William Varley: Art: Cool and Uncool

William Varley reviews Addicted to Sheep

So, as all 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 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 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 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’, particularly art world instrumentalists, makes them seriously uncool.

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 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 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 front and control the production of new cultural information. Bohemia is ‘subversive’ only in that it seeks to wean consumers away from older cultural products in order to sell 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.

Ad Reinhardt once remarked that all artists had to make a choice between Mondrian and Duchamp, between advocates of the hand- made, and those of the ready-made. As Jackdaw readers know, Duchamp, asserting that all art was mere taste, allegedly exhibited a urinal under the title of Fountain at the Armory Show in New York in 1913. Actually, as Jackdaw readers also know, that anarchic gesture was performed by one of his girlfriends as the Armory Show was ‘unselected’. Still, as someone who was intoxicated by word-play, puns and conceits, he was the epitome of the intellectual dandy. Apparently effortlessly, he invented kinetic art, optical art, conceptual art, and his great hermetic narrative, The Large Glass. Consolidating these innovations he left to allegedly mediocre followers.

His biographer Robert Lebel wrote that he regarded the ready-mades as sacralisation or transubstantiation. (How God-like is that?) However, “His real motive with them was to depreciate our ordinary and tacitly accepted notions of value in order to exalt the strictly private and sovereign choice which is accountable to no one. With the ready-mades”, said Lebel, “he meta-ironically demonstrated his incontestable power to be TAKEN AT HIS OWN WORD which is the unmitigated artist’s privilege.” You can see where that gets us: art is anything you say it is, a situation that leads inexorably to the empty stunts of the Turner Prize and the vulgar extravagances of the Pinault Collection. Still, for his loyal disciples in the State Art Establishment his reputation is unassailable. There have been notable heretics from the general orthodoxy though. In his book The Banquet Years, examining the pioneering days of Modernism, Roger Shattuck remarked that Duchamp’s strategy of ‘nominating’ useful objects to art status was “essentially self-consuming, a reversion to dead level after an initial shock.” More recently, in The Winter of our Culture, Jean Clair (real name Gérard Régnier) the former Director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, described Duchamp’s Armory Show as “works of provocation and derision presented by a cynical dandy”.

The High Priestess of Cool was, of course, Susan Sontag. During the ’60s and ’70s she was the doyenne of American intellectuals and in her seminal book Against Interpretation, she issued two decrees that in retrospect seem to have underpinned the visual art that developed afterwards. Attacking the discrimination between hierarchies of art as ‘philistine’, she effectively substituted a plateau view of culture for the existing pyramidal order. 

Henceforth, there was to be no qualitative distinction to be made between high and popular culture, art and entertainment. In this scenario, Elvis Presley could give Mozart a friendly wave across a level playing field. The ‘dumbing down’ consequences of this were, of course, appalling and eventually she could see it. She died 12 years ago, but shortly before her death she condemned ‘the triumph of a pernicious relativism.’

I am not prepared to say the satisfactions derived by art are no different structurally, in context, or in quality or in importance, from other kinds of satisfactions. I am not prepared to think that the satisfaction I might get in front of a Chardin, a Vermeer or a Vuillard is in any way similar to the satisfaction I would get watching a beautifully pitched baseball or inspecting a shoe collection.

Her recantation was welcome, but it was too little, too late: the damage to the impermeability of high culture had already been done.

The other hugely influential aspect of her ‘new sensibility’ was the idea (echoing Matthew Arnold perhaps) that art should concern itself with the moral criticism of life and be used as ‘a tool for changing consciousness’. Whether or not her writings were the cause or whether the true believers in an art for use developed their own ideology, in subsequent decades a veritable deluge of issues appeared. They mostly consisted of that left liberal menu of Goodthink favoured by the BBC that I’ve already mentioned: multiculturalism etc.. They are very useful for ‘virtue signalling’. “Let’s do the Holocaust”, artists would say, “or perhaps child abuse”. This is empty posturing, a bit like wearing Aids ribbons. It’s also about as far removed from Kathe Kollwitz’s nightmare visions as it’s possible to be. As the wife of a Berlin doctor Kollwitz knew poverty and illness at first hand. Her emotion was earned, not affected. Still, quangocrats and councillors who dole out funding love emotional incontinence. Current affairs and politics are things they can understand: the structural music of painting invariably remains a mystery to them. And insofar as they reinforce the fallacy that visual art is simply a medium or receptacle of a socio-political statement, it’s a godsend to those media hacks deputed to discuss them.

Some issues, however, are so uncool that they’re off limits. Take the case of Kamel Daoud, for instance. This distinguished Algerian (Muslim) novelist wrote an article in Le Monde in late January denouncing the wave of sexual assaults that had occurred during Cologne’s New Year’s Eve celebrations. He didn’t temporise, calling 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 ‘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 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 irreverent article he suggested that, according to the novelty narrative, “western art should be read 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 anyone who refused to embrace it was certifiably reactionary and uncool. Of course there are some exceptional exponents of hybrid media such as the prodigious William Kentridge, but the strategy of State Art is to impose novelty on a baffled public. Amongst that public there are some blasphemers, though. The late Henning Mankell believed 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? 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, she believed that “sustained contemplation of outer landscapes led to a subtle understanding of the spirit.” Her attitudes correspond almost exactly with those of several painters I respect. All of her senses were engaged when experiencing landscape and art, of course, should be enjoyed through the senses. She could smell the rain: so could Constable. (Those experiences and spiritual rewards are also shared by the Hutchinsons.)

When I reflect on State Art’s prioritising of novelty, however, I recall Andrew Brighton’s observations in Consumed by the Political in which he said, “The propagating of serious art amongst people who are relatively uneducated is an act of cultural aggression” and, emphasising the underlying totalitarianism of this ostensibly generous agenda suggested that, “The idea that people without art are lesser or inferior beings is a ridiculous assumption, a piece 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 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.