The recent future of Scottish Art
Scottish Art since 1960
In a discussion recorded over two sessions, Robin Baillie and Neil Mulholland address issues raised by Craig Richardson’s recently published book ‘Scottish Art since 1960’, which describes its intention as:
Neil Mulholland: The introduction is something of a literature review with spoiler, it tells you more-or-less everything that’s in the book. The sense of a polemic that’s in the introduction, it’s never really substantiated in a lot of cases.
Robin Baillie: Craig has an agenda which he sets out, but then he does a survey and tries to suffuse that agenda into it. The artists only come in as descriptive framing, you get these wee thumbnail sketches. I’m not saying they’re totally off, that they’re not without validity, but they’re not an unpacking. They’re not analytical deconstructions of what these people are doing.
NM: There are places where the book does achieve this. The section on Steven Campbell does this job well. Craig looks through work as a thing in itself, then looks at its reception and does it justice. There’s a sense of this subject being taken as a case study and carefully built up.
RB: The thing about Campbell is there was international recognition of a kind for an individual doing a non-specifically ‘Scottish’ style. Campbell’s difficult for Craig to write his bigger agenda to, because... maybe he doesn’t like it aesthetically because it’s figurative, it’s expressive, but also because Campbell has to be placed to one side to allow the flow of neo-conceptualism to take place.
NM: Because it’s one guy as well, as opposed to a group of people, a ‘movement’ is required.
RB: Although there was a group of them but no one’s writing about them of course.
NM: There’s more of a sense elsewhere in the book of people doing things collectively – in the discussion of the New 57 gallery, or of Transmission – there’s a social network there, one that we don’t get in the discussion of Campbell.
RB: What he doesn’t say is what a national modern art institution should be doing. He criticises existing institutions for conservative bias, establishment bias, traditionalist bias, and possibly anti-Scottishness, but he doesn’t actually map out a possible alternative programme. Maybe because that’s a tendentious thing to do. The introduction describes an institutional structure that he can trace over time, through various galleries and their exhibitions.
NM: In scholastic terms, it’s easier to map out this territory, because the SNGMA is still here, there are people you can speak to who were/are there and there’s a good archive. In general, the bigger and older the institution the better the historical resources.
RB: He also lays out a chain of critical writing, and a chain of artists, for which he’s relying on interviews from personal sources – “non-catalogued personal archives”.
NM: On the one hand, he is quite heavily tied to institutions, and so to an (unspoken) institutional theory of art. It is a ‘Police Force’ institutionalism, more George Dickie than Arthur Danto. It’s all about joining clubs. Yet there’s another incongruous trope regarding landscape and northern-ness that requires a very different approach to this weak institutionalism. It comes across as volkish. It needs taken apart to avoid this, as a geopolitics or via cultural geography. This narrative reads differently, a simple, slightly misty-eyed, thesis that might work as speculative exhibition or as a catalogue text, but it doesn’t fit well with the institutionalism. It’s not historical.
RB: At the end, he invokes a communitarian art that returns to the land and the sea: “Communitarian cultural renewal might include the ongoing preoccupation with the values of the land and the seas in contrast with the resources of the cities.” (p182)
NM: An Turas [depicted, left and top] is simply celebrated at the end of the first chapter, then it just ends..!
RB: It feels like the ‘black square’ of Scottish art.
NM: A hundred years late for the party.
[Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, is considered one of the first abstract paintings.]
RB: Craig encourages us to look down this tunnel, and what we’re looking at is the landscape and sea framed by the modernist black square. It’s his perfect form because it sees Scotland through a modernist black box. So here we have it – he wants an art that has a nice neo-modernist frame, that shows us an eternal identity via Scottish land/seascape.
NM: There’s a section later in the book that describes Dundee Contemporary Arts being built that explicitly fetishises it as a modernist gallery, by which I guess he means the structure rather than what it shows:
He seems to be genuinely excited about the height of the ceilings and quality of the building, certainly more so than, say, what the Dundee artist-run space Generator had been doing since 1999 or what Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design graduates had achieved since the ‘60s – all of which he neglects to mention. This reads like it’s cribbed from DCA’s business plan, or a review that’s actually a press release. DCA is a similar kind of building... it’s very ‘90s. There’s an aspiration through the text to reach this place, this is An Turas, a passage to Venice [Biennale], it’s a goal, a destination. Does anyone buy this modernist myth of cultural progress? At the Heart of Darkness lies a vapour, not a jewel.
RB: He deploys a retrospective nationalism where Scots seem to him to possess a distinct identity and this identity needs to be seen, represented and recognised. What are the means he suggests to achieve this?
NM: There’s an idea expressed in the first chapter, that the Scottish avant-garde all move to London and remain there in exile; these artists are explicitly framed as the avant-garde, a very limited number of artists.
RB: There’s a Freudian-type desire present, a prodigal son parable, about how avant-gardeness can be achieved in Scottish art. That’s the prodigality of it – the artists had to go away, when they go we lose them. Their Scottish nature is lost. So can we build a home for the avant garde in Scotland? The problem is that you can’t – it isn’t produced out of institutional structures.
NM: I don’t really regard any of these artists to be avant-garde, there aren’t any in the book, not in the true sense of the phrase. Between 1960-67, the time covered by the first chapter, the only artist that lived in Scotland mentioned is Joan Eardley. Very little is said of her work and nothing that’s new.
RB: Eardley gets a mention because of her engagement with the land and the sea – that’s Craig’s thing about style, it must reference its idealised context. It’s a domineering slant... always something about ‘What is this nation?’
NM: This follows hot on the heels of a fairly lengthy discussion of Stanley Cursiter and the failure to build the palace of art in the form of the failed Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. But there’s no discussion of the specific nature of the collection in the SNGMA. It’s a very particular collection; I want to know what the connection is between what was made in the art schools, shown in galleries here and what was in that collection. It’s sketched out in the mention of the ‘Modern Paintings from Scottish Homes’ exhibition but there’s no detail. It’s handled much in the same way that Eardley is; mentioned but passed over. In contrast, we are introduced to Londoner William Turnbull’s work in quite extensive detail. I don’t feel that this helps us to understand what was (and wasn’t) produced in Scotland. It’s more a ‘what might have been’ had he remained here. There is lots written on Turnbull’s work, not to mention Mark Boyle and Bruce McLean, who also dominate this chapter, but very little on what was made here, be it good or bad. Why bother going back over this well worn road?
RB: It reads like a survey, it has something to do with establishing a pantheon.
