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 the over-heated polemics and debates which have been going on within the art community, and in the art press, may therefore find many of my arguments, some of my examples, and especially my overall position, familiar. I can only apologize for my rheumatic fidelity to a position which expresses the truth as I perceive it. I hope you will bear with me.footnote

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 freedom on the other, it is possible to say that a major infringement of the freedom of the artist at the moment is his lack of a genuine social function. This, as I see it, is the paradox of the position of the Fine Artist after modernism. But how has this situation arisen?

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.

Given the state of national economic and political development, the arrival of this tradition was exceptionally tardy: the causes of this belatedness (which inflected the course of the subsequent development of British art) are to be sought in that peculiar lacuna in the national visual tradition which extends from the beginning of the 16th century until the emergence of Hogarth in the 18th. The medieval crafts had been eroded by baronial wars and technological advance and had fallen into terminal decay in the later 15th century; they were effectively extinguished by the mid 1530s. Although, as Engels remarked, a new class of ‘upstart landlords . . . with habits and tendencies far more bourgeois than feudal’ was coming into being at this time, a prevalent iconoclastic puritanism, associated with the dissolution of the monasteries and the formation of a national church, was among those factors which inhibited the development of a secular painting peculiar to this new class. At the level of the visual, Britain thus lacked a ‘Renaissance’: no ‘humanistic’ world-view emerged within a flourishing tradition of ecclesiastical representation, to transcend and supersede it, as happened, for example, in the Italian city states. In Britain the prior medieval tradition was literally erased during the Reformation.

Subsequently, the courts required only portraiture: competent practitioners above the artisanal level tended to be imported. Henry VII patronised a Flemish artist, Mabuse; Henry VIII, Holbein. Successive monarchs employed immigrant painters: Scrots, Eworth, Gheeraerts, Van Somer, Mytens, Van Dyck and Lely. These artists brought with them a heterogeneous assortment of European modes. Although some took on individual pupils and apprentices, in no sense did this amount to a national visual tradition. The principal exception accentuates the predicament: John Hilliard arguably emerged out of the subtending artisanal tradition to produce a peculiarly English world-view of Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers. But Hilliard’s pictorial conception was that of a miniaturist who looked back towards the representational modes of medieval manuscript illumination. The retardate character of English painting can be gauged when one recalls that Hilliard—the most illustrious figure not only of Elizabethan painting but among all indigenous artists during the long visual lacuna—was born some seventy years after Titian. (Historical materialism has as yet no way of assessing how far this peculiar stunting of visual expression can be correlated with the precocious efflorescence of literature in the same period.)