Clear Edges, Hard Boundaries

Eric Gill: The Body, with Cathie Pilkington RA, Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, Ditchling, 29th April to 3rd September

There are electronic devices, capacitors, diodes, which allow electric current to flow only one way. It can’t flow back, much as it might want to. There is a need for such a device in other fields of endeavour, the arts for example.

It is axiomatic, or has become so, that art expresses the artist. In fact, there is no other definition of art that has any social (or practical) traction. That painting is by that person. If it’s by anyone else it’s a fake and so worthless, financially and artistically.

So, a particular painting is deemed, by those that know, good, worthwhile, valuable. It might even be worth money. The current then flows back the other way: the particular artist in question is, by definition, also good, worthwhile, valuable.

When this whole artistic, social, financial concept, this happy back and forth, is threatened, cue panic. It’s absolutely fine for an artist to be a murderer, a sociopath, a gambler, a drunk, a wife-beater, a genocidal maniac, but if he is a child molester, Houston, we have a problem. (And, to be clear, child molestation is an horrific crime. It is the wrecking of a life.)

What to do? There are only two choices really. Install a diode or two and accept that art has nothing whatsoever to do with the artist, that severing the link between art and artist has many philosophical upsides, that in fact that is how art actually works, or else double down on the artist as individual genius and delve ever deeper into his tortured and twisted psyche on the understanding that there must be some good in there somewhere, if not in him per se, in those within his orbit. In his daughter for example. Let’s find out more juicy details about her. That will be redemptive.

If we look at the difference between Shakespeare (say) with his integrated stories and Jane Austen with her clear class differentiators, or John Donne (always rabbiting on about the metaphysical) and Wordsworth (rowing like crazy in his little boat on a lake and scaring himself to death as he watches a mountain seeming to grow larger and larger the further away he gets) the industrial revolution, with its factories producing multiple individual products rather than society producing together what it needs, drove a narrative, or overarching metaphor, that people were individuals, separate, with clear edges, not members of a connected human race, with indistinct boundaries, shimmering into each other.

Factory-produced products, even at the very beginning, were pretty clearly a danger to the concept of the human soul. People as servants to machines, parts easily replaced, where would that lead? Nowhere good the poets said. If I can produce something beautiful, something sublime, something which touches that which surpasses understanding, so can anyone, yes, even those toiling in your factories. Everyone has within themselves the path to redemption.

Diodes had not yet been invented. Nor, yet, had the perception of their need. Clear edges, hard boundaries, factories, products, the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries rolled on, inventions and horrors hard on one another’s heels, a rushing stream of hope and despair.

And while industry was relentlessly pursuing its upward trajectory during the period of the First World War, that great machine for producing individual corpses, Eric Gill was beginning his career, much influenced by the ideas of the so called Arts and Crafts Movement; ‘have nothing in your home which isn’t useful or beautiful’ (or both one assumes). In other words, be careful what tat you introduce into your life, it can uplift, but it can also corrupt, debase, sully.

And here we find ourselves, in need of another diode. If electricity can flow backwards and forwards, willy nilly, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that whatever device you can think of will pretty quickly stop working. And that includes the redemptive qualities of art. If that vase or that picture is uplifting, or morally improving, what about that one? And why that one and not that one?

And this kind of back and forth, underwritten by this idea that art and artist are inextricably linked, can be found causing trouble in all sorts of places. You are successful and rich. You must be good, valuable, worthwhile. You aren’t rich. You must be a waste of space, morally and physically degenerate, beneath notice. Fit for the scrapheap. And worse still, you own your own failure. It’s your own fault you aren’t rich.

Paradoxically, Eric Gill himself was always trying to find the line, shape, flow, structure in whatever he turned his attention to; the abstract rather than the representational; the impersonal rather than the emotional; the external rather than the internal. When he was awarded the commission for the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral he says that, luckily, he had ‘complete and genuine ignorance of art-school anatomy and traditional academic style’. In other words, he was free to make his figures graphical rather than representational. His work is better seen in the context of architecture, of memorials rather than of self-expression, of supporting and blending with the imperatives of others rather than particularly his own.

He was active in that difficult period, between the wars, when classical styles were co-opted in support of some pretty unpleasant ideas (it’s hard to think of some types of neo-classical art and architecture without thinking of Hitler and Stalin) but Eric Gill’s work turns a pretty determined face against any kind of centralised control, of ideological certainty.

As confronting as this exhibition is, in that the first object you see is Petra’s doll, naked, a fetishised avatar for every bit of gossip, all the hearsay (though none of this seems to have become widely known until fifty odd years after Gill’s death) it’s not immediately clear what purpose the exhibition is trying to serve, what particular issue about Eric Gill, or indeed about the purpose of the museum itself, it is trying to defuse.

Is it the sin of omission? That silence implies guilt? Or a guilty conscience at least? Everyone will feel better when it’s all out in the open; a sin confessed is a sin forgiven? 

In fact this exhibition, in its relentless focus on the artist, and as he is found wanting, on his daughter, draws attention, perhaps unwittingly but valuably none the less, to the culture wars which seem to be raging all about, rich vs poor, right vs left, Brexit vs remain, those who believe in the redemptive, the morally uplifting, quality of art, that art somehow vindicates their wealth, their success, their comfortable circumstances and those, less lucky, who think it’s a great steaming pile of political correctness.

No longer is the battle between labour and capital, but between those for whom individual genius has uplifted, imparted wealth, sprinkled joy, and those who have found themselves excluded by the cult of individuality, for whom the whole concept of individual genius has meant horror, famine, struggle, the death of hope.

Paul Corcoran