Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Personal Art


Man with a Vagina for a Mouth

I was often told by tutors at Edinburgh College of Art that my work was “personal”. I think what they meant was that it appeared to provide access to a private self: scratchy drawings, images of fantasies, a specific, hard-to-imitate way of making marks. A couple of tutors suggested that I abandon oil painting and focus on ink and watercolors.

The problem for me was that I didn’t really want to found an artistic career on something “personal”. I wanted to build my artistic career on an idea of classicism. I’d somehow absorbed Goethe’s idea the Classicism = health and romanticism = sickness, and that “personal” art was a romantic product. I’d also absorbed the idea that discipline was an essential element in the creation of art. I was a rather moralistic young person (I’ve noticed since then that young people are often very priggish indeed), and I felt that the mission of art should incorporate moral terms. This somehow seemed absent from the sort of drawings (illustrated above) that the tutors were referring to, partly because they were dependent on humour, an element always absent in any moralizing aesthetic. And I felt that these drawings were a side alley, a diversion, and there wasn’t enough there to sustain my interest. I didn’t think I could spend all day making little drawings like the one above.

This was the 80s*; there was a revival of painting going on. I went to a very traditional art college: the training roughly Beaux Arts in structure, with compulsory anatomy, life drawing and strict distinctions made between drawing, painting, high and applied arts (a hierarchy where oil painting is at the top, and drawing and applied arts at the bottom).

Also, I had a good element of perversity, in that I would do the opposite of what was suggested by tutors (it was ironical, looking back that they had, in a way suggested producing work which was a-typical of the college course expectations, by raising drawings to the level of finished paintings. I suspect that those tutors were bucking the official line: there had been problems with students who’d produced degree shows consisting only of drawings, because the College had a defined their Fine Art course as consisting of two examined specialisms, “drawing” and “painting”).

Anyway, I was unable to value my specific talents, seeing them as somehow necessarily inferior to the methods and ends of artists (usually old masters) in museums.

But my “classical” paintings were in fact simply paintings that negotiated established conventions) and consequently they were often dull, and it was only when I accessed my “personal side” usually in drawings that I made things at all memorable.


* Moreover Scottish figurative painters had managed to establish themselves prominently in the cultural and commercial spheres (specifically Stephen Conroy, Peter Howson, Stephen Campbell, John Bellany, and Adrian Wiszniewski). There was a culture war going on with painters fighting post-modernism (pluralism), and I was on the side of painting, mainly because I valued craft, and did not see craft as being valued in modern art. In retrospect, pluralism won: you can do what you like. My fear of pluralism in Art (postmodernism) was that if all forms of expression were permitted and everything was art, then how would a language of art ever be developed? Surely, only by following a tradition could one hope to clearly communicate anything, because an artist needed a language and a language was a shared cultural inheritance, a tradition? But I think that fear hasn’t been realised. You can “push the boat out”: there are always precedents to make meaningful comparisons so that something is conveyed in your expressions, however fanciful. And in the end, it’s only art, it doesn’t really matter that much, no-one is going to get hurt, and much of the argument and discussion of the 80s that I lived through has more to do with ego than really coming to terms with what visual communication can or should be.

It should also be recalled, when we criticise post-modernism for being intellectually flabby, how restricted art practise was prior to the war: a writer was not allowed to aping, a painter could not do illustrations and a poet could not also be a novelist. There were many exceptions, of course, but they were remarked upon, as such).

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