The Independent Group, the Expendable Aesthetic and the knowing consumer

I’ve been trying to get a sense of the art scene at the time in which Pictures for Schools was in operation, and one phrase which has been coming up again and again is ‘the Independent Group’. The Independent Group comprised a group of young artists, writers, designers and architects who met at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London between 1952 and 1955, who included Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, Nigel Henderson, Peter Raynham, Mary Banham and Alison and Peter Smithson. I have been reading Ann Massey’s book about them, The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture, 1945-59 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1995), to find out more. Although it’s not directly related to Pictures for Schools, there is overlap with certain figures such as Herbert Read, Chairman of the ICA at the time, who was also a chairman of the Society for Education in Art and a supporter of Pictures for Schools yet was seen as a reactionary figure by the Independent Group. I also think that one member of the Independent Group, Eduardo Paolozzi, may have submitted work to Pictures for Schools. Massey’s book has also been really good for gaining an understanding of the ways in which fundamental concepts such as modernism, art and culture took on a changing role and meaning in the post-war period.

Founded in 1946, the ICA was seen as a left-wing institution, which promoted European modernism (which, it has been suggested was unpopular with the public yet influential for artists and critics), and functioned as one of the few places in London to see and discuss modern art and design. The Independent Group positioned itself against the ICA, which, Massy suggests, thought the achievements of the European avant-garde could never be surpassed, by analysing modernism critically and using it as a starting point to explore culture. The Independent Group reacted against the Neo-romanticist style of painting and the new culture of consensus brought about by the welfare state, which fused national tradition with European-style modernism, to increasingly reference new technology and take an interest in the new, Americanised mass culture and patterns of consumption, embracing aspects of American sociology and cybernetics.

Unlike the elitist modernism promoted by the ICA, the Independent Group worked to break down hierarchies and bridge the divide between high and low culture, in this respect looking ahead to Pop Art. They collected and discussed aspects of mass culture such as comic books, which were seen at the time as subversive and dangerous for children and even banned from import (articles in Athene, as well as references to the dangers of children’s increasing exposure to comic books in reviews of Pictures for Schools, reinforce the danger and assault on children’s sensibilities that these encroaching aspects of American culture were felt to present). American imagery was seen as sophisticated and cutting-edge, created by skilled graphic designers, and used to interpret why some images worked more effectively than others.

As well as expanding the possibilities of what art could be, whether by incorporating ready-made imagery into collages, such as those by Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, or by discussing ideas of transparency in relation to sculpture, as with William Turnbull, or by changing the ways in which art was experienced and the relationship between the artwork and the viewer, the Independent Group showed that art exhibitions were not limited to showing art. Parallel of Life and Art (1953) juxtaposed photography with art images, Growth and Form (1951) incorporated scientific imagery such as X-Rays, and This is Tomorrow (Whitechapel Gallery, 1956) teamed up artists and architects to visualise the future. The Group invited experts to do lectures, aiming to forge new relations between science and art; several of the Independent Group had scientific and technical knowledge, whether from being aircraft pilots during the war or engineering draughtsmen or undertaking research.

However, the aspect of the Independent Group which interests me most is the notion, referred to by Massey and others, of the ‘knowing consumer’ and the ‘trained eye’. Massey and others have suggested that, in contrast to Herbert Read’s idea of the ‘innocent eye’, the Group analysed culture from within as sophisticated readers of complex imagery, who had grown up with mass culture and were in a position to relate to, make sense of and reappropriate it. This relates to the idea of Pictures for Schools as developing children’s skills of ‘active looking’ as a way of establishing active citizenship and giving children visual skills to orientate themselves within a confusing, complex modern world to enable them to make genuine judgements of taste, as well as Susan Sontag‘s call for a renewed emphasis on the senses when approaching and interpreting both art and modern life.

Setting themselves in opposition to the old guard at the ICA, particularly Chairman Herbert Read, the Independent Group took issue with Read’s universal ideas of beauty, which emphasised qualities such as timelessness, with members such as critic Lawrence Alloway (a familiar name from the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene) seeking a new aesthetic critique involving a more formal rather than metaphysical way of looking at art. This led to the development of an Expendable Aesthetic, which recognised consumer demand, changing technology and taste and the changing nature of fashion and style, dissolving the link between quality and longevity and identifying modern design as serving consumer needs rather than being dictated by external factors such as the media.

For more information about the Independent Group visit http://independentgroup.org.uk/index.html.

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