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I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on janpatience@me.com (All work © Jan Patience)

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Ugly Beauty? I like it (Roger Scruton...)

I always like a good art documentary. I’m open-minded, me. Art of Spain, School of Saatchi, Portrait of Scotland… it’s all grist to the art mill and I’m always hungry to find out more about a subject which I find endlessly fascinating.
So, there we are on Saturday night. Kids happily in bed, a roaring fire, a glass of red wine, a husband who will go to any length to avoid I’m A Celebrity and a remote control hovering beneath his restless hand.
Which is the point at this we fall upon Roger Scruton's Why Beauty Matters, which was being shown as part of BBC2's modern beauty season.
‘Oh, this looks good,’ said I.
‘OK,’ husband replied, a little too enthusiastically, anxious to avoid the travails of Justin without Colin and Kim n George in the caravanette in the jungle.
And then, Roger began. For a few minutes I wondered if he’d strayed out of CBEEBIES, as his tone was patronising to say the least. (Actually, the CBBEBIES presenters are less patronising…)
He chuntered on about the tradition of beauty uplifting us from the mire of everyday ugly life for what seemed like an eternity.
Artworks which clearly fitted his bill were flashed on screen. Martin Creed’s Turner-winning Lights Going On and Off appeared, as did Damien Hirst’s pickled cow and Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal dating back to 1917.
It was all his fault apparently. He started it. He did you know.
Yes, this cult of modern ugliness all started with Marcel Duchamp.
And to illustrate his point, Roger took to wandering the streets of Reading, his hometown.
‘Gone were the lovely Victorian terrace streets, elegant public buildings and smart hotels,’ he wrote in yesterday’s Daily Mail. ‘In their place were huge, grey, concrete slabs. The welcoming surroundings of the old town centre had been replaced by buildings deemed to be 'useful'.
An interesting point is it not that the town planners of the 20th century were the sole proponents of ugliness? I found myself wondering if the poor buggers from Reading who lived in huts and hovels throughout the preceding centuries had any say in the matter of beauty. Why let that get in the way of a good Victor Meldrew-style rant though.
At this point, Roger moved on to Tracey Emin and her infamous unmade bed, dating back to 1998.
After seeing Emin’s stand-out retrospective in Edinburgh last year, my views on her work and art turned full circle. In a strange way, I found myself comparing her to Jane Austen. In the same way Austen defined what it was to be a country gentlewoman on the lower fringes of polite society in the early days of the 19th century, so Emin did with her life as a woman coming-of-age in the late 20th century.
Tracey dancing in the film ‘Why I Never Became a Dancer’, Tracey talking to her mum on camera at the kitchen table (with us, the viewers perched on little seats made for a child), Tracey’s abortion paraphernalia, Tracey’s diaries, Tracey’s tapestries (particularly ‘Why I do Not Expect to be A Mother‘, Tracey’s mum's nursing chair covered with the fabric she lived with as a child, Tracey’s take on the death of her uncle Colin in a car accident, Tracey’s bed.
It was thought-provoking, moving and beautiful by degrees. All of it. Even the bed.
I saw Emin talking about the show on TV beforehand and was interested in her comments about the bed in particular. She made the point that it was over ten years since she put this piece together and seeing it re-assembled was like seeing a little bit of her own history. ‘I mean I don’t even smoke now,’ she said, in reference to the piles of B&H packets which littered the floor along with the condoms.
I’d like to tell you that Roger made some valid points after this particular piece of frothing at the mouth over that brazen hussy Emin, but I’m sorry to say, at that point, I had to turn to Justin, George and Kim in the jungle to allow me to calm down.
I’m as much an advocate of beauty as the next man or woman in the street, and sometimes I cringe at so-called conceptual art when I see it. There is so much bad conceptual art around, but there is so much good stuff too. If you open your eyes and your mind, it can be so rewarding.
Yes, there is an element of The Emperor's New Clothes about much of it, but that in itself has become a cliche.
Art is constantly moving and changing. Like life.
In my humble opinion, art is about so much more than mere beauty. It’s about understanding the human condition -about seeing ourselves as others see us, as the poet Robert Burns put it in his poem To a Louse, which cut to the quick of the argument about looking beneath the surface to find a deeper truth.
Beauty fades but good art can live forever.


  1. Sorry, Jan but it's good to tell you're a journalist. There is nobody less likely to froth at the mouth than Roger Scruton and his points about Tracey Emin were well made and his whole tone considered and not in the least patronising. Scruton's is a voice of sanity in a modern world that has lost its way. I would love to see your journalese compete with his elegance in a debate on the human condition!

  2. Thank you for featuring Patricia Cain's work and the profile her commission to document the creation of Zaha Hadid's wonderful Riverside Museum. Its a great privilege to have her supporting the project.
    Gavin McLellan, Director, Riverside Appeal

  3. Two quite unrelated comments here, but all welcome!
    Is it good to tell I'm a journalist? mmh, there's one to ponder. I can only speak as I find, and I had to couldn't hang in there on the Roger Scruton documentary. Give me beauty, beauty and more beauty though. I'm with you on that, Chris. Not so sure about the modern world having lost its way. That seems a Daily Mailism to me, I think if you trotted through history and had a chat with random people en route, you'd find a goodly few who felt the modern world had lost its way.
    Thanks for that comment Gavin. Will drop you an email. Trish's work is amazing.


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