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Culture Wars: Painting by politics

A democratic exhibition of People's Portraits does not get Mark Ryan's vote

Can we democratise art? People's Portraits, an exhibition of paintings of 'ordinary people' currently touring the country, would seem to suggest we can and we should. Previous eras, claims the blurb, gave us portraits of statesmen and grandees. This celebration of the ordinary person is supposed to give us a snapshot of who we are in the year 2000.

'Who are we?' is the sort of navel-gazing theme New Labour pursued at the Millennium Dome, to risible effect. It fares even worse here. To start with, the question has already set up the answer - it assumes there is a 'we'. 'The People' is little more than a figment of the culture industry's imagination: a twenty-first century equivalent of those terrible murals that inner-city Labour councils used to paint on derelict gable ends in the late 1970s, depicting council residents of every age, colour, sexual inclination and disability contorting their bodies in ecstatic frenzy in support of the council's nuclear-free policy. Now, this fantasy of ordinariness has support right across the spectrum.

The only redeeming feature of People's Portraits is that its contributing artists are more technically accomplished than the mural painters of the 1970s. But you wonder if the brief was much different. If, as the blurb suggests, the purpose of the exhibition is to show the rich diversity of our society, then it is not surprising that the painters came up with some odd subjects. Are blacksmiths, furniture makers and carpet weavers typical representatives of New Britain? Apparently there are still coracle-makers on the banks of the River Teme, though like many of the subjects in the collection, their jobs are not really jobs at all but hobbies. Almost every second one gives the usual old lament that his trade is on the verge of extinction and that he will be the last in the line. So the selection ends up proving not that we live in the most diverse society ever, but the very opposite: that our society is becoming more uniform. Like the richly fascinating community of happy citizens Noddy and Big Ears lived in, this one is entirely in the minds of its inventors.

Despite the attention to ordinary people, nearly all the subjects remain strangely remote and uninteresting. Even eccentric or whimsical subjects, such as the priest-clown Roly Bain (a figure who captures that peculiar idiocy of Middle England), left me cold. Apparently, all the artists were told to go out and pick somebody whose face they found interesting. That sounds all very nice and spontaneous, but what comes through just as much is the other side of such a procedure - its random, indifferent character. In the odd case, such as Thief by Robert Wraith, it works, perhaps because the random character of the procedure and the fleeting, wispish nature of the subject are in harmony with each other. The rest of them simply lack that commitment to the subject which is an essential ingredient of a good portrait. I was left wondering what would have happened if the artist had walked down a different street or gone to a different cafe - pre- sumably, we would have a different face, approached with the same shallow level of commitment.

I doubt very much if any true artist ever set about a portrait with the thought in his mind 'I am going to give future generations the representative face of my time'. It would be a contradictory move, because instead of a real commitment towards the subject in front of him, it would be starting out with some preconceived plan in which his subject was no more than a prop. This indifference to the subject would surely come through. It is commitment to the subject, in all its undivided intensity, which is the mark of a great portrait. The fullness of life which the subject acquires through this process, later generations then interpret as a sign of the face of the age.

Could any compendium designed along the lines of People's Portraits give us a more accurate representation of who we are in the year 2000? Even with the best of motives, I doubt it. Art is not made more comprehensive and complete by the application of spurious democratic principles, because art is not about democratic representation. The more portraits you add in an attempt to make up a composite picture of society, the more you demonstrate your uncertainty as to what the total picture might be. Not only that, but the more representative it tries to be, the more it leaves you with the sense that so many people have been left out. My first reaction was to ask, 'where are the IT consultants? Where are the McDonald's staff?'. Presumably none was sufficiently interesting for any of the artists concerned. The whole procedure only highlights its own undemocratic character. This is not people representing themselves, but being nominated from above according to whether they fit in with a preconceived notion of how New Britain should be.

Peter Faulkner, coracle-maker, by Tom Coates

Chris McCann, scaffolder, by June Mendoza

Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000



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