Diary

Tim Hilton

Have you read Glen Matlock’s I was a teenage Sex Pistol? In its own way this is an enlightening book and I like the manner in which the words appear, splattered in a typeface that’s like a modern memorandum or a press release. Young Glen, though he can’t be so young today, had a good ghost writer in Pete Silverton. I guess that Pete pretty accurately represents Glen’s voice, as well as his ambitions. In the words of the blurb, ‘Matlock describes how chief Pistol Johnny Rotten and svengali manager Malcolm McLaren plotted the downfall of the rock establishment and how by hard work, good timing and brilliant PR, the Pistols shocked the nation.’ Pete got some other things from Glen’s mouth, including a fierce description of working-class community, which he believes to be now destroyed, in his native Acton. Glen thinks that this social change had an effect on his music. He’s the Hoggart of Punk. I didn’t realise that people said such things any longer. Intrigued, I went off to Acton to have a look. A chap in my position (between jobs) has to occupy his days in some way or another. I didn’t find much, apart from a mouse pie and a couple of pints. Nobody I met had much to say so I didn’t learn anything.

I dislike pop music but concede that we will have to come to terms with the inescapable. It will never go away. I wonder whether it will always be the labour and refreshment of semi-literate teenagers? As an art critic I have an interest in this stratum, mainly because I taught in art schools before working in newspaper journalism. You’ll always find amateur rock bands in an art college and, as is well-known, prominent pop musicians often have an art school background. Both the young artists and the musicians (who have to write a kind of poetry) signal the creative urges in the educational underclass. They seem to get on well together. People in the record business love going back to their old art school. I recall one scene with a star so famous I’m ashamed of not being able to remember his name. A Roller chauffeured by a youth was flagrantly misparked outside the college. Inside, the star was visiting his old space in the third-year studios. The boy working there was determined not to be impressed. ‘Your last release was crap, man, and I bet your painting was too.’ The discomfited star knew that he had to laugh. I heard later that the two had become buddies and worked together in some way. Perhaps the painter got the chauffeur’s job.

While writing this diary I’m thinking about conversation, real and reported, the talk of the young and the old. Art education has hardly anything to do with reading books and being able to write, these silent activities. The inspiration comes from the demotic colloquy of the studios. The way that artists talk – and learn to talk – does not much resemble the way that people write about art, whether in books or in newspapers. Lately I’ve heard many reports from old art schools that are now part of institutions newly designated as universities. Administrators keep coming and looking at us, say my informants: they look and look and they can’t understand what we do. It’s a disturbing fact that there is only one book about a modern British art school, a volume written as an exercise in academic sociology. This was Art Students Observed (1973), by Charles Madge and Barbara Weinberger, part of Faber’s Society Today and Tomorrow series. The authors’ research was funded by the Social Science Research Council. One suspects that Madge took the leading role in the book, not only because of seniority but because a whiff of the Thirties in its presentation. The art school they studied is said to be in ‘Midville’ and the two sociologists refer to themselves as ‘the observer’. I’ve never met anyone from an art school, or indeed anyone in the world, who has read this book, but artists would have no difficulty in recognising its setting. ‘Midville’ is Coventry, conveniently down the road from the sociologists’ home base at the University of Birmingham.

Perhaps Madge and Weinberger thought it would be a straightforward task to anatomise an art school. Yet they were obviously bewildered by their Coventry experience. It’s not simply that they were visually incompetent, hadn’t a clue about looking at paintings. They couldn’t catch the nature of the discussions they overheard, nor assess reports of such discussions. It happened that in the period of their research, 1967-9, the art school was bashed about by sackings, mass resignations and student protests. Not specifically political, these protests, though political in a broader sense. Coventry was the first art school (it was absorbed by the polytechnic in the late Sixties, now Coventry University) in which Conceptualism became an issue. I knew a number of the people concerned and remember visiting the place. It was as talkative as a bird-house. Madge and Weinberger give some examples of ‘verbalisation in the art-socialisation context’. (Sad to think that Madge learnt to write prose on the prewar Daily Mirror.) Their examples are beside the point. It might be more instructive to look at the little publication The Indexing, the World War I Moves and the Ruins of Conceptualism by Terry Atkinson, who was one of the major players in the Coventry disputes. It accompanies his exhibition currently at the Corner-house Gallery in Manchester. Atkinson is showing new paintings but writes obsessively and partially about Coventry. It’s awfully long and full of footnotes and parenthetical sub-sections that recall or hope to conclude past quarrels.

