*The first line of a poem by Tom Leonard, the last in his sequence
Situations Theoretical and Contemporary, from his Reports from the Present
SELECTED WORK 1982-94
(Jonathan Cape, London, 1985).
This text comes from a talk delivered at a lecture to students of art
at Glasgow School of Art in November 1996.
At the age of 15 I had vague notions about art but it was music that excited
me. We were listening to people like Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Del Shannon,
the Everley Brothers, and into my sixteenth year The Beatles exploded
the scene, then bands like The Animals, Them, The Stones, and local bands
doing similar stuff here in Glasgow, the Poets, the Blues Council, the
Pathfinders, Alex Harvey and so on. The major influence was blues but
allied to this was country and western music; these musicians had a massive
impact on Great Britain and Ireland during the late 1950s, early 1960s.
They sang of their own existence, in their own voice, from their own emotion,
whether rage, hatred or love. At the root of what they were about was
self respect, and they had assumed the right to create art. This I see
as the essential thing the young working class musicians in this country
were learning. In literature if anything similar was taking place I knew
nothing about it. I continued reading, aside from the lives of the Impressionists
which I'll refer to later, it was mainly American literature. Stories
about pioneering communities, gamblers and rounders; boys who liked horses
and wanted to be jockeys or newspapermen; tramps, cowboys, gangsters;
small towns and big cities. All were rooted in a life that was recognisable,
more or less, the lived-in, the everyday.
One thing these fictional characters held in common was that they were
not having the life snuffed out of them by an imposed hierarchy. It was
a breath of fresh air. The English Literature I had access to through
the normal channels is what you might call state-education-system-influenced
reading material. People from communities like mine were rarely to be
found on these pages. When they were they were usually categorised as
servants, peasants, criminal 'elements', semi-literate drunken
louts, and so on; shadowy presences left unspecified, often grouped under
terms like 'uncouth rabble', 'vulgar mob', 'the
great unwashed'; 'lumpen proletariat', even 'riotous
Equally significant for myself was a strain in European literature that
asserted the primacy of the world as perceived and experienced by individual
human beings. These individual human beings were mainly government clerks
or mixed-up members of some kind of minor land-owning class. It was a
society far removed from my own, both in place and time. But for some
reason I could read the work of these 19th century writers, mainly Russian,
with a definite empathy. Gogol and Dostoevski made me chuckle in ways
that seem a contradiction in terms in respect of mainstream English Literature.
Irony requires some sort of a mutual recognition of selfhood, and I was
not excluded from it. English literature did not allow this, people like
myself were a sub-species and generally excluded by definition.
So it was from an admixture of these two literary traditions, the European
Existential and the American Realist, allied to British rock music, that
I reached the age of 22 in the knowledge that certain rights were mine.
It was up to me what I did. I had the right to create art. Not that I
thought in these terms, I just wanted to write stories. But I didn't
have to write as if I was somebody not myself (eg. an imagined member
of the British upper-middle-classes). Nor did I have to write about characters
striving to become other persons (eg. imagined members of the British
upper-middle-classes). I could sit down with my pen and paper and start
doing stories of my own, from myself, the everyday trials and tribulations;
my family, my boss, the boy and girl next door; the old guy telling yarns
at the factory; whatever. It was all there. I was privy to the lot. There
was no obligation to describe, explain or define myself in terms of class,
race or community. I didn't have to prove anything. And nor did I
have to prove anything about the people roundabout me, my own culture
and community. In spite of dehumanising authority they existed as entire
human beings; they carried on with their lives as though 'the forces
of evil' did not exist. My family and culture were valid in their
own right, this was an intrinsic thing, they were not up for evaluation.
And neither was my work, not unless I so chose. Self respect and the determination
of self, for better or for worse. Most of this was intuitive, but not
It was the same existential tradition in literature that is also a point
of departure for some materialist strains of left-wing thought which,
ultimately, are as authoritarian as the right-wing. These ideologies also
debase and dehumanise individual existence, forcing people into 'the
scheme of things', not allowing them the freedom to live as whole
beings. Unlike fantasy and romance 'committed' artists here
reveal their commitment in their work - their particular form of socialism
or whatever - as a function of its representation or approximation
to 'the real world', i.e. naturalism, or 'social realism'
so-called. Stories, paintings, music, drama and so on are duty-bound to
concern 'the harsh reality', i.e. the effects of, and the struggle,
against the capitalist system. The central characters rarely have time
to tell a joke, fall in love, get drunk or visit the lavatory, although
sometimes they are allowed to visit museums, libraries and art galleries,
or do evening classes with a view to 'bettering' themselves.
