The last time we were in England we arrived at Heathrow and took a train into London. Passengers could watch a video presentation about rail services in the UK and the soundtrack immediately caught our attention – Squarepusher’s My Red Hot Car was playing under shots of the very train we were riding in, speeding along in the outer industrial estates of Greater London, a hectic breakbeat mixed with mellow ‘the future is here’ vibes.
This time we arrived in Manchester at stand 239 [that’s 239 extra places for aircraft to dock aside from the 40 or so gates in the airport proper] and caught a bus that took us across the tarmac to the terminal buildings. As we rode along, the bus taking a circuitous route between ranks of charter planes emblazoned with logos and travel agency web addresses, the bus sound system played Oasis’s Standing On The Shoulder’s of Giants. We’re not sure if these soundtracks were meant to be an official welcome for the newly arrived but in their own way they perfect examples of the way culture is everywhere in the UK.
That sounds like an oxymoron, we know, but we’re talking about a consciousness about culture – music, art, books, theatre, movies, architecture, ballet, opera, modern dance and on and on – that is downright freakish. When you step off an airplane, you’re of course in the culture, but the ‘culture’ industry in the UK is a profound presence in the everyday that would seem completely bizarre in Australia. We’ll give you just a couple of examples…
George Stubbs is one of our favourite artists. He was the great English equestrian and sporting artist who married scientific inquiry with 18th Century fantasy painting to create one of the most dazzlingly odd bodies of work ever produced. We love looking at his paintings because, aside from their formidable accuracy in anatomical detail and composition, they’re also like science fiction paintings in that they propose a utopian landscape of mathematical precision and Capability Brown-esque tranquillity. We’d only been here a few days when we turned on the TV to catch a documentary called The Secret of Drawing. The Radio Times write up described the show like this:
The Secret of Drawing is a four part series hosted by Andrew Graham-Dixon. By looking at drawing we can understand the history of art, science and technology. Episode One, The Line of Inquiry, is a look at the many ways in which drawing has connected us with the natural world and how it has advanced scientific inquiry from the Italian Renaissance to today.
It sounds dusty and boring but the host, a long haired bloke with a Northern accent who, despite his posh sounding double barrelled name, was a genial non-condescending guide through Stubbs’s work. He also looked at other artists including a contemporary of Stubbs named John Russell who became fascinated with drawing the moon after peering through a telescope. Russell worked only in graphite and gauche and produced reams of drawings and a massive five foot by five foot gauche on paper painting of the moon’s surface that’s virtually photographic in its detail and looks like one of the Apollo shots from Michael Light’s Full Moon series.
The program, although somewhat obscure in its appeal, had a lot of stylistic quirks not the least of which was using Pink Floyd’s Meddle as the soundtrack. The thing that blew us away was not so much that it was tailor made for our own obscure interests but that it was on at 8pm on a Saturday night on BBC2. This documentary may turn up on the ABC at some point locked away after 10.30pm on a Sunday night, perhaps given pride of place on Sunday Afternoon when any decent human being should be outside enjoying the sunshine, or maybe even on SBS where no one will watch it. In the UK, this kind of thing is prime time.
Contemporary artists from the Young British Artists period of the mid to late 90s have moved into being celebrities in mainstream English media. Some – like Rachel Whiteread who is unveiling an installation in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall this week – gets a lot of press. It’s all respectful and interested, flattering the reader’s knowledge and intelligence. Unlike Australia, mainstream media coverage of contemporary art in the UK doesn’t start from a position of suspicion. In Australia, articles in the newspapers either position themselves as completely gormless and accepting of any media bumpf they are given or are suspicious and distrustful, demanding that the artist and the art justify themselves on some nebulous grounds known only to the journalist and editors. The contrast in the English papers is actually confusing, as we keep expecting the articles to turn on the artists, but they never do. [This is in stark contrast to the English newspaper critics who are actually incredibly savage – but we’ll get to that…].
