Wot! No Art

UK 1978, 55 mins
Director: Christopher Mason

Introduced by BFI National Archive Curator Steve Foxon

Christopher Mason’s documentary presents a retrospective of the arts in the immediate post-war years (1945-51), when patronage for ‘public art’ was intended to promote a cultural renaissance to complement that in education, health and housing. A dream of universal access to Britain’s cultural heritage is shared, with excellent use of archive newsreels, though can the dream be made reality or is art simply a luxury most can’t afford?

Chronologically, Wot! No Art continues the wayward story of the muffled impact of modern art and design on English life begun in Christopher Mason’s England Home and Beauty (centred on the 1930s). The time span is now 1945 to 1951 – the period when the Labour government undertook to improve the people’s lot in education, health and housing. Nor was art neglected: the Arts Council was formed, new towns and schools in Hertfordshire liberally sprinkled modern sculptures and murals about the walls and shopping streets, and a cultural renaissance seemed to be in the air. In tone and style, however, there is little continuity between Mason’s two surveys. England Home and Beauty was a slyly arranged cinematic exhibition of Thirties design (art deco houses, china sets, wall paper, the coloured glass patterns in suburban front doors); some of the examples were imbued with the spirit of modernism, others with ghastly good taste. Wot! No Art probes deeper into the reasons for such muddled attitudes, into the strained relationship between the modern artist, the public and the reflection of both in the media (here, specifically newsreels).

The result is a sturdy, provoking, highly entertaining polemical tract, which rounds off proceedings with the obvious point that the gap between artist and public will only close when art is understood as a basic need and not as an elitist luxury. As with any polemic, some distortions and omissions are necessary to make the argument cohere: throughout, the implication is that the public is far more in need of education than the artist. So the actual examples of art produced in the late Forties (mostly paintings) take second place in Mason’s scheme to archive samplings on the general social and aesthetic state of the nation. As Before Hindsight proved, cinema newsreels are a rich repository of Establishment attitudes, with their half-whimsical, half-snide commentaries capable of describing a lorry carrying prefabricated building materials as a ‘lorryload of love nests’ or the ICA’s retrospective exhibition of modern art as ‘the first of its kind – if you like that kind’.

Mason also includes brief interviews with the public of today – the people who are still living in their temporary love nests 30 years after they were erected, the children living in unimaginatively designed housing blocks, the Harlow residents for whom abstract sculpture simply marks a local meeting place. Along with his previous wry detachment, some of Mason’s control and elliptical wit has disappeared: the camera’s meandering over the façade of Sadler’s Wells Theatre (during a sequence on the triumphant production of Peter Grimes in 1945) seems desperately random, and footage recalling Hiroshima and the Korean War is glibly used. Nevertheless, Wot! No Art proves yet again what a wealth of provocative material there lies waiting to be explored in British life and art.
Geoff Brown, Monthly Film Bulletin, April 1978

Director: Christopher Mason
Production Company: Mason Bruce Film Associates
Sponsor: Arts Council of Great Britain
Producer: Christopher Mason
Script: Christopher Mason
Photography: Clive Tickner
Rostrum Photography: Danny Boon, Hugh Gordon
Editor: Polly Bindloss
Sound Recording: Michael Pharey, Denis Skelton
Sound Re-recording: Tony Anscombe

UK 1978
55 mins

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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