Like a Whisper in Your Ear…

There are some of us, of a certain age, who remember the impact that the quarterly magazine Modern Painters had on the visual arts in Britain. Founded by the late art critic Peter Fuller in the mid-1980s, Modern Painters did much to bring a certain kind of art to the attention of a wide public, and some of the work Fuller did in this respect was commendable, for sure. Personally I owe much to Peter Fuller for him giving me my first real break in writing on the visual arts in the second issue of his magazine that had quickly captured the imagination of many who felt marginalised by the internationalist trend at that time. Though Fuller was to tragically die in a road accident on the M4 motorway in 1990, his influence was still felt for a while following his death, though it waned. Some were glad of that, and others not, for he was certainly very good at dividing opinion.

Fuller divided opinion in a way that was often fascinating, and at time infuriating, though. In 1988 he was quick to warn against the ignorance or xenophobia yet argued passionately for an “informed provincialism in art, which looks for immediate meaning in local forms, and finds its larger sense through affiliation to a national tradition” (Seeing Through Berger, 1988). I remember writing around that time, that Peter Fuller’s ‘take’ on art was similar to that of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. As far back as 1942, Vaughan Williams had warned (long before the European Union was conceived, and long before it faced the current threat of disintegration), that when “the United States of Europe becomes a fact, each nation must have something to bring to the common stock of good.” Opposed to a Europe populated by “good Europeans, sharing a universal language in the arts”, Vaughan Williams had asserted, “what we have to offer must derive essentially from our own life. It must not be a bad imitation of what other nations do better” (National Music and Other Essays, 1963).

For some, Peter Fuller, represented a similar position with regard fine art in the 1980s. The composer David Mathews has said of Vaughan Williams that his “understanding of […] musical tradition and his love of his native landscape came together at a particular moment during the Second World War when everything he most cherished was under threat of destruction” (in: Towards a New Landscape, 1993). Fuller, meanwhile, became most vocal about a traditional aesthetic in the visual arts during a period remarkable for the emergence of a brash materialism that was a signature of life in the financial sector prior to the economic crisis of 1987. In such a pre-crash climate, Fuller perceived a different kind of destructive influence: “the Young Turks with their Saatchi-style values and trans­atlantic air­ tickets” were, as he put it, “taking over the Parthenon,” (Interview with Matthew Collings: 'Onward Christian Soldiers', Artscribe No.52). They were, eroding traditional values to such an extent that our culture was becoming “so warped it could sustain no widely shared artistic language, nor give rise to a style that was any more deep-rooted than a passing fashion” (in Images of God, 1990)

The Problem for many was that Fuller was a Tub-Thumping Little Englander, propagandising in method and (in the latter part of his life) deliberately divisive in his tactics. It is important to clarify that Fuller, like Vaughan Williams, was pleading a case for an informed provincialism which avoided at all costs what was once the art historian Kenneth Clark's worst fear: as Clark had argued, provincial artists are often “complacent” and “out of mere ignorance […] refuse to look beyond the circle of their fellow mediocrities” (Moments of Vision, 1981). Vaughan Williams believed that he avoided such traits in seeking a political internationalism and a personal individualism, but the jury may still be out on Fuller’s agenda, for following his death his contribution was rather quickly erased, and the magazine he had founded soon withered and morphed into something quite other (ironically, yet another organ of a brash materialism in the art world). To the surprise of many, his legacy did prove quite short lived, therefore.

Fuller – always so fond of absolutes – also got it wrong quite often. At his home in Stowlangtoft shortly before his death, I once asked him about a Turner Society lecture he had delivered at London’s ICA, at which he had announced to the assembled audience that the Tate Gallery was, “attempting to impose the taste of an arid and bankrupt aesthetic” in the guise of the Turner Prize. Perhaps there was something in that but Fuller, for those who remember his thoughts on the art of those times, will no doubt recall his belief that any support for the Turner Prize revealed a paucity of critical perspicacity, and artists he had once championed he later shunned when they became Turner Prize nominees (a notable case being the painter Thérèse Oulton). He was, in short, ferociously opposed to what he perennially referred to as BICCA (an acronym he had invented that referred to what he thought of as Biennale International Club Class Art) but those he shunned did not always deserve to be thrown into the camp he had devised for them.

