Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 47: Edinburgh past; Glasgow future

While Bertie was committing to paper in Aberdeen the first pages of My Ordeal, in Edinburgh Angus Lordie was making his way up Dundas Street in the direction of the National Gallery of Scotland. Angus was that evening due to attend a lecture there entitled New Directions in Scottish Conceptual Art: Glasgow leads the Way. The lecturer was unknown to Angus, but had been described in the advance publicity for the event as “one of the most exciting artists to come out of Scotland in recent years” and “hotly tipped for a future Turner Prize”. Both of these recommendations had sounded warning signals to Angus, as had the title of the lecture itself. To describe somebody as an artist who had “come out of Scotland” was, he felt, vaguely ridiculous. How did one come out of Scotland? The expression seemed to conjure up a picture of a large map of Scotland with a hidden trapdoor through which, Houdini-like, an artist emerged. And if one came out of Scotland, where would one be going? As for being a front-runner for the Turner Prize – that was even more damning, in Angus’s view. He was convinced that it was impossible for anybody with any interest in painting in any form, or any feeling for the role of art as an expression of the beautiful, to get anywhere near the Turner Prize – even onto its longlist. Those were his views. He knew that not everyone shared them, and that there were others who thought the opposite, but he told himself that there always would be people who were utterly wrong – whatever one was talking about.

44 Scotland Street

By the time he reached Hanover Street and was beginning the descent to Princes Street and the Mound, Angus had worked himself up into a mood of despair. How could it be that the artistic establishment – or a substantial part of it – should be so incapable of seeing pretentious posturing for what it was? How could it enthuse so over people whose sole talent seemed to lie in the arranging of found objects, the switching on and off of lights, or the making of unintelligible, self-obsessed video films of themselves or their domestic surroundings? He had recently seen one such video – highly praised by the critics – which was entitled My Chair, and which consisted of a twenty-minute film of a kitchen chair, shot from different angles. In the final scene the chair disappears and the room in which it stood is solemnly filmed for a further five minutes, during which the artist performs a small dance. “Utterly memorable,” said one of the newspapers. “Immensely promising,” said another.

The audience was composed of familiar gallery supporters and a small cohort of intense and slightly disapproving-looking people occupying the front seats. These Angus immediately identified as the lecturer’s friends: they had that special conceptual-art look about them – a look he had long since learned to spot at any formal artistic function. It was born, he suspected, of discomfort at being in the presence of others who might not understand – or, at least, understand in the way in which they understood. As such, it was not a sentiment that was out of place at any occasion where a mystery of any nature was being celebrated. These people, Angus thought, are convinced of their vision, but know that they are vulnerable in the way in which the Emperor with No Clothes knew he was vulnerable: at any point a small boy, with the innocence of youth, might point out that the emperor was naked. Huddled together in the front rows, they cast occasional glances towards the audience filing in behind them. Seeing nobody of any consequence, they turned to talk to one another in hushed, expectant tones.

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The lecture began. “I am not a painter,” said the lecturer. “Nor would I wish to describe myself as an artist. I am one who has a practice, and that practice is art. Why is it art? To quote a well-known practitioner, it is art because I say it is art. Art is not something that needs the endorsement of an establishment, of an academy. An academy is nothing but a self-appointed bureaucracy that purports to endorse one particular view of the world and in doing so to delegitimize the work of those who do not meet with its approval. That may have worked in the past, but no longer. Now we are free of the constraints of the officialdom that stifled and distorted the creative impulses of people in the past. Now we are free to be ourselves – to look at the world through eyes that are beholden to nobody, through eyes that can truly see. And to show you – the public – what we see, we do not need to put paint on a canvas. That has been done, and done again. There are no new landscapes to depict; there are no new jugs and flowers to portray. All these things have been done. They are stale. They are the fixations of the stale mind located in a stale world-view. We no longer need paintings. We need experiences. We need ideas that spring not from the material, but from the inner experiential universe. That is why the focus of Scottish art is now firmly on Glasgow. Glasgow is alive. Edinburgh is dead.”

Angus looked about him. The front rows were nodding; behind them, though, there were several stony faces. A well-dressed woman turned to her neighbour and whispered something; the neighbour smiled. Angus stared at the lecturer, who had appeared in his short sleeves, with no jacket. There were damp patches under his arms. He was sweating. He was free, of course, but he was still sweating, Angus noted.

Then Angus saw that Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna was there, seated towards the back, and next to her was Antonia Collie, looking a bit bored. He realised that he should not have been surprised to see Sister Maria-Fiore – the nun was everywhere, and of course she was now on the gallery’s board of trustees. He made no attempt to catch her eye, but she spotted him shortly after he had noticed her, and she waved in a friendly way. That was not something that happened all that often at an Edinburgh lecture: people did not wave to one another. Perhaps that happened in Glasgow, of course: he might ask the lecturer at the reception afterwards. Or he could present it to him as confirmation of the point he had made about the vitality of intellectual and artistic life in Glasgow.

Angus waved back. He was fed up with accusations that Edinburgh was stuffy. It may have been a bit like that in the past, but things were different now. Edinburgh had taken off its metaphorical tie, and what the lecturer had said was just an old canard. He it was who was stale. He was stale through and through – with a stale practice. “You have a stale practice, you know,” Angus might say to him.

Why were these people so dismissive of painting? Angus asked himself that question as the lecture drew to its conclusion. Was it because they could not paint? Was that the real reason underneath the pretentious banality of conceptual art? Everyone, Angus thought, who cannot do something, experiences at least some resentment of those who can do it. Human nature.

Angus felt that he needed a drink. There was a reception, although he realised that the word reception was a bit old-fashioned. It suggested ownership of the space and the event to be held in that space. Gathering was perhaps more acceptable Or what about rammy?

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Promise of Ankles (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in hardback in November 2021