When the University of Edinburgh commissioned Nathan Coley to create a new artwork for display in its main library, the artist was invited to give a presentation to the committee overseeing the university’s collections. Coley’s brief was to design a piece to occupy a display wall in the library’s main concourse, which had long been host to a peculiar series of paintings of protestant church fathers.
These paintings had previously hung in the Playfair Library in Old College, and had been apparently been gathered together in the early nineteenth century. Their value – as art, and as anything else – was questionable, but they were now so much a part of the institution’s patrimony that a myth had even grown up suggesting that bad luck would befall any man (sic) presuming to remove them from display.
One of the questions facing both Coley and the committee was what, if anything, to do with these paintings when the new artwork was installed. Should we just leave them huddled in the corner of the wall, hoping viewers would overlook or ignore them? What if the new work actually drew more attention to these portraits? Should we move them, or even take them off display completely? Or would some other approach be a better way of handling them? In a pamphlet distributed to committee members in advance of the meeting, Coley framed the discussion by referring to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford, and other episodes where acts of artistic homage to an institution’s benefactors now figured as more awkward and uncomfortable intrusions on its present. As the recent deposition of the statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol shows, these kinds of concerns haven’t in any way diminished.
Another part of the context here was furnished by Coley’s practice as an artist – the way in which his ‘illuminated text works’ remodel written quotations or citations into large scale interventions into new spaces. A quote, of course, is always – as we so often protest – ‘taken out of context’, in an act of appropriation, an insertion into a new context, which can be made meaningful in many different ways. In this instance, Coley’s text is taken from a work by Ian Hamilton Finlay; but Finlay himself borrowed it from a prior source in the creation of his own kind of appropriative art. So Coley cites Finlay citing, and also cites Finlay’s citational poetics. It’s all very layered.
In his initial proposal to the committee, Coley suggested a striking way to handle the huddle of protestant portraits clinging to the wall. Rather than either taking them down or just leaving them in place, he suggested that a (removable) gilding be applied to their faces – a different kind of appropriation, perhaps recalling the iconoclastic tendencies of protestantism as a reforming movement, or echoing the kinds of more creative (but still, by some considerations, destructive) interventions into Goya etchings made by the Chapman Brothers in 2003.
It’s fair to say that the committee as a whole was somewhat taken aback by this proposal, and in the end it didn’t get taken any further. We were, though, invited to respond individually and collectively, so I did. Perhaps perversely, I thought the best kind of response was a series of questions.
Inheritance Taxes: a response, of sorts, to Nathan Coley
What do you do with an inheritance?
What kind? There’s the family house, the parental home bequeathed to sons and daughters, which is a peculiar shibboleth of propriety in contemporary Britain – an aspiration or expectation never to be threatened, apparently, by any tax regime. There are the eyes, the hair, the gait and personality traits – ‘you’re just like your father’, said in admiration or irritation. There are the imperfections written in your DNA – I come from a long line of depressives, I have a heritable condition, I have an inherited susceptibility to [some horrible way to go] just like my [insert parent here].
Does everybody have an inheritance? A lineage – ancestors, roots, belonging –
– Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!
– Platonic England, house of solitudes, rests in its laurels and its injured stone.
– The dumb go down in history and disappear and not one gentleman’s been brought to book:
Mes den hep tavas a-gollas y dyr (Cornish) –
‘the tongueless man gets his land took.’
Or, as the great Welsh socialist Raymond Williams said, in response to a Cambridge posho boasting that his family ‘came over with the Normans’:
‘And how are you enjoying your stay in our country?’
I’ve just quoted a whole load of white blokes, most of them comfortably dead.
Whose inheritance is it anyway?
So which ancestors do you put on your walls, if you have walls to put them on? Depends what you think putting them on walls is for. It is an act of filial (usually filial) piety, perhaps, making proper ancestors of them and making a dutiful son (usually son) of you. But sometimes our tastes in ancestors change, for good reason, and we look up and back with some awkwardness or shame or just a bathetic embarrassment. Sons and daughters can be disowned, but can you disown your parents? You can tear down their statues in the public squares, but does that free you of what you owe to them? Does that rid you of your inheritance?