Are these parochial matters? I think not. In the Sixties young people, anywhere in the country, talented or most often just with a suspicion of a new world, decided for themselves that they would be the vanguard. The sudden growth of this attitude is surely a fit subject for an art historian: but how would such a historian assemble the evidence, except by talking to people about how bumptious they once had been? I hear of many studies of Sixties art that are currently under way, but the material is not going to get published without institutional support. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has started to issue a series called Studies in Modern Art, edited by John Elderfield (who was born in Middlesbrough and is another veteran of the Conceptualist/Modernist art school battles of circa 1970). The first of them, American Art of the 1960s, contains seven essays and is like a heavily illustrated, hardback academic journal. Its publication must have been a costly business. This interests me for many reasons, not least because I’ve got a book in a filing cabinet that was too expensive to publish when I first wrote it. Now there’s a possibility that the Henry Moore Foundation might help a publisher, so a number of old conversations may yet see print.

I was an inquisitive, I hope scholarly ghost. The project was to write a history of the sculpture department at St Martin’s School of Art. Anthony Caro invited me to do it, and the idea was that the book would be a tribute to Frank Martin, the head of the department, and would be published in the year of his retirement. Caro and Martin are old friends and colleagues. They were at the Royal Academy Schools together after the war and when Martin began to run the sculpture in this undistinguished ILEA art school he asked Caro to help him with evening classes. This was in the Fifties. Then, in 1959-60, Caro had the breakthrough period when he began to make welded abstract sculpture, radical and beautiful, quite unlike any previous art. Other St Martin’s sculptors included Phillip King, Tim Scott and William Tucker, all innovative artists who became tutors at St Martin’s immediately after completing their own studies. Thenceforward there was a line of sculptors at St Martins who changed, even further, the concept of what sculpture might be. Among such artists were Barry Flanagan, Richard Long, Bruce McLean, Gilbert and George and others. Many of these people disliked each other. While their individual careers developed they found that they could not teach in the same studios. By the early Seventies this wonderful department was at war with itself.

Obviously a standard institutional history was inappropriate. I was interested in the ‘oral history’ then being developed by the people (all of them highly distrustful of modern art, let me say) who ran the History Workshop Journal and were always going around taping ancient milliners and railwaymen. So I had day-long or two-day-long talks with some twenty St Martin’s sculptors. I wanted to know who said what to whom, what the conversations were in tutorials. The artists had to say some intimate things about their education. These were moving encounters, at least for me; and when I look over my notes, which is what I’m doing this week apart from pottering about the Acton boozers, I am once again struck by the way they talked.

Artists’ voices don’t get into the printed media. I scarcely ever wrote interviews when I worked on the Guardian, an omission I now regret. In fact they would not have been easy to include. As the pages worked out, especially in the last year or so, it was hard to get any art into the paper apart from the usual 1200-word column about a new exhibition. Often, my problem was to find room for any kind of review of unusual art. The exhibitions industry is larger than imagined. At the two high points of the art year, in May-June and October-November, an art critic on a newspaper can expect hundreds of invitations each week. And all through the year, when you’d like to give a boost to some artist, there’s a dull heavyweight show – Sisley at the Royal Academy, for instance – that simply has to be covered.

