‘A Great Summer of Art’

25 Jul 2012 in Robert Livingston Blog

I hate sport. All sport and any sport, from tiddlywinks to Premier League Football. So, this dismal summer has held a particular horror for me, what with Wimbledon, Euro 2012, wall-to-wall golf tournaments, and now, at long, long last, the London Olympics.

I am not unreflective about this passionate aversion. I know that it has a good deal to do with being bad at sports at school, and so being subject to the petty tyrannies of two sad, middle-aged PE teachers whose unthinking cruelties I cannot forgive, more than forty years on. And I have tried to get into the mind of the true sports fanatic. I read Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’ with real pleasure, but put it down no wiser about the basic question as to how someone as intelligent and educated as Hornby could waste his time on the idiocies involved in being a dedicated team supporter.

This leads me to want to make two points. The first is to deplore, by analogy, any campaign or strategy which talks of getting ‘everyone involved in the arts’. I’ve just Googled the phrase ‘arts for all’ and got 2,950,000,000 hits. You couldn’t pay me to go to a football match (well, you could, but it would have to be in four figures), so I have some sympathy with anyone who says ‘you couldn’t drag me to an opera’ because they know that they couldn’t stand all that yodelling in Italian or German.

Only some sympathy, because while, as a Glaswegian, I have been daily exposed to the beautiful game almost since birth, there is so little real opera shown through the media that it’s understandable if most people’s idea of the artform is Lesley Garrett in a Union Jack dress. But my basic point stands: art is no more for everyone than sport is. Everyone has the right to opt out, though my right to opt out of sport feels distinctly undermined just at the moment.

My other point is about ageism. With only a few exceptions, top end achievement in the Olympics, as in so many sports, is for the young. There were those, after all, who said that Murray could have beaten Federer if the older player hadn’t had time to recover his energy while the roof was being closed. Federer is 30.

Undoubtedly there is ageism in the arts, as in all walks of life, but it’s much less intrinsic than in competitive sport. Think of the wonderful Christopher Plummer winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the age of 82, or Jeremy Irons (64) acting young turks Joe Armstrong and Tom Hiddlestone off the screen in the BBC’s recent films of the two parts of Henry IV. I very much enjoyed a Herald interview this week with one of my favourite actors, Bill Paterson (67; he went to my old school, but not at the same time as me!), in which he talks about the pleasures and rewards of being an older actor, and reminisces about his experiences of working with the great George Wyllie, who died earlier this year aged 90. George only became a fulltime artist after retiring at the age of 58 from his post as a customs officer. In the 1980s I had the great pleasure of working with George on a number of projects, and in his sixties he had more energy and inventiveness than most artists a third of his age.

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, whom I also knew in the 1980s as she was President of the Friends of the Crawford Centre, the arts centre I was running. Willie worked right up to her death at the age of 92, and each decade her art seemed to become more luminous and joyous.

I had meant to write before now about this year’s Royal Scottish Academy annual exhibition.  which was a revelation for me, in the way it devoted so much of the wall space to ambitious installations by some 22 artists. Although these invitees were of all ages, it was the seniors who most impressed me, with artists like Doug Cocker (67), Harris-based Steve Dilworth (63), and the RSA’s former President Bill Scott (who sadly died at the age of 77 just before the exhibition opening), all at the absolute top of their game.

Of course, it can be argued that the late flowering creativity of older artists is such a well-known phenomenon, from Titian to Lucian Freud, that the real risk is that it’s ‘mid-career’ artists who can get overlooked. So it’s fitting that, for me, the most astounding work in an RSA show full of good things was a sculpture by Annie Cattrell (graduated GSA, 1984) entitled ‘Conditions’ . Words can’t describe, or photographs capture, the astonishing, magical, ethereal beauty and fascination of this piece, and if you miss its current showing at Timespan in Helmsdale, then, along with several other breathtaking works, ‘Conditions’ will be on show at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery from August till October. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. For me, Annie Cattrell has accomplished something finer, and more lasting, in this sculpture, than all the medal-winning achievements that will dominate the media in the coming weeks. (Though, grudgingly, I have to admit, that Bradley Wiggins is quite something…).


© Robert Livingston