UK in 1971: unemployment was rising; Margaret Thatcher, then education secretary, controversially took away free school milk; the first British soldier was killed in Northern Ireland; the trade union movement had the upper hand, until the controversial Industrial Relations Act attempted to curtail their power. That year also saw the first issue of Artery, a magazine founded by four students at London’s Royal College of Art, who used the school’s mimeograph machine to print a small run of 100 copies.
Inspired by the 2nd Communist University, a symposium organized by the Communist Party of Great Britain, Artery was published as a quarterly until 1984. Its first issue was subtitled ‘a publication by a group of communist artists’ to provide a ‘platform for an interchange of opinions on ideology and culture’. It later broadened its editorial remit, taking on the description ‘A Cultural Journal for Left Unity’ and the snappier still ‘Art and Revolutionary Theory’, with a logo designed by Jeff Sawtell, the editor and designer. Contributions came from leftist writers, artists and poets of the day, accompanied by reprints of essays on artists such as Picasso, Magritte and Léger whose Communist politics had been largely forgotten in the art history teaching of the time. Issue 16, from 1979, came with an insert apologizing for the late publication ‘due to technical problems at the printers’ – the magazine was at that time printed at the Communist Party of Great Britain’s presses in Manchester and sold on shipyards, outside of coal mines, in social clubs, in alternative bookshops and directly on a sale or return basis.
For the exhibition ‘Artery: 1971–1984’, vitrines displayed the covers and heavy headline fonts of the magazine archives along with related correspondence, including a missive from the Communist party of Great Britain demanding that Artery cease and desist from publishing editorials. On surrounding walls and displayed on two monitors were a number of works from 19 artists affiliated with the magazine – either in person or through political leaning.
A film commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1979, titled The Art We Deserve, narrated by then-editor of Artscribe, Richard Cork, documents the government’s failure to sustain the funding that artists enjoyed during World War II from the War Artist’s Committee to produce community-based, socially focused projects such as Stanley Spencer’s two-year residency with ship builders at Port Glasgow. Cork highlights the Royal Oak Mural in London, by The Public Art Workshop (Desmond Rochford and David Binnington, both of whom were on Artery’s editorial board), as an example of community-based art that fulfilled a wider social need than the studio practice of some artists of the time. Conrad Atkinson’s photolithograph Anniversary Print: From the People Who Brought you Thalidomide (1978) raises the ante further: the work depicts a poster of the beverages produced by the Distillers Company, the royal crests on each of the bottles highlighted, and a timeline of the Thalidomide scandal below (the work was bought for the Arts Council Collection by Derek Boshier and subsequently banned from the exhibition of that year’s works). Rasheed Araeen’s Un Certain Art Anglais (c.1978) takes its title from a survey show organized by the British Council in Paris in 1979; out of the 27 artists included, three were women and all were white. The lettering is made up of the repeated line ‘Blacks Out’. Jo Spence and the Hackney Flashers Collective’s work, as well as Loraine Leeson’s poster Mental Illness is Class Conscious (1979), railed against health care issues and funding cuts to the NHS. Close by, Peter Kennard’s photomontage Who Killed Blair Peach? (1979) comprises an image of the anti-Nazi protestor Blair Peach being hit by a policeman (Peach was killed by police in a demonstration protesting against the National Front election meeting).
Forty-two years on from the founding of Artery, though the Marxist critique of ideology may seem as outdated as drainpipe trousers, these topics remain chillingly familiar. The resurgence of interest in some of these artists – for example, Spence was the subject of a recent two-part exhibition at SPACE and Studio Voltaire in London, while Margaret Harrison recently had a solo show at Silberkuppe in Berlin – bears testament to an affinity with the socially minded practice of that time, perhaps, sadly, because it reminds us of our own.