A Fart in the Wind



Jonathan Jones, Guardian art critic

I had the misfortune to read an offensive piece of journalism recently written by Jonathan Jones, entitled, ‘Why Scotland should follow its art and not vote for independence.’

Jones is one of those bold critics that seems to assess over-praised talent correctly and say so. More often than not I agree with him. He has something of the Dylan Thomas about his looks, and a whiplash tongue too. His deconstruction of the cross-dresser first, art last, Grayson Perry and his boring, trite pots is a master lesson in fearless art criticism. Be he’s lost when it comes to Scottish art, seeing it only in terms of London-centred values.

Pig ignorant

Managing to be both pig ignorant and unashamedly colonial simultaneously – the two normally go together – he praises Scotland’s art while suggesting it’s good art because it is approved by England’s critics.

Yet again, this is London judging all and everyone by its own terms.

For all he knows about Scottish art and its place in European art,  Jones may as well be critiquing saucy seaside postcards. He’d be better employed researching why there are so few blonde women working as artists. (I don’t have an inkling; I am throwing him a ball to chase.)

He bases his prognostication on a few Scottish ‘artists’ – Douglas Gordon, Martin Creed, Martin Boyce, Susan Philipsz, and Richard Wright.

None are painters. They are all conceptual ‘artistes,’ meaning they have ‘ideas,’ but can not, or do not, draw or paint. They have concepts. They lie in bed thinking up a concept and then arrange for others to help them put the bits together.

At this point it is important to define what an artist is. The word artist is thrown around at at anybody and everybody exhibiting a modicum of creativity.

There are only two kinds of artists, painters and sculptors.

The rest are lesser mortals not painters, not necessarily concerned with elevating the mundane or the great moment to art or adding symbolism or allegory into their work. All others, singers, music performers, such as fiddlers and piano players, jugglers, and decorators, are artistes.

Hockney the publicist

Let’s take the example of David Hockney. He is not usually considered a great painter. That England’s drooling critics and art lovers have called him an artist all of his days, means he naturally sees himself as an artist, but that does not automatically make him a painter.

Goya was a painter. Turner was a painter. Picasso was a painter. Matisse was a painter, Rothko,  obsessed with what pure colour can do to the senses, was a painter. Rodin was an artist. Munch too but a painter not a sculptor. All could draw as well as paint. And they knew their materials, how they worked one upon another, where they came from, none were colour blind. Even the action painter Jackson Pollock was a painter. Each has a history and a progression of work you can trace and evaluate. Studying Hockney’s paintings tells you he isn’t a painter. What he is, is a very fine graphic artist, a startling one, one who broke new ground in his early days. He has dined out on the fame since.

You have to judge his work, any artist’s work, in historical context. Is Hockney as great a graphic artist, as important a figure, as Albrecht Dürer? Not by a country mile.

Yet most English art critics will rush to praise Hockney if he as much as hawks up phlegm and frames it. (Andrew Lambirth is the exception; he lambasted his last exhibition.) The press will give Hockney an annual two-page spread following an hour’s documentary, an ‘artist at home’ in weekend supplements, and an interview preceding it on television news channels.

The union never boosted Scottish art

Scottish artists, real painters, are less fortunate. They get ignored. They get ignored by the Scottish press that waits for the London press to tell them what’s good and what’s bad.

Jones praises non-artists because they won the Turner Prize. Quelle surprise – he was once a judge on its panel, therefore, ipso facto, his taste and choice is unassailable.

The Turner Prize is not the best.

There are better art prizes. Turner tends to concentrate on non-painters. Martin Creed is known for balancing old Bentwood chairs one upon another. Susan Philipsz, (don’t forget the stray ‘zee’) is news for winning the prize for recording herself singing under a bridge. (BBC sound recordists eat your heart out.) No wonder fine art gets such a bad name. The public are led to believe by critics fine art and conceptualism are one and the same.