Many of us back then could be forgiven for losing count of just how many times Fuller was heard to argue that we should not confuse the bombastic bigness of German painting (a favourite bête noire in his propagandising mission) with the greatness of smaller pictures emanating from what he thought of as a ‘British Tradition’. As Fuller argued with regard to those who took their lead from the wider European scene back then, they were sliding down a slope towards cultural pluralism, the corollary of which would be a homogenous European art that is corrupt and bland. Of course he was wrong, but not because his critics and adversaries were necessarily right. Fuller was very much of his time, as I have noted. He was obsessed with the international art market and, although not without a sense of humour at times, always keen to polarise opinion on this if he could. His reputation rested on it to some degree, after all. He was good TV. He wrote compellingly, too, and could drum up an audience for sure, and yet ultimately his influence, with the benefit of hindsight now, was ultimately destructive.

Of Fuller’s tendency to argue his case via the discourse of propaganda, Julian Stallabrass has alluded to what he calls Fuller’s moral McCarthyism, in which the critic could often be seen to condemn those that stood in his way with accusations that they had no affection for either their nation, its people, its traditions, its customs, or its landscape – sometimes all of these things at once. Stallabrass has also (I think convincingly), shown that Fuller’s essays often followed a format that depended upon the techniques of propaganda to establish his own moral rectitude, and then wear his readers down by sheer repetitive output too. If you read Fuller through a Stallabrassian lens, this makes perfect sense. The fact is, however, that he was so much of his time, and his death came so early (he was in his early forties when he died) that in a tragic twist of fate, he was thus deprived of seeing art that he may have approved of, or may even have changed his sometimes Stalinist position on what did and did not represent good art.

That painters of the kind he ordinarily approved of could produce work that revealed a new form of post-conceptual painterly aesthetic, would have perhaps been unthinkable to him. Who can tell what he would have made of it? I don’t know. Looking at Fuller’s criticism today is rather like looking through a telescope from the wrong end. It has become diminished and so, so small, and yet at the time he was writing it seemed so huge. There is obviously a cruel irony to this. While Fuller championed artists such as John Bellany and Arthur Boyd for their imaginative transformation of materials into hard-won, high-calibre works deserving of wide attention, he missed out on a new generation of artists who today paint with great economy and equal conviction to elucidate their thoughts on pressing matters that were only just entering the public consciousness at the time Fuller died.

Take, for example, this single work by David Cass (below). Of what does it comprise? It is titled Arctic (2017) and is a painting in oil on a pill tin attached to a thread spool. It measures just 10cm by 4cm. And yet, look at it! Cass too seems to be asking us to look through the wrong end of a telescope here too, but what he depicts is not diminished. In some strange way it seems magnified.

David Cass, Arctic (2017) oil on stacked cylindrical pill tin and thread spool, H:10cm W:4cm

While so many artists who express their ‘environmentalist’ concerns do indeed force their argument in bold gestures that could easily be mistaken for confusing bigness with greatness, Cass instead seems to unassumingly (though no less importantly) offer us the antidote to that – by which I mean, he appears to present an urgent request to come in close, quietly, personally, and in our own time, to consider just what it is that he is addressing. Here is an art that is truly intimate. It asks big questions, yes, but it asks them of the individual, drawn in close by the diminutive size of the work.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this work titled Arctic (one of several from a series) asks each of us who encounters it; Look at me, attend to me, I am here for your personal attention. This work is is, above all, discrete. It certainly does not shout. It is not tub-thumping in its attempt to make a statement. With great economy on the part of its maker, it puts a question to us; one that demands our attention in a way that far bigger statements often fail to do (and maybe there is something in this that Fuller did get right). In a dozen or so deft marks in oil paint, we see the future – or at least an allusion to it – albeit in the wider context of Cass’s larger works, as well. While there are much larger works in Cass’s exhibition Rising Horizon, this single work titled Arctic is no less important for its size.

