The River Resurfaces – reflecting on politically engaged art from the 1970s to today

12 Sep 2017 james



Joseph Beuys’ action – ‘I like America and America likes me’, (Coyote), photographed by Caroline Tisdall, New York, 1974

I’m sitting talking with Caroline Tisdall, a friend who has known Platform since 1986. We first came into contact with her via the producer and curator Richard Demarco: along with him, she was among the first to champion artist Joseph Beuys in the English-speaking world. Beuys’ art and politics were critical influences in Platform’s formation, as well as the insurgent green movement in Germany at that time in which Beuys was heavily involved.

It was Caroline’s photography that helped immortalise many of Beuys’ iconic actions including Coyote (above) in 1974 and it was she who curated Beuys’ seminal exhibition at the New York Guggenheim Museum in 1979. In 1977, she was pivotal in organising the Free International University at the Documenta VI art festival in Kassel, West Germany, where activists such as Mike Cooley spoke about the Lucas Aerospace ‘transition initiative’ and Barbara Steveni described the work of the UK-based ‘Artists Placement Group‘. Far from being too busy to talk with us, from the first moment of telephoning Caroline in 1986, she was extremely supportive, putting us in touch with friends and allies in Germany and helping Platform set sail on a voyage of discovery.

My memory is that in the 1980s when Platform’s early members were in their twenties, we had very little sense of the events that had unfolded in the previous turbulent decade which so influenced our own. Now, over thirty years later, the conversation flows this way and that, and I am able to get new insights into the politics and art of that crucial decade.

Caroline was an art critic at The Guardian throughout the 1970s. She was in her 30s, strongly to the Left, and most significantly a committed supporter of a whole field of politically engaged art that was often formally challenging and conceptual. At the time, Caroline’s politics and position on art was considered provocative. Many voices were raised in opposition to her, yet she persisted in positive reviews of artists such as Judy Clarke, Mary Kelly and John Latham (who with Barbara Steveni formed the Artists Placement Group). Not only did she cover this field in her column, but she also wrote catalogue essays for the exhibitions of those that she supported – for example, Conrad Atkinson. Likewise she later encouraged artists who had been her students when lecturing at Reading University, such as Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn, who went on to form ‘The Art of Change’.

Free International University at Documenta 6 , Kassel, West Germany 1977 – photograph by Bobby Durini

In February 1972 Caroline covered Beuys’ first public action in England. She wrote in The Guardian:

‘Joseph Beuys’ marathon discussion at the Tate Gallery on Saturday was, to use his own title, a ‘Fat Transformation Piece’. The statement on the blackboard behind him read: ‘He who in 1972 can live care free and sleep peacefully despite knowing that two-thirds of humanity are hungry or dying of starvation while a large proportion of the well-fed must take slimming cures to stay alive, should ask himself what sort of man he is, and whether, moreover, he is a man at all.’

I read back over these words and I find it comes as a shock to be reminded just how direct Beuys’ political challenge was to his audience (acknowledging 1970s unreconstructed use of ‘man’). The subsequent public discussion, which lasted 6 ½ hours, covered everything from the question of a radical economic programme to what was to be done about the ‘Special Powers Act’ in Northern Ireland. This one newspaper article reminds me just how deeply engaged many artists were with the political debate and activism in the 1970s.

As we talk Caroline explains how after the Guggenheim exhibition in 1979, she began to weary of the role that she had. The Palestinian struggle for survival gripped her and she took a year out to report from the Middle East and North Africa, during which time co-authored ‘Beirut: Frontline Story’, a ground breaking report about the fate of Palestinians in Lebanon. Once again her work earned her constant criticism and attacks, partly from within Fleet Street and partly from the Israeli government.

By the time our paths crossed in 1986, Beuys had died and the ‘artworld’ had taken a decisive turn. Italian and American male artists such as Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel and Francisco Clemente typified the move towards an all-powerful Art Market: all attention was focused on the objects of high capital value, and on an artwork as a means of generating capital and storing capital. It was only a matter of time before the phenomenon of 1990s Brit Art, fostered by collector Charles Saatchi, gripped the British art scene and filled collectors’ pockets.

Platform had brushes with that world, but it held no allure for us. We’ve always looked to a river of politically engaged art that ran so strongly through the 1960s and 70s, but was pressured underground or into confrontation. We engaged deeply in the thinking behind Beuys’ work – linking with those he’d worked with, creating artworks in Kassel in parallel to Documenta VIII in 1987, and setting up the FIU England which ran in London for a few years.

‘Oil’ by Conrad Atkinson (2014) – created in response to the campaign to stop BP’s sponsorship of Tate and given to Platform

What Platform made in the 1980s was critiqued by some as deeply unfashionable (I remember one person commenting “You want to go back to the Seventies!”). However, over the past three decades, when capital has reigned supreme in the art world, we’ve sustained friendships and connections with those who fought back against the prevailing orthodoxy, including Barbara Steveni, Loraine Leeson, Peter Dunn, Conrad Atkinson, Margaret Harrison, Lucy Lippard, Peter Kennard, Suzanne Lacy, Suzi Gablik, Shelley Sacks, Ian Hunter & Celia Larner. We’ve taken courage and inspiration from their dedication and resilience.

‘Honey is flowing in all directions’ Beuys at work on his sculpture ‘Honigpump’ installed at the Documenta VI eluding to the necessity for ideas to remain constantly fluid

These days, I’m filled with the sense that the times are changing rapidly and radically. In the realm of politics and economics, Left ideas considered an anathema since 1979 are rising, against all odds. Caroline says of the 70s that there was a great sense of fluidity, that everything was being rethought, that boundaries between disciplines melted and radical ideas flowed. As Beuys said ‘Every idea must be seized’ and ‘Honey is flowing in all directions’. Perhaps now, that older river is resurfacing? Perhaps it never went away? Now is the time of movement, after the long winter of the intense capitalisation of art.


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