The day the world turned day-glo

Burning the Box of Beautiful Things
November 8, 1996

This is an exemplary work, suitably illustrated, charting complex cultural changes occurring at the Royal College of Art, London, between 1950 and 1963. Through interviews with ex-students and an analysis of archive material in the form of the college magazine ARK, Alex Seago skilfully traces the development during this period of a number of generationally and artistically differentiated student subcultures which can collectively and retrospectively be regarded as the declasse vanguard of an emergent British postmodern culture. And just to clear up the inevitable confusion concerning such terminology, let me say that Seago understands a "postmodern sensibility" to comprise the celebration of "pop", the drive towards an image-conscious culture, and a desire to transgress the boundary of high art and mass culture.

The sociological orthodoxy is to generalise the development of postmodern strategies to the status of reactions against elitist and exhausted forms of modernism. Demonstrating a sensitivity to the specificity of the British context where modernism had failed to take hold in the way that it had both in America and on the continent, Seago proposes a far more convoluted and contradictory history.

In such a cultural climate, and despite some real ideological tensions, this home-grown postmodern "aesthetic rebellion" incorporated US and European modernist avant-garde elements in an uneasy amalgam of "pop", "cool" and abstraction. Their targets were the cherished cultural icons of "Englishness", the "Woodcuts of Roses" of the conservative artistic establishment. As one of Seago's respondents recollects: "One of the famous jokes about the staff . . . was that they had a box of ephemera labelled 'Beautiful Things'. We planned to find it and burn it in public . . . ARK 24 was intentionally subversive . . . The day-glo cover was produced within 12 months of the first day-glo inks emerging. It's a bit faded now, but when it first came out it was really, really offensive. The opposite of 'Good Taste' in fact!" "Good taste" refers here to all things neo-Victorian, decorative, romantic and pastoral: artistic values which the ARKs of the early 1950s tended to reflect. Yet ominous harbingers of change, in the form of articles on motorcycles, science-fiction and photography, were soon to appear in the magazine from the middle of the decade onwards. Sure enough, by 1962, ARK could be described as "pure pop". Seago's success, however, is to convey the subtlety of the shifts occurring in its contents and design during these 12 years, a testimony to the evolution within the college of a "chaotic" constellation of both modern and postmodern forms and practices. A number of these - notably situationism and a peculiarly English performance-based Dada - clearly herald later developments in both the British underground of the 1960s and the punk rock explosion of the following decade.

The achievement of this impressive work is to provide important corrections to over-formalised accounts of cultural change. Its valuable contribution to the field is to clothe a conceptual carcass in a rich tapestry of lived experience. How fitting that in a book about postmodernism, its main lesson appears to be the triumph of the "little narratives" over "vague theoretical generalisations".

David Muggleton is a tutor in sociology, Lancaster University.

Burning the Box of Beautiful Things: The Development of a Postmodern Sensibility

Author - Alex Seago
ISBN - 0 19 817221 4 and 817405 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00 and £16.95
Pages - 234

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