Laura Gascoigne: Institutional Rationalism – November 2020

Laura Gascoigne
November/December 2020

In the introduction to his 1951 book The Greeks and the Irrational, the classicist E R Dodds recalled a chance meeting in front of the Parthenon marbles with a young man who confessed: “This Greek stuff doesn’t move me one bit”. When Dodds asked him why, he replied: “Well, it’s all so terribly rational, if you know what I mean.” Dodds thought he did. “The young man was only saying what had been said more articulately by Roger Fry and others. To a generation whose sensibilities have been trained on African and Aztec art… the art of the Greeks… is apt to appear lacking in the awareness of mystery and in the ability to penetrate to the deeper, less conscious levels of human experience.”

The conversation inspired Dodds to write his influential collection of lectures demonstrating that the Greeks were not really rational at all but as prone to magical thinking as any other culture. What Dodds didn’t say – or didn’t notice – was that the brand of modernism practised by Roger Fry and others was hardly an example of penetrating to the deeper, less conscious levels of human experience. There was nothing irrational about the British interpretation of the modernist concept of significant form, but then British art – with the rule-proving exception of William Blake – has always tended towards the ploddingly rational.

I haven’t read Dodds’ book since I was a student, but its title came back to me when I visited the Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition Not Without My Ghosts at the Drawing Room. The show (which tours in different editions to Blackpool, Sheffield and Swansea) is a small survey of art inspired by spiritualism or allegedly made under direction from spirit guides, starting with a loopy watercolour drawing by the Victorian medium Georgiana Houghton, who counted Titian and Correggio among her celestial controllers. Believe that if you will. But setting its makers’ claims aside, the work itself – apart from a couple of stylised surrealist drawings by Tanguy and Masson – has a rare quality: freshness. Every artist’s approach is utterly different. To judge by their paintings the Pas-de-Calais coalminer Augustin Lesage and the Walthamstow housewife Madge Gill inhabited different planets, even though they were roughly contemporary and only separated by the same English Channel that European modernism so easily crossed.

Lesage and Gill are both accredited ‘outsider artists’ represented in Dubuffet’s collection of Art Brut, but not all the contributors to this show were untrained. The historical section includes a visionary portrait of The Spirit of Voltaire by Blake and an astonishingly accomplished evocation of the stuff of nightmares by Austin Osman Spare, a working class prodigy who won a scholarship to the Royal College, caught the occultist bug from Aleister Crowley and languished on the margins ever after. Neither Blake nor Spare were technically outsiders, they were simply too irrational to fit in.

The show’s second half features contemporary artists inspired by the idea of spiritualism rather than the experience, aside from Susan Hiller whose Sisters of Menon series records an attack of automatic writing. Lea Porsager has repainted illustrations from a 1901 investigation into clairvoyance; Ann Lislegaard has made drawings under hypnosis; Olivia Plender has recast a seminal spiritualist text of the 1860s as a graphic novel. The records of a séance held last January by Suzanne Treister to contact an imaginary Museum of Black Hole Spacetime Collective in outer space are more entertaining, but none of the imagery is visually arresting. The only exceptions are two paintings by Ann Churchill, a self-taught artist inspired by Spare whose vibrant, tapestry-like works are packed with esoteric meanings.

The Hayward could be onto a winner here. While the South Bank gallery lays off all its front-of-house staff and shuts for the winter after the closure of its exhibition Among the Trees (emptier on a weekday than any London park) I’ve got a feeling people will flock to this touring show. The public loves mad artists, especially when they’re safely six feet under. The Guggenheim scored a succès fou two years ago with its retrospective of Swedish spirit artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), which broke all attendance records at the New York gallery and spawned a follow-up film released this October. Like Blake and Spare, af Klint was a trained artist who went off piste after becoming involved in spiritualism and is now being hailed as a female pioneer of abstraction. Rational male abstractionists can expect recognition in their lifetimes; irrational women must wait until they’re dead.

I wonder how visitor figures for Not Without My Ghosts will compare with footfall in our reopened national galleries, running at 12% of normal levels according to DCMS summer stats. An investigation by The Art Newspaper in September found that 70% of the National Gallery’s booking slots still had vacancies the day before and 100% of Tate Britain’s. It’s hardly surprising if people won’t risk infection to visit galleries. Applying the Covid-test to exhibition visits only proves, if proof were needed, that for most people the consumption of art is not a priority, let alone a matter of life and death. Even Bendor Grosvenor admitted in September’s Art Newspaper that his enjoyment of pictures at the Covid-proofed National Gallery was spoiled by fear. “I recoiled at every cough echoing through the galleries… I felt I was in an alien place – more well-appointed hospital than museum”. His fears were justified; he contracted Covid and made his admission from isolation.

I know how he felt. I’m picking and choosing my exhibitions; while prepared to risk my life for Artemisia Gentileschi, I missed the press view of the Royal Academy’s delayed Summer Exhibition. I couldn’t face the prospect of wading through room after room of routine works rendered obsolete by Covid. Ben Luke in the Evening Standard confessed to finding the usual submissions “oddly comforting”; I feared I would find them more than usually depressing. Jackdaw readers will probably throw up their hands in horror when I confess to having preferred Grayson Perry’s 2018 selection of nutters, but the public agreed and went in record-breaking numbers. With a deficit of 400 Bad Request £8m and the Taddei Tondo under threat of the hammer, it was a success the RA may want to repeat.

As Dodds argues in support of the irrational, human beings don’t just think, we also feel. Galleries would be far more popular with the public if they dropped the institutional rationalism: what most people want from exhibitions is to be surprised, amused, moved, intrigued, shocked, even disgusted – anything that provokes an emotional response.

They don’t want an endless diet

400 Bad Request

of representational painting, but neither do they want the sort of socio-political commentary dressed as art that won this year’s Turner Prize finalists bursaries of £10,000 each. Art made to any formula is formulaic: it needs a dose of irrationalism to liven it up.

We’re living in an arsy-versy world in which rationalism has taken over art and abandoned politics. But here’s a suggestion: why not let the Turner Prize winners run the country and give Dominic Cummings a pot of paint and a brush? He has the classic profile of the mad artist – angry, rude and monomaniac – and his track tops would look much cooler spattered with paint. Then Dom could channel fellow slaphead Jackson Pollock while Boris made outsider-arty buses out of wine crates and filled them with little passengers wearing face masks. Sorted.