“British Art Show” at the Hayward Gallery, “Modern British Sculpture” at the Royal Academy of Art, “Part I and II of Newspeak: British Art Now” at the Saatchi Gallery. British, British, British… The fact that three major London exhibitions have all recently focused on “Britishness” is striking. Is this the emergence of protectionism in Arts or a need to define the British national identity in a globalised world? I don’t pretend to answer this sensitive question but it is worth pointing out that something definitively seems to be happening. Aiming at “Thinking Through Things” as a French artist living in London, attempting to define a nation’s identity through art objects is a theme that fits well in my blog. This question is also in the spirit of the times, not only in Arts but in other aspects of life, as testifies the major debate launched last year by the French government on national identity and what it means to be French in a country that has become increasingly multi-cultural (Interestingly, this debate largely backfired as people initially supporting it in polls quickly changed their mind under the pressure from the media who criticized the government for stigmatizing foreigners).
But back to the main subject: is there such a thing as British Art? This question was the title of a series of talks at the Saatchi Gallery in November 2010. The abstract of the talk was: “With the opening of Newspeak: British Art Now at the Saatchi Gallery, and the British Art Show 7 at Nottingham Contemporary, the question of British Art is once again in the spotlight. Both exhibitions include a host of radically divergent artists connected by ‘Britishness’. Does this tag reveal anything more than shared geography? Artists Hew Locke and Barry Reigate, and journalist Louisa Buck, discuss the problematic concept of British Art as a coherent context for artistic production. Is there a particular British sensibility, style or technique discernable in contemporary Art produced in the UK today? Or, have we reached a point at which the idea of a national artistic identity has broken down leaving a multiplicity of artistic forms and languages?”
This debate of what makes the Britishness of Art has even led to a project called "The Great British Art Debate" a partnership between Tate Britain, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service and Museums Sheffield, supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, and by the MLA’s Renaissance program. The home page of this project’s website states: “through this site and a series of events and exhibitions nationwide, we invite you to explore and debate ideas around Britishness and Art. Four galleries are working together to use historic British Art collections to explore questions about nationhood and identity today”.
This website includes a debate section (available on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube) where one can read posts about questions such as: “Is the idea of British Art a British fantasy?” Martin Myrone, a Tate curator wrote: “Yes, but then again Britishness is a British fantasy! We like to think that we can detect essential British characteristics in the paintings and sculptures which happen to be produced here - but I think of it as a ‘Birds of Britain’ question… yes, there are plenty of sparrows in Britain, so sparrows are a very British bird, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get sparrows elsewhere…”
Andrew Bryant, a regular writer in the Tate website, also asks very relevant questions in one of his posts: “What is British Art? Is it Art made by artists born in Britain? Because a lot of British artists live and work in Berlin or New York or in other places. Is it Art made by artists who live in Britain? A lot of those artists aren't British by origin but they live here and produce work here. Is it a certain style of Art, or Art that deals with particularly British topics? I wonder what the reason is for defining Art by nationality in any way. Perhaps British Art is a falsely manufactured 'brand' that makes us feel like we are all one happy nation when actually there are massive sections of the population who are increasingly left out and excluded. In fact, if there's one thing that defines Britain it must be diversity, both cultural and economic. Does British Art reflect all of this difference or are our social inequalities reinforced because of a lack of artists from social groups other than the white middle class?”
I think that the idea of the Bristishness of Art actually leads to more questions than answers. But then, maybe we should be more interested in having the debate than obtaining answers? Let’s see how the exhibitions previously mentioned have tried to deal with the subject.
Here is an extract of the “Modern British Sculpture” exhibition from the Royal Academy website: “Through [exhibited] works, the exhibition examines British sculpture's dialogue within a broader international context, highlighting the ways in which Britain’s links with its Empire, continental Europe and the United States have helped shape an Art that at its best is truly international in scope and significance […]” The exhibition provides a view onto this period of modern British sculpture without attempting to be comprehensive or definitive in its treatment of the subject. As such, it represents a point of view about the work of the period and seeks to highlight certain ways of looking at sculpture by thinking about its relationship with the wider world.”
As far as the “British Art Show” was concerned, curators Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton smartly avoided to define British and Britishness, a concept that has worried many of their predecessors, by opening up the exhibition to any artist working in Britain or any British artist working abroad. Tom Morton encourages us in his catalogue essay to imagine Britain as a “geographically and psychologically unfamiliar place”.
In fact, both of them failed to convince me about Britishness in Art: could it be that no tangible sign of a national identity can possibly be found in a globalised western contemporary Art, end of the story?
I can’t stop thinking about the series of thematic exhibitions held at the Saatchi Gallery in the past few years: “The revolution continues: New Chinese art”, “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East” and “The Empire strikes back: Indian Art today”, where a strong sense of identity and shared concerns transpired, particularly in the excellent exhibition about the Middle East: the majority of artists exhibited there live or were born in a censored society and their works speak about fear, daily constraint of freedom and one should admire their bravery. Some of them had to conceal their identity, some had to show their work in secret and others refused to have their face revealed in photographs. In this exhibition, I truly felt the impact of the lack of freedom and the censorship in almost every artwork, an urge to use Art as a protest, and that, to me, created a very strong sense of identity. Well, I’m not sure this is the kind of sense of identity the thinkers of Britishness in Art have in mind…
So, is there such a thing as British Art? This is an interesting and perhaps controversial question to which I will leave everyone come up with his/her own answer...
Being French and living and working in London as an artist, I can only feel and empirically confirm that there is a “je ne sais quoi” about Britishness in Art. The network of Art and Design schools, associations, government support, galleries, museums and public spaces dedicated to Art, Craft and Design where people work together and exchange ideas leads to the emergence of a community sharing some specific characteristics. Do I feel British or French when I create jewellery? This is a tricky question. Well, I belong to the British Craft community, having studied here, having exhibited in British Galleries, being a member of British associations. My network is mainly British, and I write my blog in English…
The only thing I can say with certainty is that as far as cheese and wine are concerned, I remain French to the core!