Construction of national identity: British art 1930-1990

Masters, David (1996). Construction of national identity: British art 1930-1990. PhD thesis The Open University.



Claims for the 'Englishness' or 'Britishness' of art are often attended by a confident appeal to the 'obvious' innateness of certain characteristics - such as individualism, an amateur impulse, or a tendency for figurative work. In some cases claims are made that these, and other 'national' traits, are an embodiment of 'civilized values'. One of the objects of the present study will be to identify and examine some of these key characteristics. This will involve an enquiry into the relationship of art to other areas of social life at different historical conjunctures.

Three periods have been chosen for particular consideration: 1930-1939; the mid-40s to mid-50s; and the 1980s. In each of the three periods attention will be focussed on a range or art practices, theories, and sites of production and distribution. This will involve, in some places 'case studies' of books, journals and exhibitions which seem to bring some of the issues into sharp focus.

Key subjects will include not only the issue of what is 'British' but what is 'un- British'. 'Figuration', 'the landscape', 'abstraction', and 'internationalism' emerge as some of the principal concepts fought over by those who attempt to assert or contest what is essentially 'British'. A further object of enquiry will be the claims made by some 'critical' modern artists and critics that invocations of 'Britishness' reveal a tendency in this country towards parochialism.

The thesis will conclude by observing an interesting development in Britain during the eighties. While some have pronounced modernism dead, others have continued to believe that some of the fundamental ideals and values of modernism remain substantial. Modernism, the latter would claim, continues for the foreseeable future to provide the necessary resources to maintain a critical practice which can resist the more parochial tendencies of 'British' art.

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