Conceptual art is a fad, a fashion, passé, yet art students are lured into discarding drawing and painting to concentrate upon it. It consists of thinking up an idea with little versatility to be developed, cannot be placed on a wall, or copies made of it, needs a big gallery to show it, and all-to-often is a massive collection of a single object, the creator labouring under the misapprehension large numbers placed in one area constitutes something of significance. A pile of bricks laid end-to-end comes to mind, a million ceramic seed pods another.

Concepts come accompanied by convoluted theories. ‘A work of art that contains theories is like an object on which the price tag has been left,’ said Marcel Proust.

Conceptual art is cheap

You don’t need to buy art materials such as canvas, inks or acrylics. Conceptual art is what the jury of the Turner look for; so, we get our art students shortlisted for the Turner Prize to be noticed. (Smart readers will recall it was a piece of conceptual art that burned down MacIntosh’s great art school, a film projector that burst into flames.) In time conceptual artists recognise the aridness of their work, that it’s a dead end, and return to drawing and painting only to discover they have no training in those basic skills. They are in effect, art dealers. Painting is easy to those who cannot do it, very difficult to those who can.

Jones claims the Turner Prize gets Scottish artists recognised. What arrogance.

In their day Europeans, fellow artists and critics, recognised Scotland’s gifted Raeburn and Ramsay, superior artists to most working in England. That’s not a nationalistic boast. It’s recorded history. They were considered unrivalled in composition and portraiture. They had the perception to see what we miss, the melancholy behind the eyes, the uniqueness of the light in the Highlands, the drama of our glens and skies, the people and the places they worked in, mood, and pattern, and structure.

To those illustrious names add the later Phillipson, Gillies, Redpath, and Eardley, to name only four. To this day their work still impresses, remains significant, puts contemporaries  in the shade back then. Does the English art establishment hold them aloft as examples to follow? No doubt they’d put the philistine Mr Jones in a rage. Instead we get painters such as Francis Bacon and his ‘Screaming Pope.’ Once it made its mark and his fortune that’s all he painted thereafter, variations on screaming popes. They sold like, well, hot popes.

The Glasgow boys

In the late nineteenth and early mid-twentieth century the Glasgow Boys led the British pack. Who were they? Difficult to name any because that artbitrator of good taste and instant fame, the British art establishment, is too busy fawning over lesser talents.

Who among us has heard of Joseph Crawhall, Thomas Millie Dow, James Guthrie, John Lavery, David Young Cameron, James Nairn, James Paterson, George Pirie, and William York MacGregor?  Compare the best work of any with their English counterparts and you can see how far ahead in ideas, images and technique they were. The recent exhibition of the ‘Glasgow Boys’ at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, London, endorsed that reading once and for all, soon forgotten by the British press.

The Glasgow Boys were followed by the misleadingly termed Colourists, misleading in that they had their own ideas not necessarily copied each other – Fergusson, Peploe, Cadell and Hunter. They happened to be good friends and all lived in Paris for a time where art was art and public toilets were still urinals.

Today we have great painters such as the multi-talented John Byrne, a truly terrific artist who would be a millionaire had he lived in New York: Crieff ‘buddy,’ Barbara Rae, a Royal Academician painter and printmaker respected and collected worldwide; the wild Adrian Wiszniewski; the highly innovative Steven Campbell, (English-born, regarded himself a true Scot, as his thick Glaswegian accent attested) Alison Watt, and the late John Bellany, a painter compelled to place a fish on everybody’s head. There are many more.

They all got or get London exhibitions and are duly paid lipservice for their distinction, books written of their output, their work in public and private collections, but mentions in the British press are hard to find. (Rae, universally regarded as a great colourist and printmaker, declines personal interviews, asking that she is judged by her work.) In fact, it’s hard to find note of them in Scottish newspapers.

Playing to the wrong gallery

Perhaps if they cross-dressed, or produced unmade beds as art, the press and Mr Jones would sit up and notice. Like Usian Bolt running in the Commonwealth Games, conceptual artists are not really trying. In any event, Mr Jones probably doesn’t rate any of the Scottish painters I mention since they are not conceptual deadheads keen to win a prize and live in London where he can patronise them.

