Art: Cool and Uncool – William Varley Reviews Addicted to Sheep

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cool sentences begin, I think that the best TV programme I saw last was Addicted to Sheep. In many ways this BBC4 documentary was reminiscent of the French film Être et Avoir about a remarkable teacher in a school in the remote Auvergne,

​ although a good deal less winsome. It src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> focused on the lives of the Hutchinson family, tenant farmers in Upper Teesdale. In their remote valley ewes are called “yowes” and

at the children’s school they still sing “There is a green hill far away”. The Hutchinson children help with the lambing, including the gruesome task of dealing with still-born lambs.

What is so admirable about them is that they have an uncomplaining, unflinching attitude to a life that is

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harsh and elemental. I doubt whether they have recently visited their nearest gallery, the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle, or the Baltic at Gateshead. I also suspect that the issues which so exercise the post modern, post Christian urban élites: multiculturalism,
egalitarianism,
transnational progressivism (no borders), environmentalism, feminism and the rest of that plethora of right-on attitudes, don’t preoccupy them. For a start, they don’t have the /* xin2 */ time. Without wishing to patronise them, they probably believe that the acronym L.G.B.T. stands for a brand of sheep dip. All of this, in the opinion of the ‘enlightened’,

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particularly art world instrumentalists, makes them seriously uncool.

style="font-weight: 400;">How does one define ‘cool’? There are still people around who think that it’s a gently meandering style of jazz, but most of us know that it’s simply a matter //--> of a self-appointed élite determining what is

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acceptable and unacceptable. It’s a phenomenon which transcends ages and classes, from the tiny tyrant berating her parents for not recognising the world significance of ‘One Direction’ to the State Art apparatchik wincing as he patiently fields one’s less than enthusiastic reaction to a ‘challenging’ new installation. In Jonathon Rose’s brilliant google_ad_width = 970; book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, the anthropologist Mary Douglas describes it thus:

 

Art trends may have as brief a shelf life as stock exchange trends, and they depreciate rapidly if one fails to catch the latest wave in architecture, or literary theory. The names that Bohemia adopted for itself – avant-garde, advanced, progressive, le dernier cri, new wave, cutting edge, modernist, postmodernist – all reflect the Anxiety of Cool, the relentless struggle to get out in src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> front and control the production of new google_ad_height = 90; cultural information. Bohemia is ‘subversive’ only in that it seeks to wean consumers away from older cultural products in order to sell

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them new ones.

 

That description is one of brash economics but, of course, we’re all familiar with the broader pattern of Cool, the Godfather of which is Marcel Duchamp.

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the assailants Muslim men:

The refugee-immigrants come from the vast universe of sorrow and horror which

is the sexual misery of the Arab-Muslim world. The subjugation of women is the psychological Gordian knot at the core of the world of Allah, and hence the inspiration of the death cult that claims to defend it.

You can easily guess the reaction to that: an academic fatwa; and erstwhile friends telling him, with the greatest kindness, to stick to writing novels and, politically, to shut up. Our politicians, of course, favour the

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‘Religion of Peace’ narrative and as far as our art world is concerned, in contrast to the scathing visual indictments of Abu Ghraib how many denunciations of suicide, bombings, jihadist beheadings and the like can you think of? None? I can think of one. A couple of years ago in an exhibition in Rome I saw a small black singlet in the form
of a hijab presented by the Egyptian feminist Ghada Amer. Unsurprisingly she now lives in New York.

Another aspect of cool is the cult of novelty. I remember Lawrence Gowing back in the ’60s presenting the imperative to many young artists “to make it new”. At the time it worried me, being far too prescriptive. As someone

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who believes that originality should be involuntary rather than willed, I would have advised “Make it good”. Giles Auty in The Jackdaw was scathing in identifying the ‘novelty trap’ in which ‘ism’ inexorably succeeds ‘ism’ and thereby invalidates its predecessor. (Auty estimated that about 40 ‘isms’ occurred in the 20th century, each having about 2.25 years of life.) In his google_ad_width = 970; irreverent article he suggested that, according to the novelty narrative, “western art should be read /* xin-1 */ as a kind of art-historical relay race which culminates in the death of painting … because there are no more apparent avenues left to explore”, a

process which he maintained was “both spurious and infantile”. Astutely, he demonstrated how the art world had hijacked from science the rhetoric of progress with the consequence

that “One of the tasks of art is to provide people with companions. I have seen people in paintings who I hope to meet in the street one of these days…” How uncool can you get? src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> The Scottish prose-poet Nan Shepherd, ‘married’ one might say, to the Cairngorms, had a similar capacity for empathy. The ‘technoscape’ may //--> be cool but engaging with actual landscape is extraordinarily rewarding. Like Wordsworth in The Prelude,

of moral vanity akin to a religionist’s belief that only those of their faith or sect are capable of real virtue.”

Hard it may be for the quangocrats to grasp this, but there are thousands of people

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who live happy, fulfilled lives entirely without art. The irony is that the attempt of the Kulturkampf to dragoon people into an involvement with art is founded more upon a campaign of exclusion rather than inclusion. But to return to the Hutchinsons. My lingering image of the Addicted to Sheep documentary is of their eldest daughter, about 10 years old, sitting in the landscape making a painting by using her eyes – and making a pretty good fist of it (above).
All is not lost.

William Varley
The Jackdaw

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