NM: He’s chosen works and artists that he considers exemplars of ‘Scottish art’. That’s problematic on so many levels. These artists may well have been formative influences on his own practice, but to imagine that this alone makes them ‘exemplary’ is folly. Exemplars of what we might ask? Of their time and place? How can anyone be certain of this, that we have chosen the correct canon? We can’t convincingly argue that some artists (those included) are any more exemplars of ‘Scottish’ art than others (those excluded). To do that we would need to have an ethnic, possibly essentialist, understanding of the ‘Scottishness’ of art, as if there were somehow degrees of ‘Scottishness’ by which we might evaluate matters. This act of territorialisation is Arnoldian, Leavisite even. It implies that the ethnic constructions of ‘Scottishness’ that we find in and around art, imaginaries that need to be deconstructed, are the method by which we should judge this art. The problem here, of course, is that we can make almost anything seem as if it is uniquely and essentially ‘Scottish’. Hence Scottish Tories, Scottish Labour, Scottish Sun, Scotmid, dotSCOT, etc. Since ‘Scottishness’, like any other form of ethnic identity, is constantly contested, a moving target, we can’t use it as a benchmark to evaluate anything.
RB: Try to make Ian Hamilton Findlay exemplary of anything! Findlay is the artist who should escape this tag most, because he denies many categories. He deals with Scottish identity in a weird modernist, minimalist, concrete way, in terms of the sailing boats, but not as romantic aspiration – that is projected onto neo-classicism. Findlay takes that Enlightenment universalism and he hammers it too. He shows the extreme authoritarian edge of it – order, discipline, militarism is in there as well. So the question then is complex, how do you explain that in terms of ‘Scottishness’?
NM: I see very broad relations and connections between the work of Findlay, Boyle and McLean, but not with Turnbull. He just happens to be ethnically Scottish. Ultimately with Turnbull, Boyle and McLean, whatever we say about their work, I don’t see how they can have made any real contribution to what this book is ostensibly about, namely the infrastructure of art in Scotland. They all live in London, so how could they possibly make a contribution to what goes on here on a day-to-day level? It’s irrelevant whether they were born in Scotland or not, they don’t have the right to vote in Scotland, they haven’t been able to contribute to the geopolitics here... so why are they in this book at all?
RB: This has to do with the whole Union thing; the Union’s in us all: England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. So historically maybe the Union is the biggest issue for Scotland. But is this a motivating force in Scottish art? He lassos Scottishness around people from totally different positions at different times. That Scottish lasso doesn’t fit exactly.
NM: Whether that is a lasso or a noose, I don’t know. It comes up a lot and it’s very contradictory (as you’d expect). Fundamentally, it’s not accompanied with an analysis of nationalism, of what nationhood is, what it was becoming, or of what constitutes a collective or ethnic identity. We are left to speculate whether or not we can categorise these individuals as ‘Scottish’, whether they themselves might accept this identification or, perhaps most importantly, whether thinking about such issues helps to better understand their work.
RB: That’s what I mean; it’s not rigorous. Alright, none of us are as rigorous as we’d like to be – but this loosens his terms and goes back to this idea: What is Craig’s aim in talking about Scottish art? Is it to constitute it? That would be the aim of Hugh McDiarmid in the ‘30s, to actually say, ‘We want to envision a kind of art we would put our name to’. That, in a way, is what he’s doing again. He wants to envisage a ‘Scottish Art’ through writing up a recent history.
NM: If somebody moves to Scotland, then they gain an involvement in its life and culture. There were many artists present through the period 1960 to the present – the era that the book is supposed to engage with – who have legitimate place in a narrative regarding art in Scotland in this sense. Relatively few get a look in here, while a disproportionate number of ethnic Scots who left Scotland are celebrated as exemplars simply because they are ‘Scottish’. Bruce McLean, for example. He may well have been an influence on artists here (and elsewhere), there are lots of other artists who might have been in this sense too, but the issue of his impact is irrespective of whether or not he’s ethnically Scottish. Following the careers of, already well celebrated, ‘successful’ ethnic Scots is a wasted opportunity. The art history of 1960-67 in Scotland could have been the subject of some much needed discussion in this chapter. Even if we accept the idea is nothing was happening – that there was a blockage – then that’s what this chapter should have concerned.
RB: He doesn’t actually interrogate the issues around these periods, he assembles them by saying who he likes within them. It goes back to the chain: which artists can be linked together to form a narrative that brings us to Glasgow 1990? That’s the point he needs to take us to above all else – he loses interest after that point altogether.
NM: The narrative falls off the cliff around about 1994, like Ernst Gombrich in ‘The Story of Art’ when he gets to Cubism. This early bit regarding 1960-67 really is a missed opportunity, it’s somewhat uncharted. It’s not very glamorous and little of it would be perceived to be ‘successful’ on such terms, nor might it really be worth ‘celebrating’ in the way that we are supposed to think, jingoistically, of a ‘national’ art, but that’s exactly why it needs more work. It’s a dirty art historical job but one that really needs to be done... There are points when it does happen, Glen Onwin’s work is discussed at length, that’s helpful.
RB: He does ask for a Scottish art history to be written.
NM: So you’ve got to take it on as it is.
RB: We’ve got too many surveys already. Most Scottish art history is survey-based – Duncan Macmillan’s and Murdo McDonald’s books, for example. One exception is Tom Normand’s ‘The Modern Scot’ written about the Scottish Renaissance.
NM: McDonald and Macmillan are at least finding something of value back there in the Scotland of the 1960s, whatever that might be. Clearly Craig doesn’t value that work in the way they do – I’m not suggesting that he should. I’d at least like to see a considered re-evaluation of it, albeit that this might be a negative one. We don’t have that. I’d like the received narrative to be taken to task.
RB: This is the story of his own career as a fellow traveller, by the artist himself – he does have this in his background.
NM: He actually writes about his own work here, in the third person.
RB: So we’ve someone writing art history at a professorial level who’s moved to this point from being part of a circle of artists. Yet, he doesn’t seem to empathise with the artist’s view point in how he deals with them. He’s interested more in, ‘What do we need to create a professionally institutional art’; in who is going to help make the decisions that are going to cement Scottish art in its true place.
NM: There’s a lot in here about policy and institutions, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s partly an attempt to write a history of art as a history of institutions. Or it could have been were the narrative not so fixated with institutional (in)effectiveness. Where the story is, understandably, more positive, it concerns institutions that the author has been directly involved with, such as GSA (Glasgow School of Art) or Transmission, or at least has very close association with. So Modern Institute gets attention, DCA is praised, and a few obvious, older, independents are mentioned. This is a very selective account, and not one that helps us understand the complexity and dynamics of the situation. There are just so many more models of formal and informal art institution in Scotland – operating at many different levels in many places, doing really incredible things – that simply don’t register here. Can’t have them all, sure, but without straying a little more off vested home turf we just can’t see the bigger cyclical picture, institutionally speaking. Instead of rectifying this problem, the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) keeps popping in, playing the big bad wolf, even in the denouement, where Craig walks through there and imagines how it could have been... It all ends up reading as a very top-down account, very “uptown”...
RB: Maybe Craig feels more change is needed to represent a devolved Scotland, and as such he has a plan for the institutions of Scottish art?
NM: He talks, interestingly, about breaking NGS up and further devolving it to different regions in Scotland.
RB: His view may be that this kind of institution must work for the aim of constituting a ‘Scottish Art’. And it must be seen to be working for this aim.
