Mark Gisbourne. Photo: Oliver Mark

The Sixties. Revisited 0

Q&A with art historian, critic and curator, Mark Gisbourne

Pēteris Bankovskis

Mark Gisbourne (1948) is a former assistant tutor, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London; Lecturer, Slade School of Fine Art, University College, University of London; and Post-Graduate Senior Lecturer in Post-war and Contemporary Art, at Sotheby's Institute (Manchester University Master's Programme). Also, former President of the British Art Critics Association (AICA), as well as former International Vice President. He co-organised the World Congress of Art Critics at Tate Modern, 2000. A curator and critic, his many publications include Berlin Art Now (Thames & Hudson, English and German editions, 2006); and Double Act: Two Artists One, Expression (Prestel, German and English editions 2007), and more recently, TERRAE 'Manel Armengol' (Turner Books, English and Spanish editions 2010); Martin Assig: Vasen, Gipfel, Menschen (Schirmer/Mosel English/German, 2010); and Ann Wolff: Persona (Kerber, German and English editions). Books on photography documenting the building of Brasilia, and contributions to POLISH, a new book on Polish contemporary art, are forthcoming. Gisbourne currently lives and works in Berlin.

He was the curator for the exhibition “Elective Affinities. German Art Since the Late 1960s” (17 Jun - 21 Aug, ARSENĀLS Exhibition Hall, Riga).

Curator Mark Gisbourne (in the middle, sixth from left), together with the artists of the exhibition “Elective Affinities. German Art Since the Late 1960s”. Exhibition's opening day at ARSENĀLS Exhibition Hall, Riga. Photo: Anete Straume

I am a child of the sixties.

Then let us start with the sixties. From 1967 until 1971, you served as a police officer. Were you not then “on the wrong side”?

Yes, that’s what everyone says. They used to ask me where I was in 1968. And I say, I was in the square, Grosvenor Square, of course, where the riots took place, where there were these large demonstrations against US involvement in the Vietnam War. But what people do not realize is that I was sent in from the countryside to help the London Metropolitan Police. I come from a very rural environment, from Stratford-on-Avon, where Shakespeare was born; I went to the school where Shakespeare studied. I was a very strange child at school, in some ways.

Shakespeare was strange as well. Nobody knows whether there was a Shakespeare at all.

Well, there are enormous debates about it.

But you said you were a strange child.

Yes, I was a strange child. This was a particular age, the sixties, when I was sometimes first and second in my class, but then next term, I was the twenty fifth. I was a big dreamer, and I learned only the things I was interested in. Perhaps that is why, much later on, I became a teacher and lecturer myself.

For five years (1977–1982) you were a Franciscan (OFM) friar in Britain and in Rome. Where did this vocation come from?

I was in pursuit of values in those days. When I joined the police force, I joined it in a very noble way – I wasn’t particularly interested in having power over people, as one might get through being a policeman. I had a rather noble view of the police: that they served people, and that under the the law, all are equal, etc. A policeman, to me, seemed to be like Saint George, you know. It is quite a noble and yet naive view. What I could not quite envisage is the emotional damage it does. Aristotle says in “The Nicomachean Ethics” that you become the way you live – whatever way you live, that is what you become. And, being a policeman – because they deal with the worst elements of society: sudden-death accidents, violence, criminality – you start to develop a rather negative view of life, and of people in general.

But the Gospels say that even Jesus hung out with tax-collectors and prostitutes.

Yes, in a way he did. This is also a noble view. But I was starting to become quite negative as a policeman, after four years of it. I was a Coroner’s Officer for a time, so at a rather young age, I saw a lot of dead people – people who had died, sometimes, in horrible circumstances. You will agree that it can make one quite hardened. I found that it was emotionally damaging for me. And I decided to leave the police force.

Your background – is it Catholic?

Yes, I am a Catholic, though my parents were not particularly religious. My family never really converted during the Reformation – they belong to the so-called Old English Catholics. Only five percent of the people in Britain are Catholics, and of them, only five percent are original English Catholics; all others are mostly of Irish descent. So, technically, I am Catholic, but it was only years later, in India, where I worked with Mother Teresa among the poor and destitute, that I became more religious. But even when I became more religiously motivated, I never fell in with the so-called “bells and smells” aspects of religion. I was interested in concrete deeds and social action. When I became Franciscan and was not studying in Rome, I lived with street alcoholics in London.

