By Kevin Orr
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Keywords – an exhibition that lacks the clarity of its inspiration

This article is over 10 years, 3 months old
Issue 2394

Raymond Williams, who died in 1988, was a leading left-wing cultural critic whose work explored the connections between art, politics and society. 

This exhibition is inspired by his 1976 book Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. 

Keywords is a series of enquiries into the evolving meanings of 131 abstract nouns. These range from “Aesthetic” to “Work”. 

Williams explains how these terms have evolved and how they may each hold multiple meanings.

Williams was a politically engaged writer and these enquiries into the ambiguities of language are there to inform a critique of society and its prevailing values.

The direct connection between the book and this exhibition comes from words taken from Keywords. These are written in large cursive script around the walls of the exhibition and to which the pieces of art are meant to respond, often indirectly. 

Copies of the defunct fanzine The End are set alongside the word “Liberation”, and presents and interesting insight into politics in the 1980s. 

Nevertheless the exhibition lacks coherence or consistency, which may be the curators’ intention. 

Williams’ book provides a means to comprehend and contest society.  

This exhibition ultimately only offers the suggestion that these keywords and what they entail are complicated. 

Since most of the art on show is from the Tate’s own collection, eight pounds is a lot to pay.

Keywords has been republished to coincide with this exhibition. 

 It remains a gem that informs our understanding of society. While this exhibition celebrates that book and includes much of interest—it fails to live up to, let alone add to, what originally inspired it.

Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain. Tate Liverpool, until 11 May. Adult £8.80 Concession £6.60

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