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.

Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tvReview: Too often The Casual Vacancy resembled a jumble of deleted scenes from Hot Fuzz
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David performs in his play ‘Fish in the Dark'
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Jemima West in Channel 4's Indian Summers (Joss Barratt/Channel 4)
tvReview: More questions and plot twists keep viewers guessing
Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003