John Latham and the Artists’ Placement Group came up in conversation the other day. While I liked much of what Latham did, I always found the theoretical justifications for his work extremely dubious. Thus when through Latham I came into direct contact with the Artists’ Placement Group (APG) in the 1980s, I found it utterly ridiculous. Now that the APG is no longer a going concern and The Tate has purchased its archives, it is unfortunately easier for for those coming across it for the first time to take it rather more seriously than was the case with old hands who encountered it as a live entity.
I have heard rumours of a Leninist critique of the APG in an issue of Artery Magazine (edited by Jeff Sawtell and published from 1971 and 1984), but to date I have been unable to trace this. I wrote my own brief appraisal of the APG a year or two after first encountering the beast ‘up close and personal’, and this was published in Smile Magazine No. 10 (London 1987). It seems worthwhile reposting that here to remind people of the reactions the APG elicited when it was a going concern. Strangely (or perhaps not), in my encounters with Stuart Brisley and Ian Breakwell from the 1980s onwards, neither ever mentioned the APG to me.
When I first met Latham and his wife Barbara Steveni (who struck me as the real power and key activist in the APG), both spoke to me about the importance of the APG but neither seemed to understand my criticisms of it for retrenching the role of the artist as a specialist non-specialist (to resort to caricature, it was as if Latham and Steveni ‘had never encountered left-communism in all its originality, nor understood the nature of its break with the Third International…’). Anyway, here’s what I wrote way back when:
ARTISTS’ PLACEMENT AND THE END OF ART
“Artistss’ Placement is intended to serve Art rather than provide a service for artists.” Barbara Steveni ‘Will Art Influence History?’ (in AND Journal of Art No. 9).
In the same article from which the preceding quote is extracted, Steveni elaborates that the ‘APG (Artists’ Placement Group) was never created as an agency to help artists find employment, or to create new forms of support for artists. APG is a means of generating change through the media of art rather than through verbal proceedings only, in the context of organisation’. Thus the APG seeks to propagate the concept of the placement of artists in government and industry. The ‘placed artist’ is to play the role of ‘incidental person’ and carry an open brief.
Such aims are at best reformist. For those who do not adhere to a ‘revolutionary perspective’ the idea of placing ‘incidental persons’ in government and industry might appear ‘radical’ if the concept were removed from the conservative framework within which the APG attempt to contain it.
However, close examination of the APG’s theory shows that in terms of its actual practice, the propagation of the concept of artists as ‘incidental persons’, is only a second order activity. Its first priority is clearly the maintenance of a belief in ‘Art’, and the role of the artist, in a society where such mystifications are increasingly viewed as irrelevant not only by the general population, but also by those whose system ‘Art’ once helped to maintain.
In effect, the APG is calling for the utilisation of specialists (artists) in a non-specialist role (the ‘incidental person’). Thus the APG hope to create for themselves (artists) a preserve as professional non-specialists, while excluding ordinary workers and the unemployed from fulfilling any ‘incidental’ function.
The APG are a professional self-interest group. Like all artists they stand in opposition to the aims and aspirations of the impossible class.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!
Tags: 1980s, AND Jouranl of Art, APG, Artery Magazine, Artists Placement Group, Barbara Steveni, Ian Breakwell, incidental person, Jeff Sawtell, Jeffrey Sawtell, John Latham, Leninism, Smile Magazine, Stewart Home, Stuart Brisley, Tate, Third International