He continues unabashed, “Scottish art is doing fine as an inflection of British art.”

How pleasant to be known as an inflection. At least it isn’t an infliction.

“Nationalism,” says the plodding Jones, “is a cultural black hole.”

Aye, unless it’s endorsed and elevated by England’s critics. Then it’s art superior to any nation’s. It becomes British overnight – so there!

Street smart

A smart Royal Academician employee can recognise a painter trained in Scotland by the influences in the image created; he or she will not expect them to be producing artworks of punts on an Oxford boating river. For the most part, conceptual art is not culturally specific. A tangled group of Bentwood chairs is the same anywhere. Wherever exhibited it has nothing new to say to us. It’s a tangled group of mass produced Bentwood chairs.

Just as well Jones the Welshman knows damn all about the place of Scottish art in the world’s gallery. Had he been around in sculptor Henry Moore’s time he’d have advised him not to make any holes in his work in case small children trapped their heads.

By his inflection I can tell Mr Jones thinks himself terribly insightful. Well, his notion of Scottish art as an off-shoot of English fashion is a grand idea for a man aged nine-and-a-half, as acceptable to Scottish art as a Bernard Manning joke at a Lenny Henry party. Artists are moved by the place they are born in, by the quality of light, by the topography, by the people and their traditions.

To paraphrase Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail,’ “Jones farts in our general direction.”

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7 Responses to A Fart in the Wind

  1. JimnArlene says:

    A thoroughly enjoyable Sunday morning read. My favourite painting is “Boots with laces” by Van Gogh ( he wasn’t Scot’s, but I don’t hold it against him). Just a plain old pair of workmans boots, to me it just magnificent.
    Mr Jones probably wouldn’t rate him ( Van Gogh ) or my favourite painting either.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Good choice!

  3. I rather fear we have been badly served by own National Galleries in Edinburgh. Another part of the Scottish cringe faced by anglocentric British culture.

    Scottish painting, including the works of the Glasgow Boys you talk of, is shown in the Gallery basement where it is out of context with European work. Though they have let a Ramsay and Raeburn or two upstairs to join English, Italian, Dutch and Spanish painters.

    Worse, there is no permanent exhibition of 20th century Scottish art. Works by the Colourists, Phillipson, Gillies, Redpath and Eardly, never mind Mackintosh and many others I could list, are almost never collectively on show in the National Galleries.

    As there is nowhere to see the distinctive historical development of visual art in Scotland, no critical perspective can easily be found to help place recent art in context. For some artists this perhaps gives a freedom to forget the past of what they may see as a wee, poor and stupid place and aim for the international art market where Conceptualism appears to hold sway.

    Jonathan Jones said that, “Scotland should follow its art and not vote for independence”. However, as the institution responsible for presenting our art has been unwilling or incapable of the task, really Scotland should vote for independence and get the chance to follow its art!

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    That’s another story, as they say, but every word you tell is true.

  5. donald says:

    There is this thing that I as a craftsman call integrity. You cant clone or copy it . If i were to try and describe it I would say its the authentic individual voice of someone who dedicates their best efforts to their work. Its not that you want the world to recognize you as the best (that dreadful conceit of the armchair experts) You just feel impelled to discover the work and the process . I dont like lots of big words when I talk about this, because that’s another cheat the critics use to lend credibility to their opinions. But as an artist friend of mine once said, no artist ever felt inspired to do a bust or painting of an art critic.

    I refuse to indulge the experts.

    Cynical artists like Hockney and Warhol leave me cold. If elevating mediocrity is their revenge on the genuinely competent then they have certainly done well for themselves . But wasn’t that always the point? My friend, like so many artists, was cynically used and manipulated by her lecturer at University. The damage shows in her work as beautiful as it is .