The date which doesn’t appear in the book, which is like a ghost, is the date of the first independent Scottish government. We’re still at a devolutionary stage and maybe he stopped writing a year or two ago, but there’s this implication that the project is not fully delivered.
NM: There’s something similar in his demonstration of how the “Modern Institute introduced a level of hitherto marginalised market orientation of progressive and formally challenging artists.” (p167) Here is a definitive correlation of marketisation and ‘progress’. To be challenging doesn’t actually mean being politically avant-garde, but it’s very clear that they’re supposedly the avant-garde’s inheritors, the exemplars. It’s a contradiction; they carry a culture of inheritance and entitlement while at the same time they are innovative and ‘new’.
RB: It’s the torch being passed on, and the ability to carry that torch. That is a progressivist view. How does he deal with that progressivism coming from outwith Scotland? I suppose you eventually get on to Kosuth, Weiner having been shown in Scotland.
NM: Craig mentions ‘progressive’ tendencies from the early ‘70s such as ‘New Art’ at the Hayward Gallery in London in ‘72, and ‘Live in Your Head’ in Switzerland in ‘69. This is just the tip of the iceberg, there were many more comparable shows that the Arts Council of Great Britain sponsored in the early ‘70s. They pushed post-minimalism, systems art, conceptual art, feminism and photoconceptualism. Such work had a powerful voice in Studio International (when Charles Harrison was involved with it, and later Richard Cork) so it wasn’t by any means one show in 1972. It wasn’t just this one beam of light nor did it all emanate from London. Significantly, key artists in British Conceptualism came from or worked in ‘provincial’ English towns, like Coventry. It was an international practice that was networked in a way comparable to that Craig describes happening much later in ‘90s Scotland. It often bypassed London. So, the idea that, in the early ‘70s, Scots needed to go to the Hayward in order to see the light in terms of the new work isn’t entirely true. We need to remember, of course, that by no means was this kind of work dominant in the early ‘70s. In Scotland, the points of reference for the so-called avant-garde of the ‘60s and ‘70s, what at the time was called Scottish Realism, were from the 20th century or even from the mid-19th century, the original Realists, rather than any of this explosive networked conceptualism that was going on at the same time in England and elsewhere.
RB: I’ve heard Duncan Macmillan speak on Bellany, saying he’s the culmination of a line right back to Raeburn – the use of colour, light, some kind of truthfulness, expressive authenticity; a classic universalist modernism. Craig isn’t a universalist modernist (if he was he wouldn’t be so attached to a nationalist agenda). It’s more of a post-modern development he’s pushing, where identity is more important than the internationalist values in modernism. He wants the recovery of identity as a goal.
NM: That issue of a vernacular reading of modernism is central here. Craig gets to it explicitly when he writes about how Sandy Moffat was interested in other manifestations of modernism in Europe, in Germany in particular. Moffat’s connections were mainly German, so he’s looking the other way from Art & Language; East to Europe rather than West to America.
RB: You could simply say the dominance of the Union at no time prevented international art being seen and understood in Scotland. There was no embargo to prevent Scots learning about it.
NM: Sure. This is where the exhibition the ‘New Art’ acts as a cipher, or caricature even. Craig consistently resorts to generalisms in the book, using stock phrases: “exhibitions such as”, “artists such as”, or “writers such as”. It creates and fixes the idea of ‘types’, as if a very specific part can stand in for the whole. You can’t pull this off. It’s the same problem when writing about what went on in 1998 as in 1968. These exhibitions represent quite different positions on what was, at a given time and place, the ‘new art’. The same goes for any artist we may mention... or any writer.
RB: “The avant garde premise of a sequence of Scottish artworks in the 1970s extended the term ‘Scottish Art’.” (p61) Was that their aim? Probably not. What is this term ‘Scottish Art’ and how did a sequence of avant-garde works extend it? Is it: ‘We’ll claim these avant garde art works for ‘Scottish Art’, and then bind them into its story’?
NM: That’s just territorialisation isn’t it? ‘Scottish Art’ in the New 57 Edinburgh in 1972, for example, meant something really very different from the later point at which Duncan Macmillan published Scottish Art 1460-1990. The territory is always shifting.
RB: You couldn’t say that the Demarco Gallery had anything other than an internationalist perspective. Its based in Scotland, Edinburgh more so than anywhere else. It aspired to the freedom of avant-garde movement – transfer and cross-over. Granted, Demarco takes Beuys up to the Highlands. Beuys is probably more of a proto-Scottish nationalist than Demarco because Beuys is into German romanticism where Ossian, for example, has a massive presence.
NM: Demarco is transnationalist, although he’s an advocate for Scotland, he is always wishing for a postnationalist context...
The show ‘Strategy Get Arts’ is discussed here in a way that doesn’t really open it up. What was interesting about it, beyond the show itself, is that students who were there at the time, who went on to teach in Edinburgh or took over the committee of the New 57, started to make similar links in relation to what they would bring to Scotland.
RB: Even if he’d been more upfront about testing these people for their role in a national agenda, the survey takes over. He doesn’t want to squeeze people too hard in case he finds that they’re not that bothered about Scottishness. This tests his presumption that you can write a national art history in a country that is part of a bigger unit, whether that’s Britain or Europe…
NM: Again, if you’re going to do it then you need to take it warts ‘n’ all. You’ve got to write about things that you don’t like, to be impartial about it. History doesn’t unfold as we might like it to.
RB: Once again, the question behind all of these critiques is how would a truly Scottish institution operate? Maybe he needs to nail his colours to the mast and answer that. He doesn’t evaluate Scottish government policies for funding the arts.
NM: There’s nothing in here about that, little even about the changed conditions of post-devolution Scotland. He just doesn’t get to devolution, it’s too preoccupied with other, narrower artistic goals. The book really desperately needs to have an earlier cut off date on the masthead. 1995 is about as far as it gets really, albeit at times the year 2003 is mentioned. I don’t get any sense of the Scotland of the late ‘90s, never mind its art. Where is 1999?
RB: He does talk about the struggle for devolution. He talks about the failed referendum in 1979.
NM: That’s what’s needed throughout. At the end you’d expect there to be a more politically engaged coda, something detailed about what’s happened since devolution; it’s been more than 10 years.
RB: This would actually put into place some of the things he is genuinely interested in, such as, what effect is Scotland’s political state going to have on its art production, how is that going to be organised, is it going to be democratic, is it going to make reference to a bigger country next door or not? How are the cities going to play things in relation to the nation? But he doesn’t follow through. Instead there is this almost still-born, coming-to-possession of Scottish art – i.e. that we got to Venice, we’ve got some superstars, we haven’t quite got a contemporary art market but folk have started to talk about us. Then it just returns to aspiration that there will be something even more essential delivered.
