The London art community is very like a gymnasium. Every time you enter into discourse with your colleagues you first have to take a look around and see what posture everyone is adopting today. The collapse of the central, modernist consensus has led to exceptional enthusiasm among those who were once its High Priests for the volte-facing horse. For example, one critic, really quite recently, argued—and I quote—‘the ongoing momentum of art itself’ is ‘the principal instigator of any decisive shift in awareness.’ He dismissed all but a handful of ultra avant-gardists gathered around an obscure Paddington gallery as ‘obsolescent practitioners of our own time.’ He assured us that the future would ‘overlook’ all but this minority he had identified.footnote1 Thus he adopted the classical modernist position. Today, this same critic has spoken of his blinding experience on the road to Wigan; he is now urging upon us the joys and necessities of collaboration without compromise. I have never been of an athletic disposition: the sight of the vaulting-horse filled me with terror as a child, and it still does. Unfortunately, this means that those of you who have been following
When I was asked to come to this conference to discuss the artist’s ‘individual’ and ‘social’ responsibilities under the rubric, ‘Art: Duties and Freedoms’, I sensed, perhaps wrongly, the subtending presence in the very terms of the debate of that common but I believe erroneous assumption that the artist’s individual freedoms and social responsibilities stand in some sort of irreconcilable and potentially paralysing opposition which is somehow destined to reproduce itself in one historical situation after another.
In fact, there are many historical situations in which this opposition cannot take us very far. For example, an artist who works under the ‘Socialist Realist’ system in, say, the ussr can fulfil his social responsibilities only by an apparently individualist defiance of his ‘social duty’, at least as that is externally defined by the official artists’ organizations, the Party, and the State. Not every artist who defies the ‘Socialist Realist’ system is necessarily exercising social responsibility; but for those who attempt through their art to bear witness to the truth as they see it, individualistic defiance constitutes social responsibility. Take Ernst Neizvestny: in all of the ussr there was probably no artist with a comparable individualistic, narcissistic energy. But Neizvestny rejected his so-called ‘social duties’ and harnessed his narcissism for the creation of new and monumental sculptural forms which function not only as a great visual shout for the exploited, the suffering and the oppressed everywhere, but also imply within the way that they have been made that there is hope for a changed and a better future.footnote2
The situation for Fine Artists in Britain is very different, but here too the simple opposition of individual freedoms and social responsibilities does not work. The post-war Welfare State has invested the artist with no official ‘social duty’ which he can choose to transform into genuine social responsibility; in return for state patronage and support our artists are not required to depict cars coming off the production line at British Leyland, Party Conferences, or ‘glorious’ moments from Britain’s imperial past. Indeed, they are not required to do anything at all. The Fine Art tradition has thus become marginalized and peripheralized, and Fine Artists find they have been granted every freedom except the only one without which the others count as nothing: the freedom to act socially. It is only a mild exaggeration to say that now no one wants Fine Artists, except Fine Artists, and that neither they nor anyone else have the slightest idea what they should be doing, or for whom they should be doing it. Thus, far from there being an awkward tension between ‘social duty’ on the one hand and individual
Raymond Williams has pointed out how in the closing decades of the eighteenth and the opening decades of the nineteenth centuries the word ‘art’ changed its meaning;footnote3 when written with a capital ‘A’ it came to stand not for just any human skill (as previously) but only for certain ‘imaginative’ or ‘creative’ skills; moreover, ‘Art’ (with a capital ‘A’) came also to signify a special kind of truth, ‘imaginative truth’, and artist a special kind of person, that is a genius or purveyor of this truth. Subtending this etymological change was the emergence of a historically new phenomenon for Britain, a professional Fine Art tradition.