Murals and the State by Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann

The exterior mural movement that flourished across Great Britain from the late-1960s to the mid-1980s offers a fascinating moment of cultural production. Marking a substantial break from preceding mural traditions, the emergence of many hundreds of murals on the streets of towns and cities from Plymouth to Inverness coincided with the expansion of the exterior mural form in diverse locations across the world. Earlier murals in Britain had, with few exceptions, been commissioned for the interiors of restaurants, schools and civic, state or ecclesiastical institutions. Now, alongside others from Maputo to Chicago, muralists broke away from these confines, and out into the streets. In so doing they forged direct contact with new audiences and radically reworked the mural form’s contexts of production and reception. Despite the profound excitements of this shift, the murals remain virtually absent from the art historical record, and from the agendas of museum or heritage institutions.

Neglect notwithstanding, two broad accounts of the emergence and proliferation of the exterior mural form are discernible. One has emphasised the murals as a counter-cultural groundswell among the post ’68 generation: a libertarian, voluntarist outpouring inspired by the wider happenings and political radicalism of the period. Focussing largely on the pioneering of collaborative means of production, this literature has tended to downplay the significance of financial support. The other account has viewed the murals as the increasingly unmediated expressions of their patrons, tracing a progression from radical ‘bottom up’ origins towards co-option by, and accommodation with, a hostile or dominating state, or, in the case of London, left leaning on municipal authorities. Owen Kelly, for example, suggested that by 1984, community artists had become “foot soldiers in our own movement, answerable to officers in funding agencies and local government recreation departments”. With greater distance it seems necessary to look beyond some of the apparent binaries of these accounts—between patron and artist, state and civil society, product and process—to examine how the interaction of diverse forces and actors across a period of the profound social, cultural and political transitions, influenced the evolution of the mural movement and its networks of patronage.

Born just before, during, or in the aftermath of the Second World War, the artists who took to the mural form from the late 1960s shared social, cultural and educational horizons which had been significantly shaped by the post-war ‘social democratic consensus’ and expansions of the state. Notwithstanding the influence of personal circumstances, books or encouraging parents or teachers, they had grown up in a period in which the state played an active role in the readjustment of art’s place in society. Artistic education, for example, was transformed by the ramifications of the 1944 Butler Education Act, with its reworking of primary and secondary education, and the new role of creative practices in the curriculum. Beyond school almost all the artists treated in this study had gone to art schools substantially reworked by the expansion of higher education and the availability of grants. These grants, alongside the training and teaching posts created by the expansions made it possible for artists from lower-middle and working class backgrounds to not only study art, but sustain an artistic practice after graduation by teaching part-time. Beyond education, the growth of a new crop of state-financed cultural institutions such as the Arts Council of Great Britain, expansions in the commissioning of Public Art and a resurgent art market meant that the artist of the late 1960s inhabited a substantially different world to that of decades before.

Art historical studies have, at best, emphasised these dynamics through a celebration of self-assurance of the London art world in the 1960s: linking a decade of hard-edged abstraction and self-assertive Pop Art, to the accomplishment of the ‘dissipation of class dynamics’ brought about by the ‘post-war’ pact. Such readings, however, tend to obscure the extent to which the social, cultural, political and economic order of the post-war ‘historic compromise’ were already beginning to unravel. With years of under investment in industry, declining international trade, and mounting national debt, the post-war boom was beginning to stumble, and attempts by Wilson’s first Labour administration (1964-1970), to implement wage restraint were met by the largest wave of industrial action and wild-cat strikes since the 1930s. Tenants’ and Squatters’ movements rose up against the perceived constrictions and lack of responsiveness in social housing policy. At the same time, an active countercultural movement railed against what was perceived as the stale conformism of the post war period, often overlapping with the political demands of the buoyant radical left. Black Power and Feminist movements declared the integration of culture and politics and the politics of everyday life, as they challenged racism, sexism and imperialism. From the shipyards of Glasgow, to the US Embassy protests at Grosvenor Square, and from the Tyneside coalfields to the stage of London’s Roundhouse, the period was one of crises, radicalism and returning class consciousness.

