Arts in Society

‘Arts in Society’ edited by Paul Barker; Five Leaves, 2006. 196pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 18 August 2006

There’s a certain self-assured confidence about this series of essays that first appeared in the social sciences magazine New Society between 1964 and 1976. Barker, who was the editor of New Society from 1968 until 1986, has dipped into a rich archive and rescued some of that magazines finest writing, most of which easily stand the test of time. 

This collection comprises entertaining offerings from an eclectic mix of authors. Dennis Potter writes on the universalising potential of television drama and Michael Thompson re-evaluates obsolescence, while more established cultural commentators like Reyner Banham writes about the need for well-designed power stations and EP Thompson compliments this, writing in the same year, with an article on strikes by power workers. Each essay offers a glimpse into another world.

Barker says that these essays are ‘in the honourable tradition of Dissent’ and New Society clearly provided room for public intellectuals to develop ideas without cant. Today, by contrast, considered essays seem to have given way to polemical opinion pieces and there are precious few spaces left for musing, so this book is a timely reminder of how it should be done.

While these essays are popularist, they make no intellectual concessions. From high art to pop art, each essay is engagingly serious, although not without humour and it is clear that they are striving to get difficult concepts across in an engaging but challenging way. Nowadays, instead of popularisers we have communicators like James Gleick, Malcolm Gladwell or Alain de Botton who would probably have taken one of these single issue, 2000 word essays and strung it out into a full-length paperback with options on the serialisation rights.

In Art and Society, each writer’s informal prose belies the intellectual risk-taking necessary to deal with so many varied arguments. None more so than the always-invigorating John Berger, whose essay on the death of the portrait, is as fresh and thought-provoking as it must have been in 1967. His, and the majority of all these essays, are in the best tradition of considered, critical thought – of everyday artefacts subjected to intelligent reasoning.

Reyner Banham’s 1970 essay on ‘the crisp at the crossroads’ is a case in point. It is about crisps, but it is really a perambulation around the social mores of the time. Banham’s tableau is infused with gentle snobbishness, but it is simply very interesting. In Michael Wood’s 1968 essay on John Lennon, James Joyce and Durkheim are recruited to make a point en passant. It is clear that this is popular magazine writing from a different era: an era when popular critique took itself, and the audience, seriously.

Angela Carter’s well-constructed thesis apes the male soft porn magazines that she is critiquing. Her matter-of-fact opening line: ‘Cock modestly detumenscent, Andrew Cooper III… leans against the bonnet’ could have come from a Chandleresque novel and still has the power to shock. Andrew Weiner’s essay on Marc Bolan conveys the excitement of the time and Albert Hunt’s essay on Morecambe and Wise is the only weak point, spoiled presumably by an over-familiarity with the subject matter.

However, it is Berger’s 1972 piece on Francis Bacon entitled ‘The worst is not yet come’ – an object lesson in how to write well – that provides the reason why these essays are important today. Writing about art criticism in general, he notes that ‘the more closely I, as a critic, examine a work, the more I have to say about the world, not about it.’ The lack of cultural critiques of similar integrity today, does indeed say something about the contemporary world.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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