Past Events

British Art After Brexit

Call for Papers – British Art Studies Editorial Group

  • 13 May to 8 June 2021

Call for Responses

For publication in a Conversation Piece feature in Issue 20 (June 2021) of the open access journal British Art Studies.

What does it mean to correlate art and art history with “nation”? As we issue this call for responses, which has been written by the BAS editorial team, the full impact and effects of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union are just beginning to manifest. In this feature, we are interested in the art-historical, historiographic, curatorial, political, legal, creative, and other aspects of how Brexit impacts on art making and the study of art history in relation to Britain. In light of Brexit and its attendant nationalist politics, we also envisage this Conversation Piece to be part of an ongoing dialogue about what it means to conceptualise a national art history, which in Britain’s case encompasses its pre-colonial and colonial pasts and neoliberal global presents.

The idea of “British art” has always been problematic. This has been highlighted in particular by art and architectural historians who work with material created before the concepts of “Britain” and “British” existed as commonly used signifiers of national identity, or implied meanings not carried by those terms today. Within art history, and the humanities more broadly, the rationale for using “nation” as an organisational category has long been scrutinised and discussed.[1] In 1994, in Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, Kobena Mercer asked “Why the need for nation?”, underlining the critical energy that such questions brought to the activities of Black British artists and their ability to focus attention on undermining racist and fascist constructions of nationhood.[2] In curatorial practice and exhibition making, the category of the nation appears to have been re-energised as a place of geopolitical critique—emerging more as a testing ground for questioning, than as a descriptive, juridical, or bureaucratic term.[3] These efforts issue a challenge to redefine the relationship of art and its histories to nationhood from both within and beyond Britain. As Catherine Grant and Dorothy Price wrote in their “Decolonizing Art History” feature for Art History (2020), “the backdrop of Brexit cannot be ignored, along with the impact of austerity and precarity in the university and museum sectors, and the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in response to both economic and political migration. There is a sense of instability in the political landscape, and conversations are often harder to hear than accusations, condemnation or dismissal”.[4]

We are “in” rather than “after” Brexit. Behind the theatre of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, many important mechanisms of collaboration in the arts have been, or are in the process of being, dismantled. Though much remains uncertain, immediate realities include the loss of around £40 million of EU arts funding a year, the UK’s withdrawal from the Erasmus scheme, and more complicated restrictions on moving, working, buying, and selling, between the UK and EU member states.[5] If the UK becomes an expensive and prohibitive place to study, if access to EU research funding is not replaced, and if cultural institutions begin to see cross-Channel collaboration as a risk not worth taking, will logistical borders necessarily be replicated in the future content and conceptual framing of how we understand art in Britain?

Considering the wider cultural and political contexts of Brexit, we must also ask what it means to make, study, and curate “British” art in a neo-nationalist climate, particularly when the current UK Government exercises political control of the arts, intervening in decisions that curators and educators are trained to make.[6] In so doing, the history of Britain’s resurgent and recurrent nationalisms simultaneously points to an orientation that has never really gone away, and is entwined, as Paul Gilroy has incisively shown over several decades, with the empire and its decline, racism, and “postcolonial melancholia” and violence.[7] This begs the question about the endurance of the compulsion to study national schools.

Brexit has amplified the problem of borders, physically and conceptually—within the UK, internationally, and at the physical edges of the country, making Britain’s status as an island more palpable. While the character of these tensions has shifted over time, both the first referendum to leave the EU, in 1975, and the recent one in 2016, have made the distinctions between England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland more urgent and uncomfortable.[8] We encourage responses to this provocation that consider the impact of these reconfigurations on art making, the interpretation of historical and contemporary art, and the wider cultural field. How does Brexit change conceptualisations—past and present—of English, Northern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh art? How is the imagery and language of Brexit entering into the cultural imagination of Britain? How can art history account for the art and culture of the “borderlands”?[9] What images and ideas of “British art” are being produced from beyond its physical borders? What can the longer histories of the artistic relationships between Britain and Europe tell us about how geographical and conceptual borders have been crossed, negotiated, and bypassed by cultural forms? And what can we learn from how the movement of European art historians to Britain in the past has shaped the field of art history? Finally, looking at the present, has Brexit instigated artists, writers, curators, and historians to imagine alternative forms of association and practice which reimagine or cast aside national frameworks? We invite readers to respond to these questions and pose ones of their own in thinking through the idea of British art after Brexit.

