A typical definition of the concept ‘Artistic License’ would outline the notion that the artist may be perceived as having freedom to distort some aspect of their subject in order to bring attention to, criticise, or satirize it. But what about the deliberate distortion of political facts or truths? Clearly when we are dealing with analysis of the behaviour of politicians who operate the levers of power directly over the everyday facts of other people’s lives, then such a euphemistic understanding –ie to call their distortions, exaggerations and evasions merely ‘political license’, would be a woefully weak, naïve and inadequate trope for encapsulation of the behaviour at hand and its consequences. Yet take the name ‘Labour Party’ for instance. In the last decade of their government the total number of manufacturing jobs in the UK fell by a toll of around 50%, so the misnomer seems explicitly sarcastic, does it not? Is it indeed a satire? A Monty Python-, or Private Eye-type ‘arf ‘arf (think Fettes and Loretto in control here) at the earnestness of working class aspiration? Everyone knows that –what with the bailing out of the banks, the continual wars on foreign soil for oil, the support for the asset-stripping (ie loan repayment) of LDC’s by western firms, and closer to home the recent shutting down of Paddy’s Market and the threat now on the Barras too– this party ought to have earned a popular rebranding by now. If it were to remain true to the Marxist derivation of its original then its official name now would simply have to be ‘The Capital Party’.
But how did the Labour Party get to this pass; namely the abandonment of the primary advocacy of the needs of the workers, the poor and the vulnerable in society, and the promotion instead of the corporate economy and the values of private business interests? The accession of Tony Blair, his dropping of Clause IV from the constitution, the Granita agreement with Brown and all that is the meat and veg of the msm analysis of that history, but as James Kelman pointed out in a Free University get-together in 2008, some cities like Manchester and Glasgow were already experiencing the New Labour experiment at local level long avant-la-Blair-leadership-lettre. Essentially what we saw from the early 80s in Glasgow was a boosterist manifesto, with Mr Happy as Glasgow’s own little, even-fatter, cartoon Mussolini, exhorting collective delight, civic solidarity and pride in the image of an integrated, class-transcendent, undifferentiated society of jolly down-to-earth but cultured fellows. The Festivals agenda of the local authority in 1988, 1990, 1996 and 1999, then represented a further rejection of local social history and enquiry, and class solidarity, in favour of a vague cosmopolitanism (Sinatra and Pavarotti anyone? …Anyone?) masking the ongoing commodification of the arts through business partnership and private funding ,which acted in turn as the advance guard of gentrification, making areas of ex-working class Glasgow safe for commercial development and exploitation.
Is it then merely dramatic license to wonder whether the New Labour agenda is actually a neo-fascist one? James Kelman had gone on at the talk mentioned above, to say that the point was at least debateable. And the case is clear with the enshrining of the notion of the strong singular nation (cf. British Bulldog Gordon Brown), its rejection of class conflict and struggle (cf all middle class now Tony Blair), and its promotion of a private corporatist economy working in the supposed national interest. Perhaps that would be to go too far and to make the same hyperbolic mistakes as made by many on the left under the last Tory (Thatcher) government, when the word ‘fascist’ became devalued by overuse. Nonetheless we might do well to remember George Orwell’s advice, writing in Tribune in 1944, when considering the ‘almost entirely meaningless’ overuse of the word ‘fascist’. He goes on to write that within certain given circumstances, ‘almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much abused word has come.’
And that Orwellian synonym brings us rather neatly to the surname ‘Lally’. As a Labour councillor (twice suspended from the party for alleged irregular dealings) from 1966, council leader in the early 1990s, and Lord Provost in the mid 90s Lally was in the thick of the abandonment of any pretence to a workerist agenda in the Labour Party. Widely seen as the driver of the boosterist agenda of promotion of the city by Festival: the Glasgow Garden Festival 1988, the European City of Culture 1990, The UK City of Design 1996, the UK City of Architecture 1999; Lally brought in ‘culture’ (it has been estimated that only around 1% of the artists in the 1990 festival were citizens of Glasgow) to a city which he must have assumed had none of its own. As such Lally was a type of bête noir for various spontaneous grassroots groups and campaigners which sprung up amongst the citizens –eg Workers City, the Free University Network etc. These campaigning groups organised, demonstrated and published not only against the generally perceived corruption, abuses and misinformation put out by the city authorities, but also –and indeed principally– on specific issues like the effective removal of social historian Elspeth King from her position in Glasgow Museums, the proposed sell-off of part of Glasgow Green, and the institution of the pay-for-entry, but ultimately massive loss-making 1990 showpiece exhibition Glasgow’s Glasgow. But Lally, it has to be said, rose to their every challenge, on one occasion dismissing the campaigners in support of King as ‘po-faced protestations’ from ‘misfits, dilettanti, well-heeled authors and critics, self-proclaimed anarchists, Trotskyists.’