The Royal Academy, the Tate, the National Gallery and the Hayward Gallery now hope for half a million visitors to each of their regular blockbuster exhibitions. They are so inadequately funded as to be desperate for the revenue from such shows. Sponsorship helps them but also forces up the initial costs of these huge retrospectives of, characteristically, well-known Impressionists and Surrealists. Museum directors and their trustees should beware. The supply of the right sort of modern old master has almost run out, as we will, almost certainly, see within the next three years. Meanwhile I lament the effect of these large exhibitions on newspaper criticism. The museums crave publicity: the newspapers seek to be the first to publish a feature on an important show. As the number of colour magazines and additional sections has grown, so have the number of previews. Long, well-illustrated articles on an artist appear weeks before an exhibition opens, cobbled together from advance proof-sheets of the catalogue that a museum is happy to supply. Such pre-publicity is increasingly anodyne – and the exhibition itself is not reviewed at all.

The press release has come to affect the content and also the style of art writing. Another influence is television. Its immediacy, contact with advertising and ratings, its nose for controversy, its inherent tendency for bite rather than exposition: these things give it an immediate alliance with the listings service provided today by all newspapers. The sharper a listings column, the more it tends to preview rather than review. Again, journalists are writing about art they haven’t seen. Television is doing other things to the manner in which people write about art. You come across columns that would sound better than they read. They are like the snappy scripts prepared for late-night-television culture shows. Personally I relish their smartness: but there is such a thing as the cause of art, and I don’t think that art is well served by such televisual jamborees as the Tate Gallery’s Turner Prize, sponsored and promoted throughout the newspapers by Channel 4, as we will be continually reminded next week.

Leaving the Guardian, I’ll most miss the random but well-informed conversations we used to have at the critics’ meetings held every so often in the board room at lunchtime. The hard work was planning the general shape of the pages in the month to come. The easier work was in general chatter, ably moderated by, in my time, Roger Alton and then Helen Oldfield. Does anyone know Patricia Highsmith, or who her agent is? Surely Hepzibah can’t be as powerful as all that. I don’t disbelieve you but if we suggested anything of the sort Sotheby’s would megasue the next day. It would be quite wrong not to review lots of pantomimes. We had an Elgin marbles story only a year ago. How curious that there is no such thing as red retsina. There is! Come on everyone, we must have a view on the South Bank Centre. I bet you don’t know the etymology of ‘forensic’ and it’s on my list of banned words. Three pages a day for the Edinburgh Festival would be ludicrous. In the new contract, what does management mean in saying that a sabbatical period for Guardian journalists is solely for ‘intellectual refreshment’? (Jokes follow.) No, seriously, this concerns everyone, does the clause mean they think it would be wrong to write a book? The best hack book ever written, also hilarious, is Swinburne’s study of Shakespeare. Who should write a survey of cultural trends in the Eighties, Waldemar or George Steiner? I agree they have different minds. Let’s be serious for a moment, everyone make up a list of subjects for profiles. Yes, we might be interested in Michael D. Higgins. No cuttings and nothing in the library at all? So ring some people in Dublin. Of course you can go to Galway if you make a case to me, you old sausage, just don’t get lost or overspend.

David Mellor, the Guardian’s new arts columnist, will not be put to the trouble or embarrassment of contributing to such meetings. They have been discontinued. I know why, but would rather talk about the matter than write about it. Nobody – I hope – can happily leave the Guardian, whether they be reader or journalist. Having a bit of intellectual refreshment the other day, I went to Hackney to help the sculptor John Gibbons (a former St Martin’s student) install his show at the Flowers Gallery. Gibbons was nervous about his exhibition, I was miserable because of newspaper matters. Anyway we pushed the pieces around for a couple of hours and talked about them as we went along. And what an impressive show it is! The sculptures are quite evidently made from building-site detritus and chunks of metal left over from some abandoned manufacturing process. Yet this work could not be further removed from the chummy approach of ‘junk culture’. It has been hammered and welded into aestheticism. The Tate ought to buy Jerusalem, at first sight the most awkward, even ugly work at Flowers, but in truth a mature splendour of Gibbons’s imagination and the world as he finds it. In my view his best sculptures are a marvel of contemporary life. I wish it were possible to tell a lot of people why I believe in them but I haven’t a column to use at the moment just this Diary – and of course word of mouth (funny phrase that).