I ask about your religious background because of the quite wide-spread and sloppy notion of “art as religion”, etc. For instance, Jonathan Franzen, the American novelist, pronounced not so long ago that he does not think much more about science than about religion when he’s writing, and, to him, art itself is a religion.

I know, this opinion is wide-spread and comes from Romanticism. It is the notion that the artist is a prophet, and religions are full of prophets.

You left the Order without taking vows, didn‘t you?

No, I took the vows every year. As a Franciscan, you take the simple vows for four years, and then on the fifth year, you take what is called the solemn vows, and then you become a priest. I took vows for four years: poverty, chastity and obedience. In England, the Friars take the annual vows on 8 December, the Feast of Immaculate Conception. John Duns Scotus was the theologian of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, a view that enhances Jesus’ redemptive work, and that’s why the English province is under the spiritual protection of Mary of the Immaculate Conception. But people often misunderstand Franciscans. They are not monks, and neither are Dominicans. They are mendicant friars.

But you need not become a priest – you can stay in the Third Order, or live as a simple lay brother.

Yes, but I left for another religion, you could say – the religion of art.

 “Elective Affinities. German Art Since the Late 1960s”. Photo: Elīna Bērziņa

Religion or not, art was the line you decided to pursue at Courtauld Institute of Art.

Yes, I got my BA and did my doctoral research there. Courtauld is a very strange place. It is quite an elite place – it then took only 30 people out of thousands of applications every year, and many of the most prominent museums in Britain and elsewhere in the English-speaking art world are run by Courtauld people. It is a little mafia; it is sometimes called “The Wasp Mafia”.

Wasn’t this turn of yours towards art also a Romantic act?

Yes, in a way. But I didn’t start with contemporary art. Coming from a religious background with my knowledge of theology and philosophy, I turned first to Renaissance art. But the problem with Renaissance studies is that you feel you are in dead men’s shoes all the time. I read somewhere that Jeffrey Ruda, who is or was considered the world’s greatest expert on Filippo Lippi, found just one new document in nearly fifty years of original research. Thus, for my doctoral research, I dived into a very strange area: Madness, Mediums and Marginalia in France: 1801–1928. I wanted to trace back how various marginal art forms (the art of the insane, of children, of “primitives”) went into the mainstream of art in the 20th century. The word “primitive” I use here ironically and perversely, in the meaning applied to it by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939) in La mentalite primitivé (1922) – as derived from his earlier doctoral research that he called Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1910).

Do you think that with your doctoral research, you had made a full circle, that is, ending up returning to “life” with outcasts, as in your police service and Franciscan years?

Maybe, but this was the art of the insane, degenerates, children. Once considered to be an atavistic art of outcasts, it was something that increasingly occupied a central part of European mainstream art by the mid-20th century, at the time of the anti-psychiatry movements.

If art is not a religion, what is it then?

Nobody knows. There was an attempt from the late 19th century onward to try and systematize the study art, as if it were a social science, but it is always subjective.

You mean by Alois Riegl et al.?

Yes! But art is always subjective; it constantly evades definitions. Of course, all social science is subjective, too, at least to some degree. So, an artist or, for that matter, an art critic, cannot pretend to be either a prophetic priest or a scientific guru.

I recently read an interview with a bartender in a weekly magazine. He voiced the (perhaps popular) opinion that in the 21st century, the innkeeper is the priest.

Today we face a great many strange and marginal cults; it is, indeed, an unbelievable cocktail. As with art, the problem in the postmodern world is that everybody can be an artist, and seemingly anything can be art, because all is relative. So we talk about the art of cooking, or the art of fashion. Yes, and we talk just as readily about the art of cocktail-making. Of course, it is far and remote from the systematic developmental claims of the 19th century, when art used to be part of aesthetics, and less part of the theories driven by the relativising cults of culture.

