I confess. I am an art tourist. I make pilgrimages to far flung places that once inspired artists to create works of freshness and originality. I guess what I am seeking is a little of the ambiance of the place and climate. I want to see how the light plays, the land falls and the sounds, smells and experiences might have been received by the artists. I want to be inspired too.
In many of these places of artistic pilgrimage, commerce will have stepped in to profit from the fame and reputation of a long deceased artist or defunct artist community. Sometimes, this commercialisation yields some unexpected benefits. Occasionally, there is an art gallery or some other organisation established in the area that allows you to gain some insight into the times when the artist was active or even see some artefacts left behind by the artist, that might suggest to you how they handled their medium, how they made their brush strokes or what kind of effects and colours they used to create their art.
So it was with eager expectation that I made the trip to St. Ives in Cornwall, expecting some sort of extension to my artistic education.
As it happens, the place I was staying in was a grand old house built by the famous Newlyn artists Stanhope Forbes and his wife Elizabeth – both illustrious and accomplished artists in their day. What a view! From our elevation, we could see clearly down to the bay at Penzance and the harbour at nearby Mousehole, but the trees had obscured the artists’ original aspect. You could make out what they could have painted by peering between the trunks of the fully matured trees that would have been much smaller a century ago. Standhope Forbes co-founded the Newlyn School of Art, just down the typically steep and unforgiving hill from here. In fact, the house had been converted into a small hotel and our room adjoined a space that had once been the artist’s studio, though the north-facing window that used to span two floors had been emasculated, since their deaths, to provide two smaller windows for two smaller self-contained rooms, on the two levels. It seemed like a sacrilege to me, but at least there were prints of the artists’ works on the hallway walls.
For those that don’t know, Stanhope Forbes painted in the early decades of the twentieth century in a style that was reminiscent of the impressionists, but with a distinctly English bent. Slightly more representational, rather than abstract, the brush strokes and colour still reveal a knowledge of and interest in the style of painting that had originated in Brittany with the artists Gaugin and Monet. Picasso, Russell and Matisse had also found inspiration in Brittany. Penzance is much closer to Brittany than it is to London and the influences of trade and tradition are still there to be found. Elizabeth Forbes, whose style I prefer, worked in the same place, with the same influences, the same view and the same light.
St. Ives is about twenty five minutes from our hotel, as the GPS Sat Nav flies. The day was blustery, showery and a little overcast, between occasional bursts of sunshine. The drive to St. Ives is a challenging one. Roads around these parts are narrow, winding and have steep upward and downward inclines, which test even cars with the bottom end torque of a turbo-charged diesel. First and second gear got a lot of use. You can expect to encounter double decker buses or concrete trucks coming opposite on these single track roads, as well as cars. You can feel your own tyres struggle to grip the surface of the road up the steeper inclines. In ice or snow, you would have no chance.
The town of St. Ives has a commercial centre that is packed with people, trucks, cars and chaos. The roads are passable in single file, yet they pretend to be two way streets. At times, the roads gridlock, so are best avoided. We chose, in the end and after some near misses and close scrapes, to park in the slightly out of town long stay carpark and walk into the centre. Honestly, the whole place ought to be pedestrianised and be done with, but everywhere there are little nooks and crannies occupied by usually quite small cars. I guess people need to be able to work and live here too. It’s not just for tourists.
On foot, St. Ives is a hilly place that can leave you panting for breath, particularly if you have a desk job and have reached a sedentary middle age. Add to this the icy showers of rain, enough to chill but not to wet and a bracing sea breeze (actually, it was an arctic North wind, but you get the gist) that is strong enough to allow seagulls to hang-glide for hours without flapping a wing and you can imagine how weather beaten we were by the time we reached the steps of the famed Tate St. Ives gallery. It had taken us years to get here, really. A lot of driving. Some not inconsiderable expense. We had devoted a whole day of our precious time off to the project. We were still travelling as a harmonious family unit, but aware that as the children grew, the opportunities would be fewer and less frequent.
What we expected to find was, at the very least, was a permanent collection of works that at least hinted at the flavour of the famed St. Ives artists of the twentieth century. Though long gone, we expected at least a trace of their presence in such a famous and well funded gallery. Tate, after all, had made a handsome fortune selling hepatotoxins to the masses, for over a century, which we all eagerly and willingly consumed.
What we discovered, instead, was the gallery turned over entirely to the work of a young, living, modern artist, now apparently resident in Berlin, who had visited the Tate St. Ives several times during his childhood and who now claimed was profoundly infuenced by these visits and which, therefore, had imprinted upon his art. It seemed a tenuous link to the exhibits on offer, to me. What I saw was a cynical modern artist playing the game of what it takes to become a modern artist whose works are displayed by the modern art establishment in their galleries. These works were so conventional, in the twentieth century tradition of being worthless tat arranged for the viewer in a way that symbolised the minor traumas of an artist’s childhood. It didn’t speak to me. I’ve seen it all before. It was bereft of anything new to say. It wasn’t about the most important things to me, the paying viewer, or even an important thing. It was all about the artist saying “me, me, me”, in about as grasping and self-consciously profiteering way as you can. Pure self-indulgence. An iconoclastic enfant terrible just like the thousands of other enfants terrible in this tribe. We really have seen it all before. In common with many other self-involved people of his generation, the artist lacked wisdom and perspective, coupled with an almost delusional absence of awareness of this tragic deficit. To the artist, the exhibition was clearly all about him. Well, sorry to break this news, but it was all about me, too. I was, I repeat, the paying audience and I had come a long way. About the only semi-autobiographical installation in the exhibition that reached me at all and made me smile a wry grin of recognition, was the plaster self-portrait of the artist as sculptor, with a gaping hole where his guts should be.
