Art magazines as middlebrow spaces – a talk at AAH 2021

Dr Emma West is giving a talk on interwar art and design magazines at this year’s Association for Art History conference, hosted by the University of Birmingham.

Book cover for 'The Art Gallery'Dr West’s paper, ‘Interwar Art Magazines as Middlebrow Spaces’, is part of a panel on ‘Visual Art and the Middlebrow’, organised by UoB colleagues Michael Clegg and Rebecca Savage. Her talk will be based on a private collection of art and design magazines, placed in her care during the national lockdowns. Read more about the collection at Dr West’s blog.

The abstract for the talk is as follows: 

Interwar Art Magazines as Middlebrow Spaces

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’ll draw 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’.[i] 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’ll be 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.’[ii] I’ll use my paper to question whether and how this contested concept might be of use in art history.

Image: The Art Gallery, 1.6 (Spring 1931). Private collection.



[i] Faye Hammill and Michelle Smith, Magazines, Travel and Middlebrow Culture: Canadian Periodicals in English and French 1925-1960 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2015), 10.

[ii] Nicola Humble, ‘Sitting Forward or Sitting Back: Highbrow v. Middlebrow Reading’, Modernist Cultures, 6.1 (2011), 41-59 (42).