Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain, Tate Liverpool – review

Is Tate Liverpool bidding to become the leftist conscience of British art? No sooner does it close its exhibition Art Turning Left than, hardly a pausing for breath, it opens a show about the 1980s in Britain interpreted through a book by Raymond Williams, the leftwing Cambridge professor and godfather of cultural studies, who died in 1988.

If you were to take this exhibition as a run through the characteristic British art styles of the period, you would say little is missed out. As well as paintings (for example by David Hockney, Rita Donagh, Stephen McKenna, Adrian Berg), photographs (Willie Doherty, Jo Spence) and “traditional” sculptures (Anthony Caro, Bill Woodrow), there are screenprints, found objects, performances, installations, and work by 12 different video artists. However, more than a simple survey is intended here: the aim is a meta-narrative in which art from the decade of Williams’s death is shown to correspond with words from his “seminal” social/cultural lexicon, Keywords.

Cultural studies defines “culture” as widely as possible – from the intellectual arts down to the Ikea catalogue – but Williams himself operated only at the high end of this spectrum (I don’t believe, for all his working class credentials, that he ever really understood popular culture). As a result, when he came to write Keywords’s alphabetically ordered mini-essays on the origins, semantic variations, ideological redefinitions and ambiguities of the terms used in these academic discussions, the nouns in question tended to be ponderous – not just “culture”, “society” and “democracy”, but also “alienation”, “hegemony” and “formalism”. Meanwhile, more common and lively, but equally relevant, words such as “pop” and “fashion” might as well not have existed.

So to go to the book for a British version of Mythologies, Roland Barthes’s sparkling take on contemporary mores, is to head in quite the wrong direction. Keywords is really a textbook, and from it the curators, Gavin Delahunty and Grant Watson, have selected 13 entries, inscribed them in a specially devised cursive on the gallery walls and packed the wall- and floor-space between with a selection of art, mostly from the Tate collection, in the hope that sparks will fly between them. In justification they quote Williams’s statement that he wanted to see the discourse he was engaged in presented in alternative ways.

In some cases there is a loose correspondence between word, object and image. Under “Formalism” (“form as a shaping principle” in Williams’s words) there are abstract sculptures by Anthony Caro and Anish Kapoor. Alongside “Anthropology” (“studies of whole and distinct ways of life”) come a baboon and a naked, possibly “primitive” man by Elisabeth Frink, Eduardo Paolozzi’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog” and a found “Object that Fell off the White Cliffs of Dover” (a battered antique silver teapot) by Cornelia Parker. Opposite “Privacy” hangs Hockney’s “My Parents” and Berg’s evocative painting of a bird’s-eye view of his back garden. Somewhere between “Materialism” and “The Unconscious” lie “Plato’s Chair” – a videoed stand-up performance by the energetic Rose English – and a one-ton oak beam supported by an improvised whitewood scaffold by Stuart Brisley. Here also is a reconstruction of “Carcass”, Helen Chadwick’s magnificent and prescient glass tower filled with rotting and mulching vegetable waste, whose layers continually renewed at the top bubble their way down to bog-water at the bottom.

With many works dating from the 1980s, a strong showing is made by art on racial and sexual politics – though neither were very strong interests of Williams. Some projects have a faux-simple-mindedness, like the painted plywood flats of Lubaina Himid’s “A Fashionable Marriage”, which crudely parody Hogarth while protesting against racism; some are documentary, as in Sunil Gupta’s slideshow “London Gay Switchboard”, which celebrates an embattled sexual community; and some, in the self-important way of such work, expect to be puzzled over, as in Carl Plackman’s “The Immigrant”, an installation of a tipped-over chair, a hat-stand, a frame for sleeping bunks and three garden rakes. Donald Rodney’s “Visceral Canker” is a more direct idea, though the execution rather disappoints. It is the coat of arms of a slave trader on whose shield and crest appear – shockingly to modern eyes – black slaves as boastful emblems, all seen behind a knot of transparent tubing through which a red liquid not very efficiently pumps.

Chadwick’s is the stand-out piece, and others remain vital, but much of the more overtly political work here can offer only a reminiscence of fury abated. At least in Europe and the US, the rage over homophobia and HIV, the subjects of Derek Jarman’s marvellous, angry, Pollock-style painting “Ataxia – Aids is Fun”, has subsided. Ireland too has quietened, reducing the currency of Donagh’s spooky H-Block painting “Long Meadow”, and at the same time the sideburned strikers marching across the Duvet Brothers’ video “Blue Monday” are hard to read as anything but period figures. Much of the pleasure in the show is therefore a touch melancholic. No look back, from a Williamsean perspective, is likely to accentuate the positive aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s pomp years, in which the left’s worst nightmares reared into reality: war, privatisation, the defeat of the miners, the relentless attrition of working-class values and, above all, the crushing announcement that “there is no such thing as society”.

But lack of currency is not the problem here. The real issue is that little of this art connects properly with Williams’s ideas. Maybe we should not be surprised, for the author himself was essentially a reader and writer who rarely discussed painters or sculptors, let alone conceptual artists. The same would be true the other way round: few left-leaning 1980s artists can have been turned on by Williams’s dry pedagogy, however significant academically. This exhibition, then, is best seen not as a visual lexicon of cultural studies, but as reflections on the British left in the now-distant era before New Labour.

To May 11,

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