Date of Degree

6-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Art History

Advisor

Claire Bishop

Committee Members

David Grubbs

Romy Golan

Benjamin Piekut

Subject Categories

Art Education | Audio Arts and Acoustics | Contemporary Art | Interdisciplinary Arts and Media | Modern Art and Architecture | Other Music

Keywords

Great Britain, Popular Music, Popular Culture, 20th Century Art Education, Underground Art and Culture, Experimental Art

Abstract

“Pop/Art: The Birth of Underground Music and the British Art School, 1960-1980” argues that the British art school became a training ground for underground musicians in the 1960s and the 1970s because of changes in art school pedagogy and policy in the post-war period. New educational philosophies propagated during the late 1950s and 1960s, above all Basic Design and Behaviorism, redefined the artist as an intermedial experimenter, collapsed distinctions between fine art and design, and theorized the art object as a dynamic and interactive matrix between the maker and viewer. These initiatives, which evolved from art school reforms that began in the nineteenth century, intended to prepare students for a fast-paced postwar consumer economy in which advertising, communication, information, and new technologies defined creative labor. Postwar British art schools thus generated a new model of the artist: a creator engaged with contemporary culture as much as with art history, who was familiar with a variety of media and able to work across a broad spectrum of creative practices, from fine art to design. For this reason, art students like Pete Townshend, Bryan Ferry, and Brian Eno, who gravitated towards popular music, did not see any distinction between their work as musicians and the new role for art and the artist laid out by these pedagogical reforms. This generation of underground musician-artists—born in the late 1940s and 1950s—came to artistic consciousness amid a booming postwar consumer culture in which teenagers became a particularly vital part of the economy, spending their expendable income on entertainment and fashion. Pop music and its stars were central to the formation of their personal and collective identity, and thus music became a vital medium for their own creative artistic expression.

While schools underwent rapid changes in the 1960s, a parallel space of commerce and consumption emerged, which mirrored mass culture but did not follow the logic of capitalist exchange. This underground culture used existing channels of distribution to spread and incite aesthetic activity rather than generate profits. It comprised a network of alternative organizations, including bookshops, newspapers, arts labs, nightclubs, performance venues, and unorthodox educational initiatives. This dissertation argues that this alternative cultural system also served a pedagogical role, providing young self-designated artists like Genesis P-Orridge an extra-institutional and informal education free of the regulations of standardized curricula and assessment. In this milieu, consumption (of music, performance, events) had the potential to be transformative and enlightening, not just extractive. Underground events and happenings thus shared a similar ethos to the most radical educational theories in the UK. Both aimed to shake up existing preconceptions ideas about art and culture and felt that retraining perception was the first step in reforming society. However, the student protests that erupted across Europe in the late 1960s questioned the educational system’s commitment to change and young artists began to seek creative outlets outside the art school. By the mid-1970s, the network of distributors and record shops established in the 1960s formed the backbone of the punk movement, allowing this community of D.I.Y. (“do it yourself”) practitioners, many of whom were art school students (e.g., Green Gartside, Gina Birch), to forge alternative models of artistic and commercial exchange.

As this dissertation seeks to demonstrate, there is no singular relationship between art education—defined broadly—and the formation of underground music in the UK. Rather it is a dynamic and complex history in which art schools nurtured the artistic practices of some young musicians while serving as a foil to the development of alternative underground networks of art making and distribution in the 1960s and 1970s.

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