Raymond Williams on art and society

I’ve spent the last few weeks reading some books (Culture and Society, 1958, Politics of Modernism, 1996, and The Long Revolution, 1961) by cultural theorist Raymond Williams, as part of an attempt to gain an understanding of the cultural and social changes which took place in the mid-twentieth century, and their relationship to art. In The Long Revolution, Williams places art at the centre of society, reality and the way the world is experienced, and in this regard it was The Long Revolution which I found most interesting and useful. Of particular interest are Williams’ ideas about how communication and art can contribute to new social and cultural meanings which come to coexist alongside old meanings, and how individual members of society and artists can contribute to bringing about this change. I was also interested in Williams’ description of both seeing and the creation of reality being a creative act, as they bring back to me some of the ideas explored by Herbert Read in Education through Art, in which he describes the ideal type of artist as being someone who takes a creative approach to everything they do in life, describes aesthetic education as being a way of integrating the citizen with society, and places art at the centre of life.

In The Long Revolution Williams describes society as being in the process of a long revolution which has the power to transform both people and institutions. This revolution, identifies Williams, has a cultural aspect, as well as democratic and industrial elements, and none of these elements can be separated from each other but must be understood in relation to each other.

Williams says that each new generation has its own revolution, and uses the term ‘structure of feeling’ to describe the culture of a period. He says this is something which is not learned and does not appear to come from anywhere, arising from the responses of the new generation to the world it is inheriting. While it may experience some continuities with the experiences of the previous generation, the new generation experiences or interprets certain aspects of reality differently and this becomes the new structure of feeling.

Central to the needs of members of society is the ability to communicate their experiences, and creativity is at the centre of this process, argues Williams. He argues that all activities and areas of reality are subject to man’s interpretation and experience and therefore the world as we experience it is a human creation. By extension of this argument seeing, as well as living itself, is a creative process. Reality is a human creation which is interpreted through certain ‘rules of seeing’ and a ‘pattern of culture’ which provide a system for feeling and acting to which the individual member of society is trained by the previous generation.

According to this argument art and reality cannot, as has often been argued in the past, be separated. Art cannot be dismissed as secondary or a leisure-time activity: it is of fundamental social importance. Williams suggests that the way in which society grows is by discovering common meanings and ways of communication, and he recognises that art can play a fundamental part in this process. It can be an institution, acting as a way of organising experience and creating a shared meaning of society. It can be a way of recognising and reaffirming what we already know, contributing to the creation of a common knowledge. Furthermore, artwork and traditional artistic skills, inherited from previous generations, can create a lasting monument to the meaning of society, which can be passed down, learned and called on to recreate and organise society and its meaning in the future.

However, art can also communicate new experiences and experiences which aren’t communicable in any other way. Sometimes, says Williams, established means of communication are efficient for communicating experience, at other times new forms of communication must be found, and this is when new developments in art and communication take place. Members of society adapt themselves to social changes by developing, organising and describing new ways of thinking, feeling and experiencing, which can reveal and create new areas of reality. Williams describes this in terms of ‘remaking yourself’ and ‘changing your personal organisation’ so you can ‘live in proper relation to your environment’. In these terms, living and working is a constant process, beginning and ending again and on this basis, the experience of individual members of society is vital to social change, as their changing experiences, and responses/descriptions/communications of their changing experience help build up a changing pattern of society.

Often ways of communicating new experiences are developed by the individual artist before they are taken forward by society, argues Williams, and in this way, meaning changes as old meanings come to coexist alongside new meanings. In the 1960s, said Williams, it was increasingly difficult to communicate common experience due to the rapidity at which the experience of society and culture was changing, from art to entertainment to education. This meant that art became visible as a series of individual offerings rather than a common culture or set of common meanings.

Williams also had some interesting ideas on the creation, experience and reception of art, in particular the assertion that communication is about reception and response as much as transmission. In terms of art, this means that both artist and spectator collaborate in the artwork. This depends on a shared system of communication, and when the artwork is successful a working communication is established and a human experience is offered and received, which can then be accepted, rejected or ignored by the viewer.

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