Back in the 1940s, when Britain still had an Empire and Peter Gregory was developing a fledgling art-publishing list at Lund Humphries, contemporary British art was relatively straightforward to define, even if Britishness and avant-garde art sometimes seemed awkward bedfellows.
At the Lund Humphries 75th anniversary talk at the ICA on 26th November 2014, the panel of experts and artists who had gathered to consider the question ‘Is there such a thing as British art?’ failed to reach any consensus.
British – no, Scottish – no, Glasgow-born-and-based – no, the artist who is simply Nathan Coley felt that the wrong people were trying to answer the question. So he asked some of his artist friends what (if anything) ‘British art’ meant to them. ‘A lot of brown’, offered Anya Gallaccio.
British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE, who describes himself as a ‘post-colonial hybrid’, said that British artists today want to be seen in an international context. Being regarded as a ‘British’ artist defines you as narrowly parochial. But can artists living and working here fail to absorb our traditions and values? And what might those be?
Emma Dexter (newly appointed Director of Visual Arts at the British Council) was helpfully on hand to quote a recent Foreign Office briefing which had identified core British values as Democracy, Freedom of Speech, Civil Society and Respect for the Rule of Law. Iwona Blazwick, Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, had a more eclectic list of British traditions which she felt still informed the way that artists approached their work: small rooms, rain, cloudy skies, colonialism, civil rights, the Reformation and iconoclasm – a culture of the word not the image. And a culture of criticism in our art schools, post-Hornsey at least.
Class reared its head, inescapably. Did an artist become middle-class by virtue of being successful? The two artists in the room couldn’t agree on this. But that class continues to inform the work of many contemporary artists in Britain was undisputed.
Clearly Britain is a very different place now than it was in the 1940s, enriched by immigration from the former Empire and beyond. London is at the centre of a global art market – and the rest of Britain is another country. To what extent are traditional British values still relevant to artists in our multicultural society?
There was so much to say, but time was short: as Chair Tim Marlow reminded us, there was a birthday party to get to. And so, failing to reach a definitive conclusion, but respecting the plurality of views in the room (how British!), we retired to the very British Academy next door to celebrate 75 years of publishing on what we call Modern British Art.
Lucy Myers, Managing Director
You can watch some clips from our 75th anniversary reception at the British Academy, including the announcement of the winner of our Emerging Art Writers competition, on our YouTube channel.