– The following essay was written for a talk to the M.A. students at Glasgow School of Art in late 1989
– It was included as part of the essay collection ‘Some Recent Attacks’, published by AK Press in 1992
A note to the text:
I made a dreadful blunder in the original essay Artists and Value. It derived from a talk I gave in 1989 where I named Blake Morrison as ‘prejudiced’. This followed a review of a work by Chinua Achebe where Achebe ‘described Joseph Conrad as a thoroughgoing racist.’ The reviewer defends Conrad and attacks Achebe. I attributed this review to Blake Morrison. I was utterly wrong. The review was by Craig Raine (London Review of Books, June 1989). Blake was wronged and I was responsible for it. Nor did I discover the truth until twenty years later, when it was pointed out to me by the man himself, in the most magnanimous manner. I contacted the publisher (AK Press) and they withdrew the collection with immediate effect. The book has been out-of-print ever since. I have amended the essay for future reference and I thank Blake Morrison for his great generosity.
- ARTISTS AND VALUE
- For some people part of the romance of being a writer can lie in how this actual opening sentence is being composed, it is 3.10 a.m., alone in my room, everybody else asleep, the big city at night etc. etc. And only a week before the talk is due to be delivered. But there’s the other side to it: there’s just enough alcohol in my system, not enough to knock me out, plus I’ve got a sore back, so that’s also how come I’m up and writing at three o’clock in the morning. Five hours ago I was leaving the pub, then bumped into somebody who said he was going to try to be here today, so me remembering I still had it to do, that I’d better get down to work immediately.
This can be a dangerous period, what some artists regard as a bogey period, these solitary hours of the nightshift, The kind of intoxication that leads to guilt-ridden anxieties – usually about the amount of time you spend away from your work, how lazy and fraudulent you really are. And these attacks of conscience can degenerate further and further, with much of the night still to get through…
In hollywood pictures the artist as hero – and it’s usually a hero and never a heroine – and this hero who is not a heroine is either a single fellow or else the woman he is involved with is going to turn out to be a bad yin – a bad yin, because then this dashing masculine male will have the absolute right to go off and sleep with anybody he likes, but most especially the beautiful young lassie from next door, without any moral guilt whatsoever.
At university as a mature student – I went when I was 28, a married man with two kids – at university as a mature student at I did philosophy, including a course on logic, and I think this has helped me cope with the occasional difficult proposition. A proposition is just a statement; and any statement may or may not be true. A wee bit of logic can occasionally help you in this way: instead of having to say what something is, an artist for example, instead of saying what an artist is, if ever you’re being forced to define such a body, you just say what an artist is not. When in doubt negate, turn your yes into a no, your positive into a negative. The writer Franz Kafka – by the way, whenever I refer to ARTIST I dont mean someone who is a visual artist particularly, I am referring to writers and musicians and dramatists and painters and sculptors and maybe dancers and actors, and so on – one thing you can notice in Franz Kafka’s work, most particularly in his use of 3rd party narrative, he doesnt necessarily detail a thing that exists. What he often does is refer to a space which he then fills with a crowd of things that either dont exist, or MAYBE dont exist. He fills the page with absences and possible absences.
Who is that woman! She isnt my wife. She isnt my fiancee. And she isnt my girlfriend. Nor my sister. She isnt my grannie nor yet my mother. And she probably isnt my auntie and I doubt if she’s my cousin. Who is she? She isnt my neighbour. She maybe isnt anyone I know at all. Probably she’s a stranger. She isnt big and she isnt wee. But she isnt really medium sized either. And her hair isnt blonde and it isnt brown and nor is it black. But it isnt grey and doesnt even seem to be white, and I’m sure it’s not red! Her nose isnt big, but nor is it wee, and her eyes arent blue and not even green nor brown. She doesnt wear a coat and she doesnt wear a hat and her dress isnt long but it isnt short and she’s not holding a bag and doesnt look like she ever does hold a bag, and nor does she look like… And so on.
