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.
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!
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.”