Interwar Art Magazines as Middlebrow Spaces

Activity: Academic and Industrial eventsConference, workshop or symposium


In Britain, the interwar period saw an explosion in magazines seeking to educate readers about art. Titles like The Artist, Modern Masterpieces and The Art Gallery were aimed at middle-class art enthusiasts or amateur artists without formal art training. The focus was on ‘instruction’: readers were taught about aesthetics and art history, principles of art appreciation, or new artistic techniques and methods.

In this paper, I drew on Faye Hammill and Michelle Smith’s definition of the middlebrow as ‘a mode of circulation, reception, and consumption of cultural products’, a space where ‘art encounters consumerism’. In the pages of these magazines, readers were introduced to—and invited to actively participate in—the art world. In The Artist, readers were invited to buy materials and to follow along step-by-step guides from established artists. In The Art Gallery, readers were taught the fundamentals of art appreciation at the same time as being introduced to a range of prints they could purchase. Modern Masterpieces took this a step further: each issue included five colour prints suitable for display in one’s own home.

Unlike magazines by and for professional artists, these magazines aimed at amateurs and enthusiasts have received little critical attention. Their emphasis on mainstream audiences, on self-improvement, and on cultivating good taste are all characteristics of what we might term the ‘middlebrow’, but I was wary of simply classifying such magazines as middlebrow. As Nicola Humble warns, there is a ‘tendency for notions of the middlebrow to harden in debate, for it to be seen as a fixed category with a securely-bounded canon.’ I used my paper to question whether and how this contested concept might be of use in art history.
Period16 Apr 2021
Event titleAssociation for Art History Conference 2021
Event typeConference