Exploring our Weaknesses on the International Stage: British Council Photography and Self-Critique

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation


Contribution to the conference Concerning Photography: The Photographers' Gallery and Photographic Networks in Britain, c.1971 to the Present, organised by Paul Mellon Centre.

The British Council, established 1934, has used art for cultural dialogue with over a hundred countries for more than eight decades. Initially funded by the Foreign Office but latterly receiving only a small fraction of its income from Government, the art exhibited by the British Council can challenge as well as complement parliamentary agendas. This presentation outlines how photography in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s tested the Council’s principle of ‘arm’s length’ independence through its national messaging in international exhibitions.

Art’s new and expanded forms, encompassing performance, installation and conceptual photography, challenged the supremacy of easel painting and plinth-based sculpture in the 1970s but it also posed challenges to the British Council. New forms provided new provocations, but art’s most avant-garde manifestations and its increasingly explicit politics also led to controversy. The Council worried in 1979 about the extent to which ‘missions abroad could be seriously embarrassed by the use of public funds to support artists whose work ran directly contrary to what the Government was trying to achieve’.

With the establishment of a dedicated photographic exhibition and purchasing strategy for the Council’s Fine Arts department in 1982, led by a young Brett Rogers, national communication again came under scrutiny. Reflecting a decade when photographers, from Paul Graham to Anna Fox, used their cameras in the service of political critique, Council exhibitions featuring this work travelled across Europe and South America. Photographs of urban decline and political conflict proved popular with local audiences but confused some British expatriates and ambassadors who wished for more promotional national content.

These mixed reactions highlight a key sticking point about British art in international cultural relations. Is its purpose, as cultural critic Richard Hoggart asked in 1986, to show ‘the cleanly-scrubbed best face of British society, a face which exhibits all that is positive and instantaneously cheering in the nation’s life’? Hoggart posited, instead, that ‘the arts may be doing their best work for us, and for the understanding of us by others, when they are exploring our weaknesses’.

Photographs, this presentation will argue, for all their reality effects, are always more than a straight messaging system. They can clarify but they can also complicate. In the context of British Council travelling exhibitions, always enmeshed in the communication and renegotiation of national identity, photographs’ complexities and uncertainties make them risky ambassadors but also potentially profound sites for international engagement.
Period25 Nov 2021
Held atPaul Mellon Centre
Degree of RecognitionNational