No More Bling on the Bone

Opening Kandinsky in Govan: Art, Spirituality, and the Future, at the Pearce Institute, curator Alastair McIntosh cited Damien Hirst’s piece ‘For the Love of God’ as an example of the degenerate state of the contemporary art world. The piece, a cast of a human skull encrusted with over 8000 diamonds, cost £14 million to produce. The obscenity of the cost of such ‘bling on bone’ as it was called by performance artist Nic Green, is keenly felt in a place like Govan where  under-funded community arts projects face a constant struggle to survive. Hirst is an easy target and yet it was brought home again and again over the weekend, the disparity of investment in art for the elite and in art for local communities.

Inequality is nothing new of course, but given recent world events and the continuing unfolding of economic collapse, it seemed timely to participate in a conference whose aim was to challenge the role of art in our society. In his address McIntosh was unequivocal, condemning “elite pretentious art that is up its own backside” and calling instead for “art as service”, that “can speak in places of poverty.”

The conference used as a focus the centenary of the publication of Wassily Kandisky’s treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, in which he rejects the “nightmare of materialism” and calls for an art “which springs from the soul”. Kandinsky is a defining figure in modern art, and this is a key text in shaping its philosophy, and yet his charge that “the artist must have something to say”, and that “mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning”, seems to have been forgotten. When we look now at the self-aggrandisement of some of our contemporary artists, it is also clear that they no longer heed Kandinsky’s insistence that the artist must “gauge his position aright, to realise that he has a duty to his art and to himself, that he is not the king of the castle but rather a servant of a nobler purpose.”

One of the keynote speakers, American artist Rick Visser, took up this theme of ‘inner necessity’, suggesting with a wry smile that “offering something to the world has a somewhat different tone than ‘getting a one-man show'”. Visser rejects careerism, insisting that the challenge for today’s artists is to help “bring sanity to the world.” It might have been possible to dismiss such high ideals if the conference had been held in the padded environment of a university or art college, but we were in Govan and a tour of the The Galgael Trust was a visceral reminder of the positive and vital role that art, and the making of art, can play in bringing about just such a sanity.

On Saturday morning, Professor Harry Burns, Chief Medical Officer of Scotland, addressed the conference. It was rare and heartening to hear from someone in such a position speak so passionately about the role that art and culture can play in helping to heal damaged communities. Not only that, but to hear him insist that such culture should be developed from within those communities rather than imposed by an elite. Professor Burns demonstrated again and again the link between psychological and physical well-being, and how that link should be taken into account when addressing the nation’s health. There was no doubting his sincerity, and it will be interesting to see how such a viewpoint influences public policy.

‘Kandinsky in Govan’ was not about seeking consensus. Art will always divide opinion, especially between those who believe that the artist’s role is to follow her inspiration, wherever it may lead and no matter how abstract or impenetrable the outcome, and those who insist that art should serve the common good. What is clear however is that many artists, or at least those who are promoted in our mainstream media, have lost sight of the notion of ‘artist as servant’. Rick Visser provided a telling quote by the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky. In his book Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky  writes:

Modern art has taken a wrong turn in abandoning the search for meaning of existence in order to affirm the value of the individual for its own sake. What purports to be art begins to look like an eccentric occupation for suspect characters who maintain that any personalised action is of intrinsic value simply as a display of self will.

That the above quote continues to define the contemporary art scene is a cause for dismay; but that such a scene should be challenged so passionately by some artists and activists and policy makers, is a cause for hope. A century on from Kandinsky’s era, once again the world faces a period of turmoil. Tom Block, another American artist and writer who travelled to Govan to speak at the conference, had this to say:

Every era of human development represents a time of profound crisis […] Although all of the crises appear factual and ominous within the worldview of a particular time period, the human test is ultimately an ongoing, psycho-spiritual one […] What is called for is a positive response to the interior confusion of being human, in a time of calamity.

As an advocate and practitioner of what he calls ‘prophetic activist art’, Block suggested that it is not enough to pick at the “scabrous wounds of the human condition”, insisting that art must also inspire, that it must “provide creative responses to specific social ills.”

This seems to me to reach to the heart of the matter. We are saturated by art that ‘picks at the scabs’, that pushes our capacity for revulsion; and whilst the violence of such work may be cathartic for the artist, where does it leave the audience? And more importantly, where is the counter-balance? Curtis White in his powerful book The Barbaric Heart notes that “second perhaps only to toxic landscapes, the most thoroughly degraded aspect of our culture is its art.” The book explores the  self-serving violence and aggression at the core of capitalism, and proposes a deceptively simple response: beauty. This might seem glib, or hopelessly naive, and yet if you ask someone in Govan what kind of art they might wish for,what kind of art would most speak to the needs of these times, I doubt they’d wish for the ‘shock and awe’ of the contemporary art scene.

I’m not so naive to suggest that art, or ‘beauty’, can heal the world’s woes. It has its part to play however, by providing vision and inspiration as part of a transformative process. ‘Kandinsky in Govan’ embodied that ideal both in its content and in the context of its setting: an ambitious, internationally significant conference held at a local community venue, the Pearce Institute, in a working class area of Glasgow. The gathering mixed renowned Russian art scholars, diplomats, and policy makers, with local artists, community activists, and residents. It felt reciprocal.

The Centre for Human Ecology, now based at the Pearce Institute, organised the event and the conference was a successful measure of how that body, approaching it’s 40th year, is redefining itself and its role. I look forward to more from them and from the fledgling Govan Folk University.

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  1. trevor campbell says:

    It was a remarkab event filled with hope, peace and passion. Well done to Alsitair McIntosh and his team AND BC for helping to promote it.



  2. Ray Bell says:

    “an example of the degenerate state of the contemporary art world” – Where have I heard that phrase “degenerate art” before?!

    I believe the cutting edge of art is in corn fields and on city walls just now.

  3. Blaming the artists for the ills of capitalism seems to me a bit like blaming public sector pensions for the budget deficit. It’s too easy a target and it lets the real villains off the hook.
    Isn’t there an irony that most people outside the arts world would, despite all his statements, bracket Kandinsky’s art alongside Hirst’s as equally ‘degenerate’? (and I say that as a lifelong Kandinsky fan). Like Ray Bell I’m very uncomfortable with the word ‘degenerate’, and equally uncomfortable with the idea that the role of art is to search for the meaning of existence, which seems a narrowly Romantic concept that most artists, now and throughout history, would not have identified with.

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