But if they do so like to rise to the occasion and organise festivals and celebrations (–next up, Commonwealth Games 2014 –watch out the East End poor and powerless, the itinerant and the downright unconventional, for the sharp end of the developers JCB is coming your way!–) then one has to wonder why 2010 has come and almost gone without a cheep from councillors about the 20th anniversary of their annus mirabilis? Are there some things they would rather sweep under the civic carpet and forget about? Can it be that no fanfare will blast even in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (GRCH), which was completed that very year surely, to accommodate such celebrations, such galas, such civic jamboree?
Built for the citizens after a thirty-year delay, with insurance money from the fire-destroyed St Andrew’s Halls, the best one could say about the architectural style of the GRCH is that it was sixty years out of date. Every political regime gets the buildings it deserves, so perhaps it is no surprise that comparisons have been made between the GRCH and the work of Piacentini, Mussolini’s architect in the 1930s. The question of fascism is unavoidably and unequivocally raised by this monumental temple to entertainment which dominates the walk up Glasgow’s biggest commercial and corporate retail street, so perhaps its even less of a surprise that the citizens should have nicknamed the building ‘Lally’s Palais’.
As chief medicine man in Glasgow’s cultural 1990 pow-wow, spiriting in business, privatisation, sell-offs, and nice-things-from-abroad-for-the-well-to-do to sweeten the bitter pill of living in a poverty-stricken city, and as self-appointed councillor member of the GRCH board, it was right that Lally’s personality should be so closely linked to the building. A Glasgow Herald editorial from 12th December 1990 wrote of him:
A partnership has arisen between the city council and the private sector which has become something of an example to others and has been rightly praised. To that process Councillor Lally has made a remarkable contribution. He has taken a potentially difficult Labour Group and through the exercise of his undoubted political skills, imposed unanimity on it and driven it down entrepreneurial paths it might otherwise have been reluctant to tread. His personal drive and commitment were important factors in securing completion of the Royal Concert Hall, by common consent the chief permanent legacy of 1990. He rules his group with a rod of iron. Hence the jokes about Lally’s Palais and Lallygrad.
But Lally can hardly be blamed for the actual boxy, overscaled architecture of the GRCH nor indeed for being the sole client in commission of it. He did however take an evidently keen interest in the interior design, inveigling, we might say, his tailor’s hand in a brazen political stitch-up which was both infamous and revealing.
Strathclyde Regional Council had decided it would organise an artistic competition for two large paintings which would be gifted to the new concert hall in celebration of Glasgow’s Year as Cultural Capital of Europe 1990. The two paintings were to represent the history of the region, and be made specially to size for hanging in the upper foyer of the newly completed building. In a ‘meticulous process to commission’ [i] the panel ‘of distinguished artists’[ii] , including the site (ie not design )architect of the building, chose the work of artist Ian McCulloch from over 150 artists who submitted slides for consideration. ‘The decision to select McCulloch was unanimous’. [iii]
The paintings are described in an article by Clare Henry in the Glasgow Herald of December 7th, 1990 thus:
The design comprises two panels, each addressing the theme of Strathclyde seen at different periods in time and social development. Raw black outlines his parade of heroic characters and seething personal bestiary which includes Mary Queen of Scots after the defeat at the Battle of Langside, Christ on the ass at Palm Sunday, and an industrial modern Adam with a spanner tongue.
When finally however the artistic gift was installed in position, The Glasgow Cultural Enterprises body, headed by Lally, seemed to look rather deeply and sceptically into the horse’s mouth. David Harding, writing in the Glasgow Herald on 22nd December 1990, describes the reception:
The paintings were completed in good time and finally installed. Councillor Lally didn’t like them and chose to reject them at their presentation ceremony, insulting his hosts, the artist, and the selectors. I was present at that occasion and sat through paeans for the co-operation between the region and the district during 1990 and for the artist and his work. The artist presented large wooden prints to each of the judges. Finally, Councillor Lally was invited to speak. His outright rejection of the paintings caused a shockwave of disgust, disbelief and bewilderment that this confessed believer in ‘culture’ should prove to be so lacking in the stuff.
Speaking to The Scotsman on 4th May 2010 McCulloch himself recalled the scene:
Pat Lally stood up and said the painting couldn’t stay there and would have to be taken down after a year. There was pandemonium.
Ultimately the paintings were in fact removed, during that very year of culture. They were said to have been taken to the Tramway, but since have disappeared completely. ‘According to McCulloch’, writes Claire Smith in The Scotsman (4/5/10),
the painting is not mentioned in any catalogues of work owned by Glasgow and the present whereabouts and condition of the painting is unknown
Even the very brochure printed for the occasion of the presentation, ( a copy of which the artist kindly sent to us, and from which we reproduce the images here) was suppressed immediately after the event and never distributed. Lally ultimately had the Strathclyde paintings replaced by ready made paintings by the so-called Famous Four, painters Steven Campbell, Ken Currie, Peter Howison, and Adrian Wiszniewski. These four are all accomplished artists, but the cynic might suggest that their fame and celebrity offered the sort of commodity with which Lally was more comfortable, regardless of the relative artistic merits of the works.
