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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent