Home truths at the margins
Friday 01 February 2013
Official neglect of artists like David Mulholland whose work is rooted in working-class life and experience is a scandal
David Mulholland (1946-2005) is typical of many accomplished and original 20th-century British artists in that no Arts Council-funded gallery would dare show HIS work even if they wanted to.
He is typical of those derided by the self-appointed in state art. He was, in that infamous Arts Council phrase, “the wrong kind of artist” yet, as one who described with affection his experience of the hard lives and resilience of poor people and evoked the gaunt beauty of the tough places in which they lived and worked, Mulholland was most definitely “the right kind of artist.”
His work was done because it needed to be made, because the observations of a brutal working life and cruel industry, of pleasure and strife, of hard graft and redundancy, demanded interpretation by an artist.
Its love for a location and people speaks for itself. In the future those looking at Mulholland’s work will understand, without prompting, its concerns and causes, the stories it has to tell and why it has lasted. These qualities are self-evident in all good art.
Mulholland was born in South Bank, a community on the Tees built around quaysides, three blast furnaces, steel rolling mills and cindery railway sidings. It’s the sort of place which, if you are born there, is in your blood forever.
The recent exhibition of Mulholland’s work at the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough and the excellent book and website accompanying it, bears eloquent testimony to this.
Apart from a brief foray abroad as a young seaman, when he painted scenes of his foreign travel, Hallam eventually returned home. He taught art unconventionally in a secondary school and painted his life, friends and sometimes the surrounding countryside. The work records a personal journey and history.
Given the enormous sums now thrown uncritically and unchallenged at contemporary art, one ought to feel certain that excellence in whatever style or medium is somewhere being brought to our attention.
But despite the fact that, courtesy of the National Lottery, there are expensive and immense new galleries all over the country the opposite continues to be true.
The same few artists dominate news, features and critical coverage. They dominate all the new galleries too because these are controlled exclusively by state art believers. For them, a foreign artist of no discernible distinction, spotted amid the trendy jumble and waffle of an international biennale, will always take precedence over the likes of Mulholland.
In the north you can find Anish Kapoor signing books in Middlesbrough, where his £2.5 million “regenerating” fishing net was unveiled two years ago and still stands bleakly abandoned and pointless in wasteland.
He’s at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and in London he is at the Lisson Gallery, all over the Royal Academy and his Orbit lords it over the Olympics site. No wonder he needs 25 assistants and three studios to churn out his coloured holes and facile shiny mirrors to meet demand.
If only all this approbation were the result of Kapoor having produced something truly outstanding and comparable with the best from the past. But all that emerges is more of the same branded deluxe ornaments for the grotesque mansions of the immodest rich.
There is no point in visiting his exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park because you’ve seen it many, many times before. It takes seconds to walk around and some of the holes are so dark you can’t be quite sure where the bottom is. How clever is that?
The neglect of so many for the sake of so few is a phenomenon of celebrity culture, a monumental racket dreamed up by a cabal of public officials, commercial dealers and auctioneers with the aim of creating false gods, rigging the market and handsomely feathering the nests of all concerned.
The fact that this monopoly remains uninvestigated brings disgrace on the Commons culture select committee.
It could have made a difference, if only by establishing once and for all that such an all-powerful orthodoxy exists in contemporary art, whose purpose is to discriminate against the likes of David Mulholland.
Increasingly this editing of what we’re allowed to see is dictated by the tastes of half a dozen bureaucrats. At their head is Tate director Nicholas Serota, a president for life who has singlehandedly done more damage than anyone in the history of British art to the public’s ability to see the work of a wide range of British artists.
A self-important scourge, he builds ever greater monuments to his own vanity and tastes and receives an uncritical press.
When will Serota leave well alone? How long will it be before curators in regional galleries can see all art again for its qualities and not be forced to follow trends out of fear for their careers? If it is not the work of regional galleries to show the work of their best local artists what is it their job to do?
And what an irony it is that Mulholland’s memorial show in Middlesbrough coincided with an exhibition dealing with “concepts of home” starring Tate trustee Jeremy Deller.
Mulholland spoke a local language, a “home” language, yet it is understood internationally by all people.
No-one is excluded from its sentiments but state artists talk an international language which, like esperanto, is understood by hardly anyone.
There ought to be room for both persuasions but we are force fed only one.
This article was first published in The Jackdaw www.thejackdaw.co.uk.
To view an online gallery of Mulholland’s work, visit www.davidmulholland.co.uk. The book David Mulholland: Painter, published by The Mulholland Foundation at £15, is available from firstname.lastname@example.org.