Art for our class

Mike belbin reviews Christine Lindey Art for all: British socially committed art from the 1930s to the cold war Artery Publications, 2018, pp240, £25

“Culture is ordinary” - Raymond Williams (The long revolution 1961)

Culture is not some afterthought - either by dominant structures or challenging groups. It is part of the drive for a way of life and ways of seeing social experience. Any movement that can be claimed as affecting society will inspire some people to make art. For example, after the French Revolution, and indeed before, artists took on the ideas of republicanism and enlightenment, and made new forms which both embodied and communicated them.

Christine Lindey’s account, rich in detail and illustration, gives us a particular corner of the European left - Britain (mainly England) from World War I to the early 1960s. This is a history of tension and debate over the forms to be used, alongside how the artists survived and shaped their work in response to several concerns - not least the self-requirement to reach as many people as possible. Lindey is the author of five books, including Art in the cold war, and has been an associate lecturer at Birkbeck College and the University of the Arts.

There were socialist artists before1917, but afterwards the question became that of how to be a revolutionary one. The 1914-18 war and the revolution in Russia raised the promise of an alternative civilisation - not the old one with feudal trappings and a capitalist motor, but an anti-imperialist, communist, world society. Young artists in Britain turned to how they might help this project progress. Their resolve was later strengthened by depression and fascism - more proof of the ongoing decline facing the national system and class society.

They looked to other countries in the rest of Europe and to European refugees for models of art practice. Impressionism and post-impressionism gave way to forms and activities from isolated Soviet Russia and defeated Germany: constructivism and Neue Sachlichkeit respectively.

In 1935, these concerns led to the formation of the Artists International Association (AIA), which stood for “the unity of artists against fascism and war and the suppression of culture”. Taking over ideas from the Popular Front in France, the AIA’s first major exhibition was a diverse affair. Called Artists against fascism and war, it featured traditionalists like Laura Knight and Augustus John, as well as younger avant-gardists such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, alongside new committed artists like the painter Cliff Rowe and the Hungarian sculptor, Peter Laszlo Peri. The show had a further international contingent in works by Fernand Léger and Ossip Zadkine as well as recent Russians like Mikhail Sokolov and Yuri Pimenov.

Though many of these artists identified with communism in some way, they were not all taken with the official Soviet style of ‘socialist realism’ (proclaimed in 1934). In fact the use of this naturalistic, often prettifying, approach was one of the objects of debate within the AIA, as well the wider issue of accessibility. If you are a committed artist dedicated to portraying and reaching out to the working class, should you produce works in a difficult, modernistic style? There were the examples of artists like Käthe Kollwitz and the Mexican muralists, who managed to be realist and modernist at the same time, but there was no ‘party line’ at the AIA. Cliff Rowe went on to produce the art-deco-looking Woman cleaning a locomotive (1942), as well as murals for the Electrical Union’s teaching college, while Pearl Binder produced cartoons which side-stepped the problem of what was ‘realistic’ entirely.

With World War II dramatically extending the struggle against fascism, these anti-fascist artists became part of the war effort. However, as well as producing government posters and leaflets, some were still committed to subversive art. Priscilla Thornycroft painted Underground (1940), which presented an urban landscape, where posters proclaiming victory looked down on women carrying a body in a sheet; zeppelins and searchlights crowded the night sky. This was no official image of cheerful cockney resilience.

The war gave many artists gainful employment and made them part of a general effort to give anti-fascism a cultural edge. But, of course, many official organisations, like the forerunner of the Arts Council and the centuries-old Royal Academy, were hostile to the more socialist-inclined artist.


The end of the war brought the new Labour government and the rebuilding of Britain with the new NHS and town planning. An AIA sculptor like Peter Peri found himself part of these plans. Peri for me is the discovery of the book. I had heard the name before in an essay by critic John Berger and I knew he was partly the model for the artist in Berger’s novel A painter of our time. But I had no notion of his work or the fact that his sculptures still exist on public display. Peri became so much part of public art in the post-war state that a pair of his figures were chosen to decorate an entrance to the 1951 Festival of Britain. His most interesting works are his most public. They are often made of a concrete mixture - which, considering the bad reputation concrete as a material acquired in post-war housing, makes him an exception even among radical artists.

Peri’s work was optimistic, but never soporific. His imagery is lyrical rather than heroic. His sculptures hang on brick walls in relief or thrust out from buildings like dancers or athletes defying gravity. Yet never do they depict stern, muscular, ‘good’ workers: they are moving reminders of a healthy possibility. His Footballers (1949) slide across the wall of a Vauxhall housing estate in London. They wear the long shorts of the time, but of the foregrounded figures one can be read as black and one as white, which is today’s story. On another wall a woman and some children (Mother and children playing 1951-52) hold hands in a circle - survivors of the last air raid or defiant in the face of the next (nuclear) one? On the front of Longslade School, a figure, Atom Boy (1956), stretches out, holding a large, abstract shape of the atom itself, as if to claim it as under his control or thrusting it forward for our judgement. These works chime with their environment of brick and tarmac - they couldn’t be other than modern - but they speak an idiom, imply an architecture that is light and human-centred, not grim and corporate-intimidating.

But, as the first of these sculptures went up, the tenor of the times was changing. The works of pre-war modernism were now scooped up by a much more confident market - in the USA. London commercial galleries and auction houses too began to exploit the new range of acceptable high art. Meanwhile, left artists found work as illustrators during the boom in magazines, and as teachers in the expanded education sector. While Peri went on making pieces for housing estates, Henry Moore became famous as the modern British artist.

