Podium: The truth about the people's art

From a speech given by the Warden of Goldsmiths College, London, to the Lloyds-TSB Policy Forum

EVERY MOTORIST on the high road to Scotland knows about Antony Gormley's Angel of the North. Every commuter confronts a poem on the Tube. Every newspaper reader is aware of Damien Hirst's Formaldehyde Sheep. Art plays a more prominent role in society than ever before. But it was not always so. In the proletarian world, ordinary people had a place in their lives for art but it was a marginal one.

Today, with traces of high art everywhere, the position is different. Everybody in Britain recognises a Van Gogh, a Picasso and a Warhol. Such images are as much part of our visual currency as the language of Shakespeare is a part of the currency of everyday speech. They are all around us, the wallpaper of experience.

In this sense, the Prime Minister was right when he said, shortly before taking office: "The arts are not just an add-on to the rest of life." New Labour believes in the arts. But the message is also that New Labour believes in a particular functional view of the arts. The Blair government supports the arts as a symbol of national prowess. In the early days of the 1964 Harold Wilson government, the key word to describe the Labour project was "purpose", or sometimes its adjectival derivative, "purposeful". Under New Labour, "vibrancy" and "vibrant" have similar roles. A "vibrant" industry is one to be backed. Blair and his ministers have indicated the importance of "vibrant" cultures and industries as a component of cultural success.

Recently, an exhibition of the movement called "The New Neurotic Realism" opened at the Saatchi Gallery. The major exhibit consisted, to the untutored eye, of a large hall around which were distributed heaps of consumer-durable waste and mechanical rubbish. This exhibition followed the celebrated or notorious Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Both exhibitions enjoyed a hostile critical coverage on similar grounds, that the artistic world was in danger of being duped by a super-dealer who, having invested in the works of young British artists, was now hyping their reputations. The accusation probably contained an element of truth, but it was also, probably, irrelevant. "Are you a great artist?" Damien Hirst was recently asked. "Um... I don't know yet," he replied. "I think that is to be decided by people who haven't been born yet," he added. "But I think I'm a good artist and I think I manage to keep asking the important questions and I think I've made important things."

What ensures that Hirst is important, and perhaps what also helps to make him good, is the reality of his fame. He has been taken up, feted, celebrated, discussed, envied, imitated. It doesn't matter much why.

It is a feature of our late-20th-century, IT-fuelled society that the truly shocking has become much more difficult to achieve. Our feelings have become dulled. Sensation tried hard, with its image of Myra Hindley in Toddler Handprints, and its rotting pig's head equipped with real flies. It sculptured children with erect penises instead of noses.

I have no particular judgement to make on the artistic merit of these works. I am no expert. And it is a feature of art that only experts are permitted to make aesthetic judgements.

I enjoyed it. I was entertained by it. But I do wonder about a missing dimension. I wonder at the loss in minimalist and conceptual, as in much other contemporary art, of a humanist dimension.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Looking at the great works by Rembrandt and Vermeer, as well as by a host of early Reformation painters, I was powerfully and almost painfully struck by the contrast.

Observing the emotional precision, the care and sensitivity of the Flemish paintings on display, I was conscious of a lack of these things in many modern works.

It was not that the work of the 16th and the 17th centuries - the product of a tiny community of a few thousand proud burghers and shipmasters - was necessarily superior to the most fashionable works that have arisen from a contemporary popular culture of millions. That, as Damien Hirst says, is for people as yet unborn to decide. It was the way the portrayal of the human figure, and particularly of the human face, were used by the Flemish School to express an outlook of human understanding and belief, that inspired faith in the individual and in the race.

I do not think it is the fault of artists that such elements are often missing today. An artist has to do what an artist has to do, not what we would like to see. Rather it is a reflection of our times. And, if that is so, watch out for the 21st century.

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