The establishment demands art from its own perspective but these forms
of committed art have always been as suffocating to me as the impositions
laid down by the British State, although I should point out of course
that I am a socialist myself. I wanted none of any of it. In prose fiction
I saw the distinction between dialogue and narrative as a summation of
the political system; it was simply another method of exclusion, of marginalising
and disenfranchising different peoples, cultures and communities. I was
uncomfortable with 'working class' authors who allowed 'the
voice' of higher authority' to control narrative, the place
where the psychological drama occurred. How could I write from within
my own place and time if I was forced to adopt the 'received'
language of the ruling class? Not to challenge the rules of narrative
was to be coerced into assimilation, I would be forced to write in the
voice of an imagined member of the ruling class. I saw the struggle as
towards a self-contained world. This meant I had to work my way through
language, find a way of making it my own.
When I was making my first stories it didn't occur to me that I was
breaching linguistic and social taboos. My only concern was how to enter
into my own world, how to make use of myself, my own experience, my own
culture and community, and so on. Time was short and energy limited. I
was having to earn a living; myself and my wife were bringing up two kids.
So necessity informed my working practices, my creative methods. The problem
of 'the blank page' or 'writers' block' only
really arises when you have certain freedoms, perhaps essentially economic.
Eventually I had as a project to write a group of stories set wholly in
Glasgow, that self-contained Glasgow, not subject to the yays or nays
of ruling authority. I got into the habit of evaluating my own work, training
myself to recognise when a story was finished as well as it could be finished,
when it was working and when it was not working. I didn't need outside
opinion, although when it came it was always welcome, even my first criticism
when I was about 25, that I used "the language of the gutter"
and whereas I was free to do whatever I wanted I was certainly not free
to thrust this language in the face of other people. I've spoken
about this elsewhere and won't go on about it. Instead I'll
read a poem by Tom Leonard, from his sequence Situations Theoretical and
And their judges spoke with one dialect,
but the condemned spoke with many voices.
And the prisons were full of many voices,
but never the dialect of the judges.
"No one is above the Law."
There is a notion that art is sacrosanct and it is a dubious notion; there
is also the notion that the practise of art is sacrosanct which is just
nonsense. If you explore that notion more deeply I think you'll find
that the only context in which it has meaning is political, it implies
hierarchy, it assumes freedom for some and economic slavery for others;
for some there is the luxury of time, not having to worry about how to
get by in the world, you can be a free spirit, it is your right as an
artist, you are set loose from the everyday trials and tribulations of
an ordinary person because first and foremost you are not an ordinary
person, with all the diverse responsibilities which that might entail,
you are an Artist. It is part of the same myth, or disinformation, that
as a young artist you should take it for granted that by working hard
and by doing things properly economic necessity will be borne away, as
if by magic on a high breeze - or perhaps on a mighty zephyr, us artists
talk a different language from other people.
Maybe the only artists who ever talk about the sanctity of art and its
practice in that manner either have a form of private income or are earning
good money, perhaps by teaching art or else maybe they have managed to
cut adrift of their adult obligations, perhaps by choosing to remain adolescents,
perhaps by moving into voluntary exile, which is something most artists
dream about at some point or another. It's better not to discuss
artists who are forced into exile. In fact it wouldn't surprise me
if the study of such artists is being withdrawn quietly from the national
curriculum, if it was ever on it, since it might tempt students into pondering
over the British State and its relation to people who try to seek safety
in exile, asylum-seekers is what they are called.
The most contemporary example might be Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer
who was murdered by the Nigerian State authorities several months ago.
I strongly recommend his work, read his novel Soza Boy, also what he says
about his use of English in the author's note at the beginning. Part
of what the authorities found so objectionable was his commitment to his
own culture, that of the 0goni people. What would have happened if this
artist had arrived incognito and unannounced in Britain seeking sanctuary
to continue practising his art? Would he have escaped being sent back
to the torturers and murderers, and kept here pending a decision? Would
he have survived the prison chosen for him by our Heathrow immigration
authorities pending that decision? 0r would he have been found dead in
a British cell, suffocated in mysterious circumstances, cause unknown?