NM: It’s a question of focus, the method here expressly forces a focus on nodes rather than ties, on auteurs and objects rather than practices and relations. The ‘70s saw the formation of WASPS, which came with gallery spaces as well as studio space. There were numerous workshop-studio spaces of that model, Sculpture Studios and Printmakers, that were and remain crucial. The only time that this network is mentioned is via discussion of £1512 by Alan Smith (1977). In this section, we hear about the closure of Edinburgh’s Ceramic Workshop in 1974. This only happens because Craig thinks that this work is ‘exemplary’. In reading this section, I kept asking, ‘what about the Ceramic Workshop, what happened there?’ It’s here just as a foil, almost as if its raison d’etre were to close in order to enable the production of an iconic work. We learn nothing about how artists used that facility or how if formed part of a network of studio-galleries. In some ways it’s not that different from what happens these days here. Artists are still showing in those kinds of workshop spaces, like Glasgow Sculpture Studios, Studio Warehouse or Rhubaba. It’s the same situation. So why isn’t that sort of studio-practice led activity more prominent in this narrative, why isn’t it considered ‘exemplary’?
RB: But if Transmission leads to the Modern Institute, as it does in Craig’s narrative – that three ‘visionaries’ come out of Transmission and go on to produce the Modern Institute – if that’s the pattern, then his picture of the Transmission model is the one that should be advocated and re-established at all times, in all places. Or is it inevitable that the market supersedes? Maybe the issue at stake is marketability.
NM: In ‘The Night Minds’ chapter, looking at the early ‘80s, he discusses Transmission’s early days. There’s a quick roll call of what happened there that culminates in more lengthy discussion of Craig’s collaboration with Douglas Gordon, Puberty Institution. Although they were both involved with Transmission, this is not explicitly to do with Transmission’s work, it’s just a collaboration, of which there were many. Here he’s writing about something that he experienced himself but failing to describe it, he’s just too close to it. In the end, it’s about as far as you can get from an analysis of the early days of Transmission. There are so many other better studies of this period in Transmission – there are Transmission’s autobiographies (both the published and the aborted version), Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt’s MA Thesis, Sarah Lowndes’ ‘Social Sculpture’, lots in magazines, etc. There’s so much to draw on, a great archive, loads of punters to interview. Instead, we are ushered on very quickly to an inside reading of the exemplary performance group Puberty Institution.
RB: He’s putting himself in the position of being a protagonist. From this position, authority seems to be attributed to identity. This may lead to the attempt to define a national identity in art and to select elements worthy of promotion.
NM: There’s definitely an advocacy of ultimate legitimacy regarding who gets to choose, an acceptance of who more recently voices an acceptable authority upon what’s produced and reproduced. This comes across most clearly in the triumphalism of the ‘Routes to Venice’ chapter.
RB: Which would explain that particular selection on who organised Venice, who was involved.
NM: The shameful fact that Scotland has resorted to sending national representatives to take part in a 19th century trade fair is openly celebrated – this is unadulterated Victorian-era nationalism. What he writes here is terrifying in its proud advocacy of cultural authoritarianism:
This is the Birmingham School of Business School [The Fall, 1992], the corporate state par excellence. It’s not meant to be a satire.
RB: Well it would have been a business plan, that was the kind of approach that SAC would have taken. I remember when Jason Bowman and Rachel Bradley curated the Venice Biennale Scotland Pavilion, it was very different of course, it was much more low-key. It wasn’t artists who could be capitalised upon on as major names at that moment.
NM: Anyone can go to Venice, it’s a case of getting the money together, negotiating a space, and representing your own interests. You have the Peckham Pavilion, Sheffield and Manchester, these cities and boroughs representing themselves independently of states or nations. You have nations that are not states, like Scotland, and you have many more nations that are states that aren’t there because they can’t afford it. So recognition is not something bestowed upon you, if you’ve got the money and the savvy, you can go, you can be there. Venice, as in its heyday, is just a market, it encourages pure opportunism – “take the piggies to market”. The quasi-fascistic overtones of this economic Balkanisation requires more in-depth analysis – its not like qualifying for the World Cup!
RB: A lot of things he wants take you to the market ultimately. I think he gets confused by this himself. He’s promoting ‘Scottish Art’. He wants it to have a radical edge, achieve visibility in terms of the art world, and produce a body of critical writing. However, if these goals have been achieved, so to speak, there has been no political radicalism to underpin any artistic radicalism. Of course, the one thing that doesn’t exist, that he wants, is a contemporary Scottish art market.
NM: If there was any home-grown market it has imploded in the last six months, it’s totally fallen apart. ... (The book makes no mention of private galleries such as Ingelby, Sorcha Dallas or Mary Mary, despite the fact that they all were significant in the period it encompasses. Nor does it acknowledge the launch of many new artist-run initiatives from which some of the new private galleries sprung.) There are many ways of looking at this. One way is to fetishise taking ‘Scottish art’ to the international market. Another is to focus on how art in Scotland has internationalised or broadened itself in terms of who’s here, who’s come to Scotland. Both are present in the book, but far much more is made of just two private galleries – Modern Institute and doggerfisher – than of the non-commercial activity that so obviously outstrips the commercial sector in social, economic and artistic terms. The fact is, only a tiny minority of artists based in Scotland are, or have been, represented by the home-grown private sector since 1960; to say otherwise is either wishful thinking or strategically disingenuous. The public sector of the 1990s is also, at times, a fantasy funding land too in the book. Contrary to what is implied, very few artists were supported by art school teaching income in Scotland, fewer still by what Craig calls the “pre-eminence of applied research support in British art [...enabled by the] Arts and Humanities Research Board and improved levels of income from charities such as the Wellcome Trust.” (p164)
RB: It’s strange he refers to a Scots’ ‘diaspora’. Is he talking about Scots abroad (ethnic Scots who’ve moved elsewhere) or a Scottishness that’s a kind of a network. I think it’s the latter the book is about.
NM: There’s long been an opportunistic Scots diaspora, as in the ‘London-Scot’, Scots who have gone away because they want to further their career. They go to a bigger pond. Others became diasporic because they had to leave – because of clearances or since they had no other economic opportunities. So the diaspora’s are different depending on who we’re talking about. If it’s players in the art world, then it’s generally opportunistic in more recent years. I wouldn’t imagine an artist these days being forced out of Scotland in the way that they might have felt they were in the ‘40s or ‘50s. I can see why they would go, but not for quite the same reasons now.
RB: That would be MacDiarmid’s point in the ‘30s: ‘Why can’t we sustain our own artists? Why can’t we recognise the artists among us who are truly forward thinking and advanced?’ Craig quotes MacDiarmid’s book on William Johnstone, where MacDiarmid contrasts his friend’s work with the Colourist school. Craig’s ready to pick out those who oppose conservatism but then he’s ambivalent about the break represented by Steven Campbell’s work. Maybe this is because Craig romanticises the impact of certain styles as opposed to others.