In an essay back in 1990, John Berger argued that “the spiritual, marginalized, driven into corners, is beginning to reclaim its lost terrain. Above all, this is happening in people’s minds. The old reasoning, the old common sense, even old forms of courage, have been abandoned, and unfamiliar recognitions and hopes, long banished to the peripheries, are returning to claim their own”. Here he expressed hopes that were quite common after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But not only this.

Well, there is a very famous 18th-century French philosopher, François-Marie Arouet, known by his nom de plume Voltaire, who has suddenly regained favour within the last fifteen years or so. Why is this? Because there is a very famous quote from Voltaire. It says: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”. So, in a certain sense, from an ontological point of view, the question is whether God exists or not – whether man needs a spiritual religious dynamic in his life, or whether it is just an illusion, yet still a necessity. The interesting thing with Voltaire is that he lived on this bridge between deism and atheism; one day flirting with one direction, another day – with the other. And this position, this mental position, this liminal position, as it is called, is very much alive in the contemporary world. A lot of people are living in this state of liminality, with a feeling of in-betweenness. And of course, it is exaggerated by the relativism of the modern age.

This in-betweenness, isn’t it also characteristic of the contemporary art world?

Yes, because the art world is but a reflection of the real world. The liminality of the modern world is also expressed within artistic practice. This is why there are no definitive boundaries between things anymore – When and where does the object turn into a sculpture? Where does a border between a drawing and a watercolor, or anything else, lie? There are no boundaries, and this is because of the continuous state of blurring. But this began a long time ago, in the sixties, in the previous century.

“Elective Affinities. German Art Since the Late 1960s”. Photo: Elīna Bērziņa

Nevertheless, we still face the prolonged active phase of this.

True. If we speak about postmodernism as a separate thing from modernism, putting aside Frederic Jameson, and the once fashionable Marxist debate about late-capitalism, we must acknowledge that postmodernism is embedded in modernism – it is but an extension of modernism. But in this extension, it is a priori and a posteriori. You, perhaps, remember the famous Jean-François Lyotard saying: “Postmodernism precedes modernism.” What he means by that is – the polyphonic nature of contemporary artistic practice: its exaggerated nature, the playfulness of it, where nothing ever has a stable meaning, and where there is no sense of a stable ontology or secure essence. And this was also precisely the milieu during the Enlightenment, out of which the first modernist project was constructed. Of course, there are many definitions of modernism; one can say that modernism in art began with Manet, or with Picasso, but I think that the first tendencies of modernism began with the Enlightenment.

Don’t you think that if we can subdivide the whole process into Modernism and Postmodernism, maybe we can also subdivide it into Realism and Romanticism? 

This process can be labeled if we return to a certain cliché of the 19th century, the eternal return. If you remember, the first modern philosopher who wrote about, and implied at least, eternal repetition was Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, in 1843 (and later, of course, Nietzsche). In a very famous essay, he stated that the future will become more and more a repetition after repetition. And he says that repetition, progressively moving forward, is fine, but not so with recollection. Since recollection, for Kierkegaard, is trying to rebuild the past, while repetition is merely the ongoing engine of the future. So, that is one way of looking at things.

As for me, I think that we live in a polyphonic world where there are no boundaries anymore between high and low culture. One day we can listen to Wagner, the next day we can listen to Bob Marley, which is not bad in itself (I like Marley myself). But this polyphony makes distinctions, and leads to levelling – to horizontal levelling by reducing everything to the same value. This surely is what inspired people like Gilles Deleuze to argue against any possibility of judgment about values. It led to a seeming deconstruction of all values, and this is the biggest crisis we are living in now.

It is, indeed. 

And the question is, how to reconstruct the value system. This is the dark side of postmodernism. The Enlightenment and modernism, as such, were about the pursuit of knowledge. In the past, knowledge was a pursuit in itself and for itself. Postmodernism is not about the pursuit of knowledge; it is about how to utilize knowledge, it is about the utilization of the given, and about the instrumentalization of knowledge. It is not always about the virtue of the pursuit of knowledge for itself. And this is why technology, which is the ensuing product of scientific research, has, in turn, overwhelmed science. Everybody is fascinated with iPhones and all the other things that are nothing but the residue of the what was once a scientific pursuit. So, I think that postmodernism is problematic for it lacks a value system.