Perhaps the best known YBA artist is Tracey Emin and she seems to be everywhere. She copped a lot of flack from her appearance in an advertisement for gin, but it seemed like an incredibly apt endorsement to us, and she continues on making ill-advised appearances on TV and in the press. We discovered that Emin had written a column for The Independent called My Life In A Column and we thought it was probably a one off. But no, Emin is there week after week with a picture of her kissing her cat, lank hair over he eyes. Reading her column is like a parody of Emin, but it’s real:
Have you ever drunk three litres of water a day, every day for a week? I’m telling you, it’s like drowning from the inside out. And everyone tells you how well you look, amazing skin, bright sparkly eyes and a very bush tail.
But the reality is that I’m pissing every 25 seconds and feeling like a baby whale (there she blows!). Oh yeah, and tray alcohol, there’s juts no room for it. In fact it goes straight to your brain. You’d think all the water stuff would sober you up. One minute I was having a sensible conversation and three glasses of rosé later, I was square dancing on the black-and-whites in my friend’s kitchen…
She talks a lot about getting drunk and her bodily functions, which is all very entertaining, and does eventually have time to talk about her art:
Some days I wake up and I just can’t believe how lucky I am. Even today, when I woke up a bit tired, pissed off and miserable and, to make matters worse, really wanting a shag. I still have my brain, I still have my soul and my depths of loneliness are nothing compared to the super-strength gang.
Anyway I have got to stop writing this now, because I’m totally preoccupied with the work for my show in New York. I spent most of Friday, which meant that if it had been, I would have forgotten to write this column all together. Sometimes when I’m working, I’m alone and I feel really happy. I’m locked into myopia of my own world. Art is always there to hold me, I wouldn’t go as far as to say cuddle me, but it keeps me secure. Whether people like it or not, I enjoy my personal mission. If you stuck me on a desert island alone I would be still be making, I would still be creating.
To be an artist is to give and receive. The best thing I have done lately is to make a small animated film. It’s called Reincarnation and it stars a beautiful little dog. If I were reincarnated, I would like to come back as the sun.
These are just two examples out of dozens [possibly hundreds] of appearances of art – historical and contemporary – popping up in the English media every single day. Feature articles aren’t reserved for the weekends while newspapers – including the tabloids – have two or three art critics churning out commentary on a daily basis. Artists have a much larger hold on the public imagination that anywhere else, including art crazy places like New York or Paris. If an artist has been around awhile and embraces the media, their pronouncements on just about anything make the papers.
We arrived in the UK in middle of party conference season. In the last few days the Conservative Party had been meeting to elect their new leader after their last Prime Ministerial hopeful Michael Howard crashed and burned at the last election. The Conservatives are suffering the same kind of malaise as the Australian Labor party with confusion as to who they really are and what they stand for. On side argues that the Conservatives have lost their way and must get back to their core values while the other side contends that the party needs to get with the times, engage with the ‘youth’ and a lot of other very familiar sounding rhetoric. It’s a bizarre sight to see a leadership competition happening in plain sight instead of behind the closed doors of Party HQ. Doubly odd is that each candidate for the leadership – and there are four for the Conservatives – must get up and make a speech outlining their credentials and core beliefs before the party’s rank and file vote directly on their favoured candidate. If there are factions a la the Australian Liberals or Labor parties, there’s absolutely no talk of it in the media.
Because of the media scrutiny, the party conferences also attract of a lot other issues with people popping up to make outlandish statements such as demanding the UK withdraw its troops from Iraq. In the week before we arrived, the British Labour party held their annual conference. Since they were the winning side, all the talk is now about succession of the leadership; when will Gordon Brown take over from Tony Blair? It’s all eerily familiar, but back to front and upside down…
What isn’t so familiar is an artist making an unscheduled appearance at a party political conference to promote smoking. Incredibly, David Hockney popped up in Brighton to fight the British Government’s proposed ban on smoking in pubs:
The internationally acclaimed artist, who spends most of his time in smoke-free Los Angeles, arrived at the Labour conference wearing a pink rose, rather than the usual red one, and declared “Death awaits you whether you smoke or not.
He started the day with an appearance on the Today programme on Radio 4, dismissing as ‘absolutely dreary’ Julie Morgan, the earnest Labour MP who argued smoking in pubs could damage the health of bar staff. He told her: “You’re too bossy, chum… People don’t want to live like you do.”