In talking about this technique critically you could use the terms ‘negative apprehension’ and ‘the subjunctive mood’. Other artists apart from Kafka use the method. And central to its use is something extremely political, something extremely subversive: by the very application of this literary technique, or artistic method, entire value systems can no longer be taken for granted, they become problematic, they are open to question:
The big man entered the room. What size is he? He’s 5 foot 9 inches. Where am I? Am I in the clubhouse of an exclusive golf club, at a social gathering of Young Farmers, dining at the Rotary Club, drinking real ale in the Students’ Union Bar at Glasgow University? 5 foot 9 inches.
Heh big yin!
The big man entered the room. What size is he? He’s 6 foot 9 inches? Where am I now? Am I in a pub down the Gallowgate, Glasgow? am I signing on at the broo, waiting in the queue at the Supplementary Benefit enquiries counter, standing in the dock of the Sheriff’s Court? – not standing in the dock, definAtely. But judging the fate of the man in the dock? Maybe.
Writers are literary artists, they write stories, they tell tales. A storyteller is somebody who tells tales. It is important to appreciate that stories cannot be true and they cannot be false: they are fictions; and you cannot get true fictions and you cannot get false fictions; they just exist; stories just exist. They are created by people; an artist is a person.
Here is a tip on technique generally: when you work your way through every absence you can think of you’ll be left with a particular, something concrete; and this is usually where you discover the finest art, or at least the most satisfactory. But that is only an opinion, my own.
And also as a postscript I’m afraid most technique is metaphor.
Bearing in mind that any proposition, or statement, can be true or false, here are four of them:
A good writer is not necessarily a good person.
A good writer is not necessarily a good artist.
A good sculptor or painter is not necessarily a good artist.
A painter or sculptor who has never ever gone to art school might be a major artist.
Someone who paints or sculpts and has spent every working day of her or his life in an art school might never discover what art is, let alone become an artist, although it is possible the same person could one day discover what art is not.
When I was at Strathclyde University I became uneasy when a writer I didn’t think deserved to be called an artist was being described as ‘good’, and sometimes even ‘major’, by the lecturers. Even the very fact that you were given such writers at uni. meant they were ASSUMED to be ‘good’. The lecturers and university authorities hold the power: they can say something is good without having to prove it. If you, as a student, want to deny that something is good then YOU are forced to prove ‘it’. And proving anything is never easy. Atheists in the company will know what I’m talking about: it’s never the person who actually believes in God who has to find the proof, only those who dont. Proving something doesnt exist can be every bit as hard as proving something does exist. In fact it’s harder, often impossible. Anyway, at university I felt that if certain writers were going to be described as artists then something smelled about the very concept itself: art was just not as great as it’s cracked up to be. So I wanted to distinguish between writers who were artists and writers who werent artists. And in this context, if I’d been a student here at Art School, I might have wanted to distinguish between folk who were ‘painters’ or ‘sculptors’, and those who were ‘painters or sculptors but also ‘artists’.
But sticking to the literary arts, take for example the poet T. S. Eliot or the novelist Evelyn Waugh. Evelyn Waugh seemed to me to be so right-wing you’d be forgiven for calling him a fascist. And how could you call a fascist an artist. That struck me as by way of a contradiction in terms. So I wanted to say: here is a writer who okay might be ‘good’ but either s/he is a bad artist or s/he isnt an artist at all – because surely someone who is a good artist cannot be someone who hates people of a different coloured skin, who hates people that speak a different language or whose racial origin differs from his own; surely a good artist wont be somebody who hates people of a different religion, people who come from a different cultural or economic background, who are not heterosexual, not homosexual, whatever.
But at that time I wasnt aware that so much of this business of the ‘good’ in literature, at least as it applies in education establishments, starts and ends with things like grammar and punctuation; in other words, if a lecturer calls a writer ‘good’ it might just mean the writer in question knows how to use semi colons and paragraphs in a certain manner, or has a very large vocabulary, or uses a great variety of rhetorical devices, or exhibits a certain educational or cultural background, or shows a wide knowledge of foreign words and phrases. And all of that sort of stuff wasnt what good writing should have been about, as far as I could see, and certainly not what good art was about.
