An exhibition of artists who have developed their work in Edinburgh over the past five years will take place at the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) this October. This seems like a harmless and common enough event—of little interest even. So why is it worthy of our attention? The ‘Young Athenians’ who will grace the institution’s prestigious walls with paintings and drawings and rest their sculpture’s limbs on its polished floors, hope to raze the Academy—or what it stands for at least—from the inside. Revolution is afoot—or is this just a romantic ruse? Artists have always hoped that their objects, like disease carrying carrion, attack the old meat of the status quo. Are these young heroes and heroines any different? Is their condescending persiflage for real, or is it barbed cant?
The group of 15 or so artists have been selected by Jenny Hogarth, Kim Coleman and Tommy Grace, former committee members of The Embassy (the artist-run space in Edinburgh), who have now decided to concentrate on their own artistic practices and have stepped down to allow new blood to take the reins. The artists selected are Tam A, Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth, Craig Coulthard, Tommy Grace, David Maclean, Ellen Munro, One O’Clock Gun, Lee O’Connor and John Mullen, Katie Orton, Kate Owens, Robin Scott, Darius Jones and Catherine Stafford—a bevy of talent that has been exhibited or associated with the Embassy since its inception. The catalogue has been edited by Neil Mulholland, acting director of the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies at Edinburgh College of Art, and it seems the show owes much to his influence. ‘We nicked the title from Neil,’ says Coleman. ‘The title is from a short story I wrote for the One O’Clock Gun, which is roughly based on a suite of caricatures entitled “Modern Athenians” by John Kay, an Edinburgh miniature painter of the early 19th century, and the song [“Young Americans”] by Bowie,’ says Mulholland. ‘“Young Athenians” doesn’t refer to a real group of people; it’s just the name of one fiction based on an earlier series of fictions.’
This distinction may fall on deaf ears. The artists on show are not the ‘Young Athenians’ in question, and the title is, of course, ironic—but even ironic labels tend to stick. Is it all about packaging for packaging’s sake, parodying the laziness and stupidity of the press who quickly find a scene where there isn’t one? These entanglements, subtleties and ironies, whilst interesting to those involved, are quickly flattened by the passing of time and cynicism. It feels like we’ve seen it all before, but even this temporal loop—of Edinburgh as the New Athens during the Scottish Enlightenment—is brought into play by these younger pseudo-Athenians.
‘It’s not packaged; it’s just a group show,’ says Hogarth. ‘The work does have a thread running through it—classics, neo-classicism, heraldry, paganism, architecture, interior design, sombre sobriety versus revelrous agitation. We are friends, many of us have collaborated on making work and curating shows, and we have common interests and concerns and a shared approach that we thought would be interesting to highlight in a group show at this stage.’
With a decade or so of international attention, prizes and plaudits being heaped on young artists based in Glasgow, it would make sense that Edinburgh-based artists would be put out, that their work would be a reaction to what has been going on in Glasgow. Hogarth has her own point of view. ‘I don’t see the Glasgow art scene as a specific group of artists,’ she says. ‘Maybe there’s more of a tongue-in-cheek attitude to the art world here than in Glasgow, but there are many overlaps, due to Scotland being small and artists being of similar ages and stages, and the cities only being an hour apart.’
Mulholland agrees: ‘The construct of the “Glasgow art scene” (another miracle myth constructed by the press) doesn’t set the agenda on any of these matters, here or in Glasgow. The list is long and goes back quite a few years now, but Transmission, Glasgow Project Space, Glasgow Sculpture Studios and all at Glasgow School of Art have been very much on the ball and are to be congratulated. Others have remained in a bubble and need to get out more—or are really busy and need to stay home more.’
Colin Greenslade, exhibitions co-ordinator at the RSA, believes that, ‘Glasgow has been the centre of the hype for a number of years—sometimes warranted. The two cities will always have this perceived rivalry but I don’t think the artists see it that way. Glasgow is a bigger city. It has given a lot of thought to its reinvention and contemporary culture sits well with it. It seems that Edinburgh likes its historic tradition and old-world values.’
