ART AND THE WORK ETHIC
Recent calls from some sectors of the art press to preserve the best Scottish contemporary art for the nation is a cause worthy of support. However, the claim that the Scottish nation is in danger of securing a tarnished cultural reputation in the future forgets to take into account what a nation is made up of, i.e. a varied cross-section of individuals the majority of whom are naïve, even ignorant in their knowledge of contemporary art. A so-called nation consists of more than urbane city-dwellers; it is an entire country with the majority of its population existing in a state of cultural starvation. Many people have not caught up yet with twentieth-century visual “-isms" never mind taking on the complexities of what will be twenty-first-century artistic expression. This is not the fault of the people themselves, rather it has arisen from historical circumstances beyond their control.
Art galleries have been declared out of bounds to the working-class and years of conditioning, misinformation and lack of education has resulted in a significant proportion of the population’s alienation from the gallery milieu. Nowadays this is less visible in the cities, however, it is clearly visible in predominantly industrial areas such as West Lothian, for example, where the heritage of working-class solidarity lives on in the visual aesthetic and expression of the environment. This is not a bad thing in itself. What is worrying is the lack of ambition to move forward, resulting in virtual stagnation with regard to the cultural and visual needs of the community. An example of this can be found in the brief that the Livingston Development Corporation (LDC) expected the artists to follow when creating new sculptures for Livingston town centre. They were asked to reflect the area’s industry and economic growth in the work. It would seem that people should never let their minds wander happily away from the work ethic towards more spiritual or just downright enjoyable thoughts. Everything must reflect the past and present industrial and electronic dimension, even the earth sculpture adjacent to the Motorola plant in Bathgate echoes West Lothian’s monumental slag heap The Five Sisters.
The lack of proper galleries adds to the difficulty of raising awareness and attracting the public away from social realism (or realism in general) towards a wider and ultimately more rewarding set of visual options. West Lothian Council (WLC) continue to promote civic sculpture as a method of exposing visual art to the public. Another recent project is the creation of a massive sculpture on the site of the former British Leyland factory, again the concept of the work is inextricably linked to the area’s industrial past. The ideology behind the prolific commissioning of public art professes the desire to take art to the people. A brochure distributed in 1996 by the now defunct LDC claims that this policy “brings art out of the gallery and into the community”. Unfortunately, this stance perpetuates the myth that the people do not belong inside an art gallery. It also gives the council a convenient way out of providing one. While there is clearly a place for public sculpture, on its own it is not enough. Unlike Edinburgh and Glasgow (which flank the area to the east and west) West Lothian towns are unable to boast one purpose-built art gallery between them. Little wonder then that people in the area are convinced that art galleries are not part of their lives and it is not surprising that they remain visually unsophisticated.
The widespread lack of understanding of contemporary art also arises from inadequate education from a young age and West Lothian is only one area where politicians and educational bodies are failing to do their jobs properly in this context. It is not completely their fault either since the problem was created long ago when class divisions were established, and the proles were duly put into their cultural straitjackets. This is why those who complain about the undervaluing of Scottish contemporary art should do something to ensure that uninformed people understand why current art is relevant. Certainly, it is important to preserve the best Scottish contemporary art for future histories of Scottish culture. However, it would only be cosmetic if the majority of the population remained so unenlightened about 20th and 21st century visual art. This is the real challenge facing cultural gurus and it should be a priority.