    To create anything betrays the sum of who you are. Its that simple really. If you are a crass superficial greedy person you will produce work that reflects it.

    The thing that strikes me most about the wonderful Glasgow boys is the depth of color and life, the dimensionality, of their work. I am not really qualified to say any more than that. For my part I always use natural finishes, never plastic/synthetic ones. Linseed, beeswax and other natural materials give such a wonderful radiant warmth to the color of wood. Plastic spray on lacquers have a cold white glare that is painful to look at.

    People are conditioned by the warhols to accept the corporate veneer of plastic laminate as ‘perfect’. Perfectly flat, washable, smooth and color matched. Manufactured fashion and taste. You will like what the critics we fund tell you to like. Nature still does it best and I suppose, hating competition, the corps are trying to kill nature for good.

    I only know enough about pigments to say that it is a fascinating science in its own right. The secret of light fast vermillion has always intrigued me. In its naturally occurring form, mercuric sulphide, it is notoriously difficult to make. But if you have ever seen original paint made from it, the warmth and depth of the color is just amazing. Lapiz lazuli is the same. Its the bluest blue.

    I enjoyed the film about Vermeer with Colin Firth. I thought they did rather well at giving a glimpse at least of the atmosphere of the studio, the magic of grinding and making pigment. The capturing of light.

    I also have to give credit to The Red Violin, the musical score was awesome and there is a great deal of truth to the obsessive compulsive nature of instrument making and how it shapes the sound of the instrument. So much of the magic for many artists is the materials themselves.

    Acquiring them and manipulating them. Work and life become entwined to the exclusion of all superfluous things. The moment Vermeer’s wife goes ballistic, jealous of his work and relationship to it was an incredible piece of acting. I have experienced that myself. People will hate you for having created something beautiful. I mean pure vicious hatred. You remind them of the emptiness in their own lives. So they get their revenge by embracing mediocrity.

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    “I also have to give credit to The Red Violin, the musical score was awesome”

    I thoroughly enjoyed that portmanteau movie too. If my memory holds up the composer is Italian, classically trained, and insisted he compose a complete work for each fictional episode rather than a different theme for each.

  7. donald says:

    Its not just that I identify with the film because I am a maker myself , but that signature theme just cuts me to the quick . I cant remember the name of the composer but I think he received a justly deserved award for it , maybe an Oscar . Musicians,composers and makers alike are possessed , its true . Its not always healthy either .

    I can say with some authority that the world of instrument dealing is every bit as crooked as portrayed in the auction at the end. I am not even dead yet and two of my instruments have been stolen and re birthed as the work of another. Bad makers will also sabotage the work of good ones. It happens all the time .

    Great instruments sing to the soul and do drive people to mad acts of jealousy and passion . There is Nothing exaggerated about that film at all. For every great instrument there are a thousand mediocre ones. But when you hear a great instrument in person up close it is an epiphany , a transcendent experience . My epiphany happened at a private Scottish collectors home. I can still hear the sound in my head today . If that instrument came on the market I would mortgage my home to buy it if I could . Its madness i know but such beauty of tone is addictive to my soul. Instruments record emotions and store them somehow . Its uncanny. I only have to see let alone touch a good makers work and I can feel his /her presence. I would happily live in a one bedroom shack so I could play and listen to that Italian gem. Pure unadulterated joy .

    Its absolutely true that instrument makers bleed in to their instruments . I always cut myself and smear it in to the wood somewhere discreet . I drip sweat on to the timber , I burn my heart in to it . Something happens at a quantum level perhaps but good makers know the work of another master better than anyone . Those bastard ‘experts’ know Nothing of what it takes and what it takes out of you. Its the same with all sincere artists/artisans.
    You are possessed , you are not altogether your self in the creation . You are in an altered state. You see hear and feel acutely and you are not there when people try to get your ordinary attention.

    Anyhoo , Go Greece ! Yes , I mean No , I mean yes about the no. Im pumped . Feel the burn bankers.

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