In a letter to the Glasgow Herald on 7th December 1990, McCulloch wrote of the paintings,
They were conceived and executed for the specific space they occupy and it was the specific intention of both the patrons –Strathclyde Regional Council– and the painter that they be hung in this most public of places to bear witness to the struggle of mankind for freedom: freedom in the first instance from blind nature: freedom from superstition: freedom from the brutalities attendant upon the doctrine of the divine right to rule: freedom from religious and political dogma: until at the end of the cycle man emerges dominant but rightly fearful of his future. This is what these paintings are about and that is what is being suppressed.
But Lally, seasoned political battler, was not to be bruised by such a swing from the left field, loaded though it was with artistic irony. He brazened it out, was uncompromising and unrepentant. For some reason McCulloch could not call on the legions of support that came with the grassroots groups mentioned above –their hatred of Lally notwithstanding. It’s difficult to speculate why groups that rallied and demonstrated for the like of Elspeth King did not come to McCulloch’s support. McCulloch does not appear to have been a part of any of these groups, he may have been perceived as a bourgeois artist whose case was a one-off instance of political brutality, rather than a part of a wider suppression of working class culture –as could be seen in the case of King. There is also the fact that these groups organised their campaigns on a rather piecemeal basis, and depended to a certain extent on the energies and concerns of committed individual members and their power to make a case. At any rate Lally was able to stand his ground: where a 1990 Workers City demo and facing down of a council committee within the City Chambers had once caused him to call a newspaper poll on the issue of selling off Glasgow Green, and then to abandon the plan altogether, he clearly recognised that McCulloch was an individual with no real political power or influence, and therefore was free to bully him as such.
Lally could thus brush off such accusations as McCulloch went on to make in his letter to the newspaper:
The issue being raised here is one of censorship and suppression. Whether an individual likes or does not like these paintings have become irrelevant. Because they were made and installed as a result of a free, open, and democratic process, an attack on them in the manner perpetrated by the leader of the Labour Group is an attack on freedom itself.
That’s not to say that no-one at all came to McCulloch’s defence; several friends and associates carried on a campaign through the pages of the Glasgow Herald. David Harding, then head of Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art, questions whence Lally’s licence to speak, judge, dismiss, and ultimately in fact, to trash. In an article on 22nd December 1990, he points out that Lally ‘has taken upon himself the mantle of sole arbiter’. Harding then goes on to ask,
Whose decision is it? Is Councillor Lally speaking for himself, the district council, the concert hall, or all three? We should be told. At present he seems to be enjoying retaining the notoriety for himself.
Throughout December 1990 two long critical articles about the affair –one by Harding, and one by The Herald’s resident art critic Clare Henry– were published, as well as an editorial, and several letters, including the one cited above from the artist himself. One problem with this campaign, however, is that again, Lally remains politically unharmed –witness the loveable-rogue tone of the Herald editorial above– by rational discourse in a bourgeois newspaper. Indeed the only form of protest that can move him, as witnessed in the Glasgow Green campaign, is, apparently, physical organisation and direct action. The case in defence of McCulloch is also, it must be said, –and despite the best well-meaning intentions of his defenders– fatally weakened by the attempt to rationalise and understand the roots of the disagreement, and to put Lally’s behaviour in some kind of context. When some of the defenders then seek some explanation for the dispute in the form and content of the artistic work itself, then the apologetic nature of the discourse only further harms the case.
Harding for instance, spends much time dismissing the popular nomination of the work as ‘murals’. While it is true that they were strictly speaking paintings because they were not painted directly on to part of the building’s structure, the irony must be that, in fact, like murals, they were completely lost and/or destroyed when removed from the building. Harding went on to say that despite the claims otherwise McCulloch could not be placed beside Diego Rivera as a great muralist, as he was not ‘committed and passionate’ about the form.
Similarly Clare Henry in her attempt to understand why anybody would reject the paintings writes,
The right hand side is less successful, mainly due to the hard-edged rectangles superimposed over the figures. So for instance it’s difficult to read the opening image …
And she goes on
By a more rigid ordering McCulloch wanted to suggest the domination of man over nature in the industrial era and the new system of ideas and values in our modern complicated world. A tall order which hasn’t quite come off.
He also bowed to the rectangular form of the concert hall architecture and its dramatic scale and changed his painting method considerably. Usually he works on an unprimed canvas using free lyrical washes of rich colour to bind his imagery. Here, because of the huge size and practicality of wall-fixing, he worked on a white primed canvas with thick paint and a palette knife. Thus the exciting fluency of pictures such as the Italian Centre mural is lost. That is not to say that panel two is any way a bad painting, merely that panel one is more successful.