0r would the Home Secretary and the British Government make a special
case for him because he was not only a well-known writer but supported
by Amnesty International?
Imagine the education authorities did allow a proper study of the work
of contemporary artists-in-exile, all those exiled in London at this very
moment in time. 0r better still imagine the art establishment held a genuine
Best of British art exhibition, open to any artist domiciled in Britain,
artists from the Middle East, Africa, the Sub-Continent, Turkey, Kurdistan,
South East Asia, anywhere at all. I'm sure the specialist-art-authorities
would have no hesitation in selecting the work on its merits. Would they
have to conceal the difficult bits, the political bits, and the political
bits are the biographical bits, the lives of these artists are a political
issue? Then too we might have to look at bits that focus on the collusion
between this country and the despotic regimes that sent these people into
exile in the first place.
Of course us artists are not supposed to talk about political issues,
we are too idealistic, we don't have a firm enough grasp on reality. We
are supposed to leave that to the responsible adults, those who aren't
artists. Obviously it's not only artists who are required by the
State to be children, it applies across the board: as a working rule the
only folk capable of making proper judgments are Cabinet ministers, certain
members of parliament and the house of Lords, certain members of the State
and certain media-commentators. The rest of us allow our judgment to be
impaired, clouded by sentiment etc.
But being an artist is not a licence to remain an adolescent for the rest
of your life. Some of the mythology surrounding art gives us to understand
that a special case is made for those who create poetry, music, paintings,
stories, drama etc. - whatever the media - that artists are allowed
to remain children. Either that or we are forced to remain children; it
occasionally seems like that this is what society requires of its artists,
in one way or another, that we remain children. But I'm an adult
human being and if I want to express an opinion then I'll express
it. I'm not going to enjoy it if my opinion is downgraded simply
because I'm a story-teller or artist. It's quite remarkable
really the different ways whereby the State requires its artists to suck
dummytits, even when we're walking with the aid of zimmers, like
kids we are to be seen and not heard.
Some of the points I'm raising here were never clearer than during
the turmoil surrounding the European City of Culture carry on. Here to
my mind was a classic example of the exploitation of art and artists.
It's still a taboo subject. 0ne is not supposed to mention it, just
recall it hazily, but with affection, as the time our ayn wee city of
Glasgow made it onto the international map. Anything is justified because
of that. Look at the publicity the city got! It was only five years ago
and already it's a sort of legend, a mythical kind of thing, mythical
in the sense that it isn't open to analysis, not available for critical
examination, not then and not now. If you attempt such a thing you're
a boring spoilsport.
But it was definitely a classic exercise in respect of how art and artists
are regarded by the authorities, with a mixture of contempt, distrust
and fear. Once again we were children, usually spoiled brats. Those of
us who refused to stand up and sing our party-piece for the visiting adults
were sent to bed without a chocolate biscuit. The authorities were unsure
how the visitors treated their own naughty children. However some of them
lost their temper and gave us a smack in public. The city's PR team,
including most media commentators, responded in mitigation, and with one
or two exceptions they took great pains in pointing to how naughty we
were, how sorely we had tried the patience of the adult authorities, didn't
we appreciate the embarrassment we spoilsports were causing? Surely we
knew it was all for our own good, we didn't even have the wit to see this,
not knowing which side our bread was buttered, how could we be so disloyal,
but that's to be expected of artists, their selfishness is a byword,
they luxuriate in their perpetual infancy, their rosy-hued idealism, meanwhile
us adults must enter bravely into the real world, the world of the everyday,
the world of compromise and necessity, if the good old adult authorities
didn't get their hands dirtied why then all us artist-children would be
in a right pickle and the amazing thing is we wouldn't even know
it, because the world of adult-authority is mysterious and secretive and
beyond the ken of infants.
There was another approach to us artists, this one was utilitarian; it
appealed both to our sensibilities and to our reasonableness. Okay the
politicians and paid arts administration, the so-called cultural workforce,
might make mistakes but it's always well-intentioned and in the interests
of everybody, and come on for Christ sake nobody's perfect. We all
know how crass it all is but play along, don't rock the boat, you might
get something out of it, some kind of commission maybe, a chocolate biscuit,
a year's supply even, who knows, if not now in the long run, and
if you don't maybe some other artists will, you might even know some
In this scenario the then leader of the district council was portrayed
as mister happy-go-lucky, a well-meaning kind of simpleton, but one who
not only had a heart of gold, he was a patriot, he loved his Glasgow,
he might make a wrong move now and again but it's all for the good
of the cause, above all he loves his ayn wee city.
