Artistic Practice in a Post Great Depression England

The Great Depression and the economic slump that followed changed how art was thought of within a social dimension. Between the years of 1929 and 1934, the slump created a crisis for the cultural consumption of modern art. The economic crisis saw a re-evaluation of the value of art within society and its contribution toward the economy. Towards the end of 1931, many galleries saw limited sales that resulted in abandoning the competitive market in favour of a more collective approach. The Depression saw two significant immediate effects on British art. First, it saw the end of the modern form of easel painting. Secondly, and more significantly, it forced artists to diversify into areas of industry and commercial activity. Although bridging the gap between art and industry was a natural consequence of dealing with the economic crisis, it resulted in the lowering of status and prestige of modern art. As modern art became more concerned with commercial patronage, aesthetic value became secondary concern.

During the Depression, after unemployment hit over three million, there was broad enthusiasm for collective activity. Organised collective action was not only limited to political action. Artists and theorists saw this as an opportunity to develop a positive framework for consumption. William Morris’s already established medieval community Arts and Crafts movement saw an opportunity to align itself with the recovering economy and the machine age. Artists and theorists such as Paul Nash and Herbert Read perceived the crash in the high art market as a means of extending art into industry and commerce. Despite the social consequences of the Depression, the early thirties saw the growth of the middle class. The enlargement of the consumer market and the increase in production led to a converging interest in style. This led to an expansion of artistic practice and an inevitable expansion of modernist art criticism.

The economic slump gave rise to the label of medieval modernism encompassing many artists and intellectuals. Derived from Morris’s Arts and Crafts ideology, medieval modernism was intertwined with the search for a Utopia as a consequence of political tensions in Europe and the economic crash. According to cultural historian Michael Saler, the medieval modernists wanted to return to a social dimension in art, where public support and utility were central. Whilst artist and intellectuals on the Continent sought to use modernist forms to articulate the speed and incoherence of capitalism, the British counterparts wanted to re-interpret art in a capitalist paradigm by creating an ‘aesthetic state’ where design and labour could align art and the machine age. Supporting the Ruskinian idea of vital beauty, the medieval model valued purpose more over aesthetics.

Herbert Read sought to synthesise the traditional and the modern as well as the individual and the collective. He advocated for ‘the drawn line’ as a tool to bridge these elements. He saw this as a conduit through which artist and viewers can bring continuity from the past into the international spectrum of modernism. The economic consequences of the Great Depression allowed this concept to take hold as it placed the artist and viewer in the same paradigm. In other words, this idea did not endorse individuality to promote the myth of the artist as a genius but rather prioritised their ability to convey collective purpose.

Part of the enthusiasm for collective activity and a response to the economic crisis was the formation of Unit One. Its promotion was heralded by Paul Nash and Herbert Read who promoted the idea of ‘art and industry’ by directing their work towards an emerging middle-class audience and adopting new methods of art promotion and modes of consumption. New patronage found within the commercial markets allowed for a broad spectrum of works ranging from painting, sculpture, architecture and consumer products. This went hand in hand with the medieval modernist ideology of art for a purpose. Nash also retained a connection with the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement. He believed that the English tradition of design was firmly placed in the eighteenth-century and recognising modernity in its simplicity.

Unit One was composed of independent yet established artists and designers who embraced the collective spirit. They were individual artists but resembled a group united in a belief like the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. They believed in the expression of a truly contemporary spirit in whatever form it may take. The contemporary spirit was concerned with two ideas. First, the pursuit of form where artists employed abstract art to emphasise an expression of structural purpose, and secondly, the pursuit of the soul where artists engaged with surrealism to analyse the psyche.

Unit One can be seen as an example of improvisation for artists trying to secure audiences as a consequence of the economic crisis. It can be argued that the Depression and the economic slump that followed showed the extent to which the production of art and its consumption was greatly affected by economic determinants. As artistic practice became commercialised, the status of art was lowered. The early 1930’s saw a shift in the type of work being produced. There was already a growing enthusiasm for modernism and a return to craft before the great depression. However, the economic crisis at the turn of the decade amplified this in the context of the machine age. The breakdown of the traditional art market gave way to a new collective vision of the arts, which were realised by critics and artists in the form of groups like Unit One. Here a focus on utility gave industry and art a new sense of purpose and drove the social dimension of art and architecture for the 1930s. Modernism became a language of the masses, a unifying place where continuity and change meet and reinvigorated a sense of optimism that the economic crisis halted.

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