With faint-praising pals like this, who needs bullying politicians? And again Alasdair Gray, as honest and earnest as the other friends, gets in on the act, when in a letter (reproduced in The Scotsman 4th May 2010), he probes at the notion of the painter as the unbending author of his own demise. Instead of pointing out (as he could have done) that the ‘spanner-tongue’ Adam is possibly influenced by a form seen in the work of Fernand Leger, thus siting the work in a mainstream great tradition, Gray gives it some local edge, and by way of that latter, a motive for the dismissal:
The artist intended this to be the post-industrial Adam –someone who without ideas or ideals, manages the world by his tongue rather than the sweat of his brow.
He continues, perhaps with his own tongue in cheek, to imply, pace David Harding, that Pat Lally is the best art critic of all:
I believe Pat Lally has taken this image in a personal way which the artist did not really intend.
As of 2010, a new age of cuts in public spending, of attacks on the welfare of the working class and on artists, is about to begin, but the lessons to be learned in dealing with bullying politicians are clear from this episode. With no real mobilisation of support, no solidarity and direct action against such bullies, the artist was left in this case, as The Scotsman relates, with few options to defend himself:
The artist stormed out of the official reception and mounted a legal challenge to try to force Strathclyde Region to keep the painting in place. Questions were asked in the Westminster parliament about artistic censorship…
But McCulloch did not ultimately pursue the legal option. In fact some years later as part of a review of Copyright Law published in the European Intellectual Property Review (Issue 1, 2003 ‘Copyright Issues Facing Galleries and Museums’), lawyer Keith Wotherspoon used the affair as a case study illustrating the statutory provisions which exist to protect the rights of artists who might wish to object to the public exhibition of a ‘derogatory treatment’ of their work. The two aspects of a successful claim by an artist for a breach of their integrity, would be proof that ‘treatment’ has taken place, and proof that said treatment is ‘derogatory’. Wotherspoon is of the opinion that under these conditions McCulloch’s claim would have been unsuccessful had he pursued it:
Clearly, any change to the physical integrity of a work will be a form of ‘‘treatment’’. But what about those cases where the physical integrity is preserved but the work is treated in some other way that the artist feels will harm his or her reputation? For example, would ‘‘treatment’’ cover relocation or complete removal of a work previously shown on public display? The writer can think of one example where this could have arisen. In 1990, the leader of Glasgow District Council announced shortly after the formal opening of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall that a mural unveiled at the opening would be taken down. The mural was subsequently placed in a basement storage room and (it is believed) has not been shown on public display since its removal. Glasgow District Council’s actions attracted a lot of publicity, not least because the artist who had designed the mural had won an international design competition that had attracted over 200 entries. The artist decided not take legal action against Glasgow District Council. In the writer’s opinion, on the basis of the United Kingdom’s narrow definition of ‘‘treatment’’, it is unlikely that the artist would have succeeded against Glasgow District Council. It would seem that conduct will only amount to treatment if it results in a change to the body of the work itself.
Remarkably, the legal expert here does not consider the ‘disappearancing’ of a work of art to constitute in any way a change to the body of the work. But what recourse is then left to the artist? It seems that McCulloch himself was deeply affected by the affair, and the slight on his reputation. He said to The Scotsman in May this year, ‘For twenty years I have continued to be puzzled by Glasgow City Council’s reception of the painting, which eventually resulted in its suppression.’ And in summer 2010, when GRCH had no celebration of its 20th anniversary, McCulloch marked the occasion by exhibiting a full size (12’ x 4’) detail of the painting at the Royal Scottish Academy annual exhibition at the Mound in Edinburgh. This section was made in 1990 for a Strathclyde Region educational documentary while he was working on the commission, and The Scotsman called its exhibition on the anniversary of the affair ‘provocative’. But if that exhibition represented a kick against the pricks and another stage in the coming to terms with the attack on his art, then McCulloch’s most recent exhibition at the Glasgow Collins Gallery as reviewed in The Drouth ‘Lost’ (issue 34, January 2010), showed a healthier and heartier picture of how the artist fought back in his own medium, and evolved an authentic artistic response to the attack: the exhibition featured an extensive show of printmaking works, which were executed in the early nineties in the wake of the concert hall disaster. McCulloch shall, at least here, get the last word, and he says of these works,
Each of the prints in the exhibition is part of an edition. This means that even if one print is destroyed or suppressed, there are others to take its place. […] Paintings by their nature are unique and therefore more vulnerable in the face of society’s indifference or hostility. In addition, therefore, to the delight and catharsis which I have experienced in making these prints, I relish the fact that they are almost unsuppressible – there are simply too many of them!