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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Nikolaus Pevsner and a ‘geography of art’

I’ve been thinking a lot about the types of artworks shown in Pictures for Schools, many of which are paintings depicting national landscapes and past-times, wondering whether they represent a certain version of Englishness (and Britishness/Welshness in the case of Pictures for Welsh Schools) and what sort of version of national life the artists involved sought to portray to schoolchildren. I’m also curious to map how they fit into a changing tradition of English art.

For some inspiration, I’ve been reading the Englishness of English Art, written in 1955 and based on a series of Reith Lectures of the same name broadcast on the BBC, in which Nikolaus Pevsner, a German emigre, sets out to define whether there is ‘geography of art’, a ‘cultural geography of nations’. He sets out by defining a geography of art as being ‘what all the works of art and architecture have in common, at whatever time they may have been made’, explaining that another way of seeing this is ‘national character as it expresses itself in art’. He makes some interesting points about certain national characteristics he has identified as an outsider, a newcomer to the country, which arise from factors such as the English landscape and climate, before describing their effect on the country’s art.

It’s no surprise that temperance, reasonableness, moderation, conservatism and illogicality are among these essential English qualities identified by Pevsner (for Pevsner, climate is fundamental to character and the qualities of temperance and moderation arise from the English landscape and climate). These qualities, he observes, manifest themselves in practicality, self-discipline and, in art, disembodiment. These qualities have both good and bad implications where art is concerned. England has produced no outstanding genuises in the mould of Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Durer or Grunewald, argues Pevsner, and England is a country of amateur painters, ‘from maiden aunts to Prime Ministers’, because it is characterised by the amateur rather than the specialist, because its painters lack the ‘violent compulsion towards singleminded self-expression to which a lifetime must be devoted’, and because tolerance and fair play win out over fanaticism and intensity. Although Pevsner appreciates the ‘specifically English’, ‘romantic topography’ of Christopher Wood, John Piper and Eric Ravilious, he does not see them as great artists of the twentieth-century, with English painting reflecting rather than leading Continental developments in art (Pevsner thought that even the Festival of Britain of 1951 lagged twenty years behind a similar exhibition in Germany).

England’s tendency towards moderation also counts agains it; it does not tend to overthrow traditions wholesale, as in other countries. When revolutions take place, they are unbloody, notes Pevsner, and the outer appearance of things stays the same even as everything changes. Similarly, some of England’s political characteristics, such as rule by committee and unquestioning faith in the majority vote, are detrimental when applied to art-making, leading to timidity and inertia. Furthermore, reminds Pevsner, committees can not be relied upon to make good aesthetic judgements (an interesting point to bear in mind in relation both to the Arts Council, which was set up after the Second World War and run by committee, and Pictures for Schools, where artworks were selected by committees of artists).

Pevsner links the English characteristic of conservatism to certain aspects of England’s culture which remain grounded in past tradition, from the Judge’s wig to the Cinque Ports, but also paints a picture of England as an old-fashioned country full of outdated modes of living:

“One cannot be proud of all of them – not of obsolete railway stations with unspeakably shabby and dreary waiting rooms, nor of antediluvian dust carts scattering more garbage than they collect, nor of museums in provincial towns – to return to art – where stuffed birds live side by side with paintings of some value and the snuff-box of some citizen of the town.”

In art, this conservatism implies a lack of will to believe in the new, a trust in the tried-out, distrust of experiment for experiment’s sake, faith in continuity and a dislike of breaks.

However, what English artists do excel in, suggests Pevsner, is understatement, as seen in water-colours and miniatures, things on a small scale. He identifies that most of the great British work throughout history is either portrait or landscape, with the artist taking the role of an observer. Painters such as Constable tended to focus on atmospheric qualities such as the dew and breeze. In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century the sporting picture was a speciality. Other distinctly English styles are the open-air portrait and the Picturesque, arising from the English passion for landscape gardens and gardening. Rather than imaginative, the art of the English is informative, narrative, repetitive and incorporeal.

For Pevsner, one of the difficulties of trying to identify a national character in art is that some countries are more likely to seek expression in certain fields than others, and that even where countries do express themselves through art, it cannot express everything about a country. Generally speaking, Pevsner does not see the British as a great artistic nation, however, due in part to an anti-aesthetic streak, which distinguishes between the utilitarian and the ornamental, useful art and useless art; he says that England is stronger at practical activities such as building then in sculpture and painting.

Another difficulty is that, at some times, this national character is stronger than at others, as there is also always, coexisting, a ‘spirit of an age’, which can either reinforce or work against national character. Part of the reason why Britain is not a leader in twentieth century art, argues Pevsner, is because of its dislike of violence and belief in evolution. The spirit of the age, and by extension its art, is violent, confrontational and fragmentary in form, qualities which are in direct opposition to those associated with Englishness.

To bring this back to Pictures for Schools, while some artists did respond to topical events, reflecting the physical and social changes that were going on in the post-war landscape – in 1954, for example, Fred Uhlman submitted ‘Coronation March’, one of several works inspired by the Coronation, and in 1950 John Berger offered a painting of ‘South Bank Concert Hall in Construction’ – a glance at any of the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues shows that many of the artworks depict subject matter of a fairly traditional, conventional, timeless nature which represented Britain at home and at work, at play and at leisure. Artworks dealt with both the manmade and the natural and represented both the urban and the rural aspects of British life. Although some artworks were abstract and in later years a couple of op art pictures were included in the exhibitions, many of the pictures stayed closer to the styles and subject matters you might expect to see in an amateur art exhibition or local painting show, rather than representing the cutting edge of materials and forms, perhaps because these subjects were easy to understand and appreciate and more radically modern art would have been considered too challenging for children. Popular subjects at Pictures for Schools exhibitions included animals and images of children, still lives, landscapes, cottages and country houses, beach scenes, gardens and forests, the high street and individual shops such as the butchers, cultural references and customs such as dancing around the May pole, pigeon houses and fish and chips, games such as football, cricket and hockey. Also common was imagery relating to industries and occupations such as hay making, hop picking, crab boiling potting, net mending, canal barges, railway men, ironworks, gasworks, steelworks, quarrying, mining and smoking chimneys, not to mention the austere mill scenes and northern cityscapes of LS Lowry. One artist went as far as to take this inoffensive, easy-on-the-eye version of everyday Britain to its natural conclusion, offering up a painting of that most utilitarian and easy-to-overlook bits of design, a pedestrian crossing, while Mary Hoad considered it appropriate to depict ‘A Filling Station in Hertford’.