But where am I going with this? To return to Peter Fuller for a moment, what occupied much of his concern as a critic was not the art he liked, but the art he didn’t like. Certainly what raised his ire most was the frequent dismissal of painting as irrelevant for our age (or at least the age in which he was writing) and I understand why. Not long after Fuller’s death, I once found myself proposing an article for the pages of Art Monthly to that magazine’s editor, Patricia Bickers. The work in question, I put to her, owed much to a tradition that stretched back through the School of London to Sickert, but was thoroughly contemporary in its ‘post-conceptual’ execution (Oh! how critics so loved style labels back then). Without seeing the work or asking to, however, my proposal was dismissed with Bickers simply announcing, “I’m sorry Ian, but Art Monthly doesn’t really cover painting any more”! Such an editorial policy, to me at least, seemed ludicrous, and it still does, for it was just as Stalinist in outlook as Peter Fuller ever was.

More than that, though, today it seems all the more ludicrous because I don’t give a fig about the medium, it is the message I’m concerned with. Things have moved on. We are no longer living in a world in which the threat of a pluralist aesthetic can result in a bland homogenous art (or at least that no longer feels like a pressing concern that requires much of our attention). Give me film, video, painting, sculpture, land art, whatever it may be, and from wherever it arises – geographically and/or theoretically – and attribute to it whatever style label you like. Only give it to me straight and make sure that it addresses the most pressing issues of our day. While I am not averse to losing myself in art that offers me just that (the losing of self, a moment for escape, for we all need that) I also need to feel the sharp end of life as it is experienced today, too.

Most of all, though, I need to see it addressed to me personally, and asking me what am I going to do? How will I respond to this work? I want to see it asking every other person who approaches that same work, what are they going to do, too. How will they respond? I’m done with big gestures and propagandising art that is often just as divisive and overbearing as anything Fuller ever wrote. Art (and the culture industries generally – as I have previously written in this series of posts), can play an important part in forming opinion and galvanising an audience; equipping them for what was is to come and the part they may choose to play if the will is there. Cass may be a maker of works that deploy a variety of media, but his work has a message, also; although it would be foolish to reduce it to a one-dimensional argument concerning our rapidly changing climate and all that goes with that.

Nonetheless, in this one work by David Cass that I have selected, above, this time it seems it is personal. The debate has shifted. What were concerns for art criticism in the 1980s may still remain and for some sound reasons, but the times that we are now living through (particularly with regard the state of the planet and our failed stewardship of it) has become a pressing subject for our arts, and not least Cass himself. The argument is no longer about the threat of internationalism, or an “informed provincialism in art, which looks for immediate meaning in local forms, and finds its larger sense through affiliation to a national tradition.” Instead it has become for some of us about how we can reach out internationally and forge links around issues such as climate change, leaving behind us the partisan squabbling over the threats posed by pluralism and internationalist ‘trends’.

Perhaps I am wrongheaded in extracting Arctic from the series of which it is a part, but, to co-opt that maxim of late-1960s Feminism… The Personal is Political… and although I’m not sure if David Cass would agree with me, I can’t help but feel that in his dozen or so painted marks upon a single pill tin that is attached to a thread spool, we find an intimate form of didactic art for our times – a ‘thing’, that is, that shows rather than tells, drawing the viewer in and asking a few very simple, personal questions: You see this here? This minute glimpse of the horizon far to the north of you, as if you are looking through the wrong end of a telescope? How do you relate to that? Can you? Will you? This is for you, like a whisper in your ear, and it is beautiful – Don’t you think?

NOTE: The stack series, from which Arctic (2017) is taken, earned David Cass the 2018 RSA Benno Schotz prize (most promising work by a Scottish artist under 35). (All images used with kind permission, courtesy of the artist, © copyright David Cass)


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30 January 2019 - 23 February 2019