By Modern Art Oxford

Who makes a work of art? How is artwork affected by the context in which it is presented? Explore some of the ideas about context and authorship that have influenced contemporary artists

KALEIDOSCOPE: It's Me to the World (2016/2016) by Mohamed Qasim Ashfaq, Richard LongModern Art Oxford

Defining context and authorship 

Authorship refers to the originator of the work or artistic concept.  Context refers to the circumstance in which an art work or event, statement or idea is presented so that it can be fully understood.

Pioneers of Part-Art (POPA at MOMA) Installation Photograph (1971/1971) by Museum of Modern Art OxfordModern Art Oxford

From author to social activator

The anti-establishment mood of the 1960s witnessed considerable societal and attitudinal shifts, and brought with it a fundamental questioning of the idea of Western art and its history, the context in which it is presented, and the role of the artist and audience in both making work and making meaning. This questioning fueled developments in so called ‘conceptual art’ practices where the idea of art was being investigated and critiqued, leading to a wide range of discursive strategies in the production and reception of contemporary art.


Have You Seen The Horizon Lately? (1997/1998) by Yoko OnoModern Art Oxford

As the civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s gathered momentum, the archetypal Modern artist – Western, white, male, bourgoise and heterosexual, the notion of the creative genius and originality – came under attack.

There was a new emphasis and assertion of individual, subjective positions and this lead to a great awareness of the subjective nature of both the producer and receiver of art and a desire to interrogate and complicate this relationship and the context in which art is being generated. These critical positions are key to understanding developments in so called Post-Modern art from the 1970s onwards.

Contemporary Art of Today: Context & Authorship (2017) by Modern Art OxfordModern Art Oxford

Have You Seen The Horizon Lately? (1997/1998) by Yoko OnoModern Art Oxford

Who makes a work of art? 

Inspired by and co-opting the forms of activism of the 1960s and '70s, a new democratic and direct engagement with audiences emerged in Performance Art, which was also resistant to the commodification of the art market. 

Peterlee Project (1976/1977) by Stuart BrisleyModern Art Oxford

Stuart Brisley’s pioneering archive, The Peterlee Project, was one of the first attempts made by an artist to ‘perform history’. The Peterlee Project was presented as part of 'State of Denmark', Brisley's 2014 exhibition.

Pioneers of Part-Art (POPA at MOMA) Installation Photograph (1971/1971) by Museum of Modern Art OxfordModern Art Oxford

Participatory art? 

On 13 May 1971, Modern Art Oxford staged 'Popa at Moma' an exhibition open for just one day and one night. The organisers - members of Oxford University Art Club - made ambitious claims for a new genre of art, which could uniquely stimulate the direct interplay of ideas between the artist and the audience. They hoped for a spontaneous burst of energy from the audience; a desire to respond and give back directly to the work. The exhibition included touchable installations, large pneumatic structures, and wearable objects such as capes and masks designed to heighten awareness of the human body. 

Pioneers of Part-Art (POPA at MOMA) Installation Photograph (1971/1971) by Museum of Modern Art OxfordModern Art Oxford

The audience, buoyed perhaps by the energising effects of bouncing on Graham Stevens’s large inflatables, began to physically engage with the works in ways unintended by their creators.

Pioneers of Part-Art (POPA at MOMA) Exhibition Invitation (1971/1971) by Museum of Modern Art OxfordModern Art Oxford

Two of the artists were indignant at what they saw. According to the Birmingham Post, one artist ‘told the audience: “You are all Philistines. People should know how to treat works of art.’ Although opinions differed as to the degree of real damage done, another artist told journalists that he had seen visitors beating his works against a wall, adding ‘I have not found this sort of reaction anywhere else but England and nowhere as violent as in Oxford’. Sensational headlines such as ‘Art Preview Ends in Uproar’ appeared in local and national news. 

Walking a Labyrinth (1971-12-09/1971-12-23) by Richard LongModern Art Oxford

Some artists moved away from conventional gallery spaces in order to escape the problematic authority of institutional spaces – working in the landscape. Richard Long is known for his site-specific artworks, including outdoor sculptural arrangements and lengthy rural walks. His sculptures often comprise geometric forms such as squares and circles and are usually composed from materials found at the site in which they are made.

KALEIDOSCOPE: It's Me to the World, Mohamed Qasim Ashfaq, Richard Long, 2016/2016, From the collection of: Modern Art Oxford
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“One thing I like about my work is all the different ways it can be in the world (…) A local could walk by and not notice it, or notice it and not know anything about me. Or someone could come upon a circle and know it was a circle of mine. I really like the notion of the visibility or invisibility of the work as well as the permanence and transience” - Richard Long

Space Place, Constructed Space Participation (1966-11-28/1966-12-24) by Various ArtistsModern Art Oxford

'Space Place', one of the first exhibitions at Modern Art Oxford, had ideas of context and authorship at its heart.

"This constructed space is our attempt to demonstrate an idea - the idea is a place for the people - a place where you can meet - to look - to feel - to listen - to move - to laugh - to cry - to love - to protest - a place for the people."

Credits: Story

Modern Art Oxford is an arts charity founded in 1965. It is a space for everyone to enjoy and experience contemporary art, for free. Every exhibition and event at Modern Art Oxford is supported financially by friends of the gallery and members of the public who help to safeguard our future by making regular donations. Without the support of these generous and committed individuals, we would be unable to produce these inspirational exhibitions, events and activities.

Modern Art Oxford is supported by Arts Council England and Oxford City Council.

The content provided in this series of exhibits and films is designed to provide helpful information on the subjects discussed. The exhibits and films are not designed to be used as complete analysis on these subjects. Images sourced for the exhibits and films are copyright to their respectful owners. Full credit information is listed in the details section linked to each image. Unless otherwise noted, the content provided is © Modern Art Oxford. All rights reserved. The content may not be copied in part or full without permission. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. Modern Art Oxford would be grateful to hear from any interested parties

Modern Art Oxford is a charity registered in the UK: 313035

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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