People's Art: working class art from 1750 to the present day. by Emmanuel Cooper.

Published by Mainstream, Edinburgh 1994

280mm x 210mm, 256pp, lavishly illustrated 25.00 ISBN 1-85158-108-1

People's Art presents a very wide range of visual artworks by non-professional artists in England. Not only is it wider ranging and more fully illustrated than previous publications, such as A.J. Lewerys Popular Art, past and present (1991), it also offers some significant broadening of selection criteria compared with previous celebrations of urban 'folk art' for here we find a banner celebrating gay pride placed within the tradition of union banners (p.97); we find West Indian carnival costumes finding their place; there are works which express an overt political purpose (P.86). At the same time he is not so PC that the importance of patriotism (p.98) and war (p.126) goes unacknowledged. On the level of language there is an easy going usuage of the words 'working class' and a more thorough going analysis of taste and aesthetic questions than you would get in most picture books.

If such books are an index of changing attitudes then I find the broadening horizons and shift in emphases profoundly hopeful. The book calls for the creation of a national collection; such museums exist throughout Europe but in England we have yet to collect and celebrate our native art.

"Whilst peoples art cannot be nurtured, it can be collected" blurb on flycover

As the "cannot be nurtured" above suggests there is great emphasis placed in this book on "little or no formal training" as a qualification for inclusion.  Is training really so impregnated with dominant or Bourgeoise values that nobody from a working class background survives with anything of themselves intact? I would not argue that art school training does not often wipe out the more delicate wc cultural traditions in favour of a authoritative dominant tradition of high art but this is not always the case and there are many interesting survivors.

If good taste, the aesthetics of the upper classes, trickles down on us through the media, as well as through the art schools, surely many with 'little or no formal training' are still influenced by upper class taste. Cooper concedes this last point (see p.22 et al)

I miss a celebration of the working class artists who did make it. Did Henry Moore entirely compromise his working class cultural values? Should we not be able to see the work of Damien Hirst as part of our tradition as much as that of fine art? The drawing of Miners (p.206) by Nicholas Evans reminded me of Moores wartime drawings of people sheltering in the London Underground. Such transgressions may seem like anaethma to a neat romantic view of working class culture but there is no point in attempting to take refuge in simplistic or binary representations of the working class. The romantic view wishes to see the working class as unified again in the way it once was.

These points are important for there are many working class people who now have been through an art education and who would like to see what they do as an expression of working class values. Cooper refers to the "unique and priveliged position of the artist"(p.32 and p.186) which would hardly ring true for the majority of artists. Since post-war higher education and the grant system of the '60s and '70s opened the art colleges up to many lower-class young people. Many of this same group have since found themselves unable to practise because of the clash between their own cultural integrity and the aesthetic demands of the art world (which has no working class caucus) (P.24 mentions resistence but the lack of any detail or discussion implies it was futile). On page 186 and before he mentions that (untrained) working class artists are limited by lack of studio space and material and equipement. But this is also commonly a limitation of working class artist graduates who, even so, are often not driven by a desire to sell and mostly produce works which they do not sell! (p.227 & p.234.)

In fact I would judge that large numbers of working class young people who have a strong vocation to make pictures will find themselves going to art college. Is working class art really going to discount all of these people as if they had walked into oblivion? Was the innocent thirst for knowledge and self improvement really in vain?

If working class art is to be institutionalised as Cooper proposes then it could simply act to idealise a folkish aesthetic and maintain a barrier between working class people and their artists. I would argue that this maintains the secondary myth of class oppression that the working class culture cannot have intellectual specialists. The primary myth being that the working classes are by definition non-intellectual. A myth which only survives in an era of mass education because it is insufficiently challenged.

The value of Coopers stern exclusion is that at least it makes the important point that people don't need a mainstream art training to be able to produce valid art. And that the least the work is influenced by high aesthetics the better. I would agree, the health of a culture requires a direct and unmediated expression. Interest in working class culture from mainstream media, in the last two hundred years or more, has intended to (re)present it selectively within the canons of bourgeoise good taste. Working class culture has been intuitively and consciously repressed. Mention of this repression is diplomatically omitted by Cooper but I think must be a major reason for his exclusion of the trained working class artist. In the past the cultural education of working class people was in effect a brain washing excercise in which they were trained in respectable middle class modes of cultural practice. This still happens to varying degrees, but perhaps little more than the aesthetics of high art influence Sunday painters through galleries, glossy art books and TV(p.185, p.188, p.197). The point that should be admited is that nobody knows because this has been the focus of so little study.

Of course the inclusion of 'professional' working class artists would spoil Cooper's argument for a museum as it would create a very messy and difficult-to-define edges to a category of People's Art.

I don't think it is possible for mainstream culture to accept and resource a fully autonomous working class culture without accepting a serious threat to the existence of class society. The servile and beaten condition of the urban working class is, I would argue, dependent on a continuing denial of full and autonomous cultural development. Perhaps a museum of urban peoples art is a logical progressive step in gradually returning a sense of ourselves as cultural producers and creators. However I fear that such a museum could easily be absorbed into an unthreatening 'folk' category. Cooper avoids the easy devaluation that the inclusion of a whole section on painted custom cars and graphittee would have drawn from the establishment. At the same time the selection does tend to the folksy and away from illegal or aggressive acts of resistance.

