The public discussion on April 12th in St Ives Cornwall UK, was jointly organized by the Penwith Society of Artists, the Belgrave Gallery, the Newlyn Society of Artists and the New Art Examiner.
The theme was the perennial question of how to recognize, encourage and preserve vitality in an organization that presents art to the public and avoids stagnation.
Modern Art emerged in mid 19th century in Paris, where class interest played out in both the politics and the visual arts. They still do today though they are socially more muted.
Conceptual art, installation and or video, are not tuned into the wider public as society is more fractured. Modern media identifies with the new and in so doing erects boundaries of convenience. Taste can be an affirmation of the brave or an affirmation of a coward, or the death of both. In so doing it can, and does, provide a retreat into a comfort zone – a withdrawal from the troublesome areas of distaste. Taste is an affirmation of the individual.
Painters, sculptors other graphic artists in Paris in the mid-19th century birthed a modern urban order that had not yet become displaced by the technologies’ of reproduction that have taken over our visual landscape.
Class conscientious is not an exclusive activity of visual art. Art will assimilate and embrace all issues of human concern and vanity. The complexity and options of modern creativity is more than well endowed with a superstructure – an extended cottage industry of critical theorists, curators, educators, grant writers art historians and other wordsmiths within public relations and management.
The attempt to professionalize the artist into the era of Post-Modernism led to many seeing painting as a Luddite activity, inherently obsolete.
The Penwith Society Located in St Ives was born into a unique context. Probably the last Bohemia in which artists alone decided on how and where to focus their practice and individually make their own decisions in which pertinent issues of art as recognized in painting an sculpture, should or could be explored. A smaller world than the turbo charged globalized art world of today. The option of that period, in simplistic terms, was to abstract or not to abstract. Those that chose the former may have received and invitation to have tea with Barbra Hepworth.
St Ives was blessed as some of the great pioneers of the then avant-garde took up residence in this gloriously beautiful seaside town to escape the World War 2 bombing of London. Ben Nicholson, Barbra Hepworth Bernard Leech and Naum Gabo. They brought an international avant-garde sophistication which rooted into the provincial community that had been adopted and recharged by this post war generation of artists.
The St Ives Society of Artists was, and still is, a community artists group that identifies with a traditional commitment, which essentially means a respect and recycling of the old forms usually with a modernist makeover.
The second generation of avant-garde painters followed on after World War 2 now known as the St Ives School. The Penwith Society in its hey day affirmed and displayed the new thinking, Today the Society rests on an inherited past history with little evidence of new thinking, resolution or resolution to inform or reform.
History does not stand still. New generations inherit the genes of respective parents but are not their clones. They have to evolve their own language and ascetic philosophy, their cultural personality, from living engagement with the living world.
The Penwith morphed into a lack luster organization, with the previous director acquiring a public simulacrum of Miss Haversham. Cultural politics, which echo self-interest, will have to be confronted in its revival.
The Penwith presents mixed exhibitions only through the mechanism of a jury responding to submissions. This is a repeat of the practice of the Academies, which were pushed aside by avant-garde that developed other methodologies of exhibiting just as the Penwith Society did when seeking reform inside the St Ives Society of Artists.
A casual observance of the current exhibitions on display today will not uncover any significant difference between the two organizations. Suggesting the once renegade group has lost its purpose of wrestling with the issue of seeking a new practice suitable for their time.
The Salon des Refusés launched the idea of outsider artists causing upset and incomprehension of the 19th century French bourgeoisie. The tradition of the new was launched. As the late Robert Hughes made clear in his ground breaking TV series “The Shock of the New”. The shock of the new is no longer possible as hip bourgeoisie refuse to be shocked or admit to cultural anxiety. Is no longer fashionable. The bourgeoisie have adopted manners that once resided exclusively in Bohemia. Camp followers both in real estate and fashion retailing, once the rear guard, have taken over the “exotic image” of the bohemian artist.