Over the course of the day Mr Hockney, came up with a palette of colourful abuse of Labour’s plan to ban smoking in pubs and clubs. The proposal to outlaw smoking in public places was “ridiculous” he said.
“You cannot have a smoke free bohemia. Without bohemia you pay a heavy price,” he said in an interview with The Independent. “Picasso smoked until he was about 98 and so did Matisse.”
We mentioned the English critics earlier, and they’re a mean bunch. We buy Modern Painters magazine pretty much just to read Matthew Collings Diary [styled, incidentally, on David Hockney’s fantastically readable dairies]. When he’s on form, he’s an insightful and entertaining art writer but lately his writing has turned into a non stop litany of complaints. Colling’s main beef seems to be that people don’t take art seriously enough and that it’s our fault the art world is rubbish. If we could just appreciate the rightness of formalism over ‘ideas’ then we’d be on the right track.
We had started to think that this creeping fogeyism had something to do with the fact that Collings’ own paintings – which he publishes with unapologetic regularity in his dairy – are being ignored. But we were wrong. Colling’s attitude seems typical of many of the UK newspaper and magazine critics. You read it all the time, a kind of startled reaction to the fact that in England art is more popular than anywhere else in the world. Not only are the English ready and willing to celebrate and promote contemporary art and artists, they’re also ready to embrace overseas artists as well – Andy Warhol’s Empire State is being projected on to the outside walls of the National Film Theatre for the next month; Fracis Alys recently released a fox into the National Portrait Gallery and made a video of it from CCTV camera footage and Marc Quinn’s marble sculpture of a pregnant, armless woman is on display on the fourth empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. You want public access? Channel Four, as part of its charter as a public broadcaster, has made band width available to anyone who wants to upload a documentary to their website – and hundreds have.
Art is too popular and has to be stopped, somehow. Art critics take pot shots at the usual targets – video art is boring? Blimey. Occasionally along comes an example of populism run amok the critics can sink their teeth into.
Jack Vettriano is a self taught artist from Scotland whose work has proven to incredibly popular with the general public and cashed up celebrities who are willing to pay big money for the artists work. His painting is illustrative and not exactly horrible, but as public figure he’s a cross between Charles Billich and Ken Done, with his own website selling prints of his most popular paintings When some writers compared Vettriano to Dali, Bacon and Picasso, serious art critics were appalled. The problem was that Vettriano’s fame is critic-proof, raking in embarrassing amounts of money.
Last week the critic’s had their revenge finally when it was revealed that this former miner had lifted designs for his best loved paintings from a book called The Illustrator’s Figure Reference Manual from 1987. “Now out of print, the book, which contains photographs posed by models intended to be traced or copied, are almost identical to those in Vettriano paintings such as The Singing Butler (1992), Dance Me To The End of Love (1997) and Elegy for a Dead Admiral (1996)….” reported a clearly delighted Times.
Writing in The Guardian, critic Jonathon Jones railed against the populism of art in Britain.
Vettriano is not even an artist. He just happens to be popular with ‘ordinary people’ who buy reproductions of his pseudo-1930s scenes of high heeled women and monkey-suited men, and celebrities who for out for the originals of these toneless, textureless, brainless slick corpses of paintings. I urge you to visit the National Gallery. Look at great paintings for a few hours. Now take a look at Vettriano. I’m not arguing with you, I’m telling you. I look at art everyday and I know what I don’t like.
There I go – being elitist. Art critics in are, in the game that Vettriano plays, snobbish patsies. Critical disdain is part of his success making him ‘controversial’. By liking him you are siding with ordinary folk against the lofty hierarchs. So I should probably praise him and hope he’ll go away, but it’d be like some scientist saying, you’re right, evolution is just a theory. Some things in art are true, and some are false – all of which was easier to explain before we decided popularity was the litmus test of aesthetic achievement.
Contemporary art has never been as popular as it is in Britain now. There has never been a mass culture in which modern artists were household names in the way that Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin have become. Robert Hughes once pointed out that that however famous Andy Warhol might be, he would never be as famous as a certain sports illustrator. But Marc Quinn is that famous. People have come from all over to see the Fourth Plinth. The hierarchy of taste has truly vanished.