Is the idea of British Art a British Fantasy?

We posed this and the other four key Great British Art Debate questions to our keen debate fiends over on facebook. Here are some of their thoughts:

What is British art? Is it art made by artists born in Britain? Because a lot of British artists live and work in Berlin or New York or in other places. Is art made by artists who live in Britain? A lot of those artists aren’t British by origin but they live here and produce work here. Is it a certain style of art, or art that deals with particularly British topics?
– AT, Facebook

I think British Art is a cultural state of mind. It’s always been a bit ‘punk’, a bit ‘out there’, more self-deprecating. Coronation St has been on our TVs for 50 years and we like a cup of tea. No other country could produce a Grayson Perry. Or a Morrissey. And I don’t think we’d have heard of Leigh Bowery had he not moved to the UK.
– IM, Facebook

‘British art’ is not particularly mysterious. People on these islands have been making all sorts of things that we now call ‘art’ for a few thousand years. We can use the phrase ‘British art’ as a useful shorthand for all this stuff. Do all these things share anything in common – some inherent ‘Britishness’? No. To believe they do is certainly a fantasy – or better, a delusion. Is it a peculiarly British delusion? Err … Well, I’m not entirely sure what the question means but I think the answer is once again ‘No’. British people are certainly not unique among nations in their predilection for discerning a spurious, trans-historical, national ‘character’ within their endlessly diverse heritage.
– AP, Facebook

Yes, but then again Britishness is a British fantasy! We like to think that we can detect essential British characteristics in the paintings and sculptures which happen to be produced here- but I think of it as a ‘Birds of Britain’ question….. yes, there are plenty of sparrows in Britain, so sparrows are a very British bird, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get sparrows elswhere….
– Martin Myrone, Tate Curator

What do you think?

Posted on by Hannah Flynn
Filed under Questions

About Hannah Flynn

Hannah Flynn is E-Learning Assistant for Tate and Co-Ordinator for the Great British Art Debate online. Her favourite British artist is John Martin.


  1. I think you have to first challenge the idea of Britishness. I mean, to me, Britishness only exists as a collective of several national identities shoved under one flag over the past 2000 years, and if anything art is an excellent reflection of this. This is not to undermine anything produced outside of England, but just that its probably the most prominent of national cultural identities that makes up ‘Britishness’. I suppose everyone in the British Isles is obsessed with the past and how that is some sort of fantasy to us, which might be what lumps us under one cultural banner and there is a lot of that in a vast number of artists and homegrown art movements.
    Just a personal opinion, but I would consider the idea of British art a fantasy in itself. In a sense, art has always been for us a way of dealing with insecurities of social, political or economic scales and it’s awesome that the fantasy is what I would consider reflecting our own national “introverted”. I suppose under this idea, the romantics, despite having that thoroughly darling Britishness about them wouldn’t be classed under my weird categorization but then again, its an English artistic identity I’m talking about!
    In a nutshell, British art is obsessed with fantasy, but whether its a personal reflection or outpouringis something left open to whether the concept of ‘British’ actually exists. Which it doesn’t in my humble opinion.

  2. British Art – no its not a British Fantasy – its what I think of as shown in our top galleries and museums – even if the art in question not in fashionable at present. This includes the Victorian sentimental stuff, the fairies and fantasies, the woodcuts of Berwick, the sporting prints of Jorrocks, the resurrections of Stanley Spencer etc – you get my drift.
    When I consider the Britishness of art as seen in local art society shows, Affordable Art Fairs etc, somehow this is not true British – maybe this is because the cultural establishment is taken so seriously in the UK and we, the hoi poloi, tend to bow to its perceived right to make pronouncements on what is good and what is not.
    Perhaps this is because we are still living with the remnants of what the collectors of the past brought into the UK from their links with foreign courts, their cultural journeys round Europe in 18th and 19th centuries. They were rich and famous and powerful, they knew what was right. We, the peasants, accepted what they said we should admire and look up to.
    We, the British now, are still dependent on being told what is ‘good’ and by default we tend to prefer the ‘good’ British stuff in our galleries, rather than the ‘good’ other art stuff that has yet to be selected by the top boys and girls who run our museums and galleries for us.

  3. Is the Idea of British Art a British Fantasy – Yes and No (but in a good way!). It cannot be a fantasy with such talented artists as Banksy, Blake, Constable, Emin, Gainsborough, Hirst, Hockney, Hogarth, Ofili, moore et all, to bathe our eyes & inspire our hearts with. But it is a fantasy in terms of imagination, inspiration and limitless originality that has, is and hopefully always will be so typical of the immense quality of our bests’ works

  4. Aren’t most art forms a fantasy crafted by the artist?