So where’s the promised dissent? Will the Embassy be swallowed by the Academy? This is unlikely. This exhibition, as Greenslade is well aware, continues a historical trajectory that links the RSA with Edinburgh College of Art, and now the Embassy (with its ECA graduates and tutors). At the turn of the 20th century, art teaching moved from the RSA to ECA, with the Academy offering scholarships, awards and an annual students’ exhibition for young artists. So this route back to the RSA, however convoluted and ironically taken, makes a kind of sense. It seems that everyone involved is aware of this circularity, making some of the participants more uncomfortable than others. ‘The RSA is a traditional, stuffy institution,’ says Hogarth. ‘Young Athenians reacts to this, and the conservative nature of many of Edinburgh’s art galleries and institutions. Just because a project is artist-run doesn’t make it liberal or avant garde. The catalogue and the show will address problems with the Royal(ist) Scottish Academy.’
Mulholland, who will be writing one of the catalogue essays, takes this further, ‘Young Athenians will take place within the walls of what has been one of the most reactionary cultural institutions in this country. Such organisations are always the last to notice what’s going on outside their own front door: the first to attempt to cherry-pick. They are admittedly Royalists of course; Young Athenians were/are republicans. The RSA is one place on the list of buildings in this city that should belong to the people, including the Castle and the Palace.’
Not surprisingly, Greenslade has a different view on what the exhibition means to this space. ‘It is true that the RSA has suffered bad press from a perception that it is a stuffy institution. There has been a concerted effort to counteract this perception and I hope that the range of exhibitions, increased visibility and greatly increased opportunities go some way towards this. The RSA will show works from Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee in tandem with Young Athenians during September, October and November. Artist collectives Limousine Bull, GENERATORprojects, Market and the Embassy were invited to propose shows for this space. The Embassy really took the bull by the horns.’
It’s hard not to be convinced by Greenslade’s take on the show’s meaning, and how it meets the objectives of the RSA, whose five-point plan and manifesto were originally penned in 1826. It is, he says, ‘The oldest collective in Scotland—it has 180 years of unbroken support for Scottish contemporary art. Maybe the show will play on this old adage. Works from the collection will be incorporated into the exhibition. None of us remember those early days of 1826. We can only react to what we know now. My own experience, perceptions and misconceptions of the RSA have changed dramatically in the last five years. Where else would I get to support so many artists at every level of their career?’
Mulholland interprets the ‘grass-roots’ origin of the RSA differently. ‘It is a traditional, stuffy institution precisely because it was originally an artist-led organisation (at a time when most artists were pretty conservative). I’d say most artists are still very conservative—you only need to go down to the New Town to see this. It was never “grass-roots”. It’s an elitist organisation—members only. The problem is that its constitution needs to change radically, it needs to drop the “Royal” and become a modern institution if it is to survive this decade. It won’t of course, for it if did it wouldn’t be the RSA.’
Is this a stalemate or a productive tension? Political approaches do not have to dovetail for temporary and contingent alliances to be useful for both parties. Mulholland sees the Young Athenian agenda as basically sophistic, but who is being convinced or misled? ‘The title of the show is a black joke, the reference in the RSA context being to the sophists and the Academy’s role in changing the meaning of “sophism” to a derogatory one,’ says Mulholland. ‘Sophistry is often connected with youth and naïvety these days, with the idea that the young are gullible and easily sold on rhetoric. The Academy was supposed to put an end to this, taking over the role of properly educating young Athenians. It did so, but at great cost—namely Platonic conservatism.’
Mulholland sees the Young Athenians as ‘knowing parochial sophists’, employing a certain kind of rhetoric that seems to give the institution what it wants but simultaneously gnaws off the hand that feeds it. Be warned, as Mulholland states, ‘If people misread this as “RSA finally awards legitimacy to young turks” they are completely missing the point and will be refused entry to the show.’ Institutions are at their strongest when they throw their voice, using young throats to sing revolutionary arias in great halls.
Institutions rely on those outside throwing stones and the blind thrust of those who feel disenfranchised. Opposition can be the limb through which power operates. But what happens when the self-appointed ‘other’ is incorporated? The dominant ideology decides who its enemies are, who will take the mission onwards by simply opposing it, thus completing the dialectic and commencing the process of incorporation. The myth of the ‘enemy’ is always within, and the machine whirrs on relatively smoothly. But this need for the liberal or post-modern institutions to integrate the ‘other’ is its success and its downfall. The centre cannot hold, the colonies rebel and the multifarious voices become deconstructive babble.
Alexander Kennedy teaches at Edinburgh College of Art and is art editor of The List