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Art Into Pop: How TJ Clark And Art & Language Influenced Gang Of Four
The Quietus , May 19th, 2018 10:04

In an exclusive extract from his new Repeater book, Red Set: A History of Gang of Four, Jim Dooley details the art school background of Leeds' finest post-punks

As detailed in Simon Frith and Howard Horne’s book, Art into Pop, there is a long and rich history in the UK of art schools informing and shaping popular music. This influence, or interaction, seems to be particularly overt and long-lasting in the case of Andy Gill and Jon King. Their experiences at Leeds University both built on the art studies they had begun at Sevenoaks and expanded the ways they understood its substance. As was often the case at the time, the university provided raw material in terms of education, venues for visual artists and musicians to practice, and a sufficient amount of leisure time to develop artistic interests that were not overtly academic. It is through this set of channels that both traditional and avant-garde notions are often filtered into popular art. Aspiring and ambitious artists were provided with direction as well as peers, spaces and audiences. As with Sevenoaks, both scrutiny and support were on offer.

By the mid-1970s, the Fine Art Department at Leeds was beginning to develop a reputation for accentuating conceptualism and theory. Jon King has noted that there were conflicts with, and between, some members of the faculty. In an interview with Michael Hoover and Lisa Stokes, King pointed out that some professors “were traditional art historians, outraged by the suggestion that art might in a major way be affected by social conditions.” Still, there was a distinct shift happening in the department under the new leadership of Tim (T.J.) Clark, who by then had succeeded Lawrence Gowing. Mark White recalls being highly stimulated, but also having a sense that there was something of a disconnect between course content and the city of Leeds. “You would sit in a lecture/tutorial/studio and talk about political engagement, or détournement, or how the role of ‘the People’ and the Paris Commune might or might not be encoded in paintings like Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette, or how modern city life, alienation and new ways of seeing defined Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe — reclaiming art for the left, as it were.”

At the time, the art department programme required an equally split course load of painting and art history classes. Jon Langford, who arrived after both King and Gill, feels that in retrospect he primarily ended up at Leeds because of his painting abilities, rather than his academic record. What is certain is that, for him, it was the path of least resistance as far as universities went. “I thought I was pretty slick until I got away to university,” Langford reflects with amusement. Still, given his background at a comprehensive school in a Welsh industrial town, the future Mekon found the Sevenoaks contingent, and the department in general, eye-opening. “Then I sort of met all these people, which was like a different plane altogether… kind of socially, culturally, it was very strange… I did feel very provincial when I got there.”

There seems little doubt that T.J. Clark significantly changed the atmosphere of the university art department. While Gill recalls Clark being highly engaged in discussing more traditional art-history topics such as the works of Manet, the professor’s ties to the 1968 events in Paris and the Situationist International also intrigued his students. Prior to his teaching post at Leeds, Tim had published two significant companion works of social art history: Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the Second French Republic, 1848-1851 and The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848-1851. In the preface to the latter, Clark writes that the idea was to look at “what happened to art when it became involved, however tangentially, in the process of revolution and counter-revolution.” From Andy Gill’s perspective, Clark brought “a very modern and coherent set of ideas” with him to the Leeds art department.

While not the most academically ambitious student, Jon Langford recalls finding Clark highly intriguing. “He was very nice to me,” Langford says. “Except my problem was I went away to art school to do some paintings and kind of get drunk and sit around in the bar and, you know, he had other ideas that I might get an education.” Langford points out that he remains friends with Clark, and fondly recalls how his professor later called his mother saying that her son should have a year off when the Mekons got signed to Virgin Records. Jon King, who also remains in contact with Clark, refers to the professor’s “wonderfully left-wing” influence on the department being largely attributable to the new instructors brought into the fold by Clark during this period. Gill concurs, adding that Clark “was determined to put his stamp on the whole department, so he appointed various fascinating individuals.”

One such person was Griselda Pollock, who began working at the university in 1977. Pollock became known for a pioneering take on the social history of art — a strategy that blended fresh examinations by using both Marxist and feminist theory. In her 1988 book Vision & Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art, Pollock notes that “the central figure of art historical discourse is the artist, who is presented as an ineffable ideal which complements the bourgeois myths of a universal, classless Man [sic].” A more appropriate study of art history would not only include women, but also evolve from a focus on singular artists as individuals to the plural nature of artist communities. There can be little doubt that such notions, which at the time challenged traditional art teaching methods, inspired Gill and King. One need look no further than the song “Not Great Men,” which would appear on Gang of Four’s debut album, to see this influence. Pollock would later collaborate with Fred Orton on the book Avant-Gardes and Partisans Reviewed. In addition to questioning the concept of the lone genius artist, the book further critiqued overly linear conceptions of history. As with Pollock, Orton was a key lecturer who arrived at Leeds during Clark’s period of influence.

Equally intriguing, from the perspective of many students, was the presence of Terry Atkinson in the department. Atkinson had been a founding member of Art & Language, a pioneering group of conceptual artists. “I remember going to discussions with him, Gill and Jon King,” recalls Jon Langford. “When Terry first arrived we were all kind of fascinated by him because he’d been a part of that Art & Language scene and he knew Mayo Thompson — the guy from Red Crayola.” Indicative of his views, Atkinson would later open an academic essay with: “No matter how much theory is disguised or repressed, there is no practice without theory. The theory that practice has nothing to do with theory is a theory, a disingenuous and naïve one, but none the less a theory.”

Mark White recalls being highly intrigued by Atkinson. “Mostly these people spoke in the incomprehensible language of structuralism,” White offers. “Although others, like Terry Atkinson the painting tutor, used even more baffling terms from Art & Language — painting and drawing was for example ‘craft-based material practice.’”

On the whole Gill remembers the art department having a very interesting and stimulating atmosphere. Jon King feels that, in part, a significant connection was made with the students because many of these instructors were relatively young at the time. These were academics the students could both learn from and socialise with. “Clark brought other ‘New Art Historians’ who championed the link between art and its context,” adds Mark White. “It was an exciting time to be there.” Reflecting on the period at Leeds broadly, King states: “We ended up with the most radical — politically radical — art department in Western Europe, probably the world, for a couple of years… which was an incredible home.”

Red Set: A History of Gang of Four by Jim Dooley is published by Repeater Books