How to Respond

The journal editors will select between 10 and 20 responses for inclusion in the feature, which will be released on 30 June 2021 in Issue 20 of British Art Studies. The authors of published responses will be paid a fee of £250.

Responses should be 500 words and accompanied by one illustration that anchors the text in relation to art and/or visual culture from any period. The illustration can be a still, audio, or moving image and the journal can cover a reproduction fee and arrange licensing. Authors are also invited to submit practice-based responses whose format reflects their artistic research, rather than a 500-word text.

Please include a one-line bio with your submission and send your materials to journal@paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk by 11.59pm BST on Tuesday, 8 June 2021.

Image: Cornelia Parker, A Side of England, 1999, chalk retrieved from a cliff fall at Beachy Head, South Coast, England, wire, and mesh. Photo © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images. Digital image courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

Footnotes

  1. Mark Cheetham, Artwriting, Nation, and Cosmopolitanism (London: Routledge, 2016); Antoinette Burton, After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and Through Nation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); and William Vaughan, “The Englishness of British Art”, Oxford Art Journal 13, no. 2 (1990): 11–23. The journal also addressed this subject in its inaugural issue: Richard Johns, “There’s No Such Thing as British Art”, British Art Studies, no. 1 (2015), https://doi.org/10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-01/conversation.
  2. Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1994), 5.
  3. Most recently, the British Art Network’s Black British Art Research Group organised a workshop titled “Curating Nation”, inviting artists, curators, and scholars to focus on expanded and more diverse narratives of British art that push the parameters of the nation. The event was led by Alice Correia, Elizabeth Robles, and Marlene Smith, in conversation with Hammad Nasar, curator of the British Art Show 9 (which will travel between Wolverhampton, Aberdeen, Plymouth, and Manchester in 2021–2022), https://www.arts.ac.uk/about-ual/press-office/stories/curating-nation-call-for-contributions.
  4. Catherine Grant and Dorothy Price, “Decolonizing Art History”, Art History 43 (January 2020): 8–66, https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8365.12490.
  5. Assessing the European Union’s Contribution to the Arts, Museums & Creative Industries in England 2007–2016, Euclid (London: Arts Council England, 2018), https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/assessing-eu%E2%80%99s-contribution-arts-museums-creative-industries.
  6. In September 2020, the Department for Education prohibited teachers in England from using material created by organisations “that take extreme political stances on matters” such as “a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow … capitalism”, notably keeping materials from antiracist groups, such as Black Lives Matter, and environmentalist groups, out of classrooms. See “Schools in England Told Not to Use Material from Anti-Capitalist Groups”, The Guardian, 27 September 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/sep/27/uk-schools-told-not-to-use-anti-capitalist-material-in-teaching. Again, in September 2020, the Government also instructed arms-length bodies such as museums and galleries to follow its position on contested heritage, which “does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects”. See Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, “HM Government Position on Contested Heritage”, File INT2020/19838/DC, 22 September 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/922293/22-09-20_Letter_to_DCMS_ALBs.docx. Most recently, the report from the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities asks for “all children to reclaim their British heritage” against “negative calls for ‘decolonising’ the curriculum.” See Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, “Independent Report: Foreword, Introduction, and Full Recommendations”, 28 April 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-report-of-the-commission-on-race-and-ethnic-disparities/foreword-introduction-and-full-recommendations. For further examples, seePeter Walker, “Government To Appoint ‘Free-Speech Champion’ For English Universities”, The Guardian, 14 February 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/14/government-to-appoint-free-speech-champion-for-universities-heritage-history-cancel-culture; and “Charles Dunstone Quit Museum Post over Government ‘Culture War’”, Financial Times, 1 May 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/25642d90-d79c-416f-9ebe-30895790bfa9.
  7. Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia(New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
  8. Robert Saunders, Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), see especially, Introduction, https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/51FD15841B1A24EF68DFA551A7F43F4B/9781108425353int_1-26.pdf/introduction_a_fanfare_for_europe.pdf.
  9. Ysanne Holt, “On Watery Borders, Borderlands, and Tania Kovats’ Head to Mouth", Arts8, no. 3 (2019), https://doi.org/10.3390/arts8030104.