The Critic is ‘Sweet and Mild’, according to Pavel Buchler’s facsimile cigarette packet, emblazoned on the cover of the first issue of Free Association . The critics assembled within offer a commentary on Glasgow art that is anything but: from the 1980s, when it was a rallying point for radical and subversive art practice, through the vengeful return of ‘the centre’ in the 1990s up to its market-friendly reinvention in the 2000s.
The tone is less slogan than sluagh gairm —the Gaelic phrase for battle-cry—and will no doubt elicit varying responses. Some may dismiss it as merely nostalgic, others as reiterative of ongoing battles, while others may even come to its argument fresh and hopeful. Free Association ’s editorial dedication to ‘the living, critical archive’ invites the cheeky question of whether this refers to the writers or the content (the contributors’ list reads as an impressive roll call from the past 20 years in Scottish art and letters) but Free Association ’s Ur-piece is surely Susannah Thompson’s perceptive critical bibliography, ‘Oblique Strategies’. Describing the magazine Variant, she writes of ‘a genuinely rigorous assessment of the conditions in which art is made’ —a serviceable description of Free Association ’s goals.
The comparison with the confrontational, ever-Brechtian Variant (which recently released its archive on CD ROM) runs much deeper than Thompson’s article alone, and she is neither the first nor the last to mention it. Free Association is edited by Malcolm Dickson, who wrote in Variant’s first number in 1984: ‘The subjection of art to market forces … [is] detrimental to the intrinsic vitality of art as an aesthetic experience or a practical one.’ He has since acquired an almost medicinal sense of irony, speaking of the ‘condition referred to as “the Glasgow art scene …”’
Free Association is not so much ‘sweet and mild’ as ‘tangy and raucous’, never more so than when the ‘living archive comes into its own—as in the case of Cordelia Oliver’s ‘What is to be done about the art schools?’, in which an acknowledgement forms the very punchline. She writes of art schools as a hell of rampant tautologies, aimless curricula and indolent, faddish teaching. Her piece first appeared in Scottish International in 1974.
Mitchell Miller is the editor of Drouth