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 ceramic pots with graffiti scrawled over them is a lesson in fearless art criticism. But he’s lost when it comes to a history of Scottish art, seeing it only in terms of London-centric values.
Managing to be both 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. It’s even better if it wins a Turner prize.
Yet again, this is London judging all and everyone by its own terms.
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.
We can’t all be artists
At this point it is important to define what an artist is because 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 necessarily concerned with elevating the mundane or the extraordinary moment to art. You’ll find little if any symbolism or allegory in their work. They are not interested in revolutionary ideas, or giving two fingers to the establishment.
As for all others called artists, they are artistes. (Pronounced ar-teests.) In that category are a myriad of professions: singers, composers, musical performers such as fiddlers and piano players, jugglers, garden designers, and car designers, interior decorators too.
Hockney the publicist
Let’s take the example of David Hockney. He’s not a great painter. England’s drooling critics and art lovers have called him an artist all of his days. So he paints a lot.
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 too was an artist. Munch too. 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 alcoholic 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, and outstanding draughtsman, one who broke new ground in his early days and should be respected. But he’s dined out on the fame ever since. (He admired the American painter R.B. Kitaj who had a similar trajectory, good when young, messy and lost in the autumn of his days, ultimately savaged by the critics.)
You have to judge his work, any artist’s work, in historical context. The question is this: Is Hockney as great a graphic artist, as important a figure, as Albrecht Dürer? And the answer is: Not by a country mile.
English art critics will rush to praise Hockney. (Andrew Lambirth is the exception; he lambasted his latest work.) Hockney knows how to gain publicity. The press give him an annual two-page spread on the back of an hour’s documentary, followed by an ‘artist at home’ in weekend supplements, and an interview preceding it on television news channels. There are stars in art as well as in entertainment. But it leaves an impression of ‘greatness’ in a vacuum.
The union never boosted Scottish art
Scottish painters, are less fortunate. They’re ignored. They’re ignored by the British press.
They’re ignored by the Scottish press too that waits for the London press to tell them what’s good or bad. And since the London press rarely comes north, the Scottish press are forced to repeat old myths about the culturally unidentifiable work of Jack Vettriano.
The Turner Prize is not the best.
Jones mentions the Turner Prize. There are better art prizes. The Turner gets lots of press attention because its candidates are controversial.
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 art gets such a bad name.
The public are led to believe by critics 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. The creator labours under the misapprehension large numbers of a single item placed in one area constitutes something of significance. A pile of bricks laid end-to-end comes to mind.
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
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. You don’t need to buy art materials such as canvas, inks or acrylics to take part in it.
Sadly, the self-appointed group that publishes the Edinburgh Festival Art Show guide has shifted its gaze to conceptual art – painting is ignored.
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 arbitrator 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 annoying aspect of that exhibition was the organisers had not chosen the best work of the Glasgow Boys, not out of spite, but out of ignorance of their (oeuvre) output.
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.
Among others, 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 master 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.
They all got or get London exhibitions and are duly paid lip service 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. 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 leaden Jones, “is a cultural black hole.” Aye, unless it’s endorsed and elevated by England’s critics. Then it’s ‘British’ art, superior to all other nations.
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 insightful. Artists are moved by the place they are born in, by the quality of light, by the topography, by people, their history and traditions, by their toil and the mark it leaves on the land, not by England’s critics.
To paraphrase Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail,’ “Jones farts in our general direction.”