Core course week 10: Museums of experiment and critique

5 Jan
Growth and Form, ICA, 1951

Growth and Form, ICA, 1951

Notes from  class: 7th December 2010

Back to familiar territory in the penultimate week of the core course with Ben Cranfield and a discussion of my former employer the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Ben’s doctoral thesis was on the ICA and its role as a changing place for the display of art in the post-war period.

Ben took as his starting point for the critique of museums the reception of Adorno’s description of museums as “family sepulchres for works of art” as an indication of the museum as a place of symbolic death. He identified the ‘museum studies’ position as located in traditional museum spaces that excludes certain other spaces of display; posits the audience as passive; understands the museum as a place where culture and criticality are neutralized; and concentrates on a primarily narrative and representational discourse about museums and their totalisation. (I’d have to say that he was probably a little ahead of the class here on his presumption of our preconceptions; quite a bit of the core course seems to be dedicated to the effort of dislodging opinions I didn’t know I had).

In reasonable opposition to this position, however, he suggested that we might ask how an understanding of alternative spaces of display (such as the ICA) might shift our understanding of the function of museums. Asking this might involve some curatorial studies, or at least the sociology of art, and examining the relationship between institutions and networks for radical possibilities or new codes of power. Also we might consider:

  • New cultural categories
  • The emergence of temporary exhibitions
  • The change in the figure of the curator

The ICA was founded in 1947 as a temporary exhibition space with a club room, relying on a combination of private and public funding to establish itself. Ben circulated Herbert Read’s letter to The Times of 26th June 1947 appealing for support for the new organisation. It stressed the breadth of artforms the ICA would consider, an international perspective, and the sense of the ICA not just as a space but a movement.

Read’s idea of the ICA was a place where a common ground for contemporary culture could be found, a place for a ‘unified culture’ built through exchange between artists and their consumers. Roland Penrose’s brief for an exhibition space was ‘not as a static place but a creative place’. Read described the ICA as ‘a laboratory, not a museum’, ‘ an adult play centre’ and a ‘daring experiment’.

Despite this talk of experiment and laboratory, Ben stressed that the ICA was not then conceived of as a countercultural organisation (as it has been since), but as the spearhead of a new post-war consensual culture. Analogs to the ICA that we might consider include the Bauhaus, Unit One and Black Mountain College: multidisciplinary centres driven by a vision of a transformation of artistic culture in general.

(As an ICA employee some sixty years later, it’s interesting to reflect that despite all the structural and cultural changes the ICA has been through, some of this idealism persisted, in warped but recognisable fragments. Certainly the notion of countercultural activity had long subsided, with minimal embarrassment about intimate relationships with corporate sponsors, and the idea of any kind of avant-gardism had been replaced by trendsetting – evidence of subsequent success was the only necessary justification of our patronage. But the idea of the ICA as host to people rather than objects, a place of ‘creative exchange’ definitely persisted, even in minds forged by style magazines, who thought that contemporary art largely existed as a kind of free idea pool for advertisers.)

Key figures in the ICA’s formation: Herbert Read, an establishment anarchist, keeper of ceramics at the V&A, and author of influential interwar books on art such as Art and Industry (1934) and Education Through Art (1943); Roland Penrose (after whom the ICA’s current series of exhibition mini-catalogues are named): a collector, artist, gallerist and bankroller of the early ICA. A friend of the Picassos and promoter of European modernism; Dorothy Morland, the ICA’s first director; Richard Hamilton, an exhibition organiser and co-founder of the Independent Group; Lawrence Alloway, director of exhibitions.

Ben noted that though the Smithsons and Paolozzi were closely associated with the ICA, neither were formally part of the structure. John Berger’s involvement was brief: in the mid-1950s part of the ICA committee, he resigned in protest at their opposition to ‘kitchen sink’ paintings and continued his critique of the ICA from the pages of the New Statesman.

Ben then introduced Habermas’s idea of ‘ideal speech situations’ and the suggestion that the ideal of the ICA, the ‘equivocal utopian moment’ of its founding lay in a desire for art criticism as a conversation between artist and viewer. We looked at the early history of the ICA through its exhibitions:

40 Years of Modern Art, 1947, was an exhibition held in the basement of the Academy Cinema on Oxford Street, a presentation of Modernist European Art, drawn from British collections: a conventional survey exhibition.

Growth and  Form, 1951, a science and art exhibition based on D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form.

Parallel of Life and Art, 1953, in which Nigel Henderson and the Smithsons began an assault on neo-Palladian architecture.

An Exhibit, 1959, involving Richard Hamilton, Victor Pasmore and Lawrence Alloway, in which the structure of an exhibition, a reusable template, was presented, without images to fill it: a space ‘to be played /viewed/populated’.

At the end of the 1950s the ICA was moving away from being a place of consensus. The role of the mass media became increasingly important, and burgeoning American imperialism made pro-Americanism ever more problematic. Tensions were evident in This is Tomorrow in 1956 (at the Whitechapel not the ICA) which contained both cheerful pop collage, and also the chaotic and distinctly unoptimistic prospect of the Henderson/Paolozzi/Smithsons collaboration ‘patio and pavilion’. This is Tomorrow, however, also offered new uses of the display space, with collaborations between architects, artists and designers oriented less on objects than on the use of the gallery space.

In all this, however, while hierarchies of display and artistic practice were challenged, some older structures of class and gender, as well as unreconstructed notions of art itself, went (surprise) unchallenged.

One of the class, a social history curator, pointed out how little of this history of development applied to the curation and display of social history artefacts. Ben suggested that a split in the attention of ‘museum studies’ was visible between discourses of education and engagement, which focused on objects and history (the domain of ‘social history’ museums), and discourses about overall concepts of institutions, which focus on galleries of art as such.

Ben ended by suggesting that perhaps the baton the ICA long carried, of questioning and pushing the nature of the display space, has now been picked up by non-contemporary art organisations (perhaps ones like Apex Art) which are free to deal with curatorial issues beyond the domain of the art museum, where organisations like the ICA have worked themselves into dead end with their concentration on art. Though of all the dead ends the ICA has found itself in recently, this may not be the worst.


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