And okay, what if he is a Philistine, at least he is an unashamed card-carrying
one. And anyway, while we're on the subject, surely the preciousness
and pomposity of artists needs a good smack in the face now and again
and this is what the leader of the district council is doing, he is showing
all you artists up for the bunch of arty wankers you really are. Yeh,
that too was in there. We were being asked to show solidarity with the
politicians and arts administration either because it was in our own best
personal interest, the best interests of artists in general, or the best
interests of the city itself. In this utilitarian argument art had nothing
to do with it, art was kept out of it. And in a sense this was a paradigm
of the Year of Culture, art had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Never
mind that it was precisely art as the product of individual people that
was being highjacked and ripped off so mightily. The artists were being
asked to conceal or disown their existence, all for the good of the cause.
Part of the underlying thinking behind the authorities' strategy
was that if such a thing as art does exist then it certainly isn't being
created in Glasgow although for some peculiar reason foreigners see things
differently. I can't resist that classic line from the former leader
of the council, now the proud recipient of Glasgow's highest office,
the present Lord Provost, to paraphrase: I might not know what art is
but I'll milk it for all it's worth.
It's always interesting to see how the various State authorities
try to separate not only living-artists from society but art itself. The
educational system is one such authority, a crucial instrument of the
state. Think of the resources, economic and intellectual, all that time
and energy, being spent or wasted in spurious discourse, spurious activity.
Areas of academic endeavour are actually devoted to theories of art where
we learn that the text or artwork is all that matters, forget the artists
who created the thing, their lives are unimportant, forget too the social
conditions in which they worked, such things are irrelevant. When it comes
to art with a capital A it makes no difference whether an artist is a
multi-billionaire landowner or some poor bastard dying of malnutrition,
let's examine the work. As responsible art critics we learn to establish
proper criteria, objective criteria. (Note that art-critics are always
responsible by definition.) As responsible and mature art critics we can
award the artwork marks out of ten as a function of our unbiased and objective
evaluative criteria, once we have done this we may wonder, if we are so
inclined, whether or not the artist led an easy life, or if the society
in which he moved was difficult or not, but it is unimportant, for we
can both recognise and evaluate beauty wherever we find it, in a sewer
or a gilded palace. All that kind of shit.
The fundamental issue concerns their own criteria. Never mind what they
are, where do these criteria come from? They have to come from somewhere.
The thing is they don't come from anywhere. There is no ultimate evaluative
criteria. It just seems that way, that there are criteria within society
that somehow exist a priori, like god; unchanging, immutable, eternally
fixed. And just like that whole set of priests, rabbis, mullahs and ministers
these specialist-critics and expert-judges - those who bestow the final
verdict - they do so from a position of absolute authority. We have
to take their judgment on trust, the validity of the criteria is not up
for discussion. We are to have faith in the specialist-art-critics because
their integrity is vouchsafed by an Unimpeachable Source.
But what is the source? Well, that should go without saying. If you persist
in such questioning you show a marked breach of faith. There is a stage
where even the most skeptical among us are obliged to bow the head not
in sullen silence but in silent reverence.
The people who come armed with these special criteria always have the
final word, because authority is invested in them. Aye but who invested
authority in them? The wisest authorities in the land, a tiny but dedicated
circle of men and women who are expert in every field imaginable, not
only that but they have the qualifications to prove it. Aye but what qualifications?
Many qualifications, a veritable plethora of qualifications. Who says
so? And what kind of qualifications are they? Who do they 'show' them
to? Where do they get them?
Older people here will remember the minor furore caused in a West Highland
town a few years back when they held a festival of The Best 0f British
Music. The organisers were good at publicity and managed to get press
releases carried in most of the national media. When the programme for
the festival was released people up and down the country were amazed to
find that only music composed by local musicians had been selected. That's
right, with the freedom to choose from anywhere in the land the Best of
British festival was entirely composed by musicians based in the town
itself. This caused a real stramash. The national media arrived in force.
