Art into Pop (Redux)

Gavin Butt, Northumbria University

In 1987, Simon Frith and Howard Horne published the path-breaking book Art into Pop detailing the impact of art school on British popular music from sixties bohemianism to postmodernism in the 1980s. Bringing perspectives from the sociology of music to bear upon the subject of fine art education, their “cross-over” methodology has remained largely unsurpassed in delineating the art school’s decisive role in shaping histories of popular music and culture.

That is, until the recent decade whence a welter of new academic studies, popular histories, autobiographies, and exhibitions have appeared which, either wholly or in part, have served to update Frith and Horne’s original contribution: with perspectives on bands as diverse as The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Roxy Music, Deaf School, the KLF, The Raincoats and Gang of Four, and institutions including Royal College of Art, Newcastle University, Liverpool College of Art, Hornsey College of Art and Leeds University.

This session comprises new perspectives which add to this burgeoning literature and which seek to renew our understanding of the entwined histories of art education and popular music. Issues addressed include: the making of art and music across creative practices and educational hierarchies; non-musicians and the making of experimental pop music; gender, sexuality and class at art school; and the place of avant-gardism in the aesthetics and politics of art school punk rock, post-punk and synth-pop.


Punk into Art: Ruth Novaczek and Ann Robinson

Rachel Garfield (University of Reading)

Before artists’ moving image (a 1990s neologism) moved to the centre stage of the art world, experimental film offered students an exciting new voice in 1980s art schools. The shift in language (and provenance of influences from experimental film to conceptual art) served to elide the importance of the 1980s generation of experimental filmmakers. Dominated by tutors who were structuralist filmmakers, many of these 1980s students reacted against the ideological strictures of their curriculum and brought attitudes and approaches into the art from the dynamic music scenes in which they were involved. I will argue that this particularly impacted on women who shifted their interests away from the structuralism of their tutors towards a kind of punk expressionism that focused on emotional landscapes and the connection between 1980s politics and relationships.

Through a close reading of works by Ruth Novaczek and Anne Robinson – both out of Central Saint Martins – I will discuss the ways in which punk fostered a new confidence in developing their own approach to filmmaking. I will contrast this with the slightly later but connected New Romantic works of Cordelia Swann and Sandra Lahire. In order to contextualise these artists, I will reflect on the environment of the art school and how, in the recently emancipated curriculum of the 1980s, these artists were able to give form to their external influences and engagements.

Transferable Skills: The Portsmouth Sinfonia, art school, and experimental music

John Beck (University of Westminster)

The Portsmouth Sinfonia was a group of staff and students from Portsmouth College of Art, organised in 1970 by Complementary Studies lecturer Gavin Bryars for an art school talent contest. The performers were mostly non-musicians and their awkward renditions of familiar classics did not win the contest but the performance was popular enough to keep the group going. More people joined, the rules requiring only that there was no deliberately bad playing, that musicians adopt an instrument they were unfamiliar with, and that everyone should turn up for practice. The point was not to make bad music but, following Cage and Cardew, via Fluxus and other experimental practices, to explore questions of performance, collaboration and the relation between composition and contingency. Bryars was part of a network of experimental composers and performers employed in art schools as a result of the changes in art education brought about by the Coldstream Report, and it is striking but not surprising that a project like the Portsmouth Sinfonia, which performed at the Royal Albert Hall, recorded three albums, and included among its members, at one point or another, Michael Nyman, Tom Phillips, Barry Flanagan and Brian Eno, emerged from an art school and not a conservatory or university music department. The line between serious and ridiculous, between the avant-garde and the popular, is more explicitly explored by the Sinfonia than by comparable experimental outfits of the time, and it is here, this paper will argue, that the distinctive dynamics of the art school environment contributed to this remarkable exercise in enlightened incompetence.

