutely non-abstract artists such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and David Hockney hardly cut the mustard when it comes to modernist experimentation.

Other commentators, such as Harrison, have countered this by offering alternative histories of English art that downgrade the likes of Bacon and Freud and trace a modernist English lineage that includes Ben Nicholson, Roger Hilton and the Independent Group. By way of contrast a strain of deliberate amateurism has been noted, typified in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Its role was well summed up by the Observer’s art critic in 1951: ‘A surer index of the national character, certainly a far clearer picture of our scene, than all the inventive murals on the South Bank.’ Another strong theme to emerge has been the central role of landscape in English art; and many artists such as Graham Sutherland, Ivon Hitchens and Peter Lanyon fit into this narrative.

Which one of these points of view is more persuasive is immaterial to this particular argument. The point is that up until the early 1980s discussing what English art might be was a common academic and curatorial endeavour. Since then, two things have happened. First, any discussion of ‘English art’ has been rebranded a discussion of ‘British art’. And second, any debate about what the characteristics of ‘British art’ might be has dried up and instead we have simply a blanket curatorial statement — trumpeted by both Modern British Sculpture and the British Art Show — that it is inclusive, globalised and fully aware of the history of empire and the role of migrant artists.

This is obviously a good thing — many artists including Jacob Epstein, Naum Gabo, R.B. Kitaj and Anish Kapoor were born outside Britain. And there’s no doubt that objects brought back from empire and exhibited in the country’s museums influenced artists. But a survey of the literature on what might constitute English art suggests that dogged resistance to international ideas has played as much of a part as acceptance: the refusal of abstraction; the lack of politically committed artistic movements, the persistence of anti-modernism that ranges from the Summer Exhibition through to the Stuckists, all suggest that there is as much of a case to be made for insularity and conservatism as for the enthusiastic embrace of the international.

It comes as no great shock that two of the blockbuster exhibitions that will take place during the London Olympics are solo shows of Lucian Freud and David Hockney, both of whom offer a restrained, conservative understanding of modernism. It is also unsurprising that once one scratches the surface of the knowingly international line-up of the British Art Show there are plenty of English artists — Olivia Plender, Spartacus Chetwynd and Juliette Blightman — happily exploring amateurism, the ramshackle and, in Blightman’s case, net curtains. Recent Turner Prize winners have made work about Northern Soul and Viz comics (Mark Leckey) and street processions of Scout bands, Goths and smokers (Jeremy Deller), while another is working on a huge white horse in Kent (Mark Wallinger).

It would seem that the curatorial orthodoxy about Britishness is little more than an anodyne nod towards globalisation and that artists in this country are continuing in a stubborn tradition of making works that are peculiarly English.


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