One thing you do find is that many writers who are described as ‘good’ arent that good at all, not when you examine their work closely – often you dont even have to do it closely. Sort through the clumsiness and carelessness; the cliches, the shopsoiled phrases, the timeworn description; basic technical stuff. What it usually signifies is a straightforward lack of interest in, or awareness of, particulars. They dont reach the concrete. They seem content to give a general idea of something. Big handsome men and slender beautiful women will always be seen as such no matter who is doing the looking. And by quick extension of that:
Everybody on the broo is lazy. Jews are greedy. Black people are criminals. Red haired people are bad tempered. Irish people are ignorant. Peasants are hamfisted. Glaswegian working class males are drunken wife-beaters.
What is a cliche really but a conventional way of looking, a conventional way of perceiving. What do I mean when I use a term like ‘shop soiled’ or ‘timeworn’ or ‘hackneyed’, I really just mean secondhand perception and imagery. Writers who use too many cliches or timeworn phrases or shopsoiled figures of speech either just dont care or they’re being lazy. Instead of thinking and judging for themselves they’re relying on conventional wisdom, received opinion; the everyday values of society. And society is capricious; not only is it capricious, it is subject to control by those in authority.
If you criticise or condemn a long-dead writer or a long-dead painter, or politican, or philosopher – anybody at all in fact – if you condemn them for being racist, or sexist, or elitist, or bigoted in some other way, you get told you have to see the person in her or his own historical context. (0r else, of course, you get told just to ‘prove it’.) Some of you may know of a recent controversy featuring the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. He described Joseph Conrad as a thoroughgoing racist and was attacked for it by, amongst others, Craig Raine, a poet and critic who reviews current writing for mainstream media outlets. Now, quite simply, Craig Raine is prejudiced. There is just no question that Joseph Conrad was a racist. And the onus of proof is not on me, just as it wasnt on Chinua Achebe. Racism is one of the necessary tools for the march of imperialism, one more instrument of control, not just a hundred or so years ago but right now if we think of conventional American wisdom’s use of terms like ‘gook’ and ‘wetback’ etc., or Germany’s rules on citizenship, or the last census form issued in this fine upstanding country of ours where ethnicity applies only to people who are not white. So in Conrad’s day it was demanded by Empire, by capital and big business generally; intrinsic to western affairs of state whose control was 100% total, unlike just now when such glaringly obvious moral discrepancies are brushed under the carpet of Western Civilisation, with its capital w.c. But in Conrad’s time any aspect of society which was NOT racist, I mean during the Victorian period when we were consolidating the heroin trade in China and just prior to when the U.S. was committing genocide, killing some 3 million women, men and children out in the Philippines, any aspect of western society that was not racist, is worthy of mention.
And that applies equally to writers and to painters and so on. And critics who recognise that an artist of a particular time and place was not racist etc. should be able to say so, not by how the person acted in private life but by a process of critical analysis. Such a person might well have stood out from the crowd through her or his social eccentricity but that’s a side issue, the important distinguishing feature will be the originality of her or his perception:
Was Paul Gauguin racist? Was he sexist? What about Van Gogh, was he racist? Did he hate atheists? What about Picasso, was he sexist? Did he hate homosexuals? Was Gertrude Stein elitist? Did she hate men? These sorts of questions are also the province of art criticism. They cannot help being part of it. When we are examining the racial or sexual or elitist stereotypes in a writer or painter’s work, we are examining technique.