The effect of these wider dynamics on the arts were multiple and pronounced. The muralists belonged to a generation of artists who struck out against the ‘hermetic modernism’ and perceived elitism of commercial galleries and state institutions. With their peers they sought for ways to break down the boundaries between art, politics and everyday life. In the artistic sphere the influences of a broader radicalism ranged from the Marxist inflections of British Conceptualism and the deepening pursuit of feminist and class-conscious themes amongst gallery artists, through the emergence of land and installation art practices, to the proliferation of Art Centres and community-based cultural activity. Such activities were accompanied by organisational demands: with student occupations at Hornsey and Guildford schools of art in 1968 followed in 1972 by the formation of an Artists’ Union, in which a number of muralists were prominently involved. Imagined since the 1930s, the Artists’ Union launched campaigns to counter the decline in artists’ material conditions precipitated by a stumbling art market and a first wave of cuts to Higher education, while highlighting the enduring elitism of cultural institutions.

The muralists, and muralists-to-be, took a range of positions in these cultural and political dynamics. But it was against this wider background of activity that the first stirrings of exterior mural activity occurred. Spanning David Vaughan’s murals on Carnaby Street, Robert Lenkiewicz’s in Plymouth, John Upton’s in Brighton, as well as the activities of groups like Fine Heart Squad and Free Form Arts in multiple cities, the earliest exterior murals that emerged from 1967 onwards offered a huge variation of style, subject matter and technique. They were, until the early to mid-1970s, made with very little in the way of organised funding structures or sustained financial encouragement. Rather, diverse projects across the country were brought to realisation by self-financing, ad hoc commissions, and small amounts of support gleaned from paint companies or local authorities. In this, the muralists were perhaps typical of wider organisational tendencies of the period in which Charles Landry suggested, “lack of capital was made good by the input of self-exploited labour”.

If these origins confirm the model of the murals as a spontaneous, ‘bottom up’ initiative, the rapid expansion of the ‘mural movement’ across the next decade was buoyed by the negotiation of a dispersed— but predominantly state funded— network of patronage. The extent of this network’s dispersal becomes apparent when compared with preceding moments of mural production, be they during the U.S. New Deal, post-revolutionary Mexico or the much more limited commissions of the Festival of Britain. As in those previous schemes, bodies of the state—for example the Home Office, through its Urban Aid programmes and the Manpower Services Commission (MSC)— did come to offer funds for murals. In contrast, however, the nature of funding across the period tended to consist of piecemeal grants, rather than direct commissions. More often than not, therefore, muralists in the 1970s and 80s tended to get self-initiated projects off the ground by combining funds from a number of sources. Furthermore, if funding from centralised government departments did arrive across the latter half of the decade, this followed a period in which even more diffused funds were assembled from diverse departments of local authority budgets and—somewhat surprisingly—the Arts Council. Both local authorities and the Arts Council were to prove particularly central to the evolution of the form across the period.

Though only ever being one among a number of funding agencies, the Arts Council of Great Britain’s (ACGB) support for the mural form was both important and emblematic. Founded by Royal Charter in 1946, the ACGB was in many senses a quintessential institution of the post-war consensus. Perhaps in light of this, and in line with wider critiques levelled at the top-down corporatism of the post-war state, by the 1960s the Council was at the centre of debates and attacks amongst younger generations dissatisfied with the prevailing modes of ‘high culture’ and reified notions of artistic ‘standards’ and ‘quality’ favoured by its patronage. Whether in sympathy with these pressures, as part of what Owen Kelly has described as a “liberal” fear of being caught “siding with yesterday’s men”, or as a more deliberate extension of ‘soft’, consensual state power, or as seems likely, through a combination of the two the Arts Council in fact proved relatively responsive to the critiques. In 1967 the Council’s rewritten Charter replaced a commitment to the ‘fine arts’ for the less elitist ‘arts’ while offering devolved control to Scottish and Welsh Arts Councils. This was followed within England by a gradual process of devolution to Regional Arts Associations (RAAs), which stretched across the next two decades. Building on short-lived committees for ‘New Activities’ and ‘Experimental Arts’, from 1974 the Arts Council formed a Community Arts Committee which, by 1980, when devolution to RAAs gathered pace, commanded a budget of £1 million a year. Alongside other funds from the Visual Arts Committee, and a short-lived Murals and Environmental Projects scheme (1978-79), the Community Arts Committee was to become a major source of revenue for a number of muralists.

