Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 7, 2021
Lisa Tickner London's New Scene: Art and Culture in the 1960s New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020. 416 pp.; 80 color ills.; 120 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9781913107109)

Lisa Tickner was eighteen years old when Ken Russell’s TV documentary Pop Goes the Easel was first aired on the BBC in 1962. This media exploration of British Pop art marks the beginning of the episodic narrative of London’s New Scene, with chapters structured by year (1962–69) and each focused on a particular cultural event. From Russell’s experimental TV staging of four Pop artists, subsequent chapters cover the commercial Kasmin Gallery, a major survey exhibition at the Tate, the photobook Private View, Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up (1966), the commercial export of “swinging London,” May 1968 at Hornsey College of Arts and Crafts (the subject of Tickner’s previous book), and the London iteration of Harald Szeemann’s landmark exhibition, When Attitudes Become Form (1969). We do not know if the ingenue Tickner watched Russell’s TV show as she prepared to go to art school (she attended Hornsey), or if her family even had a television set (this was still very much a luxury item in the UK in the 1960s). She does not frame her book in autobiographical terms, although I wish there was some hint, since Tickner’s own biography of art student to art history PhD (awarded in 1970) does indeed cover the years of this book. Aside from the obvious insider perspective on the culture of Hornsey, I cannot help but hear the young art historian, known for her innovation in the new field of visual culture, in the lived texture—the “structure of feeling,” to use Raymond Williams’s term—of her approach to writing about the 1960s.

Perhaps Tickner the woman stands in the shadows of the 1969 quotation she cites from Michael Caine: “From the start of the Sixties . . . I could see myself at 75 on television telling people about that time. It was the time of my time; I will never have so much fun again; ever” (268). Perhaps; perhaps not. But Caine nonetheless captures the sense of the 1960s being lived as nostalgia even before it was over. This awareness that the sixties is also an idea that marks a historical paradigm shift with affective investments in its cultural force is evident in her sophisticated telling. So, whether or not Tickner lived any of the past events she is writing about or if they have all emerged as the detritus—“in the sieve when the centuries have run through it,” as the book’s beautiful epigraph from Hilary Mantel has it—is not tracked in any explicit way. But culture, as Lawrence Alloway wrote in a prescient essay in 1959, is understood in a new way during the era of Pop. Rather than the “highest artifacts and noblest thoughts,” or avant-garde variants of this—both of which become “a possession of the elite”—culture is seen in a new, more expansive, democratized way as “what society does” (“The Long Front of Culture,” in Imagining the Present, Routledge, 2006, 61). Tickner, unlike in most other books about the era, truly takes this shift—the foundational idea of British cultural studies—to heart.

How Tickner approaches Pop art is more significant than the new insights she brings to the works of art. Opening with Russell’s TV show staging of Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty, and Peter Phillips allows her to address Pop in relation to the mediatic scene that it used as subject matter and that shaped its sensibility. And, although this is not an explicitly feminist study, Tickner nonetheless brings the important—and largely overlooked—work of Boty (as well as the belittled Op artist Bridget Riley) back into dialogue with well combed-over figures such as Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, and Blake. Hamilton, much lauded by American scholars, is dethroned in favor of an approach that tracks the nuanced differences among a variety of figures.

Russell’s TV show, with its character-led approach to narrative, launches the book’s larger consideration of the shifts in artistic identity as the gray postwar austerity of the 1950s became the sharp and glittering boom years of swinging London. Indeed, this reflection on emergent cultural shifts continues throughout the book, and another author might have articulated it as a tracking of nascent postmodernism. Tickner’s methodology contrasts with recent monographic studies that fine-tune and add more detail, more theoretical and aesthetic explication, to the already loaded library shelves of books on male Pop artists (for example, Blake Stimson, Citizen Warhol, Reaktion Books, 2014; Hal Foster, The First Age of Pop, Princeton University Press, 2014; and Thomas Crow, The Long March of Pop, Yale University Press, 2015). The “scene” of her title encompasses institutionally varied spaces (a sociology of the art world), the traditional notion of milieu (an ethnography of the art world), and art within a broader media staging of fame, sexiness, and swagger (the glitterati).

The next chapters concerning two institutions, the Kasmin Gallery in 1963 (commercial and innovative) and a major survey show at the Tate in 1964 (the museum’s first entry into the terrain of the contemporary), do important work to survey British postwar art and offer critical insight on questions of exhibition design and other institutional spaces like the Whitechapel Gallery. But the chapters on the middle of the decade, 1965 (about Lord Snowdon’s Private View) and 1966 (about Antonioni’s Blow-Up), were the most compelling for this reader. In her careful analysis of Private View, a book of photographs of artists and art world professionals in their various “habitats”—studio, home, and gallery—Tickner provides compelling readings of images in relation to a longer history of artistic identity as media fascination. This chapter also gives an important account of the emergence of the Sunday supplement that could be understood as a kind of prehistory to the British paparazzi (a particularly voracious national breed). Both these chapters are important contributions to the history of photography, and I will certainly use them in my teaching.

Tickner’s analysis of Antonioni’s (late) neorealism mystery thriller with the photographer (modeled after David Bailey) as its antihero is very much an art historian’s telling. She emphasizes image, including Antonioni’s interest in color, and the new cultural significance of photography more than narrative or film form. Blow-Up is also used as a way of framing ideas about photography, music, and swinging London—an example of, as Alloway puts it, “what society does” when it consumes art. This is to say, the majority do not see art through the in-person physicality of the gallery or museum, but rather in media representation: on the TV, in the newspapers, and at the movies.

The frequent invocation of Raymond Williams as part of Tickner’s methodological framework situates this book, as I have noted, within the purview of British cultural studies. But this is very much the early 1960s heyday of the white male New Left, before Stuart Hall spearheaded a post-Empire overhaul in 1968. Although Black artists such as Frank Bowling and Francis Newton Souza fleetingly appear in the book, this is largely to acknowledge their social exclusion from the art scenes that Tickner discusses rather than as an engagement with their work. Here is where the geopolitical and methodological framework is both too restrictive and too dated. The beginning year of this book, 1962, is the year of Jamaican independence and the decade unfolds (or splinters) as the end of Empire. Although these historical facts are mentioned, they are not really considered as significant in any substantive way. When I got to the 1967 chapter, about the export of swinging London, largely to Europe and the United States, it felt a bit like Tickner was spinning her wheels. This is also the year of the first conference of the Caribbean Artist Movement (CAM), which could have served as an important aesthetic and geopolitical reorientation for the book. Attention to CAM and its media context, which reaches back into the 1950s, could have recharged the tired narrative arc of “spectacle culture” to white student radicality (May 1968) that unfolds in the final chapters. Ending with an epilogue on When Attitudes Become Form seems to bring the innovation of the first half of the book back to the traditional “isms” of art history.

Black artists may be missing from most cultural histories of the 1960s, but they are not absent from the past. I would love to have read Tickner writing some of this as history, since her account shines most vividly when she addresses the “structure of feeling” of the decade. In this cultural studies tenet of Williams’s (invoked throughout her book), he argues it is the “emergent” shifts in culture, before these sensibilities become codified and institutionalized as “dominant,” that most shape an era’s feeling (see Williams, “Structures of Feeling” and “Dominant, Residual, and Emergent,” both in Marxism and Literature, Oxford University Press, 1977). Is there anything more emergent in the 1960s UK than the coming of age of the first generation of Black Britons? Not in Tickner’s biographical world, but then again, this book is declaredly not life writing.

Siona Wilson
Associate Professor, The College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, City University of New York