NM: There was a confusion in a lot of art in the ‘90s between the ideologies of modernism – generally taken as a narrow seam of heroic European Constructivism – with a certain moderne look that people were beginning to revive not just in art, but in design also. People were taking to that just on formal terms, they liked the way it made them feel as consumers. There was never the delusion that this exercise in taste was a new avant-garde as the book seems to suggest. There was an embargo on claiming to be avant-garde from the end of the ‘70s, it became a joke (“You’re not Sidney Taffler, I’m not Dirk Bogarde. I’m not very stylish and you’re not avant garde”, as Ian Dury put it.) Neomoderne was one of those well thumbed avant-garde grave stones, a mere signifier, a mainstream dressing up box, a text book lesson in how modernism failed (one we had already learned in the ‘80s) that took itself very seriously. This was just like any other revival – like the late ‘80s’ ‘60s revival, or Biba reviving ‘30s fashion in the ‘60s – it was purely aesthetic, without any political edge. It keeps popping up, this constructivist corpse, as if it were avant-garde. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now.
RB: There is a persistent reference to the Enlightenment as a trans-historical, universalised phenomenon in Scotland, and this becomes the backdrop against which the art is measured. But what is the basis for this universalism? Can it be justified? Is there a unified historical legacy of the Enlightenment in Scotland that somehow underpins all our actions and aspirations? At the end of the book, Craig imagines a communitarian Scotland, and he actually relates it to a vision of the land and the sea: "Communitarian cultural renewal might include the ongoing preoccupation with the values of the land and the seas in contrast with the resources of the cities." (p182) Which is extremely conservative and reactionary. That logic of nationalist pride is to return to a never-never land where Scots invented the Enlightenment – thus invented the modern world – and a modernity who’s true full flowering was denied by the Union. The Union meant we couldn’t truly possess the power of our own invention…but does that also imply we couldn't dominate the world with our inception of modernism? Scotland couldn’t command the results of its own Enlightement which were diffused throughout the British Empire. Instead Scotland becomes recognised in fact for its primitive ‘purity’, its 'land and sea' – eternal, parochial, self-referential and atavistic.
NM: It risks being a history of Scotland without Britain in it, a deliberate attempt to simplify matters, to undo the implication of everyone in Scotland in the Union, the modernity it was involved with, colonialism and everything that went with being 'modern'. Scottish and British history are harder to unpick after 1707.
RB: It's obviously a complex issue. The problem is that he's trying to separate it all the time. He's trying to separate out strategies, motivations, intentions, looks even. How would you explain someone like Paolozzi, for example? He had an ambivalent relationship to his Scottishness because of his family history around the internment of his father and uncle as enemy aliens in WWII. Paolozzi's work isn't about being Scottish. He moves to London, determined to reach beyond Scotland; returns eventually as a major artist and donates his collection to the nation. Above all he is a ‘pop artist’ and an internationalist.
NM: It's London Pop completely ... specifically that happened in London. You wouldn't identify him with anywhere else in Britain. There were pop artists elsewhere, such as Liverpool, but his career really does say a lot about what was happening in London, rather than, say, here.
RB: The Union once achieved, is in practice inclusive in a sense (unless you were an Irish Nationalist). It’s a reality… just because there was a Union it didn’t necessarily mean individuals were actively pro- or anti-Unionist? There has been a fairly consistent, high level of passive consent involved from its inception.
NM: The Act of Union is just a fact, until it is dissolved it will remain, but it's always going to be there historically speaking.
RB: Scots made that Union just as much as English people and continue to do so at various moments – you just described one there perfectly; Allan Ramsay going to London to become the Court painter.
NM: Because the British Court was the main patron for those artists, especially portrait painters. There were a lot of good portrait painters in Scotland, and the first British King was Scots, so there was continued patronage for Scottish artists. The history of the Royal Academy of Scotland is part of that process of union and the eager role that some Scots played in it.
RB: It was Victorian Unionists who put the word 'Scottish' on the front of all those public institutions because they wanted such institutions to exist in Scotland, and they thought that this acknowledged Scotland's difference, and its separate identity within the Union. They weren't trying to eradicate that difference, they were positioning it, squeezing it for what value and strength it gave them.
NM: You had the Scots-British, but then you also had people who used the phrase 'North Britain' – who wanted to rename Scotland 'North Britain'. There was the North British Hotel in Edinburgh the North British Engineering works in Glasgow.... It was a way of modernising, removing the Scottish, or English, or Welsh bit from the equation. This tended to happen in industry, as this wasn't considered to be part of culture or heritage (as it is now).
RB: That branding started after the Jacobite defeats, and crucially emerged around Walter Scott. Unionism has had periods where it has been a strong force. And now with the collapse of the Tory party in Scotland, with their candidate for leader saying they shouldn't be called the Unionist Party any more, it’s at an interesting moment, but one that is part of an ongoing political history that doesn't render the assumption of a nationally motivated art.
NM: Just walking around in Edinburgh you see a lot of Georgian buildings, they're post-Union, found all over Britain and Ireland and represent the 1801 version of a 'United Britain and Ireland'. Later on, Victorian architects revived 'Scottish' architecture as a vernacular; such buildings are Scots-British. Then you've older buildings here that are definitely pre-union that are 'Scots' or Flemish even. So there is a mixture of Scots-British-Scottish identities, different traces. If Scotland were to become independent from the UK at some point, these traces would remain here just as they remain in Dublin. You can't run away from them, you can't revise history to make them go away.
RB: How would an independent Scotland recount the artefacts of our Union-ist past?
NM: Well there seems to be some clue in what's been proposed for teaching Scottish history in schools at the moment. Which is worrying.
RB: Which takes us back to Craig doing a history of Scottish art…
NM: 'Scottish' art as opposed to art in Scotland.
RB: He finds a dialectic, rather than: 'the artists I want/ the artists I don't want'. He's quick to point out institutions and writers he perceives let the side down, but not so much artists themselves. These critical slants fail to acknowledge artists' imposition of a conservative traditionalism on the art world, or that they don't specifically create the conditions for a truly democratic and communitarian Scottish art to emerge. Instead he promotes communitarianism; again, "communitarian cultural renewal… may include ongoing preoccupation with the values of the land and the seas"...
NM: Isn't this the pathetic fallacy - can the land and the sea have values?
RB: "It is still not clear if contemporary Scottish artists can offer enduring new representations of Scottish culture and landscape, such is the legacy of its early Victorian romanticisation which continues to threaten re-visioning by contemporary and future artists." (p187) So he's almost down to whether you can ever get out of it…
NM: This arguably only relates to a few artists… who still make work about this problem of the Scottish imaginary. The book could easily tackle all of them, it just gets to a few well known examples.
RB: Say you didn't have this mission, you could just say, 'I'm doing a paper on the institutions that structured Scottish art: 1980 to 2011', and so you focus, say, on 'the role of the Scottish Arts Council', something like that; 'how's it differentiated itself, what type of Scottishness is it promoting, how does it work'. But if you start with 'Scottish Art' as something pre-constituted, you're constantly having to resort to inclusion and exclusion: 'I'll have that, I don't want that, I can't deal with that one, I'd rather just leave that one'. So he takes that question of 'who we are and where we start from' back into politics all the time. It's implied that we all want to end up in an independent and thus fulfilled free Scotland. That's why his statement about 'the land and sea' strikes me – it revealingly relies on that formulation as a touchstone.
