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Contemporary British Art

An Introduction


Grant Pooke


Abingdon & New York: Routledge, 2011. Paperback. 304 p. £24.99 / $39.95

ISBN 978-0-415-38974-7


Reviewed by Jennifer Way

University of North Texas




Grant Pooke describes Contemporary British Art : An Introduction as

a general introduction to British art from the late 1980s through to the first decade of the new millennium. It has been authored for the general reader and interested student, and does not assume any particular or specific knowledge of the subject [4].

Furthermore, the book aims to provide “a point of purchase and context for what has been one of the most diverse and innovative periods within recent British art history” [4]. In contrast to the current fashion of discussing “the ‘political and affective turn’ of recent art practice in the face of accelerating globalisation,” Contemporary British Art : An Introduction addresses art in its involvement with “contexts, audiences and constraints of cultural production, and with the defining political and social events of recent decades,” along with a new generation of artist’s “developing perspectives and directions” in the context of “a rapidly globalising, late modernity” and the activity of artists who, since the period prior to the 1980s, “continued to be engaged in technically innovative and politicised practice—across all genres” [4]. Although “[i]n scope and focus” its narrative is “angled towards “exposition and description” [4], also, it evidences the influence of theories of culture in relation to political economy and raises questions about how it defines “contemporary British art.” However, before addressing these topics, first, it is important to appreciate the amount of artistic activity and practices Pooke surveys so carefully, in impressive depth.

Following the Introduction subtitled “Cool Britannia, Contemporary Art and the Altermodern,” in the first chapter, “Perspectives on the Contemporary Art Market and its Institutions,” Pooke sets forth an historically framed account of the political, economic and cultural context for the twenty or so years that constitute the book’s purview. This chapter also serves as a point of departure and touchstone for the remaining chapters: Chapter 2, “Post-Conceptual British Painting”; Chapter 3, “Installation Art and Sculpture as Institutional Paradigms”; and Chapter 4, “New Media in Transition: Photography, Video and the Performative.” Their titles intentionally signify that instead of describing contemporary British art as a singular entity best described as developments unfolding along a unidirectional timeline extending from the late 1980s to the present, Pooke chose to tell about “specific genres or related practices: painting, sculpture and installation, photography, video and the performative” [5]. His approach “foregrounds the materiality or immateriality of the object, image, idea, performance or constructed environment” also to show what it signifies in regard to “shifts in culture and intellectual fashion” [6] and alert us to “narratives and cultural histories”[6] inhering within each genre. The last point reveals how history informs Pooke’s account: “[e]ach chapter opens with a brief historical mapping of the genre, with mention of some of the issues explored and discussed by commentators and academics” [5]. Also, Pooke does situate British contemporary art in relation to recent British history. In the Introduction he establishes the book’s historical purview as “a period of just over two decades, one of the most eventful within British and European post-war history” [7-8]. Additionally, the Introduction overlays political and social events with major cultural developments, including humanities discussions about the end of modernity and history [8], the devastating loss of British art in the Momart fire of 2004 [9-10], the emergence of post-Young British Artist or YBA art [10] and theory, including Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, 2002, Postproduction, 2007, and the “altermodernity” of the Fourth Triennial Exhibition held at Tate Britain in 2009 that signaled “a new form of modernity, but one in which contemporary cultural practice is informed by hybridity, mobility and translation” [11]. Pooke also touches on correlations between cultural developments and themes in post-colonial theorists’ Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, 2000 [12].

In Chapter 1, he delineates contemporary art not as a litany of individual artists or styles, rather, he introduces key conditions and benchmarks of its development, critical reception and use especially within an economic context. He begins by revisiting the rapid growth of the art market before the current recession, focusing on Damien Hirst, with emphasis on For the Love of God, a platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with diamonds that sold in 2007 [17]. Pooke says Hirst then proceeded to sell his art directly instead of going through a dealer [17], and he explains how this contributed to “the idea of art as a speculative investment” and asset internationally [18]. Then, he focuses on the contemporary art world as an art market, that is to say, as economic, social and cultural activity modulated by the political economy at large. He zeroes in on Britain to survey the interplay of artist and gallery, sales and reputation, ethics and museum, and ownership and resaleall by way of specific examples. From there, Pooke surveys types of patronage, providing detailed references to events, developments, participants, objects, and consequences. The discussion includes patronage by celebrities, Charles Saatchi, and the government [25-34], commissions for public art, including the Fourth Plinth program in Trafalgar Square, London [37-41], and British art awards and prizes. Near the end of the chapter he discusses “the creative economy and cultural regeneration” [51-63]. He concludes with “contemporary art fairs and biennales” [63-65].

