Republican Coloured Kerbstones, Crumlin Road, Belfast 1984, printed 1993-4 by Paul Graham born 1956

‘Keywords’, exhibition at Tate Liverpool till May 11th

Class. Art. Culture. Equality. Democracy. We all know how slippery, contested and ideologically loaded are the shifting meanings of these words. That’s partly thanks to the socialist critic and theorist Raymond Williams, who in 1976 wrote a very influential book called Keywords, revised by him in 1983. It consists of short essays on a number of words which crop up repeatedly in discussions of culture, politics and society, with illuminating insights into their origins, usage, and the range of meanings they carry.

We can thank Williams too for developing what he termed ‘cultural materialism’, an historical and political approach to language, art and culture which showed how important and relatively autonomous they can be in shaping society. He thus helped refine some of the cruder notions which were then more common on the left, which tended to downplay or ignore the cultural struggle in favour of a narrowly conceived economic struggle.

Williams expressed the wish that some other way of presenting the subtle and penetrating insights of Keywords could be devised. His wish has now been granted, by Tate Liverpool. Hard on the heels of their Art Turning Left exhibition, reviewed a few months ago in the Morning Star, comes another imaginatively curated exhibition of leftist artistic practice.

The Tate has chosen some of the words from Williams’s book, mainly those he considered particularly relevant to late twentieth century discourses, and displayed them on the gallery walls. Grouped nearby are various artworks – paintings, photographs, sculpture, film, and installations. The connections between the words and artworks are varied and imaginative, just as the Keywords project was in terms of connecting political and cultural concepts. A rich and shifting collage of multiple meanings are generated by the juxtaposition of artworks with the words, and with each other.

So, for example, grouped by the word Violence we can see Peter Kennard’s Haywain With Cruise Missile, a version of Constable’s iconic painting with cruise missiles on the haycart. Beneath it is Visceral Canker, which presents the coats of arms of the slave trader John Hawkins behind a collection of glass tubing through which a red liquid circulates. And nearby is Paul Graham’s photograph of Republican Coloured Kerbstones, Crumlin Road, Belfast. (These artworks can also be seen at http://www.tate.org.uk).

The 60-odd artworks chosen from the Tate’s collection are nearly all British, and made between 1976 and 1996, with a particular focus on the eighties. This also gives the exhibition, particularly the films, a kind of historical value. Many of the artworks deal with the miners’ strike, the insurgency in Northern Ireland, the peace camp at Greenham Common, riots in Toxteth and Brixton, and the struggle against Murdoch and the police at Wapping. It is almost an archive of committed artistic involvement in oppositional politics in the Eighties, and it is striking and not a little saddening to see how passionate and confident artistic practice was back then.

Occasionally, some of the individual artworks are weak, such as one or two of the installations. And some of the links, juxtapositions and meanings fail to convince, or seem forced. It’s hard to see how Hockney’s painting of Parents belongs with the keywords Private or Structuralism, although it’s a great painting to look at. And given that we are seeing artworks already owned by the Tate, there is an unwelcome link between the £8 entrance charge and Commercialism, one of the keywords which has not been chosen.

Overall though, most of the connections established and meanings generated are creative and stimulating, enriching both text and image. The close clustering of the artworks and the words also allow for a kind of democratic, suggestive openness and ambiguity which itself embodies Williams’s cultural and political project. It also makes a refreshing change from the curatorial elitism of more traditional museums and galleries, where meanings are often dictated to the observer through carefully supervised layouts and explanations of the artworks displayed.

In the best Brechtian tradition, it is at once enjoyable, challenging and thought provoking, a many-layered exhibition of words, images and ideas which will work for anyone interested in art, politics, history, culture and language. As Williams might say, it will give you an Education. Stimulation. Inspiration. And Pleasure.

This first appeared in the Morning Star

‘Keywords’, exhibition at Tate Liverpool till May 11th


Jo Spence, Libido Uprising Part I 1989

Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery, London
© Estate of Jo Spunk

top picture

Republican Coloured Kerbstones, Crumlin Road, Belfast.

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