Given the large population of artists in Cornwall and the establishment of the Tate, St Ives, expectations simmer on the back burner, including this writer’s, hoping to see a revitalized art community. Whether it is a lost hope, built upon nostalgia or the sand of sentimental aspiration, remains to be seen. Unless some serious criticism comes into play it does not seem if any possible resolution is in the offering. Knowing things aint what they used to be could be a starting point.
The programme of discussion mentioned at the beginning of this text “Can the past of the Penwith Society be its Future” Has sparked Chris English, from the informal Crypt Group, with the New Art Examiner to organize another public discussion on a similar theme on 20th May at the Borlase Smart Room in Porthmeor Studios, St Ives from 7.30 pm. ‘Is there a future for art and artists in St Ives?’ It is hoped that more than one member of the Penwith Society will find time and interest to attend. If so it could indicate that the shroud of lethargy and self-contentment in the mutual admiration club is wearing a little thin.
To acknowledge the history, nature and purpose of the Penwith Society of Art, it is necessary to examine the time and culture of its founders and also to redraw the modus operandi for tomorrow. The purpose of the founders of the Penwith was not only to find a venue to present work to the public.
The previous arrangement offered by the St Ives Society of Artists had become unacceptable (usually they were to be hung in the crypt/lower gallery) as it suggested an inferior status. Shunted away from the traditional forms of pictorial paintings which occupied premier ground floor location.
The clash between modernism and tradition was heating up. The domestic accord broke down. What happened in St Ives in the 50s was a repeat of the negotiations that Marcel Duchamp and his brothers previously engaged with with the French Academy half a century before. Cohabitation of the old and the new was not possible in either Paris or St Ives.
Issues of patronage and money naturally intertwine with cultural politics and are defining forms for the power of fashion. Without question that art jargon of recent years has over used and blunted the well worn expression of the 60s “the cutting edge”. Nobody is sure what the cutting edge is and who should be cut. Today the Penwith Society in its magnificent space presents exhibitions of its members juried in artists seeking acceptance and exposure. But the Penwith Society is moribund as well asserted By Ken Turner veteran Performance artist, who in 2006 Reenacted a funeral in which a coffin was brought from the St Ives Society of Artists, a short distance to the Penwith Society. He and the coffin where not admitted. Demonstrating that the ossified has no interest in the new.
Given the plight of St Ives, a beautiful seaside town of indigenous vernacular granite built cottages, confronts with startling contrast the expansive forces of nature of the mighty Atlantic that the Cornish coast provides. But St Ives has lost its soul, sanitized by the toxic force of modern mass tourism. The town is near emptied of fishermen and artists are replaced by a thriving high street trade of kitsch.
The ghosts of the past linger. The Penwith Society as such, is a community run society. Fulfilling its own historic mandate to exhibit art from the region. The previously drawn line between the avant-garde and banality. Bourgeoisie culture has virtually evaporated. Proving that the present day marketing of popular consumerist culture can and will absorb any form of appearance or style. The catwalk is the branding of taste for the future consumer. St Ives has its own catwalk, Main Street, which now is an extension of the trading in all the usual banalities that can be found, like fish and chips and Hamburgers, Junk food for mind and body.
There are many art worlds swimming in the art universe, either with vibrant, faded or near dead pulse. Whether the Penwith Society can survive or evolve to rekindle its original self-defined purpose remains to be seen. At least the green shoots of discussion are activated for some and not held exclusively in the back room.
The unofficial embargo of a muffling silence is now a little thawed. Many artists still have fear of exclusion. Discussion can be punished. So the hanging committee is no longer the last word or gatekeeper of significant art in Cornwall. The status of membership in The Penwith Society is now questioned. The Penwith Society can no longer claim the role to be the flag bearer for avant-garde. This has passed to the Exchange Gallery in Penzance and the Newlyn Orion gallery across the Peninsula on the South Coast. Beneficiaries of much support from the Arts Council and interest from Mrs. Serota, hitching in Falmouth School of Art. Certainly ‘Things ain’t what they used to be’, but that is another story to be continued later

Derek Guthrie


Volume 30 number 5, May / June 2016 pp 7-9

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