Except for the Introduction, as with Chapter 1 Pooke divides each chapter into many sections. Their subheadings signal the chapter theme, however, each section also reads nicely as a stand-alone essay. The copious endnotes that follow all of the chapters provide supplementary information and serve as bibliography; some have relevant URLs. The fifteen-page bibliography located at the end of the book includes primary sources, namely, a list of the author’s correspondence with individuals, and secondary itemsnewspaper and journal articles, exhibition catalogs and books. Each chapter includes several black and white images, some reproduced in full page. A central section features twenty-four colored plates.

Chapter Two covers “Painting: histories, ideas and contexts”; “British painting: cultural politics, dissent and other narratives”; “Place, entropy and the imaginary in contemporary painting”; “Postmodernism, Stuckism and film noir nostalgia”; and “Gestural and geometric British painting: modernisms revisited”. Pooke begins with a rhetorical device readers will encounter again in this chapter and elsewhere in the book. He introduces a section by using two or more examples of art criticism, theories, or exhibitions to establish opposing ideas that may also span one or two decades. They create a polarity that allows him to expound further on the positions and provide some less polarized examples and/or demonstrate variety or developments within a genre. For example, at the start of Chapter 2, in order to examine “some of the ideas and themes adopted  by British painters over the two decades leading up to 2010” [74], he put forth “polarised readings” about the power of painting as indicated by the reception of Marcus Harvey’s painting Myra, 1993, which “provoked a media storm during its display at the Royal Academy’s exhibition, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection in 1997” [72], a statement about painting and abstraction from curator Jaime Stapleton, and art historian Griselda Pollock’s assertion that painting has been superseded by other media [74]. In this chapter, Pooke uses the device also to parse theorist Peter Fuller’s “conviction that place and landscape remain reservoirs for memory and the idea of the transcendent” [94] against Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the “complete and dystopic ‘imaginary’” [98] inhering with images that “cease to have any relationship with anything other than their own simulation” [97].

In and around this framing, Pooke covers a lot of ground. At the outset, he says there was “continual instability as to what painting is or might be” [75]. Then, he rapidly moves through a comment by Adrian Searle about the material objectiveness of painting that is also an image and references to the American art critic Clement Greenberg and the primordial “origins of painting in mark making” [75]. From there, he revisits a history of painting since the nineteenth century in France and mid-century America [75], on to the present, touching on Art and Language’s artist, critic and now art historian Terry Smith [76], then slowing down to focus on two exhibitions: A New Spirit in Painting held at the Royal Academy of Art in London, 1981 [77] and, following some comments about the political climate of the Thatcher era, Hybrids: International Contemporary Painting, Tate Liverpool, 2001 [78]. Whereas A New Spirit in Painting suggested a “conservative and reactionary aesthetic,” Hybrids surveyed “more fluid and expansive identities for post-conceptual painting and the directions it might take” [79]. It mapped “contemporary painting as discursive and expansive interventions within a globalised cultural economy” [79]. Pooke mentions some additional exhibitions, notes the trajectory of Modernism and conceptualism, and acknowledges the importance of Gerhard Richter’s exploration of photography in painting. Then, he shifts to themes of cultural difference and post-colonialism in painting through the work of Rasheed Araeen and The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-war Britain, the exhibition Araeen curated for the Hayward Gallery in 1989. Pooke explains,

Over two decades on from the particular post-war diaspora which themed Araeen’s exhibition, Britain is a diverse and multi-ethnic society. Black, Asian and African artists living and working in Britain are prominent across the visual arts [82].

Pooke then mentions some of the best-known artists whose work has long attracted critical attention primarily in terms of the artists’ ethnic heritage. As another topic, Pooke compares and contrasts how several painters engaged with recent wars [89-92].