NM: This makes me think of David Wilkie's painting of the Penny Wedding (1818), which heralds that Victorian infatuation with pre-lapsarian communitarianism, with anything pre-industrial – it's a fantasy.
RB: It's an essentialised formulation. It's the idea of a cult around the eternal essence of Scotland. The problem with this idea is that culture is invented and culture actually propagandises itself. The idea of a ‘true Scotland’ is fantasy.
NM: This particular focus on representations of Scottish culture seems problematic on the basis of implying that it's the artist's job to represent Scottish culture, as if they were an anthropologist parachuted in from somewhere else, someone who has come to study Scotland. (This anthropological turn is a very '90s idea of practice.) It implies that culture is something pre-formed that you just respond to, something separate from your own representations.
RB: Maybe some party manifestos were geared to that viewpoint. They may be interested in promoting art about Scotland; art that recognises and develops a ‘Scottish sensibility’. This could be seen as an ideological projection of 'Scottish culture'.
NM: This raises the concern of how institutions have constructed Scottish art – that might include institutions like the National Galleries and the institution of art history. Many institutions have contributed to the construction of 'Scottish Art', including small private galleries here and in London, such as, say, the Scottish Gallery. This version of events comes with some familiar cultural assumptions (value judgements presented as a consensus) built in. One is that painting is the central art form in Scotland, that portraiture is elevated here more than elsewhere. This has constructed an ideology of 'Scottish Art' as a particular kind of painting, it's painting mainly, and an approach that's familiar yet in retreat. There aren't many students coming out of Scotland's art schools who are still making this genre of 'Scottish Art'. There are still people who produce this work who aren't officially art school trained, they can find a direct route into this market, for example at the (now cancelled) Glasgow Art Fair, in Dundas Street at the Glasgow Art Club.... If someone wanted to do art historical research on this, it would be useful in terms of helping us understand 'Scottishness' as an imaginary in artistic production and consumption. To me, Victorian romanticism, the imagining of Scotland, representations of Scottish culture, that's where this study would sit. Does the desire for an art about Scotland come just from people who don't live here, or from people who do live here who are trapped by an odd inability to detach themselves from kitschy representations of the myth?
RB: It also defines a particular strand of the Scottish bourgeoisie who were the patrons of that art. Their taste identifies their notion of themselves as Scots – which is about access to leisure in the landscape, an interest in particular strands of Scottish history (the ‘purity’ of Iona). These are selective identifications with Scottishness, They also want to be seen as tasteful, and modern to some extent. This is the market for Colourism. rooted in an Edinburgh cosmopolitanism that is fashionable and decorative, yet very safe. In Glasgow there is a different kind of cosmopolitanism around the Glasgow Boys and their European influences and ‘realist’ social concerns.
NM: That was a very short-lived period when, maybe, artists were a bit more engaged with what was going on in the rest of Europe. There were people like the Glasgow dealer Reid who were an exception to the provincial rule. Mostly the Scottish bourgeoisie play it safe. Whether they're in Glasgow or Edinburgh, if they are investing in art it's likely to be decorative in character.
RB: Decorative definitely. The painter Anne Redpath quotes Chagall, who says, "At heart I am just a peasant". This is her fantasy whilst operating as an 'up-town' Edinburgh artist from the end of the 1940s, although she comes from Hawick, where her father was a designer at the Cashmere factory. Scotland, she wants to believe, has this kind of spiritual, primitive purity that those with refined sensitivity can unlock and tap into, like Gauguin in Brittany, but without the sex.
NM: Scots patrons mainly played it safe and remained limited in the sense of engaging what's out there in the world compared to the bourgeoisie elsewhere, such as, say, in Paris. It just depends where you look and what you are looking for. It's not just about how much money you have. The North of England is a good example; much wealthier than the South of England in the industrial era. However, for a very long period, the fine art that was produced there was considered negligible compared to what you'd find in London or Europe. Cultural imperatives in the north were different, the northern bourgeoisie valued different things, so, judged on metropolitan bourgeois terms, they were bound to be found wanting. It needs to, at least, be considered on its own terms as part of cultural history.
RB: Colourism represents the desire to create a ‘free’ art… that decorative Scottish modernism, which we know is not threatening, to either the financial structure, the Union, the class structure, or the rules of taste. It only threatens an older Victorian academicism with its repression of direct sensuality.
NM: So the story is rewritten to read 'the real Scotland is this great communitarian culture...'
RB: A Scotland that has a natural bent towards innovative universalism. Does any country have a right to claim that? So, what does Craig want? Does he want an art market for avant-garde art in Scotland, or for ‘advanced art’? There is a wish to garner the prestige that other international artists are getting in New York and in the continent.
NM: This reminds me of a book Alexander Alberro wrote a few years ago: 'Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity', which concerns Seth Siegelaub and his gallery in New York in the '60s and '70s. He focuses on some of the conceptual artists Siegelaub was dealing with, like Lawrence Weiner, that were effectively trying to eradicate the object from their practice. Rather than go over this territory again in relation to modernism, Alberro looks at who Siegelaub was associating with and, importantly, who was buying, allowing us to understand how was his gallery was able to exist. On the one hand, Siegelaub chased grants from universities, so a lot of his artists were shown at massive campuses in different states around America, thereby generating prestige. From this, Siegelaub would get various bits-and-bobs, documentation, photographs, etc. that he could sell in New York. He was selling to young Futures Traders, people who were taking a punt in the market in a risky way that was new at the time. In terms of the art, they weren't interested in the old idea of buying a thing that gathers dust and accumulates value. To them, as people who traded in intangibles, that was meaningless. That art trade was part of the old industrial world. They were switched on to a different idea of value, the post-industrial, the immaterial.
RB: It would incline you to say then that there is a connection between 'the idea' in conceptual art and the idea of speculation.
NM: Well it's an ideal solution because you don't need to cart some 'thing' about, get a conservation team to look after it and keep it alive, you just sign a legal contract that states that you own a tenth of the right to such-and-such an idea; so it's perfect for that kind of speculation. The same revelation occurs if you look at who was investing in, say, the Fauves, or look at who was buying art in Berlin in the 1920s. We could look at galleries in Switzerland right now, look at who buys art at Basel or Zurich. There is an economy. It doesn't dictate exactly how art functions, but it makes some things possible and other things impossible. To my mind we don't have that kind of developed economy in Scotland. We do have banks and finance in Scotland (or at least did until recently) but they aren't remotely interested in speculating in this area. They play seemingly safer markets.
RB: Though they did buy more decorative art for their boardrooms, their offices.
NM: That's the equivalent of having bottles of Scotch on hand for foreign investors. It's not serious art market speculation.
Leigh French: Banks, predominantly Edinburgh-based, have been sponsoring the festival format and particular types of cultural institution. They also inhabit the boards of a wider body of cultural institutions. More telling is the finance sector's direct role in shaping Creative Scotland.