Oblique Strategies: Watford College of Art and avant-pop in the 1960s and 70s

Matthew Cornford (University of Brighton)

In his book on post-punk, Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984 (2005), Simon Reynolds describes Watford College of Art as exemplifying, in the 1970s, ‘the anything-goes, mixed media playfulness of the more progressive sort of British art school – what [Brian] Eno later hailed as one of the most highly evolved forms of liberal education available on the planet’. For a modest provincial art school mainly focused on training apprentices for the local print industry, Watford could, for a few years, boast an extraordinarily rich mix of staff whose work left a lasting impact on British culture. As well as Eno, Watford also employed the guitarist and audiovisual (AV) technician Bruce Gilbert (who formed the band Wire with student Colin Newman); painter Peter Schmidt; artist, printer and publisher Hansjörg Mayer; and pop artist Tom Phillips. Schmidt’s work featured on the cover of Fripp and Eno’s album Evening Star (1975) and on the back cover of Eno’s Before and After Science (1977). Phillips’ After Raphael (?) (1973) graces the cover of Eno’s Another Green World (1975) and Mayer published Trailer (1971), a precursor to Philips' acclaimed artist’s book, A Humument (1971). Most importantly, it was whilst teaching at Watford that Schmidt and Eno produced a set of printed cards in a black box titled Oblique Strategies (1975). Intended to help artists and musicians break creative blocks, the cards were used to great effect by Eno whilst producing David Bowie’s triptych of Berlin LPs: Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979). This paper explores the ways in which Watford came to typify the ‘highly evolved’ avant-pop milieu of the 1960s to 1970s British art school.

1980s Leeds, the Dada spirit and rock as a weapon

John Hyatt (Liverpool John Moores University)

The spirit of the May 1968 Parisian street protests had its roots in Dada and the photomontage work of John Heartfield via the Situationist International. It inspired occupations in the art colleges of Hornsey, Liverpool and Croydon amongst others, by students demanding more localised institutional change. In 1976, Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid, both veterans of the Croydon occupation, employed effective photomontage techniques to realise Christopher Gray’s (of British anarchist group, King Mob) anti-art idea of forming ‘a totally unpleasant pop group’: the Sex Pistols. Punk rock was formally inspired by the music of the Velvet Underground featured at Andy Warhol’s evenings of experimental filmic montage: the Exploding Plastic Inevitable events of 1966 and 1967, inspired by Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire. The Buzzcocks’ Orgasm Addict (1977) record sleeve by Malcolm Garrett and Liverpudlian artist Linder Sterling featured a photomontage of a woman with a domestic iron for a head. The iconic safety-pin of punk was Westwood’s textile equivalent of Heartfield’s glue.

This cultural chain influenced radical British post-punk. Dada and John Heartfield’s work was seminal in 1980s Leeds music, its DIY fanzines, and my own practice as an artist and as singer/songwriter with The Three Johns. This paper traces these influences and maps them onto Leeds-based 1980s post-punk and its anti-Thatcherite, pro-striking miners, anti-art and anti-pop rock aesthetic, and lyrical and political strategies using my own band, The Three Johns, and our contemporaries as an art school/rock/politics historical nexus.

Electric Shock: Synth Pop, Queerness and the Art School Avant-Garde

Gavin Butt (Northumbria University, Newcastle)

This paper explores the education of Frank Tovey (Fad Gadget) and Marc Almond and Dave Ball (Soft Cell) who studied Fine Art at Leeds Polytechnic in the mid-late 1970s. Drawing upon extensive original archive and interview material, it shows how the avant-garde priorities of an English art school education were reassessed by art school music bands producing proto-Industrial electronic pop and dance music, and 'queered' within their sexual and gender non-conformist promotional and stage-styles.

At the beginning of the decade Leeds was celebrated as possessing “the most influential [art school] in Europe since the Bauhaus,” but, by 1976, it had become more powerfully associated with transgressive performance art under the influence of lecturer, People Show-founder, jazz aficionado and author of Bomb Culture, Jeff Nuttall. One infamous piece of student work by Peter Parkin and Derek Swain, Senseless - allegedly involving the shooting of live budgerigars - dramatized the outlook of Nuttall-style shock tactics. This paper explores this performance as a water-shed moment for the art school avant-garde, and how its approach was sublated in the work of fellow students Tovey, Almond and Ball. It analyses hitherto unseen material by them in order to understand how Ron Geesin, Lyndsay Kemp, David Bowie and Donna Summer also became significant in continuing a conversation about the viability of an avant-garde after punk.