They discovered the selection-panel consisted of only one man, some local
The pressure mounted till eventually it couldn't be ignored by the
authorities; an enquiry was set-up, headed by a committee of three 'specialist-judges'
from the art establishment department of music. What they wanted to know
was firstly where the funding for this so-called national festival came:
was it just local private money or did the cash come from the public purse,
from the Scottish Arts Council or even god help us from the Arts Council
of Great Britain? The next thing they did was find out about the local
guy, the so-called judge. What were his qualifications and where exactly
did he get them? Was it just some kind of music diploma from his local
secondary school or what? They discovered he hadn't gone to the Royal
College of Music in Scotland, never mind the one down in London and when
they went to examine his credentials they couldn't find any. Next they
tried to examine the criteria by which the guy had arrived at his final
selection but that proved impossible and what little they did pick up
they just couldn't make head nor tail of them, the criteria the guy
used. After that they had a quick listen to the selected compositions
but that didn't help matters at all, most of it seemed to be 'West-Highland-town-type
music', in the words of one of the specialist-art-judges. (He later
apologised for his lack of clarity on that one but said he didn't
know how else to describe it.)
At last the specialist-art-judges approached the organisers and told them
their man had no qualifications at all, they had checked his credentials,
all of that, he just wasn't qualified, not only that but the guy had never
been further south than Dalmally in his life, never more north than the
Kyle of Lochalsh.
But the organisers defended their judge and insisted on the validity of
the guy's selection, that it was both unbiased and objective. They
backed him all the way. According to them he had a great ear and was scrupulously
fair, it was traditional too, it ran in his family, his father and his
father before him, they had been unbiased judges as well. And their township
needs this kind of honest, unbiased criticism because it's also a
port and ferries arrive daily, it's a cosmopolitan place. And then
they flummoxed the specialist-art-judges; never mind his qualifications,
they said, what about yours? I bet yous've never even been to the
town. And they were right. None of three 'specialist-art-judges'
had ever set foot in the place although occasionally they flew over it
on their way to art conferences in Canada or Iceland.
There was a similar sort of rumpus happened over an exhibition of contemporary
European Art which took place in France, I forget which city, maybe it
was Paris. This time there was a panel of genuine attested art-critics
making the selection. But the explosion here was that not one solitary
piece of work by any living French artist was chosen. Imagine that, none
of the art being created by the French community was judged good enough
for the exhibition. It was extraordinary. It was said at the time by many
French people that their country's art might not be good enough for
Europe but it was certainly good enough for them. Never mind the European
community they said, French art is good enough for the French community.
But not everybody agreed, a few French art experts went along with the
panel of judges and issued a statement to the effect that French artists
should work harder in future so that they might bring their art up to
scratch, scratch being the European standard, whatever that happened to
be at the time.
I'm speaking today as a writer of fiction of course. But here's
another example that isn't fiction:
During the European City of Culture in 1990 there was an exhibition of
British Art held in Glasgow. The director of museums and art galleries
was responsible and he caused much controversy when he excluded the work
of certain local artists. He is reported to have done so on the grounds
that their work wasn't good enough.
A very interesting comment from someone holding such an office. Let's
assume that his motives were unimpeachable and that he approached the
task of selection in a scrupulously fair manner. Let's also assume there
was no political pressure coming from the team at George Square. Nor were
there any sort of 'quota issues' involved, and I mean by this
that if in the director's own considered opinion there had been no
home-based artwork 'good enough' then nothing by the city's artists would
have been chosen at all, as in the French example. As far as I know the
possibility that he might choose nothing at all by local artists wasn't
referred to by the director but in the context of this argument it is
surely implicit, if not the argument is spurious. And we would just have
to lump it. Top officials are often forced to make painful decisions which
we might not like but which are always for our own good in the long run.
It's no good us hiding our head in the sand, if our art isn't
good enough then why not admit reality and just try and improve it so
that one day we can be acceptable at a national level. I mean I can imagine
an exhibition of The Best of Contemporary World Art being held in Houston,
Texas where we find empty galleries, the judges having decided that none
of the art submitted was of a high enough standard. Fortunately for the
administrators of the European City of Culture embarrassment was avoided,
artwork by certain Glasgow--based artists was considered 'good enough'
by the director.