NM: Deutsche Bank heavily invest in contemporary art in a way that Royal Bank of Scotland probably wish they had… Compare Scotland with Frankfurt where there's a really important art school and a vibrant art market. People go there, fly in for the day, do whatever business they're doing, go and buy art and then go back to wherever they're based. This kind of capital lubrication is something that Edinburgh doesn't have. London has gained it since frieze, Edinburgh could have exploited it, but it played it 'safe'...
LF: There's the tourism industry in Edinburgh, but what we've seen in Glasgow is the mobilisation of artists in and around property development, we see the same in Dundee with education and arts/culture – that wave of 'cultural regeneration'.
NM: But that project is pointless unless you can maintain enough corporate investors who want space and offices in your city. This did exist in Glasgow until John Major's recession, on the Broomielaw. In the early '90s London firms just pulled their Scottish offices. They came back slowly, until recently, and Glasgow has built a new finance district near where the Modern Institute used to be. It's not like it isn't there, it's just it ultimately doesn't really matter what this small sector is doing institutionally, at the corporate level. The people who were buying new art in New York in the 1970s, the kind of patrons who made conceptual art possible, were young, with enough disposable income to buy art. That went on into the East Village boom of the early '80s, never really stopped. The specific economic forces that allowed a certain type of conceptualism to be produced in New York in '70s just weren't present in other places.
RB: It wouldn't have reached the prominence it did across a world art market if it didn't have the impetus and that sort of initial capitalisation. That's the problem with this Scottish art market; you have markets to make money for somebody and, let's be honest, it's probably not the artist. So to invest in it, somebody's got to see it as an investment possibility. That's why we've got that decorative art market rather than an investment art market.
NM: By default, it has to be transnational, otherwise you're back to your Edinburgh and Glasgow Art Fairs…
RB: Especially the modernist art market, that's the story of someone like Alexander Reid. His story is of the internationalisation of the art market, i.e. he's going to France to get works of art to sell in Glasgow, to businessmen, industrialists, landowners. He's bringing it hot off the ships, so to speak. It's a prized, unusual commodity in that sense. For that reason, can you establish an independent small nation and really imagine that its house style will be avant-garde? Witness the picture by Gerard Burns on Alex Salmond's wall. [‘The Rowan’ by Gerard M Burns, hangs over the desk of the Scottish First Minister at the Scottish Parliament.]
NM: John Beagles best summed up the mid-'90s version of this story in an article he wrote for Variant, 'Under the Central Belt' (1997). He wrote of the mythologisation of Scotland as a PFI-free state, of the ‘predicable orthodoxy’ of a certain brand of institutionally sanctioned neoconceptualism, that this had led artists to knock-off. He was talking about the backlash against the early '90s Scotia Nostra work that is the telos of Craig's book. If you really want to understand the social and cultural conditions, what makes certain things possible and other things not, then maybe there's still a lot to be said for a dollop of this style of economic determinism. It's not just a matter of private finance. Let's talk about 'council art', or 'university art', what is it that's oiling these cogs? It's never neutral or inherently benign. And there is no telos.
RB: The other thing in the book is the idea of an artist-led art, encapsulated in Transmission Gallery. This proves we've broken through politically and that we have our own democratised gallery infrastructure. Craig then talks about the Modern Institute coming out of this but then dropping the democratic aspect of a committee – now seeing that the democratic bit somehow slows development.
NM: The fact that members-based galleries such as Transmission are still in the public realm means that they have some degree of public accountability. This became a bit annoying for some more ambitious artists and curators in the later '90s. Many naively regarded the market as a welcome escape. There were unguarded interviews in magazines, usually in colour supplements where curators trained in the public sector moaned that it was an inconvenience having to account for what you were doing with public money. So we'll just go private, no more forms to fill in. So lots of institutions and individuals set up by public purse to serve a broad constituency just went private. This happened all over the UK, not just in Scotland. This was how the cultural industry was supposed to achieve growth.
RB: It's to do with promotion as well, which is not just visibility alone. Can a collective gallery promote artists enough and imbue them with sufficient cultural capital to make them ripe for capitalisation in the art market? The answer has been no.
NM: Had this developing situation been managed differently, intelligently and appropriately, it could have. There are cities where that has happened. For example, in Gateshead, Workplace have done this to a degree, representing a lot of artists in and beyond the Tyneside area. They represent them in the market, they go to art fairs. Despite this, Workplace still retains the immediacy of an ARI [artist-run initiative] like the Embassy or Generator. Another example is International 3 in Manchester. They don't have a revolving committee because they don't have enough fresh blood to 'revolve' – if they handed over the reigns it would die. This is often a problem in cities that don't have that kind of critical mass to keep things running, or where there isn't the cross-generational experience to keep a member's led institution afloat. Glasgow was in that situation when Transmission formed; for much of the '80s it was in that situation, hence committee members like Malcolm Dickson being there for so long. It's the same with a lot of ARIs. You look at them closely enough, there's usually a period of intense struggle and near collapse.
RB: Some people have made their careers through that transition.
NM: Sarah Munro was important in supporting and developing new practices across Scotland from the mid-'90s through the Collective Gallery's programme. Goes to show that even if your committee is static it doesn't mean the activities in any way need to be static.
LF: You see the ambitions of individuals coming through and the committee structure used more tightly to try and form careers internationally – utilising the exhibition format and programme to associate yourself with the kind of practice and status of practitioner you want to be aligned with, e.g. showing of Lawrence Weiner at Transmission in the early '90s… With this determinism came a narrowing and much more protectionist, managed practice.
NM: A problem can become some people joining a committee thinking they're taking over an institution when in fact they just become part of an institution for however long they're there, they are caretakers – in Transmission's case, for no more than a couple of years.
LF: To what extent within the book is there a refusal to…
NM: …to even go there, to look at this old chestnut of self-canonisation, self-aggrandisement. That strategy of 'touching the hem' (as Glen Onwin likes to put it) was there in the 57 Gallery in the '60s and, of course, there with previous generations of Francophile Scottish modernists. They would show artists that were really established – post-painterly abstractionists, pop artists like Jim Dine or German Expressionists – because they liked them, they thought they were good artists and wanted to align with what they stood for. This is perfectly normal. However, the committee generally wouldn't show with them, it was more a case of having, say, a John Heartfield show and then someone else from Scotland would show. It could be in that, in '60s / '70s, artists based in Scotland thought 'it's not really going to work, no one else is going to really pay attention to our delusions/aspirations'. They were young, had a dose of humility and stoicism, felt isolated from where art was 'happening', and so wouldn't imagine anyone would make the assumption that they were equals with these established artists. Parity wasn't ruled out, it was just understood that it would take time, so there was no precocious, overly ambitious rush to have a career, first you needed to build a practice. By the time 57 had moved into the Fruitmarket building, this 'slow burn' approach was vanishing, the myth of Scots stoicism also seemed to vaporise then...
RB: It's more that guiding light thing. I remember Graeme Murray, as soon as he takes over the Fruitmarket Gallery he shows Sol Lewitt. He and his friends had obviously been influenced by Sol Lewitt for many years.