What is the purpose of AICA (The International Association of Art Critics) in the postmodern world? You have been President of AICA’s British section, as well as International Vice President.

The task is shaping and directing the informational field of criticism. Though the critic’s role as the messenger of art has been largely undermined by modern social technology.

Establishing values?

Establishing values, of course. It is also about the language. I always used to remind my students: If you write about art and use words like “beautiful” and “sublime”, these have nothing to do with art history; these are aesthetic and philosophical words and categories. If you use words like “originality” and “intensity”, these are words born of the history of criticism, specifically tied to culture. Aesthetics is tied to civilization; it is tied to the principles which underline what we all share as a part of Western civilization. It’s why there are the asserted universal aesthetic theories like those by Hegel, and Kant, etc. Aesthetics is one language. Criticism is another language, and it is about difference – shaped, in its earlier days, by Diderot, then by Baudelaire, who can be considered the modern founder of art criticism. In criticism, you must have a point of view; artwork must be original and authentic. But the problem with art criticism is that it is always in search of the method. And this is because visual culture is infinitely unstable. And then, you can master whatever theory you like, as regarding verbal language, various systems of semiotics or something else, and you can choose to define the words and infer the structures of its vocabulary. But whereas in visual culture, there will sometimes be no use at all of this linguistic semiotic skill and wording, in case you have to say something original about, let’s say, informal painting. In that case, you will be on a more definite course with a phenomenological discourse, with, say, an argument of Merleau Ponty or Heidegger. I used to tell my students, you must choose the right horses for courses. You have to be very pragmatic in the modern age of art education.

“Elective Affinities. German Art Since the Late 1960s”. Photo: Elīna Bērziņa

What about the evaluation of works of art? Is it only marketing and money that count?

Money has always counted with art, be it the Renaissance or even the 19th century. But what I call value is the categorisation of pure excess. There is no intrinsic value in a work of art, no intrinsic value in the material the work of art is made of. Maybe it was different with some sculptures of Michelangelo, but otherwise, if you strip an artwork of its material components, what is left is pure excess. But the notion of pure excess is closely connected in the modern age with transgression, with stepping outside of the rules. And this concept has its modern roots in the anthropology of someone like Georges Bataille, among others. Transgression is the crossing of a boundary or limit, but as stated by Bataille, transgression comes before the boundary, before the making of the rule. The normal Christian Western view is that man was created good, and only original sin corrupted this goodness. But in so-called “primitive” cultures, as they were viewed by anthropologists of the 20th century, the rule only followed upon the first recognition of transgression. 

Can we say then, that contemporary art is more like the art of a “primitive” society?

Yes, in that sense, of course. Initially, my early possible doctoral supervisor (or at least, who I went to see as a supervisor) was Ernst Gombrich. He hated Nietzsche, whereas I was a great Nietzschean fan then. So we didn’t stay together very long. But he believed that art is reversing atavistically towards the primitive. He didn‘t make any moral statement about it, but just believed it. Abstract art was, of course, the most attacked because it is a haptic art. Subjective and highly haptic. This haptic argument was commonly tied to the primitive tendency in man, because the haptic, according to Carl Nordenfalk and others (who studied the hierarchy of the senses), is one of the lower senses, akin to smell or taste.

Despite its “primitive” nature, contemporary art has won over today’s museum scene. More and more museums of contemporary art are opening everywhere; at least two projects for new museums are being debated here as well.

Museology is very problematic these days because we live in a horizontal society. Why was the word “curator” reinvented so recently? In English, the word “curate” once simply meant a minor member of the clergy who assists the priest in charge of a church or a group of churches – a sort of “baby priest”. But nowadays, the curator in the museum seems to be in charge of everything; the curator has replaced the conventional “keepers” (as they were once called) of departments, and has become a priest in his or her own right. And if earlier museums were thought of as something like archives or sanctuaries, then now, with the advent of the curator, it is all a question of public reception. This, again, goes back to the first theories of the sixties; I mean, the argued death of the author and so on. And it can be said this way: a modern museum is based on the notion that artists make things, but society makes art. And the curator moderates the whole process.