Amidst all the nonsense I'm trying to draw attention to a couple
of problems with these 'not good-enough' and 'best-of'
arguments, that distinctions have to be drawn between the art of a community
and the art of a community-at-large. I'm saying that the value of
the art of a community seems to be a function of an extended community.
We are forced to have our art evaluated relative to what takes place,
in this wider community. 0ur art is not judged on its own merits. Yet
once we actually look at this wider community we find it isn't really
very wide at all; in fact it's toty, it's toty and it's
exclusive, it's restricted to the values of the elite group of people
who form the controlling interest of this country. What you find is that
our society is premised on the assumption that the criteria by which art
is evaluated within this elite group are the only criteria which truly
matter. These criteria are the same criteria by which all art thought
worthy of the name is evaluated throughout the entire country. Artwork
from different cultures and communities cannot have intrinsic aesthetic
value. It may have merit on a relative scale (which is minor by definition)
but it has no aesthetic value in its own right. 0nly when measured by
the standards of the elite culture, judged by its criteria alone, can
the artwork of particular cultures be awarded authentic value. Every culture
in the land is subject to it, subordinate to its standards, controlled
by those who are trained to affirm it whether by birth, adoption or assimilation.
But since this elite group controls most everything else anyway it should
go without saying. So much so that it's seldom said at all. And only then
by those outwith the controlling-group; fringe-people, social-misfits,
failures, folk with chips-on-their-shoulders; conspiracy-theorists, provincials,
racists, fundamentalists, nationalists, radicals, subversives, extremists,
Obviously I'm not saying that somebody who takes control of a community's
museums and art galleries must be born and bred within the community itself.
Nor am I even suggesting that s/he has to have an intimate knowledge and
understanding of a community's particular cultural traditions. It's
just that by adopting this argument for the exclusion of certain local
artists the criteria used by him, these pertaining to a wider cultural
standard, some sort of greater conceptual base, these criteria cannot
recognise the inherent value of the art of a particular community. The
crucial point for Glaswegians about the "not good-enough" controversy
was that here we have somebody in charge of a community's museums and
art galleries, number one authority in control of the history, traditions
and cultural inheritance of the city, and he seems not to understand,
even intuitively, that aesthetic value is intrinsic to the art of any
community, any community at all.
The argument also allows and makes use of another hierarchy-based fallacy,
that the artwork produced within one culture is superior to that of another.
Now it might well be possible that the artwork produced by one culture
is 'better' than that of another. That's fine by me. I'm wary of
folk who adopt relativist positions; it usually means they won't
take criticism. But what I do want to know is the criteria used to establish
value. Surely it's not too much to ask of our finely matured art
Maybe people with an interest in other areas of Scottish life will see
parallels. Why, for instance, is there no national theatre in this country?
Is Scottish theatre not good enough to warrant such a thing? What do we
mean when we say of a country that its theatre isn't 'good enough'?
Is it possible for somebody brought up in Scotland to make such a statement?
Maybe. I'm not saying it isn't, not necessarily, I just want
to know about the criteria, what criteria are being applied, how is the
evaluation being made, who the hell is making that judgment?
It became clear to me early on that writing stories did not offer a living,
and no matter how much I resented this it was stupid to blame it on my
partner. It wasn't her fault that the thing I gave most of my time
and sweat to had no economic value. If I felt like changing the World
then at the same time I would have to work it so that the burden of looking
after the children didn't fall solely on my partner's shoulders.
I didn't expect her to have three economic burdens, the two children
and myself. And I remember discussing this many years ago with Tom Leonard
and with Alasdair Gray, that if you couldn't be both a parent and
a writer then maybe there was something wrong with being a writer. It's
a perennial discussion for most artists, I was chatting about it as recently
as last month with an 84 year old woman, the American writer Tillie 0lsen.
Some of you may know of her, she has written one of the seminal works
of this century on creativity, it's entitled Silences, and I recommend
it here and now to anyone who hasn't read it.
The way I'm talking might sound like a denigration of art, it isn't.
But we have to be able to see art in the context of society as it exists,
it cannot be separated from it. Art is not an eternal verity. Let us take
it as given that life without art is so unthinkable that it may as well
be a contradiction in terms of what it is to be a human being. But when
all is said and done art is created by human beings, by people; and people
live in societies of people. I'm not speaking as an art historian
but as a practising artist, a writer of stories.
