Herbert Read was a 20th-century British poet, novelist, art critic and writer, and what would now be considered as an anarcho-syndicalist (he had anarchist ideas with a sprinkling of communism). In the art world he befriended and championed a group of young contemporary artists who were to become central to British art historical narratives, including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Read was well-connected and well-regarded within the art world more widely, advising Peggy Guggenheim on additions to her art collection and counting artists such as Picasso and writers like T.S. Elliot amongst his friends. In 1946 Read co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Six years later, in his review of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Read accidentally coined the term ‘the geometry of fear’ when he described a group of mid-20th-century sculptors dealing with the aftermath of the Second World War. And the following year, Read accepted a knighthood from Winston Churchill for his services to literature, which became perhaps the most contentious element of Read’s story.
Despite his impressive career, his historical role has been minimised in the narratives of British art, with only a handful of art historians devoting pages to his work and legacy. There are many ideas as to why this is the case: some suggest that Read, with his complex and unfashionable political ideas, was written out of the legacy when a Marxist-leaning cultural studies, led by Raymond Williams, became dominant within Britain. Others questioned Read’s commitment to his politics after he accepted his knighthood and because he lived on a large country estate. Nevertheless, there are people who remain interested in his work and this is where the seeds for the Manchester School of Art event To Hell with Culture? Re-examining the Commodification of Culture in Contemporary Capitalism were sown.
Initially reluctant to be an interviewee for the film, I returned to the essay to see what Read had to say. In To Hell with Culture (1941) he presents a critique of the commodification of culture, that is, the separation of culture from the rest of life and the financial value placed upon ‘culture.’ In a ‘natural society,’ Read argues, culture should be part of everyday life and not something separate; the idea of a natural society clearly coming from his anarchism. He identified the role that culture has within capitalism, and realised that the ‘appearance’ of culture—an award or two—was added to items to increase their financial value. Adopting a Ruskin-esque argument, Read strongly believed that production should be for use and not for profit. This function, for Read, extends beyond what Socialistsand especially Marxists—would consider as use-value. He understood beauty as central to producing for-use and not for profit and sought to criticise the capitalist co-optation of culture, simultaneously calling for functional art within a democratic society. Despite Read’s assertion that workers would become the collective owners of their respective industries, he maintained a certain conception of the artist in his essay: the Romantic model. The Romantic artist is one based on the individual and to whom Read occasionally refers to as ‘genius.’ Here, Read fights between his politics and his conception of art that was aligned with the beautiful as a spiritual and natural quality. To be socially relevant art has to express the “immediate hopes and aspirations of humanity;” for Read this begins with a democratic culture where education is central and which would, in turn, promote a democratic art.
One could argue that To Hell with Culture is almost prophetic in its identification of a culture saturated with the drive for profit (or, to reverse the equation, profit stemming from capitalist form of cultural value). In our contemporary period of neoliberalism we have an ideology that has adopted the traits of the Romantic artist as its own ‘worker’ model and, in Britain at least, coined, identified and compartmentalised the ‘Creative Industries’ as part of a neoliberal capitalist economy.
In arguing that Read’s essay is relevant today, Huw and I decided to hold an event that would engage a conversation, taking his essay as the starting point. So we posed a few questions through an open call for papers: What can critically engaged artists, activists and theorists learn through returning to Read’s essay? What role does art/culture/visual culture play under capitalism today? What is being done to critique it? Is it possible to make functional art counter to capitalism?
The Snake and the Falcon
Leah Modigliani (Tyler School of Art, Temple University) opened the day with a reading of The Snake and the Falcon, an adaptation of a 1933 speech given by anarchist Emma Goldman in which she cites Maxim Gorki’s poem of the same name. In the parable, Gorki presents the snake, which lives unseen in the mud and shadows and the falcon that soars up to the heavens but is, ultimately, shot down and killed without regret of having lived. As Goldman asked the attendees to Foyle’s Twenty-Ninth Literary Luncheon in 1933 to reflect on their lives, Modigliani also invited the people in the audience to consider which position they inhabited: the snake or the falcon. By updating Goldman’s speech, she drew attention to the problems still facing contemporary society, highlighting another anarchist writer whose work remains relevant today, posing more questions about the cost of education, personal ideals and the belief in a freedom unencumbered by dogma.
The panel on Institutional Contexts presented three different approaches to the idea of the institution: institutionalised shock, the cultural institution and the educational institution. Art Historian Isabel Hufschmidt (Cologne) presented a consideration of the current conditions of contemporary art in its struggle against commodification by focusing on the antagonism between the marketing and commodification of art. She argued that the old avant-gardist strategies of shock (in Dada and Surrealist works, for example) adopted by artists in order to elude institutionalisation, are now becoming the norm. Thus the shock is now institutionalised and further commercialised.