In Chapter 3, he covers “Installation and installation art”; “Site-specific and nonsite-specific installations”; “Installation, Objecthood and active spectatorship”; “Phenomenology and installation art”; “Installation art, praxis and relational aesthetics”; “Installation practice as a dream-like encounter”; “Paradigms of installation art as immersive experience and subjective disintegration”; “Installations, bodily response and experience”; “Installation, politics and activated spectatorship”; “ ‘Sculpture in the expanded field’–traditions and revisions”; “Sculpture as commodity and appropriation”; and “Sculpture, ambivalence and the abject.”

Like other chapters, here, Pooke controls a lot of dense, thematic material by selecting a few art examples that he treats in depth, sometimes through juxtaposition, such as Anish Kapoor’s enormous installation of stretched PVC called Marsyas (2002) [127] and Richard Wilson’s 20:50 (1987), consisting of 200 gallons of used sump oil [127-131]. He also discusses single works at length, such as Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s Black Narcissus (2006) [138-140], which he handles admirably in regard to its complex construction and installation, and references to the Freud Museum in London and Freud’s theories.

Pooke acknowledges that certain themes of viewer experience he uses to organize quite a lot of material [134-168] come from Claire Bishop’s Installation Art : A Critical History (2005). Yet, the use he makes of other texts may seem less clear. A case in point is the section he devotes to “traditions and revisions” of ideas expressed by the American art historian and critic Rosalind Krauss’s essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” [168-171]. The links Pooke may want us to appreciate between the essay and the other texts and works of art he mentions are difficult to grasp if we assume he selected the latter to show in a cause-and-effect manner that artists obtained and read “what was to become a highly influential essay” [169] and applied it to their own work. Adding further complexity, the narrative speeds from before the twentieth century [168] to the 1960s and 1970s, through European modernism of the early twentieth century to the mid-twentieth century, running from there through sculpture and objects of the 1960s [169], Eduardo Paolozzi, Robert Morris and anti-form, New Generation sculptors, Anthony Caro, and Gilbert and George [170]. After mentioning some additional sculptors, Pooke returns to Krauss to mention her updating of “the expanded field” before pausing on Unmonumental : The Object in the 21st century, an exhibition held at the new Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, 2007 [171].

Topics that he discusses in Chapter 4 are “Photography: contexts and histories”; “Narratives and countercultures”; “Video and performance art”; “Performance, abjection and other narratives”; “Documentary genres: docu-fiction and social reportage”; “Technical interventions, defamiliarisation and spectacle”; and “Portraiture, still life and new media art: objectification and reversals.” Like many surveys of contemporary or modern art, Pooke places “technological” media in the last chapter of his book. An inference may be that technology-based or related art is inevitably associated with progress or the future. To be sure, at some points he contextualizes vanguard art practice in regard to popular and countercultural art and performance [191]. Yet, elsewhere Pooke veers close to suggesting that the invention of technology was cause enough for artists to employ it. Thus, Sony inventing the Portapak video camera during the mid 1960s constituted “a major technological development, enabling cheap, direct and individualised recording” [189]. Pooke’s close call with technological determinism in this chapter raises a broader question of methodology—how can we tell about “narratives and cultural histories” [6] inhering within genres, yet not imply that “the materiality or immateriality of the object, image, idea, performance or constructed environment” [6] or its techniques or means solely caused what in retrospect we perceive to have happened next?

Overall, Chapter 4 has many passages that correlate features of art practice with social and artistic developments. For example, “conventions of portraiture and self-presentation” were “explored by a post-conceptual generation of artists responsive to the issues of photographic reliability and objectivity” [227], including by Steve McQueen in his commission from the Imperial War Museum, Queen and Country (2003-) [230-2]. Interestingly, this chapter provides one of the few examples of Pooke alluding to something from another one. In this case, the link develops in Pooke’s discussion about Isaac Julien. In Chapter 4, Pooke credits Julien as a founder of Sankofa Film and Video Collective, “the venture mediated intergenerational Black and Asian experiences of contemporary culture and politics to new and broader audiences”[192]. Also, he suggests that

[l]ike some of the narrative painting discussed in Chapter 2, much of the experimental film and video of this period was a politicised response to the socially polarised experience of growing up and living in the United Kingdom in the 1980s [193].