The ACGB’s support for the mural form only ever constituted a very small part of the organisations overall budget. Nonetheless, it offered much needed support and a sense of ‘artistic’ credibility to the nascent mural movement at a crucial time. Furthermore, it was accompanied by the advocacy of a number of active administrators, who—along with the muralists themselves—sought to stimulate interest in the mural form, and community arts more generally, within local councils, RAAs and central government departments. Though devolved, somewhat similar patterns were notable in Wales and Scotland. In the latter for example, the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) had begun its support of the mural form in 1974, with the Gables Ends project, commissioning four very large-scale murals from enlarged gallery-exhibited canvases. Though this provided a relatively rare example of a direct commission, the SAC too came to favour the more responsive policies developing south of the border, offering more piecemeal grants to artist-initiated projects and workshops. They were joined, across the latter half of the decade by funds from the Scottish Development Agency, local authorities and industries.

At one level, the evolution of this network of more and less direct state patronage across the latter half of the 1970s and into the 1980s, would seem to present a paradox. The 1970s were a decade of economic shocks, political crises, and surging unemployment. From 1976 a breakdown in the social contract with the unions was accompanied by the first of a wave of cuts to local government which gathered pace rapidly in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election. If this seems an inauspicious climate for the extension of a state patronage structure for a relatively new art form practiced by artists frequently hostile to the direction of the state, that is perhaps because such accounts tell at best half the story. For the 1970s was also a decade that witnessed a return of radical politics and working class mobilisation, a historic peak of local government spending as a proportion of GDP and a range of attempts to re-orientate the state and society ‘towards socialism’ across industry, housing, culture and beyond. It was, as Pat Devine had it, a moment in which ‘two alternative post-social democracy trajectories presented themselves: a move in the direction of economic democracy, building on the gains of the long boom, as a transitional stage towards socialism; or a move to neoliberalism, reversing the post-1945 gains’. If it was the latter trajectory which won out, it was as a part of the former that the expansion of funding for the mural form is probably best understood. As with contemporary movements for increased democratic participation in industry and housing, muralists can be seen to have pursued a strategy that was at once ‘within and against the state’. Brought together by organisations like the Artists’ Union and the Association of Community Artists, as well as by the mural conferences organised by Greenwich Mural Workshop from 1978 onwards, muralists exerted pressure upon, and won support from diverse branches of a state undergoing a crisis of authority, and whose future orientation was not yet fixed.

Though meeting fierce resistance through the early half of the decade, by 1985 Thatcher’s neoliberal project had, in large part, defeated the miners’ strike and municipal rebellions of the preceding years. With these victories complete, and a deep rooted ideological reorientation of the state underway, the staggered—and staggering—cuts to budgets proceeded. The effects on the mural form were severe, as local authorities began to shed their ‘non-essential’ commitments. Building on a long-developing culture war, the grants to community, cultural initiatives and RAAs were often amongst the first to go. Combined with on-going devolution, and deepening cuts, the lingering support of the ACGB for the community arts and the mural form was soon cut away. Although support for murals was briefly revived in an ascendant Public Arts programme, it was orientated toward the neoliberal goals of private/public partnerships and ‘the needs of architects, private companies, local authorities and property developers’, with sculptures by high-profile artists soon winning ground.

The exterior mural form, therefore, flourished through the interaction between bottom-up pressure from artists, and the opportunities afforded by the temporary alignment of a range of state institutions. This occurred across a period between the dissolution of the social democratic consensus in the late 1960s and the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s. Against Antonio Gramsci’s much quoted dictum that a “great variety of morbid symptoms” characterise periods of crisis in which “the old is dying, and the new cannot be born”, the murals remind us that such times also produce active and vivacious struggles for the birth of the new. In so doing they remind us that the period of study was more than just a forerunner to our present, but a moment that contained, as John Savage recalled, “a sense of possibility that new ways of thinking and being might grow from this emptiness – like the scented buddleia on the bombsites [that] for the young, the reckless, and the radical… gave freedom”. As we continue through another crisis in which the neoliberal order begins to unravel it is hoped this project’s recalling of this remarkable moment of production might rise up like ‘a chance in the fight for an oppressed past’.