Independent magazine-makers have always reacted to the times. Paul Gorman, author of The Story of The Face, and co-curator of Print! Tearing It Up, at London’s Somerset House, points out that such a socially and politically engaged raison d’être isn’t hard to trace throughout recent history. “Take the ’60s—youth culture and the underground press. Here was a section of society that was indulging in mind-expanding drugs and that’s reflected in their magazines,” he says.
“Then the ’70s were a period of great social and economic turmoil and you got punk, which wasn’t about the music, but the clothes and the attitude. That continued into the ’80s with Thatcherism and Reaganism. The chips were down and interest in lifestyle came up. It was the clothes you wore, where you lived, what you bought and what you consumed.”
The show, which runs until August 22, is billed as an exploration of the history and impact of British independent magazines, tracing a line from the dissent of Sniffin Glue to the political satire of Private Eye; from the alternative lifestyles of Blitz, to the feminism of Spare Rib to the piss-taking of Shoreditch Twat to the platform-building of Gal-dem. It draws a compelling picture of opposition in print, showing that independent print, independent thought and a certain visual approach go hand in hand.
Gorman defines independence as “sitting outside of corporate structures.” But what role does design play in that status? “Independent magazines had to elbow others aside to get attention on the shelves,” he says. “If you look at Boulevard magazine, or any of the magazines in the exhibition, they’re very, very visually impactful. They had to punch above their weight. And they had to look different because they’re putting forward a different proposition.” Certainly the couldn’t-be-much-more-establishment backdrop of Somerset House throws certain design cues into relief as sharp as the historic ceiling roses.
The aesthetic of opposition goes beyond attention seeking. Gorman continues, “The graphics, design, photography and journalism are done by people who were, and still are, prepared to take risks. They had to keep evolving to stay ahead, like Neville Brody at The Face designing a new font every month because they kept getting ripped off to advertise banks or sell holidays.”
Gorman is disparaging about the magazines of the ’90s and ’00s, saying the optimism of the former and the digital obsession of the latter brought a lull in creativity. But, he says, this imaginative downturn was reversed by another, of the financial kind. “The current resurgence stems from the crash of 2008 and young people coming through that and looking for ways to express themselves. We’re 10 years from the crash, but there’s the uncertainties of Trump or Brexit, and I’ve seen this before, when the chips are down, these publications rise to the occasion.
“That’s why you’ve got British Values, and Dan 3000’s Fuck Brexit fanzine.” So, if Hilary had won, and the UK had voted remain, our magazines shelves would be poorer for it? “You could argue that, yes.”
In the exhibition catalog, Gorman has penned an essay on the impact of print called ‘The Sound and Not the Echo’. But can magazines change culture, or do they merely reflect the way society is changing? “Magazines change the conversation all the time. It’s probably on a micro level,” says Gorman.
“I know for sure that Private Eye changes the conversation by revealing the hypocrisies of those in power and through that incredible mickey-taking. Then look at the woman’s independent press and the #MeToo movement. I think those magazines are both outcomes of the change in culture and vehicles for progressing that change. Meanwhile in the grab bag of arseholes called the alt-right, no one is gravitating towards print because they daren’t. Online they can lie and troll, but they don’t commit to print. A lot of the new magazines in the show are being made by women, by minorities, and by people considering and turning over issues of identity and migration, magazine’s like Gal-dem, Riposte, and Accent.”
In a panel discussion around the exhibition, Mushpit editor Bertie Brandes was asked to name the golden age of print. She replied that we’re not there yet. If there really is a correlation between creativity and political and cultural turmoil that’s both optimistic and pessimistic, maybe the best—or worst—is still to come.