In 1950, the outbreak of war between north and south Korea was a good excuse to put charges on previously free NHS prescriptions to pay for British aid to the US intervention. Artists set up Artists for Peace, a campaign against war, especially the nuclear kind. Henry Moore even did a work, Warrior with shield (1954), which addressed the issue of militarism damaging the human. But the binary opposition of the ‘Soviet Enemy’ and the ‘Free World’ was everywhere. In the AIA, a reaction set in to oust those artists who were ‘political’. Critics like Herbert Read, who called himself an anarchist, identified modern art as having nothing to do with politics - though his favourite group, the French surrealists, had opposed colonialism in Morocco and met up with Leon Trotsky.

In 1953, new administrators at the AIA changed the constitution of the organisation which declared that they would no longer “take part in political activity”. On all sides, advanced art and its techniques were being depoliticised. The CIA in Washington funded exhibitions to go round Europe to impress on intellectuals the freedom of abstract painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. By the late 1950s though, official communism and its ‘socialist realism’ had come under criticism from a New Left in universities and coffee clubs. Critics like Ernst Fischer and John Berger did not reject socially concerned art, but kept open the means and forms artists might use. Berger hoped that the art-makers of the ex-colonial states might use the discoveries of early modernism for their own decolonising purposes.

Fischer, an Austrian who had lived under Stalinism, wrote:

True socialist realism is therefore a critical realism … The artist is no longer engaged in a romantic protest against the world … [But] the equilibrium between the ‘I’ and the community is never static; it must be established again and again through contradiction and conflict (chapter 4, The necessity of art, 1959).

It was not a case of only satire or portraits of great leaders. As to form, Fischer said that the art work is like the play of nature. For example, matter crystals form symmetries not because they are subject to mathematical law - as if art can only take certain ‘essential’ forms - “but because it is the natural property of atoms to form groupings together at certain intervals under certain conditions” (ibid). Just as evolution had not demanded that a horse be a certain size for all time, or that the human cousin of chimps could never lose her red pudenda that alerts a male to sexual readiness, art does not have to be conceived in one style.

Nevertheless, the concerns that Lindey describes in the 1920s-50s - that is, concerns with reaching a public, as well as not coming up with the same-old same-old - went on being debated afresh in new areas like the popular novel and cinema. What is realism? What will subvert conformist notions? What will challenge conservative ways of seeing politics and the working class?

After the 60s

By the late 60s the debates about accessibility and realism had reached television. Here filmmakers like Ken Loach and Tony Garnett were faced with a medium that did not shy away from portraying the working class, if mainly in soap operas and cop shows. In fact these were some of the most widely watched programmes. Yet, these new makers asked, were they true?

John Berger also used TV to investigate art. In alternative media, newspapers began to be designed in different ways and the ‘hippy underground’ press supplied ideas for left papers, like the greater predominance of illustrations. The editors of Oz, the number-one underground magazine, even set up a paper - Ink, which was specifically aimed at those interested in working class art, sport and leftwing politics. However, it only lasted a few issues, as the underground was being easily bankrupted by court cases over ‘obscenity’ (and its own contradictions, such as its sexism versus feminism?) One Oz editor even went off to join the entrepreneur revolution of the late 70s by selling fold-out mags on kung fu movies and other trends. Thatcherism was upon us.

However, art that is socially committed, or at least politically challenging, has made a prominent comeback in the 21st century. Gallery artists like Sonia Boyce and Steve McQueen brought forward knowledge of new British experiences as the offspring of empire migrants. Work focusing on subjects such as the Iraq war, homelessness and sexual violence have proved that even the upmarket gallery system of today is not immune to a bit of social consciousness, however limited we might find it.

The above has not done justice to the detail of Art for all, but the only fault I could find in the book was with the reproductions. They are superbly printed, but often far from the references to them in the text. Nor are they numbered, which would help us locate the works themselves if we wanted to check them against that text. There may be some technical reason for this (though John Berger’s art books never had this trouble), but it results in a problem of accessibility.

I take two lessons from this book: one following that generation of artists; the second in reaction to them.

Firstly, these artists constantly discussed their product and their context. Criticism was essential to their practice. So, whatever forms we come up with, whatever arenas we contribute to, evaluation and proposal are necessary. Not constant praise or curt dismissal, but exploration of what is being made and could be made.

Secondly, looking at the workers in the art of yesteryear, this is one subject that has changed. There was an assumption then of a united working class - an obvious common condition which could make the people in a picture appear homogenous. One or a few figures in a single place could stand for the whole class, whether in a mural of Mexicans put upon by capital or Londoners in a street battle.

Now we have a class that is indeed united by more and more similar treatment by trans-global capital, but it is not unified, being divided by position, by ideology, by nationalism - the unemployed or overworked youth, the migrant cleaner, the well-paid electrician, the non-unionised shop staff and the strong transport union. Differences have always existed, created by the uneven economy of capitalism, but now they seem more disparate, exacerbated by a consumption-led individualism and fear of the other (whether defined as ‘underclass’ or ‘gammon’).

This indeed would make a good subject for our new arts - for the independent film, graphic novel, podcast, verse novel and any new art events in photography or assemblage. We all know our rulers are corrupt - from racist politicians to tax-evading multinationals. It is the people - ‘the People’ - who must replace them in a new system, on whom the gaze of art deserves to be fixed.