Explainer News

Independent Groups: 1950s Avant-Gardists vs. Today’s Political Renegades

Jeremy Corbyn: a member of neither Independent Group.

JANE CAMPBELL/SHUTTERSTOCK

It has been a wild few days in London, with members of Parliament defecting from the Labor and Conservative parties to join a new organization called the Independent Group. Unfortunately, however, this group has no relation to the same-named avant-garde group of thinkers who got together in London in the 1950s to birth new forms of art and architecture. To help us all keep the two Independent Groups straight, a brief guide follows below.

Founders

The Independent Group, 1950s
Vanguard-minded artists, writers, architects, and sundry other intellectuals eager to have discussions about, and make art incorporating, popular culture, advertising, modernism, and technology.

The Independent Group, 2019
Seven Members of Parliament who quit the Labor Party, dissatisfied with party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Brexit and his response to accusations of anti-Semitism within the party’s ranks. They have since been joined by another Labor member and three Tories.

Base of Operations

The Independent Group, 1950s
London, specifically the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which hosted many of its events.

The Independent Group, 2019
London, specifically Parliament.

Major Figures

The Independent Group, 1950s
A rather male-heavy cast that included artists Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, and William Turnbull, critic Lawrence Alloway, and architects Alison and Peter Smithson.

The Independent Group, 2019
As of Wednesday morning, the Independent Group’s 11 members were Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith, Chuka Umunna, Joan Ryan, Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen, and Anna Soubry. (Seven are women.)

Key Quotations

The Independent Group, 1950s
Lawrence Alloway: “. . . movies, science fiction, advertising, pop music. We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically.”

The Independent Group, 2019
Former Labor MP Joan Ryan: “I cannot remain a member of the Labor party while this requires me to suggest that I believe Jeremy Corbyn—a man who has presided over the culture of anti-Jewish racism and hatred of Israel that now afflicts my former party—is fit to be prime minister of this country. He is not.”

Tory defectors: “Brexit has redefined the Conservative party—undoing all the efforts to modernize it.”

What the Critics Say

The Independent Group, 1950s
Hal Foster has highlighted the group’s complicated relationship with mass culture and the economic conditions undergirding it, writing that “. . . even as its critique of art tilted toward an advocacy of capitalist technology and spectacle, the Independent Group did point to a historic shift from an economy centered on production to one based on consumption, a shift that entailed a repositioning of the postwar avant-garde as well.”

The Independent Group, 2019
After the initial defections on Monday, Corbyn told the press: “I am disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labor policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945.”

Prime Minister Theresa May on defections from her party: “I am saddened by this decision. . . . But by delivering on our manifesto commitment and implementing the decision of the British people we are doing the right thing for our country.”

Milestone Moments

The Independent Group, 1950s
Highlights include Paolozzi showing his advertising-filled scrapbooks at the ICA in 1952, the “Parallel of Life and Art” show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1953, and the “This Is Tomorrow” exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1956.

The Independent Group, 2019
Beyond the actual resignations, it’s pretty much just involved letters, press conferences, and media interviews so far.

Recent Developments

The Independent Group, 1950s
There’s no major exhibition of the group on right now, but just last week Whitechapel Gallery opened “Is This Tomorrow?,” a kind of spiritual sequel to the landmark “This Is Tomorrow” show. The ICA in London did a show on the group in 2013, and Clearing gallery has put on two great shows of Paolozzi’s art at its Brooklyn space in recent years. Also, quite a few museums are currently displaying work by group members in their permanent collections.

The Independent Group, 2019
Things are happening very fast. On Wednesday, three MPs quit the Conservative Party and joined the Independent Group, arguing that Prime Minister Theresa May was taking too hard a line on Brexit and bemoaning the fractiousness of politics in the country.

Legacy

The Independent Group, 1950s
Though formal meetings of the loose-knit group ceased after 1955, its activities prefigured the development of Pop art in the United States, the U.K., and elsewhere. A group far ahead of its time, its legacy continues to reverberate in today’s art.

The Independent Group, 2019
Too soon to say, but everything is looking topsy-turvy in the British capital.

Copyright 2019, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.