I find myself in a dilemma. I am not in favour of being critical or discouraging to people putting their heart and soul into their art, but that is not what I sensed here. What I sensed was somebody going through the expected motions to achieve the end of being exhibited in the Tate. To me, the works were so contrite, conventional and contrived, so repetitive of messages artists had conceived so many times in the past century, since Dadaism, that I was left feeling abused, ripped off and angry.
The problem with modern art is that it permits no criticism. Nobody dares call it out for what it sometimes is, at its worst – artistic fraud. If you say you were angry at the paucity of the skill, craft, originality, authenticity or heart put into the works, or of feeling a sense of being duped and cynically manipulated by the artist and the gallery in cahoots, you are told that this is the reaction you were supposed to feel, thereby validating the artist and his intention. If you say it’s just a bunch of old tat, the artefacts of much more skillful artisans and industrial manufacturers, destroyed and then placed in a gallery context in a designed placement by the artist, you are told that you do not understand modern art. In short, if you criticise what you see in any way, you are doomed to be considered unintellectual, ignorant or wanting in your aesthetic senses. Bollocks. I’m not that stupid, or that unschooled and unpracticed in art. My own work is fairly abstract and out there. It also has significant short comings, which my work strives to improve upon. Yet, we are all expected to pretend that there is some deep worth and merit in something clearly designed by this particular artist to make you pretend to understand it deeply and meritoriously, against your own instincts and better judgement, or else to feel that you have been had by the gallery and artist alike.
I predict that these works will not have lasting value. I can’t see how a curator will even preserve them for a century, let alone find an appreciative audience for them. Why? Because they are trite and echo the concerns of the twentieth century – the century of the self. This artist is a living anachronism. While the world begins to awaken to concerns about the series of crises being engineered in the financial markets and monetary systems, the age of austerity, the erosion of civil liberties in the name of protection against unseen and unspecific enemies, the assaults on our lives and health, whether inadvertent or intentional, by big pharma, agribusiness, polluting corporations and the revolving door regulators, the inevitable end-game win by the capital-rich elites over the rest of humanity and other such weighty and relevant concerns, the great artistic outpouring has already begun, unmarked and unnoticed by the Tate, St. Ives.
People think about global warming, the exhaustion of non-renewable planetary resources, poverty, inequality, justice, the suggestion that a great culling may be on the cards, the police states being carefully and stealthily constructed in the name of patriotic national security and the clash between peaceful, evolved humans that believe in a future which requires the engagement and meaningful contribution of every intelligence on the planet for sheer survival and those that think the future is reached by yet more control, aggression, destruction, warfare, surveillance and power to the aristocracy. These are big thoughts, nowhere to be found in the work of the artist on show at the Tate. This artist is angry that his Japanese father was remote, living in Japan, while he grew up with his English mother in England, so he smashes Japanese-inspired ceramics, crafted in St. Ives, and videos the ceremony for our delectation, to vent his pain. He recreates badly a famous painting he once saw at the Tate St. Ives, to bring us a play about his adolescence, complete with video of actor playing the artist, set in a recreation of his teenage bedroom, so that we can discover when he learned how to wank. Oh please.
Now, I understand a more detailed reading of the catalogue and supporting materials in the exhibition may have lead me to deeper understanding of the artist’s statements and intentions and hence modified my reaction to them, but I have to say there was nothing about this art that compelled me to care enough about it to do so. I was bored rigid.
Nearby, is another gallery in St. Ives. Here, local artists belonging to the local art society show their works; mostly paintings. Here, you find honesty, heart, authenticity, humility, love, passion, striving, beauty, an empathy for the viewer and a glimpse into what inspires and motivates them. No, it doesn’t have work that dwells on the apocolyptic. It is slightly quaint and traditional, but it gives you a sense of the place. It has St. Ives written in the colours and attitudes of the painters. To me, it was a much more interesting exhibition and it was free.
There are artists working in St. Ives today, but art supply shops are in short supply. This isn’t the artist colony, in hiding from the second world war, as far from London as possible, that it once was. Some artists set up shop in the shopping precinct and paint live, in front of an audience, producing paintings that they hopes will appeal to tourists and sell in numbers great enough to pay the commercial rents. Other artists live in regular homes and try their best to capture whatever fleeting influence and flavour St. Ives can give them. It’s a difficult thing to live up to.
I don’t think the next great, original artist will come from St. Ives. I think art comes from something else other than a seaside town. Sure, the surroundings can inspire and leave a mark on the artist, but we live in a globalised world connected by the internet. There is WiFi connectivity at Lands End. User generated content is appearing today as the great frontier of art. Even physical artefacts are now being published digitally, in ways that were unheard of a decade ago. That’s where the exciting and relevant art is to be found, I think. And there is plenty of it to be found. But I also think it will be quite some considerable time before the modern art galleries become aware of it and gear themselves up to presenting it, belatedly. The Tate Modern and its satellites are supposed to present modern art, not last century’s idea of what modern meant.
My artistic pilgrimages won’t require as much time, driving and expense, in future.