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And a Proposal for Renewal

This history may have shocked you, it has shocked many who have visited my museum near Siena. It is clear that art historians are not doing the job we expect of them. They behave more like medieval theologians defending their faith than historians seeking the truth according to the evidence. Figurative artists in Britain are used to being described as “the wrong kind of artists”. I am trying to persuade you that art historians are on the whole - the wrong kind of people to dictate the course of art. Very much the wrong kind of people to decide who Rembrandt was: what works are his and which should be cast aside. Because of Rembrandt's colossal status these misconceptions have distorted the course of art for a century.

By the end of the 19th C it became clear that the artists practicing observation were much better critics of art than were the theoreticians. This embarrassing situation for the critics has been successfully side-stepped in modern times by the total eclipse of observed art from modern media and museums where theorists rule supreme. This situation has persisted for so long that I doubt there is a theoretician left and ever fewer modern artists who have anything useful to say about the study of the human figure; the most demanding of all subjects. Though there are still many artists who regard observation as their primary task, none have been accorded the prestige of the clowns and daubers promoted by the theorists. We have been in this position so long that few can remember those blessed epochs when artists' reputations depended on the opinion of their peers not on the critics' theories.

Art has been a distinguishing characteristic of mankind for over 40,000 years. If we are to understand ourselves the history of art matters. It matters to us all, not just artists or art historians. Art has been highly valued in the past because it has played an important role in our perception of the world about us. What we call fine art examines our sensations and tries to make sense of them. Art has been one of the chief ways in which we evaluate a civilisation and for good reason.

We can probably agree that having left art historians in charge of “encouraging the arts” the results are disappointing if not downright disgraceful. It is surely time for a root and branch revision of where we want to go with art.

I think we can learn from my experience that art history will not voluntarily reform itself. Meeting them one by one art historians seem civilised people but as an organisation they coalesce in defence of their group failures and that usually means a barricade of silence in the face of criticism; no discussion and certainly no change of mind.

Success in art depends on reputation and reputation today depends entirely on promotion in the media rather than talent or useful ideas. Many artists have succumbed to the rewards of conforming to the requirements of The Tate Gallery's “the right kind of artist”. They win the prizes get the exhibitions and dominate the reviews. They finally get bought by the museums; in terms of status and an ability to earn a living from their art, it will be found that the majority of those who have become rich through their art in Britain are darlings of the Arts Council & Tate Gallery; the rest have been promoted by Sacchi, the advertiser, master of promotion. Very few make it without this backing. This is not the way to promote civilisation. Even at the lower income level of teaching art, it is those that conform to modernist ideas who are rewarded. State funded art schools in Britain are uniformly ignoring traditional methods of teaching observation. Even craft teaching has suffered as a result.

Previous experience shows that the rebels against the status quo – the Impressionists, The Salon des Refusés, Cezanne, Van Gogh etc. were fighting the accepted ideas of their time. But today's rebels against tradition do so ironically with heavy government backing; our taxes supporting them. Naturally, the favoured few can be relied upon to support this madhouse that is their paymaster and protector. Many artists who are ignored by the critics are more talented and deserving than the so called “avantgard” as defined by the “experts”.

At present there is no effective way in which common sense can be brought to bear on the decisions of the establishment art hierarchy. They have noted that the rebels of yesteryear were regarded as mad and so have been pursuing a policy of promoting the outrageous. They have done this for so long that most normal people feel that they know nothing about art. Not only the man in the street but also those in government feel they have not the knowledge to intervene. They reason there must be something special in modern art if such high prices are paid for it. But art patronage has taken the place of roulette or racing for excitement. Without the control of a Jockey Club it naturally attracts the spinners and fraudsters. We passively accept the art of our times. We leave it in the hands of the unworthy who regale us with nonsensical “artbollocks” while enriching themselves and making the teaching of art all but impossible. This is certainly not the way towards a more civilised, united society.


There is a way forward. My recommendation is that we put artists back in charge of visual culture. There are many schools of thought in the arts. They scarcely speak to one another but most individuals could be inducted into one of a few separate schools. Abstract (hard and soft edge) Fantasy & Performance, Traditional Naturalists, Expressionist & Realist, for the purpose of exhibiting and propaganda..

Those who observe from nature do not get a chance under the present system. The establishment now regard the study of nature as mere imitation and therefore not “creative”. This attitude seems to me to be deeply flawed because it fails to recognise that every act of perception is necessarily creative: we are obliged to construct our world view from the patchy collection of sensations that come our way. It is the recognition of this central handicap of the human condition that the teaching of art should address. It is uniquely qualified to do so. Not that drawing can cure it but it can raise our awareness of the problem. The visual arts are constantly leaping the gap between our concepts and the reality they represent. I would argue that this is their most valuable role: the visual arts can make us aware of the richness of nature and the relative poverty of our conceptions. An artist's first efforts often need to be modified later with a fresh eye. These adjustments and corrections are a method of self-education for artists. The practice of art can rekindle the sensation that gave rise to a inadequate concept and increase its relevance. The progress of art used to be measured in these terms. We must learn again to distinguish between novelty and originality.

Left to themselves artists will certainly disagree. Therefore my proposal is to let each school of thought have a year or two to spend government money in turn. They would give the prizes and put on public shows from which they could make purchases for the state museums and ideally have their own separate schools to teach their particular approach. Soon critics would emerge as advocates for each separate school and the public could see there is much more choice available in the arts. It would be fairer and clearer and might therefore find the layman enthusiastic for the arts again. The results could not possibly be worse than the present state of art and it might well provide just the stimulus that has died in the hands of inadequate experts and cynical investment patrons who lack judgement. It is certainly time for a change.