A Fart in the Wind

 

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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 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.

Pig ignorant

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.

Scottish art

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.

Street smart

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.”

 

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8 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.

  8. Thanks to a 4th Aug 2017 (yes, 2017) tweet from the Grouse dude, I read this page.

    Grouse beater, you’re always a wonderful, easy read, articulate and wordy, but without throwing it about just because you can. I enjoyed being educated about art and artists ’cause it’s not really my bag and only go by what critics are saying in print. I have to say, I never got the art in an un-made bed and I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    Donald; what you’ve written here is quite breathtaking. I am a musician and have felt deeply, lovingly, for music and the work of songwriters. I’ve been moved by pieces of music and songs from a wide variety of generations and genres, gasped at the sentiment behind a composer’s work and felt profoundly grateful to them for the perfection in their work.
    I’ve never before seen work described as you’ve described above. Fascinating, insightful and beautiful. I even loved your simple description of your profession; a maker. That holds it special, but it also says so much more than a flash description coughed-up by an advertising agency.

    Oh, perfection!
    I know not what you make, but the words you’ve found to describe the intimacy behind your work were perfect for me. Thank you.

    Jeez, how the Hell can anyone doubt Scotland? We have a glut of talent, beauty and balls and yet we’re all about being pulled-up and reminded – by our own – that we’re not good enough. Let those cowardly bastards read this Grouse beater page and ask them again why they think we’re incapable. If the passion is there (let alone the fantastic resources), then we’ll always succeed.

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