I used to read the biographies of artists, in my mid to late teens, mainly
the Impressionists but it was the lives of these artists that drew me
to art as a maturing teenager, not the art itself. I thought Modigliani
was great, he was a kind of hero. After that came his art, I looked at
his art. I also thought Pissarro was great, again this had nothing really
to do with his painting, it was because his home was a welcoming place,
plus the fact he and his wife had a pot of soup at the ready for the skint
and hungry young artists of the community. Again with Cezanne and Emile
Zola, I liked them both. I didn't give a damn about their violent
quarrel, I wanted to speak to Cezanne on behalf of Zola, if Emile is willing
to forgive and forget then why can't you for Christ sake Paul come
on, shake hands, life is difficult enough.
Obviously there is a sentimental side, it's allowable in adolescence.
For several years I thought Turgenev was a stuck-up aristocratic mean-minded
shit, and I didn't read him. Then at last I did read him, and found his
work was great, why the hell was I so prejudiced! Dostoevski was to blame.
I was so stuck on Dostoevski I had followed him blindly, even when he
attacked Turgenev without telling me about his own gambling problems and
how poor old Turgenev had loaned him dough till finally he couldn't
any longer, and Dostoevski damned him for it. So I had graduated to a
more mature understanding of the reality of that personal situation.
I can't imagine somebody studying the life and work of Vincent Van
Gogh and not being moved by it, not being outraged by the conventional
view that suggests he was a kind of naive idealistic madman. In spite
of all that we know of the man's life the conventional view continues
to be the premise, so that if we want to argue the point the burden of
proof is on us. Why, why should that be? And we have a writer like Franz
Kafka, we are to ignore the life of the man, we are to search his texts
for its hidden mysteries, symbols and other coda about nightmare bureaucracies
and despotic tyrannies as metaphors for this that and the next thing,
including the immutability of a Christian god, given that Kafka was Jewish,
we can involve ourselves however we like but rarely how it was to exist
in Prague at the turn of the 20th century, or the fact that the artist
himself spent so much of his working time and energy trying to assist
working-class people get their insurance claims settled through the various
levels and rung upon grinding rung of state bureaucracy. How convenient
for state authorities everywhere, that somehow or other whatever discourse
there is via the normal media channels always seem to stop short of looking
at the nature of society as lived in by the creators of art.
More recently, within the past fifteen years, I've come to see as
exemplars artists such as Sorley MacLean whose death last Sunday came
as a blow to so many people. He could not be divorced from his culture,
not from his community. Throughout his life he fought all such nonsense,
all such propaganda, because I also believe that it is propaganda. Apart
from his poetry he produced a classic work of criticism which, as its
own sad commentary on the current affairs of Scottish art, is now out
of print. In one of his essays, entitled Is there a hope for Gaelic? he
It is natural for a poet to love his own language if it is the language
of his ancestors and dying, even if it were a poor defective thing. Gaelic
is not a poor language, in art at any rate. Though it had only its ineffable
songs, which cannot be put in other words, it would still be a priceless
medium of expression. Therefore the Gaelic writer must be 'political',
and in our day the teaching of the language is the prime business of its
At the Booker Prize ceremony a couple of years ago I upset some people
by what I was arguing, which was not a plea for separatism, nor for nationalism,
nor for the world to recognise the supremacy of Scottish culture - all
of which was reported by various media. Nor was it an argument in favour
of the local at all costs, an acceptance of the mediocre just because
it happens to be a home-grown product. It is simply to say that the existence
of my culture is a fact and why should that be denied? It's an argument
not for the supremacy of my culture, just for its validity, and by extension,
the validity of any culture. There is no such thing as an 'invalid' culture,
just as there is no such thing as an 'inferior' or 'superior' culture.
What else is a culture but a set of ideas, beliefs, and traditions held
by any given community of people: a set of infinite extension, shifting
and changing. Cultures will function in the same way as languages, not
to mention the people who use them: unless dead they live. I'll end
with another poem by Tom Leonard. It was my original intention to read
this one at the end of the Booker ceremony. But eventually I didn't,
I've got a habit of going in the huff and I just thought to hell
with them, but I'll finish with it now, it's a beautiful poem,
Fathers and Sons
I remember being ashamed of my father
when he whispered the words out loud
reading the newspaper.
"Don't you find
the use of phonetic urban dialect
asks a member of the audience.
The poetry reading is over.
I will go home to my children.