In practice I have to admit that the degree to which the teeth are pulled of such an institution would depend on the sponsors and the director. Certainly the "dispersed and incoherent form"(p.12) in which such artifacts are at present collected is part of the active repression of a clear public and historical representation of working class creativity. It is also possible, in spite of Cooper's exclusion of the 'professional' working class artist, that such an institution could provide a setting in which, or even against which, the value of working class artists work could be more clearly read.

Working class aesthetics?

Cooper takes aesthetics to refer only to the values of high art(p.31). Unusually for a picture book in this area he broadly discusses the issues of working class aesthetics such as the lack of adequate terminology (P28);

He makes some interesting comments on the values which differentiate a working class appreciation of art work e.g."curious construction" p.87; "Items made specially for the procession were usually returned to the crucible and remelted" p.91; "nostalgia and myths,the bold imagery of advertising, the immediacy of topical events and personalities" p.108; "major differences lie in the behaviour of the revellers, with one group sedate and ordered while the other is energetic and lively" p.112.

On page 148 he suggest that there is a "'working class' taste" which is diverse and complex as any other. He says that "taste is a relative rather than objective phenomenon" p.183

He points out that there is an "emphasis on the practical, its enthusiasm for waste or found materials, its handling or even adaptation of familiar imagery" p.185.

A minor limitation of the book is that it is organised mainly by material and function which makes it difficult to give a picture of the regional nature of much working class art. Words like 'treen' are clearly regional , I at least have not come across it. Maps would make a useful part of further studies.(see Word Maps, a dialect atlas of England, Croom Helm 1987)

There is sometimes a lack of chronological discipline. It would probably have been hard to impose rigidly without leaving too much out. Maybe Cooper intended this to be an implied statement against the grand narrative of Development...

Sometime he mentions an idiosyncratic artist, such as the furniture maker Andy {p.139), without discussing the relation between cultural artifacts, which have a common style arrived at through some sort of consensus, and individual creativity, which may or may not be taken up by others. How culture evolves, by individual or group initiatives, through multiple dialogues, to a consensus which recognises and responds to changing conditions (P.187). This is another point at which the reasoning for the exclusion of the 'trained' working class artists becomes very thin. The bridges which exist within the milieu of artist controlled exhibition spaces and public and community initiatives need to be explored. Maybe a greater confidence in defining working class aesthetic values needs to come before we can have less rigid frames.

For this to happen working class 'taste' needs its own critics, its own discourse, its own journals and its own artists to mature.(see p.230 for the authors attitudes to an 'academy'.) Culture is a channel and field in which the expression of our individual needs can evolve into social responses to changing conditions. Unmediated, direct, playful, creative responses which are publically shared will lead gradually to consensus on change and adaptation. The mediation of commercial interests or Good Taste, the denial of resources, anything like equivalent to our contribution to the cultural budget, all conspires to deny us an effective culture.

"Today, as for many years, people's art and high art exist alongside each other with limited exchange of ideas and information" p.234. Maybe this exchange is just hidden. I tend to think it is probably profound but hidden by the hegemonic presentation of culture. What is often described as the co-option or recuperation of popular or street initiatives also happens in reverse in that mainstream culture is gradually being infiltrated by working class values and so becoming more democratic. It is the point at which this becomes self-conscious and confident that a critical mass will be achieved and change will proceed faster.

This book is the best book on working class culture since Bob Pegg's Rites and Riots (Blanford 1981) which is quoted but without Peggs name. Rites and Riots covers rural folk culture but with a international political perspective which takes it out of a mawkish folksy idiom. I must say I am slightly dubious of separating visual arts from music, print, performance and vernacular built structures... Working class culture is importantly about social processes and cultural wholes rather than alienated specialisms. Still without this visual focus the book or study could never have been done at all. As it is the book represents over a decade of dedicated research and has much more depth than the coffee table style of the book might suggest. The diversity this book indicates is certainly 'the tip of an iceberg' and a recognised problem of the postmodern era is the crisis of representation that diversifying our focus of knowledge implies.

Although we need a culture to reverse the inhuman trends of classist oppression I'm not sure that neat categories are going to help... beyond a museum proposal! I'd prefer to see the category proposed in People's Art used as a platform rather than a programme.

There is a romantic will at work here... but in trying to make an acceptable museum category that is limited to the visual and includes the contemporary, the heady promise of liberation starts to fade. The interconnectivity of working class culture, its potential to reconnect mind and body starts to get lost. In the end I'm not sure there is a solution to an accurate or complete representation of working class culture. But on the other hand as James Kelman said so forcefully after he recently won the Booker prize; "My culture and my language have the right to exist and no-one has the authority to dismiss that."

Stefan Szczelkun   November 1994.