Photographic montage: Image Liberation Force, National Galleries of Scotland Communities Outreach Project, 2016 – 2020 © National Galleries of Scotland 2018
(Visual) Hierarchy Forever! ( … and ever)
I like the French thinker, Jacques Rancière’s idea of ‘the equality of all intelligences’. He shows how, at present, certain types of intelligence are disregarded and devalued, whilst others dominate discourse, and are rewarded.
As a nineteen seventies, scholarship ‘grammar school boy’, from a working class background, I have reason to believe in Rancière’s proposition. I know how privilege was offered to the brainy. I have now worked as an education officer in the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), and as p-t art lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art, for 18 years. Two years ago, I began my CDP PhD on the Scottish nineteenth century history paintings in the NGS collection and their role in creating a national narrative. Why am I doing this? I’m doing it in part to help make Rancière’s statement come true.
As an outreach officer, I work to give so-called disadvantaged young people, access to theirown national art collection, whilst encouraging their creativity. I have learned a lot from this process of sharing knowledge and experience with people untutored in art history. Even so, does the educator’s practice, this process of investigating social meaning through images, via discussion, need academic validation because it lacks the assumed authority of the expert curator in relation to the work of art? Does my institution need convincing about this dialogical premise via the process of academic enquiry? With these questions in mind, I hope my PhD research can show that history itself is interpretation (and debate), just as history paintings are.
William Allan’s The Murder of Rizzio, 1833,on display in Room 10 (X), Scottish National Gallery, 7 June 2018.
As my title implies, works of art, art galleries and the history of art itself, have all been wedded to hierarchies for a long time. ‘Old master’ art, initiating connoisseurship and ‘taste’, is still a benchmark for ‘value’ in our society. So can the collaborative CDP research process generate alternative sources of value in relation to these artworks? So far, the institution has not yet explored the potential interpretative outcomes of my research, even if I am in the privileged position of actually being an employee of my host institution. As such, I’m probably more frustrated than most other CDP students.
I can understand the reasons for this situation and undaunted, my research continues to inform my outreach role. Recently, I presented an NGS Research Conference paper on the role of ‘play’ in our work, which allied practice and theory. This was well received and I hope something will develop from this paper in relation to the HLF-funded rethinking and representation of the NGS Scottish collection. I’d like to go further and invite members of the NGS audience to collaborate with me on the PhD, making it more true to its premise, and more democratic. My institution is trying to become more flexible in the way it works, and hopefully this will allow the actual processof this research investigation to develop new possibilities of audience intervention. For this to happen, the move to more open and equal collaboration between members of staff from different NGS departments, researchers, academics and the public needs to move forward.
In theory, ‘public impact’ will be an important outcome of the PhD. Maybe this research into Scottish history paintings can help redefine the gallery as a space in which each visitor’s assessment of these historical works of art is regarded as valuable and productive for others. We need to know how to do this in a sophisticated way, but I think the answer always lies in being prepared to listen. I suppose I believe these pompous, ‘brown’ paintings can still be very useful today, stimulating debate and empowering audiences, groups and individuals to say how they think things were then, and how they should be now.
— Robin Baillie