NM: Just because Latham was here and working here he is suddenly part of the story of 'Scottish' art. Many artists have passed through Scotland…
RB: But Latham becomes ‘honorary’, because he's doing the kind of art later site-specific artists and neo-conceptualists would have wanted to do.
NM: Joseph Beuys is the same case in point isn't he? It's a phantom, the insistence that there ought to have been an avant-garde in Scotland. To have an avant-garde you need to have, not so much an alternative economy, but…
LF: An avant-garde implies other political forms of questioning…
RB: Well it did originally…
NM: You need something to shake foundations, to lead enough people to be asking those kinds of questions, you need a seismic shift. Has Scotland experienced this since 1960? Maybe it's just getting started now?
RB: If you believe Pierre Bourdieu it goes back to the creation of a market for consecrated avant-garde art. The need to build a market in the late 19th century for ‘pure art’.
NM: You can't just study the development of the avant-garde in, say, the '20s and think 'right, I get how it worked, let's try it' – it doesn't work like that. Avant-gardes spring from really unusual circumstances, something that is going to shake your foundations and cause you to think in a very different way, something beyond your control. Otherwise the avant-garde is just a stance you take, an oppositional one, but, in opposition to what?
RB: That's why I think Craig's ultimate approach is based on an acceptance of Enlightenment universalism; this golden age we have lost. I think he imagines that an avant-garde Scottish art, as he conceives it, is necessary to lead us back to this moment in order to repossess it. But there can be no definition of what that moment would look like, representationally it doesn't exist. It would be almost dictatorial to come up with a definition of what a free democratic art looks like. You could point to certain artists at certain moments to say, ‘They resisted this, they believed in that’, fair enough. But to posit this chain of communitarian Scottish essentialism is going to be reflected in a certain strand of artists...
NM: The avant-garde doesn't have a 'look', it doesn't have an aesthetic. That's a problem with a lot of art that was made in Scotland in the early '90s, it just seemed to stem from a fundamental naivety on those terms, all surfaces – it 'looked' like the past's idea of the future…
RB: It was a neo-avant-garde in that sense completely. I would make honourable exceptions. In terms of giving it status, to me it looks like a liberating moment for a generation of Scottish art students finding a new set of references – which were not figurative painters.
NM: Which they often do, if they do anything at all. Art students experience time passing more slowly than their elders. So they have a greater tendency to think short-term, as if the recent past were offering ancient wisdom. This helps artistic mythologies take root. Then there's the question of focus. If everyone in the previous generation is looking at what went on 20 years ago (e.g. ‘60s/’70s), the new generation will be looking at what was being made 10 years ago (e.g. ‘70s/’80s). Just because they're younger it's inevitable, the objects of their nostalgia differ. Whatever the period fetishised, so much of this artistic activity is, ultimately, based on wooly nostalgia. This is another reason why it's not avant-garde, it's not concerned with the future, arguably, very little of it could even be said to be resolutely contemporary.
RB: I'm afraid all art colleges, contrary to the assumption of them as havens of progress,, are actually probably more like that than anything else, in the sway of the recent past, as you point out.
NM: When I say that, it's usually concerned with something that happened just before you were born, because you don't know it from personal experience, and therefore you can project things onto it and make it whatever you want it to be.
RB: It's also due to the teaching generation's legacy. There is a big influence from the generation you're being taught by.
NM: Until more recently, Scottish art schools' terms of reference were extremely limited and ingrown. I don't think innovation was staff-led, that's the biggest myth of all. If students themselves were interested in something and it didn't fit a very narrow frame, then they were teaching themselves and encouraging each other. Take John Byrne. When he was at art school, his frames of reference were very wide, varied, he wanted to incorporate something of what was happening in Rock 'n' Roll at the time into his work. Both Glasgow and Edinburgh art schools resisted his best efforts. Byrne's peers felt similar things in Newcastle, at the Slade in Liverpool, etc. John A. Walker's written an interesting account about what it was like to be an art student in 1957 at Newcastle University. He recalls a similar sort of frustration, the sense that there are really exciting things going on, but inside the art school the rest of the world just doesn't matter. It's by no means an experience unique to Glasgow in 1989, nor, as Walker attests, was it a one-off occurrence. Every art school I've ever visited, I've heard exactly the same story. The number of art school programmes in the UK since the late '50s that had a clear educational vision, a curriculum even, can be counted on one hand. Not one of them was in Scotland.
RB: That's another thing – and the Rock 'n' Roll issue proves it – that often art colleges were visually behind the bands they produced. All those folk, Townsend and all the rest, they were making their bands more advanced than a lot of their fellow students. He had witnessed the auto destruction merchant, Gustav Metzger. I remember the early 1990s attitude that we all want to be fans of art like we're fans of pop music. I'm thinking, why?
NM: That comes directly from Simon Frith's Cultural Studies masters that used to run at Strathclyde University.
RB: What does it prove? What are they saying there? That we want to feel it without intellectualising it? Rock 'n' Roll?
NM: It was just a case of confusing method and subject. Cultural Studies is concerned with fandom, it isn't fan culture itself. Pop culture was industrially produced while your 'Scottish art' scene in Transmission isn't. The methodologies of Cultural Studies developed to enable the study of industrial culture, they aren't really equipped to deal with small scale speculative mercantilism (that's what art history does). Fandom as we know it today is an industrial phenomena, generated by mass consumerism. It's only more recently that we get the art fan in the form of the cultural tourist, the 'art brand' fan who wears a BALTIC t-shirt but doesn't work there. Although I suspect they don't really exist, I've yet to meet one.
RB: That's the difference. The fan's relation is to an enormous almost sublime phenomenon, which may be personalised in terms of pop stars but it's unexceptional, as it's industrialised. It's coming at you from massive reification. Whereas in art, galleries wouldn't have that aura around them necessarily, until artists start writing their own history about Glasgow: ‘This is the room that Douglas Gordon was in, in Glasgow School of Art, this is the gallery where they made their first…’ It's like David Livingstone's house – you can finally say it began here. You can start to inhabit it. Is the post-industrial not always like a museum presentation of the recent past?
NM: In Glasgow's museums, such as the Riverside, it's almost as if things are being transformed into a fairy story as they are actually happening. Instant nostalgia. It's not unique to Glasgow, or Scotland, this process, and it's not the end of the world, but it is a problem if you make it the official culture. Worse still if this process becomes your contemporary art.
RB: Then could you say museumification is such a post-industrial force that this neo-conceptualist group of artists couldn't escape it?
NM: If Riverside Museum-type culture recognises what you're doing, you have a problem. You don't want to be in a museum – so why should contemporary art be? What was good about, say, the Third Eye Centre was there was a sense of it being set up to enable people to do new things. Its board weren't really worried about its legacy or how it would be documented…
RB: It's self-memorialisation, isn't it, and about the desire for a unifiable cultural imagery. Another way to examine this would be to compare Dundee, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh. There are totally different experiences of this same period, where it's all about selling your town internationally – it's not the same as small nation-ness necessarily. The art was only one part of that tourist brochure for the city break weekend.