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New Left Review I/132, March-April 1982


Peter Fuller

Art and Biology

I expect that some who saw the poster for this series of lectures on ‘Art and Science’, organized to celebrate 150 years of the British Association, wondered what contribution to this topic might be made by someone associated with the Marxist tradition of writing about art, a tradition which has always stressed sociological and historical factors, and in which the very category of ‘Art and Biology’ would appear to have no place. [*] This lecture was first given at the Tate Gallery in November 1981 as one of a series on ‘Art and Science’ to commemorate one-hundred-and-fifty years of the British Association. About ten years ago a comparable series of lectures was organized at the Institute of Contemporary Arts—in fact by one of the contributors to this series, Jonathan Benthall—and a Marxist was asked along to give the final talk. He told everyone that he found it worrying that the ICA was—I quote—‘turning deferentially to science for social and cultural wisdom and guidance’. He proceeded to argue that there was no such thing as ‘human nature’ accessible to science, that all the findings of science were historically relative . . . and so on. [1] Jonathan Benthall and Ted Polhemus, The Body as a Medium of Expression, London 1975. Perhaps you thought that was going to be my role in this series. But I want to begin by disillusioning you. It isn’t.

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