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The ship of Scottish social justice is on the rocks, according to novelist William Mcllvanney. Sue Wilson talked to him about salvage plans.
‘Taken seriously, ideas are dangerous.’ writes William Mcllvanney. ’But not as dangerous as the absence of taking them seriously.‘ It‘s one of many punchy, pungent nuggets of belief which pepper the novelist’s first non-fiction work. Surviving the Shipwreck. a collection of his journalistic output from the past decade or so. The pieces range through topics from devolution to discos to dog-racing. but all are motivated by his faith in the power of ideas to alter reality, political or otherwise.
The ‘shipwreck‘ of the title is the term Mcllvanney uses to describe the foundering of social idealism, ‘the loss of belief in our ability significantly to reconstruct society towards a more justly shared community of living.‘ More specifically, it refers to the corrosive effects of twelve Thatcherite years on the elements of Scotland‘s culture he holds most dear. ’l think the belief in social justice which has been implicit in a lot of Scottish life is under threat.‘ he says. ‘What offends me is that it‘s not by any depth of ideological or political argument. Instead of convincing people. then
eliciting circumstances out of that conviction. Thatcherism created circumstances that programmed how they would think — if you put people in deep enough shit. then they are going to behave below their own best; if you do it long enough. you will erode the habit of compassion and concern for others. and I think that‘s what‘s happening. And so i suppose the book is my attempt to shout from the sidelines; however feeble your voice. I think you're as well to raise it. to say that you are aware of an alternative truth to the one they‘re preaching.‘
One of Surviving the Shipwrecks many strengths is its success in negotiating these kinds of issues without becoming bogged down in ponderous political polemic.
Mcllvanney"s writing is fired by conviction. a passionate belief in the values he is defending. but the passion is controlled and articulated with a down-to-earth elegance. A central element in the Scottish political tradition. he says. is the belief that ‘thought and feeling are only happy as a married couple . . . while we love ideas. we don‘t like to see them wandering about dangerously on their own. unchaperoned by experience.‘ His own arguments. accordingly. are rooted in human reality. firstly in his own past. ‘ln the background I came from. people gave. people helped each other. not for any motive. but just because that‘s what people did. I
f remember the conversations we used to have when l was a kid in
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Kilmarnock; when we spoke of the future we weren‘t wondering if we‘d have a five-bedroomed house. or if we‘d have a Porsche. It was about the kind of experience you might have; there was a sense that what what was valuable in life wasn't measurable in that kind of materialistic way.‘
While Mcllvanney’s broad themes — the threats to Scotland‘s humanitarian tradition. the issues of Scottish identity and the urgent need for some concrete form of national self-realisation — remain more or less constant throughout. his arguments depend on a marvellous variety of often colourful. and occasionally hilarious real-life characters and situations. We follow him through conversations in pubs. on trains, in taxis; to an unlicensed dog-track and an old people‘s home; on the World Cup trail to Argentina and Spain. where the Scottish obsession with football occasions some of his most perceptive and thoughtful observations.
Mcllvanney isn‘t only out to observe. however; he wants to see some of these ’dangerous‘ ideas translated into action. More than once in the book he expresses his fear that Scottish radicalism cannot survive in the wilderness much longer. Given the steady pressure of policies from Westminster. he believes that Scots must find the courage to turn aspirations into reality. and find it soon. ‘At the moment we can afford to be as radical as we like. because our idealism isn’t tested daily in government] he says. ‘If we really believe. as I think we do. in a greater sense of social justice than is represented at Westminster. then I
; think we should test it. see how far we can live with our own ideals.
There‘s a kind of benign i'isk about 5 it. which I think it would be good for us to take.‘
Surviving the Shipwreck is published by .lluirzstreum at [12.99.
_ Art con
Jean Gimpel’s powerful diatribe Against Art and Artists was first published in 1968, the result of his profound disillusionment with the world of which his artistic pedigree obliges him to be a part — he is a member of the Parisian art-dealing family, Gimpel et fils. A crisis of conscience drove Gimpel away from the hubbub in his thirties and, in 1958, he wrote The Cathedral Builders, a non-polemical essay, not about designers and architects, but about the masons who actually built France's gothic cathedrals, their working conditions and rates of pay.
You can appreciate the forces that led Gimpel to vent his spleen in Against Art
and Artists: he was writing in the heyday of an icons, at a time when Picasso was swapping houses for pictures. His alternative History of Art starts with the financial manoeuvrings of Giotto, ‘the first bourgeois painter’, in the 14th century, moves on to the battle between Church and artist during
the Reformation, to the artist’s role at
court and later the sell-martyrdom of Gauguin. Gimpel's prime concern is to pin down the point at which art ceased to be a profession and became
elevated to a vocation — a difficult task; '
Michelangelo was referred to as divine in his own lifetime (although Leonardo da Vinci was branded a man of the Mechanical Arts because he had no knowledge of Greek or Latin).
in a sense this is a traditional Marxist polemic, questioning the right of an elite to decide what is Art, decrying the ‘decadence’ of the artist’s bohemian lifestyle and the hypocrisy of the bourgeois buyer who admires a
92 The List 20 December 1991 — 16 January 1992
painting for its name-tag. and then
abhors it when it proves to be a fake, regardless of the ‘artistic' merits of the work. ‘The only works of art that should
be considered beautiful‘, says Gimpel, ’are those which have contributed, or contribute, to the making of a better world.’ The last chapter, Art: an Enemy of the People, brings the essay up to date with a mention of falling church-attendances, and the conclusion that Art has, once and for all, replaced Religion. Gimpel's argument is neither as brash, nor as clear as Muriel Gray’s Art is Dead, Long Live TV. But ultimately Gimpel incriminates anyone who would be a a part of the ‘art world' — the artist whose motives are not always pure, the audience for its foolishness and the unpalatable snobbery of the ‘experts' who would rather keep their art to a select few, while financing it as the expense of the masses. A salutory indictment, indeed. (Miranda France)
Against Art and Artists, by Jean Gimpel, is published by Polygon, at £8.95