At one time any cliche you care to name was a bold and original expression. But over a period of time all bold and original expressions become shopsoiled. They get worn by time. They get used too often by too many people in too many lax and indifferent ways. They lose their meaning, their reference becomes vague, obscure. Language shifts and moves, it is not static and neither is it finite. As a writer language is my material in a way that it rarely is for ordinary language users; I am attuned to it, or should be attuned to it, in ways slightly different from and possibly more sophisticated than the average user, it’s a reflective pursuit. For instance, I should be able to recognise a cliche a mile away. But this will apply across the board, any painter or sculptor or musician should be able to spot a cliche in the media they work in; and they should be able to do so by exercising critical judgment. In the early stages of their work this judgment may be intuitive but sooner or later it should be otherwise. Take a closer look at some of the recent crop of representational work being done in the visual arts. How much of that is cliched, stereotyped; conventional images of socially acceptable and socially conventional values – even where these values might be appear to be NOT right-wing because they represent the so-called working classes, the proletariat. They still bear the hallmarks of convention, of a generally-held view or opinion.
What actually is the proletariat? Or for that matter the bourgeoisie? How do you recognise a class of folk? Or a race of people? You recognise them by general characteristics. When we perceive a member of a class we are not perceiving an individual human being, we are perceiving an idea, an abstract entity, a generality; it is a way of looking that by and large is the very opposite of art.
Artists should be able to look at what they do and know when it is not wrong, they need to value things for themselves – especially their own work. They have to be able to judge when it is correct and when it is not correct. If they rely on the critical judgment of society they would be as well to stop studying art and get onto a course in business administration, or accountancy if they’re feeling optimistic.
So much guff is spoken within our society about what is right and what is wrong that you have to be able to spot it for yourself. The mainstream media is morally bankrupt. It isnt up to me to prove it. When individuals employed within it act with integrity they stand out in sharp relief; they are exceptions, and exceptions always indicates a general rule. It isnt so much we are told downright lies – although very often we are – just that we are not told the truth, mainly this is done by negation, we are told what is not the case, either that or we get told nothing at all; we are given an absence of information, and absence of truth, we are given silence.
If you want to find out what’s really going on in the world and your information comes via the mainstream media, you should restrict your reading to the business and financial pages. If there is any honesty left in the newspaper industry this is where you find it. It is also where you can find contemporary art criticism: I was reading the financial section of The Guardian the other day; Charles Saatchi of Saatchi and Saatchi, noted connoisseur of fine art, the chap hired by those great patrons of the arts and artists, Glasgow’s Labour-controlled District Council, to advertise the Year of the City of Culture, he had just moved out of New York painters into British painters. In so doing he increased his profit 15 fold.
But greater sums of money are perhaps spent on paintings bought in the fashionable New York galleries than anywhere else in the entire galaxy. See that artist there! He’s great! He must be great, his paintings sell in the fashionable New York galleries. He must be one of the greatest painters in the galaxy.
In our society it isnt only works of art which have a value placed on them by external forces, so do the actual creators themselves, the artists. The value is economic although it occasionally attempts to masquerade as aesthetic, and received wisdom brooks no distinction.
The creative output of most artists has no economic value at all. Nobody buys it and the names of the artists seldom get mentioned. Their work is ‘worthless’ and they are ‘worthless’. And often when they are forced to earn money they earn it by teaching folk to do what they are being stopped from doing themselves.
How do we tell if an artist has value? We dont. Let somebody else do it. That sort of question is a red herring. We can tell if a person has value. And that value is moral if we want it to be moral. Or monetary, if we want it to be monetary. We can tell if a person’s work has value. We can also tell if our own work has value. And if we are involved in an art medium then we evaluate this work on its own terms and these terms are aesthetic.
But even here critics and arbiters of art must understand the need for caution, that all technique is metaphor.
But one way I used to have of intuiting a painter from a painter who was also an artist, was how they treated the servants, how they treated the folk who work behind the bar in the Art Club, the folk who serve the grub down in the refectory, the ones who carry the pictures up the stairs and hang them. I was a delivery man of Fine Art. Myself and another guy had a transit van – I’m speaking now of about 1984-86 when I was earning almost nothing as a writer and had to go beyond my own work to earn a few bob. I had a wee bit of early experience in the trade. My old man, and also my uncles and my grandfather, were picture framers, gilders and picture restorers. workshop in Gibson Street, in the former premises of the legendary Shish Mahal Restaurant. This was at the head of a lane near to the junction of University Avenue and Gibson Street and next door to the former church. My grandparents were married here in 1909: he was Alexander (Sandy) Kelman from Aberdeen, and she was Catherine Maclennan Mackenzie from Lochs in Lewis. It was Sandy Kelman who began the gilding & picture-restoring business. He had different workshops over the years, each one west of Charing Cross. This was his last and he worked here up until his death in 1951. My father carried on the business, a one-man business, helped out by his own sons.