The link Pooke forges here between film and video in Chapter 4 and painting in Chapter 2 raises questions about whether the “genres” he surveys in separate chapters developed in response to a common social context and whether using genres to divide the book unduly elides explanations for why and how artists could be “working across several genres concurrently” [5].

This brings us to the question of how Pooke’s book compares to other accounts of contemporary British art. By focusing on the past twenty or so years, Contemporary British Art : An Introduction is able to delve into art genres and what it perceives is their cultural and social history in greater depth than Yale University Press’s The History of British Art, Volume 3: 1870-Now (2009) and Brandon Taylor, Art for the Nation : Exhibitions and the London Public, 1747-2001 (1999). Also, the art Pooke surveys is more varied than in the topic-themed High Art Lite : The Rise and Fall of BritArt by Julian Stallabrass (2006). On the other hand, as an introduction to the subject, Pooke’s book sacrifices the methodological and interpretive innovations associated with Iniva’s Annotating Art's Histories series edited by Kobena Mercer, which, although not limited to British art, often takes on that topic. Furthermore, in much of his narrative Pooke presents the work of other scholars, which he does fastidiously cite.

This is not to say that Contemporary British Art : An Introduction delivers only “exposition and description” [4]. For one thing, it draws upon theories of political economy in ways that remind us of Pooke’s other publications. In that it features history, socio-economics and the interrogation of reality and truth as a foundational framework in which contemporary art becomes meaningful, it resembles Pooke’s and Grant Whitham’s Understand Contemporary Art : Teach Yourself (Teach Yourself, 2010). Also, although they are not deployed in the same order, the genre-divisions Pooke used in Contemporary British Art : An Introduction roughly correlate with some of the artistic forms that Pooke and Whitham treated as chapter headings. Moreover, the genres Pooke features in Contemporary British Art : An Introduction may be understood to arise in relation to an economic foundation in general and more specifically in regard to the economics of the art world. For example, in Chapter 3, Pooke treats installation as that cultural form, discussing, through Julian Stallabrass’s scholarship, how installation related well to certain features of the art economy of the early 1990s [125]. This socio-economic-based context for art resonates with Pooke’s scholarship on Francis Klingender in Francis Klingender 1907-1955 : A Marxist Art Historian Out of Time (2007), which comes out of Pooke’s dissertation for the University of Southampton, 2006. The German-born Klingender, who grew up and worked as a scholar and professor in England, used Marxist approaches to study a wide range of art and society, including in his book, Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947).

Interestingly, for a book pitched at novice readers, not much is done to encourage them to develop accounts of the recent history of British art that may differ from Pooke’s and the status quo. To be sure, Contemporary British Art : An Introduction examines diversity as a topic in regard to artists and themes of ethnicity and gender. Yet, some of this is undermined because it shows up in expected siloes as opposed to serving as a force shaping the narrative overall or as a means to rethink the interpretation of a genre. For example, in the overview of recent developments in the economic, political and social infrastructure of the art world that he surveys in Chapter 1, Pooke omits the founding and impact of the Institute of International Visual Arts, including its outreach, events, Stuart Hall Library and publications program. Instead, he places a reference to the organization in a discussion about race and ethnicity in painting in Chapter 2 [82]. Also, like his placement of artists whose work attracted critical attention primarily in terms of Black, Asian and African-British contexts in the part of his narrative devoted to race and ethnicity, it is interesting that Pooke featured women artists in regard to topics that typically are gendered feminine. To wit, Pooke discusses Jenny Saville in regard to her work with “fashion photographer and filmmaker Glen Luchford in Closed Contact, 2002” [95], in other words, to exemplify an artist working with female body content, the fashion industry, historical traditions of the nude, and aesthetics and realism. In Chapter 3 this happens again where the work of Cornelia Parker and Tracey Emin respectively is used to exemplify bodily response and experience in art [148-152].

