Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

Re-Thinking 'Provincialism': Scotland's Visual Culture in the 1960s

Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

Re-Thinking 'Provincialism': Scotland's Visual Culture in the 1960s

Article excerpt

This essay examines the conditions of Scotland's visual arts in the 1960s focussing upon events in the capital city of Edinburgh. It contests issues of 'core and periphery' through a critique of the idea of 'provincialism'. In exploring the relationship between the academic art of the period and the febrile 'counter-culture' it evidences the potential for radical, internationally relevant discourses on the nature of visual culture to emerge in 'marginal' locales.

Keywords: Scotland, visual art, 1960s, provincialism, the Academy, avant-gardism, 'counter-culture', hybridity.

Writing in 1962 the eminent connoisseur, art history and arts administrator Kenneth Clark reflected on the nature of 'provincialism' in the arts.1 His subject was delivered as the 'Presidential Address' to The English Association and considered the qualities, positive and negative, of English art in respect of its relative dislocation from metropolitan centres in Europe and in the United States. He was chiefly concerned with the historic distinction of Paris as a centre for art, but, towards the end of his essay he notes, 'it is clearly impossible to avoid the impact of abstract art, and particularly the recent phases of it, which can be classed under the fatiguing, but fairly accurate, title of abstract expressionism'.2 His anxiety, then, concerned the emergence of America, and principally New York, as a metropolitan centre dominating the cultural landscape in the post-war period. Against this background his reflections on 'provincial' English art were melancholy. He recommended, as a concluding counsel, that English artists might be 'accepting (of) the provincial virtues and relating them to the dominant style'.3

Clark's unease in this address was shaped by his unchallenged metropolitan bias. Early in his address he had defined the 'problem of provincialism' noting that:

The history of European art has been, to a large extent, the history of a series of centres, from each of which radiated a style. For a shorter or longer period that style dominated the art of the time, became in fact an international style, which was metropolitan at its centre, and became more and more provincial as it reached the periphery... a style has the confidence and coherency of a metropolis.4

Because Clark was essentially a connoisseur he did not consider the centre, and its cultural currency, as a constituent part of economic and political power but viewed 'style' as an independent volition. In this frame the cultural dominance of the metropolis was fashioned by its focussed energy and creative innovation for the metropolis was where 'standards of skill are higher and patrons more exacting'.5 Within this construct Clark declaimed that 'No open-minded historian of art would deny that English painting is provincial'6 and, given that by English painting he meant art from the capital city of London, this placed Scottish art in an impossible situation; a periphery on the edge of a periphery, an outland to an already provincial hub.

At the period of Clark's writing, the early years of the 1960s, this issue of 'provincialism' was a critical topic in Scottish culture and art. From the 1930s the poet Hugh MacDiarmid and his collaborators in the Scottish Renaissance Movement had insisted that Scottish culture could engage with a 'local' vision while projecting an art that was international and universalist.7 In the 1960s this had become something of a trope amongst ambitious Scottish artists but not entirely a uniform position. Part of the momentum for a renewal of the discourse on the value of Scottish art and culture was bom of a revival of interest in Scottish nationalism at the political level. The 1960s was the decade where nationalist politics became credible and gained support amongst the Scottish electorate climaxing, after a number of false starts, in the election of eleven Scottish Nationalist MPs to the Westminster parliament in October 1974. …

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