I remember the place well, my grandpa’s pipe-rack and the wee pots of ‘compo’ bubbling away on the gas ring. All the different bits and pieces associated with the trade; and paintings and paintings in a range of conditions, ripped canvases and various disasters. On a couple of occasions myself and/or my brothers had to carry large framed, glazed paintings along to customers, all the way along Woodlands Road and across Charing Cross to around where the upstairs disco now is on Sauchiehall Street, above the old Locarno Ballroom, next door to the Curzon, Glasgow’s adult movie-house. Charing Cross was a hive of activity before it was destroyed to make way for the M8 motorway; especially popular were arts-related shops, including a couple of private galleries. But carrying the paintings was a tricky business for twelve year old boys when the pictures were of naked people, ninety nine and a half percent of whom were NOT men. Fortunately the old man draped army blankets over them to defend our honour.
Would the actual people who painted the pictures have thought of that, of draping the paintings to safeguard the modesty of the delivery boys? It doesnt matter whether ‘modesty’ is right or wrong in the circumstances, only that the folk who paint the pictures might have thought of such a thing: to do so means seeing the servants as particular persons, individual human beings. I was reminded of this three years ago, while a transporter of pictures for various painters and galleries and exhibitions, I was standing between two so-called artists in a lift, me balancing the painting while they had a smoke and a blether. The concept of ‘invisibility’. I knew from the conversation that it wouldn’t have crossed their mind that the chap carrying the picture could understand what they were on about. They saw themselves as ‘artists’. The chap who transports their work was the chap who transports their work. They have an inner spiritual life. But the chap doesnt, the chap is a pleb, a servant, brutalised. Servants may be heroic or not heroic but they’re never fully-formed human beings, never particular persons. And if I had spoken, and revealed my ability to take part in a heady, conversation concerning AESTHETICS why then I would have been an exception, I would have reinforced the rule: some of my best friends are black. As far as art criticism is concerned the heroic pleb is found in the work of social realism and romance, the unheroic pleb isnt found in the work of social realism, although can be in romance. But they all deal in stereotypes.
If a painter doesnt see what’s under her or his nose then she or he is odds-on not to be any bloody good – maybe that’s an exaggeration – but it certainly is odds-on that she or he will deal in generalities, stereotypes and cliches; their work will reflect conventional social value, received wisdom. Here is a mob of Maryhill males. Look at them, see their blunt features, their heavy brows, their dull eyes.
Roughly speaking the process of art is an aid to the purification of society. Think when painters began observing and representing actual people on the canvas or page, as opposed to soulful embodiments, the leap away from religious imagery, when the virgin mary and the female saints began to look like women, when christ and the male saints began to look like men, with all their attendant physical blemishes. This at least as perceived by men of a certain social background; the female subjects might look like lovers, friends or relations of the male painter while the male saints would look like lovers, friends or relations of – or self portrait of – the male painter himself. Then the baby Jesus might start to resemble a child who would soil a nappy and later again an examination of other stereotyping would occur and the crucified christ and madonnas and saints would start looking like social outcasts; diverse targets of conventional prejudice; servants and plebs, peasants, pakis, yids, whores, tims, niggers, wops, queers – even strangers, referring back to Conrad, racism and historical context, there’s a verb in Classical Japanese if I remember correctly that means “to test one’s new double-handed sword” and if you were a Samurai warrior this testing entailed going with the new double-handed sword to the outskirts of your village and there awaiting the first stranger. And when this stranger arrived you jumped out and split him from top to bottom, right down through the cranium; if you managed this in a oner it meant the sword was good and you went back and gave the swordsmith your compliments. The language itself indicating the horrors of that particular value-system, just as the use of the term ‘gook’, or ‘grunt’ indicates the horrors of another. So within the process of art more and more human beings start being ‘discovered’ as particulars, witnessed as individuals, specific folk, persons; and within the process of society more and more human beings start making such discoveries themselves, and in the far-off future there wont be any racism, no sexism, no prejudice, no imperialism, no colonisation, no economic exploitation, and so on and so forth, a process of elimination.