Equally interesting, although the title of his book features “British,” Pooke does not problematize who is a British artist or where they are located or in what ways they engage in cultural encounters with ideas that issued outside the nation or, insofar as Britain is a nation, inside its topographical or other types of borders. To be sure, in some passages Pooke problematizes the definition and reality of what a nation is: “in the face of increasingly connected (and fractured) global economies, the idea that cultural and ethnic identities are somehow determined by national borders is risible” [12]. Furthermore, he relates the situation to Britain: “Nowhere is the ideological impoverishment and deficit of contemporary British politics clearer than in the regressive and confused government policy and parliamentary debates concerning cultural identity” [12]. Curiously, he seems on the verge of explaining what he means by including “British” in the title of his book. He discusses the Turner Prize, which “remains the UK’s most prestigious visual arts award” [46], and its impact: it “made an important contribution to internationalising the profile of British art and to the UK’s standing as a center of innovative contemporary practice” [47]. Yet, Pooke does not use this discussion to launch a definition of Britain as a nation or a “united kingdom” or explain what constitutes the “British” or “Britishness” in art that ostensibly serves as his subject.

The question of what or who is British or where British is in reference to Contemporary British Art : An Introduction filters into genre discussions as an omission. For example, in reviewing artists’ ideas about television Pooke touches on Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell; he continues, “One of the reasons for such a negative response to television arose from the apparent passivity of the viewer and (implied) consumer in relation to the broadcast content of the various terrestrial television channels” [190]. An inference is that television—what it was, how artists accessed it, what it signified to them and how all of this related to general population patterns of defining, watching and understanding television—was a supra-national experience unmitigated by recent national contexts of history, place, or class associated with technology, popular culture, leisure, workaday life and domestic space and relations. This is difficult to accept, given the still paradigmatic strength of Raymond Williams’s Television : Technology and Cultural Form (1974). Elsewhere, what is British slips from Pooke’s narrative as what is perhaps a different configuration of place and purview emerges:

As these examples suggest, the exploration of the abject extends across a diverse and international range of art practice, but the centrality of the body and its associated iconography has given its particular resonance and topicality within the genre of performance [197].

In two additional ways, Contemporary British Art : An Introduction may leave readers wanting further clarification on the British aspect of British contemporary art and potentially trouble Pooke’s intention to organize his narrative by genres in part because “the conventions of genre-based art have their own narratives and cultural histories” [6].

One involves modernism. Art historians who study modernism in regard to Britain emphasize the complexity of modernity and modernism relationships in and of themselves, let alone as we treat them comparatively because they arise throughout the world from common circumstances of Eurocentric colonialism and imperialism (as Rebecca Brown suggests in her critical review of Partha Mitter’s The Triumph of Modernism : India's Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922-1947 [2007]) or they generate one another through cultural encounters or exist multiply. Indeed, the “British modernism” to which Pooke refers [96] alludes to this scholarship eager to identify and make sense of a British modernism in relation to the modernisms of other places or nations. On the other hand, Pooke does not take care to distinguish this work from “the legacy of Modernism” [243] with a capital M that he associates with “the thinking of [Clement] Greenberg and others.” It is quite a lot to expect readers new to the subject of contemporary British art to distinguish scholarship in British modernism from Greenbergian Modernism. Moreover, Pooke’s references to the latter suggest it was monolithic in concept. Is this because contemporary British artists perceived it thus?

In a second way, Pooke may leave readers wanting further clarification of what he means by “British art.” Certainly, from the very beginning he explains the importance of London—“Culturally, the most visible shift [of ‘Cool Britannica’] was the heightened metropolitan prominence of London and a landscape of new art, design and fashion” [1]. However, throughout Contemporary British Art : An Introduction, Pooke generalizes Britishness largely to London examples. Are we to surmise that contemporary British art actually means contemporary art in and in regard to London? Pooke explains that installation art can be appreciated “as a new critical paradigm” in globalization, which

has tended to be equated with westernisation, capitalisation or Americanisation, but culturally, globalisation has also resulted in fusion and hybridisation, generating fresh perspectives on artistic production, meaning and display [155].

How might a second edition of Contemporary British Art : An Introduction read were Pooke to more fully examine art genres engaging with Britain’s globalized geography?





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