Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain at Tate Liverpool

Art When I was studying information science in the mid-90s as part of my Information Studies degree, which was the sexier name for librarianship, there was always the sense of sacred, secret knowledge being imparted from one generation of information scientists (librarians) to the next (or next but one). From the now arcane looking search strategies of online databases like DIALOG which had all the complexity of a programming language, through to such classification sequences as DDC or Library of Congress to the taxonomy of keywords and subjects, a trinity of interlocking processes designed to help the information scientist (librarian) to bring order to chaos and then make that order digestible to the end user.

Now, everyone online is an information scientist (and by extension, a librarian). Almost every type of social media, every type of website in which a person uploads a thing, from blog posts, to bookmarking, to videos, to photography asks us to apply keywords, to carry out a form of classfication so that items on similar topics can be gathered together for us to find more easily and the next person. Some of us are better than others, but nevertheless the democratisation of information science has been startling, if not a bit horrifying because arguably along with Google it’s rendered a large percentage of my degree entirely obsolete apart (from the bolted on sections about sociology and management).

At which point having glanced at the headline and the photograph above, you might be wondering what relevance this has to Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition since its inspiration, Raymond Williams’s seminal 1976 book, Keywords – A Vocabulary of Culture and Society is talking about the key words utilised in our society rather than the words which describe the key aspects of an item or object (see above for the 1988 reprint but a new addition is available). Williams selected the hundred and thirty or so words he believed most regularly cropped up when discussing “the practices and institutions, which we group and culture and society” then across a couple of hundred words describes their usage, origins and meanings and how they relates to other words in the book and so other aspects of culture and society.

The format will be familiar to anyone who’s read Kingsley Amis’s similarly useful The King’s EnglishThe Guardian style guide or The Meaning of Liff. But whereas those are very personal extrapolations of how words are and should or could be used by a single man or group of people with a particular ideology, Williams is reflecting those words back on themselves. The entry on Genius shows how a word which in its original Latin form simply meant “a guardian spirit” through its utilisation as a way of elevating further someone whose made a genuinely important contribution to society to being applied relatively frivolously to anything and anyone. Ironically Amis’s book ignores genius despite the fact that it seems perfectly applicable to him.

Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain approaches some of Williams’s words then utilises them on a subset of art from a particular period and predominantly from Tate’s own collection in a way which will be familiar to professional and amateur information scientists. But curators Gavin Delahunty, Tate Liverpool’s Head of Exhibitions and Displays and Grant Watson, the Senior Curator and Research Associate at the Institute of International Visual Arts were keen to stress in their introductory press talk that this isn’t a simple keywording exercise and that they want the visitor to ask questions about how relevant the chosen works are to the words with some of the connections not quite as immediately clear as they might, at first, appear,

This forces us to consider what Stephen McKenna’s painting An English Oak Tree has to do with “conflict”, which is written in giant blue script designed by Lucia Frei and Will Holder on the wall opposite. Except look closer and we realise that this great British symbol is standing in a city park and that it’s emphasising the struggle between the man-made and the natural world and how society still feels the need to be close to nature in a world of concrete even if we have to artificially construct the venue within which we can still experience the feeling of grass beneath our feet and the fragrance of flowers (and the fact that much of the scene is painted from McKenna’s imagination rather than a real place makes it even more man-made or constructed).

Though curatorially similar in design Tate’s previous exhibition, Art Turning Left, which grouped works within various concepts and like Keywords, visitors were asked to interact with the various relationships. But whereas the results there were pretty bewildering and an arguably more didactic, historical approach to the overall topic might have been more rewarding, in Keywords, by focusing on the politics of one period in particular and displaying far less work, the atmosphere is much more relaxed. Sometimes, when an exhibition is stuffed with work as was also the case with Art Turning Left, even with all the time in the world, there’s a feeling of needing to push forward in order to see everything. There’s none of that here.

All of which is aided by the decision to present the two dimensional objects on a single wall stretching across the centre of the Riverside Gallery and the three dimensional sculpture and installations in the Dockside Gallery as a kind of “field”. The symbolic power of walls, resonant of oppression and defence is also emphasised in the words chosen for that area which must also represent society: private, structural, folk, violence, criticism and liberation. The more metaphoric "field" (really a series of carpeted areas) offer words with more cultural aspects: formalist, native, anthropological, unconscious, myth and materialism.   Ferdinand de Saussure would have loved this.

For all of that, because this is a group or anthology exhibition based on curatorial taste we are unlikely to appreciate everything on display, but like the best of the form we’re also introduced to artists which we might not have previously considered. That’s specially true in Keywords because of the decision to choose work less often on displayed like Harry Holland’s lithographs, represented here by Lovers and TV which portray nudes in intimate if unusual settings. But there are plenty of established artists and I’m very grateful to have seen the return of monumental sculpture to Tate Liverpool with Tony Cragg’s On The Savannah, massive bronze abstract meditations on laboratory objects like Bunsen burners.

Researching that last paragraph, I notice the Tate’s own website carries a keyword taxonomy of its own at the bottom of some pages allowing users to seek similar items. On The Savannah is delineated amongst other things as “symbols & personifications -> gender -> female sexual organs - vessel -> male – pipe” and clicking on one of those items does indeed take us to objects that are thematically connected. Perhaps “formalist”, its keyword from Keywords should be added now too, though it’s also a rare example in the exhibition were the keyword actually is a keyword since Cragg’s often thought of as a formalist artist. This exhibition’s unafraid to be playful too.

If I did ultimately learn anything at university, other than that my lovelife was doomed to be classified in DDC as more 718 than 642 (unfortunately), it’s that classification is a messy business. Most items and objects still require a value judgement by the information scientist, precisely the kinds of value judgements a visitor to Keywords might have to make themselves, bringing us right back to the idea of everyone being an information scientist (librarian) now. Despite basing the exhibition on a book published in the 70s and choosing art mainly produced in the 1980s, the curators have still managed to deliver a show which has strong contemporary resonances, and for that reason is well worth a visit.

Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain. 
 28 February – 11 May 2014.
Adult £8.80 (without donation £8). 

 Concession £6.60 (without donation £6).

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