Usually if there are any real critics in the vicinity they will pin point where it happens in the work of artists; writers, painters and musicians, sculptors etc.; they will look at the work of any painter, of any school, and be able to judge its merit and to do that they can only begin by peeling away the layers and layers of convention, received wisdom. They will point for example to writers who are not Joseph Conrad and who are not Evelyn Waugh because of the way persons from every race or walk in life are immediately perceived as individuals with the full potential for universal existence i.e. having a full spiritual life and these aspects of their work stand out in sharp contrast to whatever prejudiced view and conventional value society currently entertains, artists just have to exorcise their work of as much social value as possible because social value generally – well is generally something that may not merit universal approval. It pays to recognise that universal approval and general approval are two very very different concepts. In striving for that artists must begin to learn to place their own value oπn their work, they have to know when their work is correct and when it is not correct, without recourse to the sort of quantification that masquerades as art criticism and appreciation whether it be that of somebody selling so called New Images or employees of Glasgow as City of Culture such as Charles Saatchi or Rupert Murdoch for instance, another great connoisseur of the spirit who is now employed on the City of Culture enterprise.
At one time the derogatory terms used earlier would not have been derogatory at all. You could have used such words in polite, not to mention impolite, society and nobody would have thought anything of it. And the people who were offended and reacted in a hostile way would have been unconventional, eccentrics, social misfits (as artists are often designated) they would stand out. That applies to the people the derogatory terms referred, as well as those who were offended by the use of the term. But there again, if you did happen to be a peasant or a paki or a darkie or a queer or a paddy or a yid or a woman, then the likelihood is that you wouldn’t be there to be offended anyway – even metaphorically like the poor old servant who has to walk about with earplugs. For such groups of people wouldn’t have been found in society. They are marginalised, confined below stairs, kept out of reach in a housing scheme, stuck in a closet, on a reservation, a homeland, a ghetto, an inner or outer city slum, whatever. Even when you were standing there in some particular company, the servant or chap who carries the painting, you wouldn’t be there, no one would ‘see’ you, that concept of ‘invisibility’ again.
The language of racial prejudice is the language of stereotypes. I was in the company of some writers down in Cheltenham, England a couple of years back when a joke was told by the novelist and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. The joke was structured on stereotypes: 1) all Scottish people are mean people who are only interested in getting something for nothing; 2) people who speak with a Scottish accent cannot be taken seriously. The tricky thing for me is that Melvyn must have known I was Scottish yet told it in my presence. That was 1987, the year I was awarded the Cheltenham Prize for short stories. I enjoyed being witness to the proceedings but others were embarrassed, almost all of whom English. I was with Hermione Lee who had invited me along. For me it was quite positive. I knew I was in another country. But this was a surprise to the others, who perhaps hadn’t realized that I was in another country, and this other country was theirs:, and that here I was, a foreigner, being treated rather shabbily.
At one time any cliche you care to name was a bold and original expression. But over a period of time all bold and original expressions become shopsoiled. They get worn by time. They get used too often by too many people in too many lax and indifferent ways. They lose their meaning, their reference becomes vague, obscure. Language shifts and moves, it is not static, in fact it is infinite.
Another side to the romance of being a writer, on how things are written; I went back to bed at 6 a.m. that Tuesday morning when I first started writing this and it is now two weeks later and this is just one more ‘final’ revision – although that in itself is a myth.
Thanks for listening.