Absolutely no human understanding taking place at such an uneducated level. Photo: John Franks/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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No, Jake Chapman, opening culture to young people is never a waste of time

The artist, nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003, has stoked controversy to gain media attention. It is still worth resisting his fundamentally misguided claims.

Art world insiders are frequently charged with accusations of “snobbery”. Why are artists so self-aggrandising? Why are families who visit art galleries so self-applauding? Of course, it is a stereotype which dogs visual art in particular, where pretentiousness is seen as par for the course. Stereotypes can stem from legitimate concerns. They can also have pernicious effects. If we want culture to remain a vibrant part of our society - and we do - where people are encouraged to explore new and fulfilling aspects of life, we need to deal with the perception that “art just isn’t for me”, or worse, “I don’t get it anyway”.

Set against these worries, comments made recently by Jake Chapman seem especially absurd. The visual artist, whose work in collaboration with his brother Dinos is often shocking and confusing (Sex – an array of decaying bodies fastened to a tree – and Death – two blow-up dolls in a 69 position, are prominent examples), has claimed that taking children to art galleries is a “total waste of time.” On the familiar comparison of Henri Matisse paintings to a child’s, he asserted that that “there is no connection ... It’s a ridiculous thing to say.” Assertions of this nature are rooted in a desire to underscore the depth of meaning behind works of art and bolster “high culture”. Exploring the message behind artistic works is a valid enterprise. Telling people not to help their children experience art is detrimental and irresponsible.

The most stinging, and most revealing, element of Chapman’s critique was his statement that presenting a child with a work by Jackson Pollock is “like saying ... [the work is] as moronic as a child.” “Children are not human yet,” he added. It is clear that Chapman – whose father was a school art teacher – is deliberately trying to be provocative. That’s his aim here. But the result will be that the popular impressions of art as esoteric and self-important will prevail, and the artistic community will become isolated. It is unlikely that Chapman actually wants this latter effect. If he did, then “snob” would be an appropriate label. If he were to aiming his comments purely at those who are “less than a village idiot,” then we could reject his ideas as unpleasant and move on.

However, there is something much more objectionable in the targeting of children. To understand why, Anthony Gormley’s rebuff of Chapman is a good place to start. Suggesting that art isn’t to be understood, but instead should be “experienced,” Gormley touched upon the central issue here. Trying to reject children’s interactions with art on the grounds that they are not “human” makes little sense. The human experience is something that, as Dea Birkett has pointed out, begins at birth. To reject that is to reject any creative work that uses a child’s experiences or interactions as grounds for its message. Birth, says Birkett, is the “magical moment” that qualifies us to experience art.  This is completely accurate. Merely existing as a human being is all we need connect emotionally and consciously to a form of expression. It is simply not true that we must always rationalise our feelings into highbrow statements of meaning. Even if the faculty of artistic experience lacks practice in a child, claiming that we shouldn’t foster it from an early age is madness.  

Not every person who enjoys abstract art could list off all of the deep, psychological or emotional ideas it revealed to them (or the theory that underpins the work). Are those who are unable therefore less “human” than the artists themselves? His is a dangerous game to garner attention. There cannot plausibly be any harm in taking a child to view some works by Picasso even if the child will merely develop a taste for bold colours drawn in interesting ways. There is no zero-sum game here; children enjoying art aesthetically doesn’t mean that some buff of high culture need suffer. If people begin to think that it does, we will be worse off for it.

All things considered, perhaps the children who enjoy art in their earlier years, for whatever reason, will continue exploring, or even producing, works as they age. What could be better for the maintenance of a vibrant artistic community and the health of culture in our society? Chapman’s comments are more than just incendiary. His view is counter-productive for the cultural world and would impoverish artistic life universally if he had his way.

Discussion of these points can go on indefinitely. For Jake Chapman, it seems that the most enjoyable – and lucrative – part of his performance is offending people. Will Gompertz, the BBC’s Arts Editor, cynically described Chapman’s craft of media manipulation. “The formula is simple: When you have an exhibition to promote, say something mildly inflammatory to the press, and watch the ticket sales soar.” But if more people enjoy Chapman’s work thanks to this exposure, that would be no bad thing. Resfreshing our ideas about art is always worthwhile. Avoid taking the kids to Chapman’s exhibition though - it really isn’t pretty.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era