Inheritance can be a burden. We bear it. How to make it bearable when it’s not (just – simply – easily) a source of pride?
When we tear down the statues we are acting like iconoclasts. But – as some people pointed out in the great ages of iconoclasm – image-breaking is just idolatry’s other face. Both the idolater and the iconoclast credit the elevation of the image with great power, it’s just that one wants to be sustained by it and the other wants to annul it. Do such images have that power?
Well, we think they do when we set them up – that’s what setting them up in that way means. So tearing down these ancestors isn’t necessarily about disowning our inheritance so much as wanting to find another one, to trace other roots. We will diversify our ancestry. Our descent will be as it actually was, so much more than patrilineal.
And we will still have our inheritance, but we’ll have made it much more comfortable. So much less of a burden. So much the better for us.
What should we, the University of Edinburgh, do with our patriarchs?
There they hang, funny looking and oddly shaped, huddled in a corner of our main library foyer. I think we’re already pretty embarrassed by them. They don’t get the treatment afforded to a later generation of patriarchs in the Raeburn Room of Old College.
Of course they don’t. Those Raeburns are good, very, very good. These portraits are, by contrast, shite. It doesn’t look like anyone has loved them for a long time. Their presence is tolerated, not celebrated. As if we can’t quite bring ourselves to deny this part of our inheritance, but actually we’d really like to.
Do people take much notice of them? They look – what’s the word?
So when we put a new Nathan Coley commission in the middle of that wall, should we take them down? Why not? They’re barely up right now as it is.
Are we ashamed of them? Not of the fact that the paintings are pisspoor, but of the fact that these blokes are all fathers of the Reformation, grouped together by an affiliation to Protestantism that we might, now, find just a bit awkward?
We can thank our lucky stars they’re none of them as much of a monster as Cecil Rhodes. Yes, they were fundamentalists, but by our standards so was everyone – seriously, everyone – in those days. And the Reformation was, as they say, a broad church. Zwingli was not Bucer was not Calvin was not Luther. They were humanists as well as theologians. Their politics was about liberation as much as it was about domination. Theirs is a mixed inheritance.
But they were all patriarchs. And these weird and shitey portraits are an attempt to establish them as church fathers, painted to be put on the walls in a bid to proclaim an inheritance. That these were collected by the university to put on the walls of its library shows the institution at that time feeling the need to mark its ancestry, to locate and celebrate a particular set of forefathers.
Was that a lie? Well, the university too has a mixed inheritance. Its foundation owed a lot to Reformation ideals and practices, and the chief architect of its establishment was the leader of the Scots Presbyterian kirk, but the guy who left the money to set it up – 8000 merks – was a Catholic bishop who died in 1557. What difference, if any, does that make?
But back to the point. Should we take them down when we put up the new work?
I like and admire Nathan Coley’s work. I love the handling of the word, and of the letter, and of their forms. I love the way he understands what letters are, and what letters do, the multiform pleasures and possibilities of the grapheme.
He knows the power of form, of medium and context.
And I know that these works, sometimes and at their most forceful, act uncannily, rather like the writing on the wall.
We both know that to quote a line or a phrase, and to put that quote up in lights, is to perform an act of inheritance.
So should we take the portraits down?
I have to say, I worry a bit about the wall without them. Not because I want to honour them, or want them honoured, but because I worry about what it might mean to put a Nathan Coley on the wall of a library. A library is a certain kind of place, once monastic, still a bit ecclesial. You go there to learn, to study, to be improved. That’s why our ancestors put portraits of reformers, their ancestors, on its walls, so your learning would know where to find the right kind of inspiration.
Will putting this artwork on this wall this be read as elevation? Will people be inclined to read it as if it were not itself, but some kind of homily? Will they gaze at it as if expecting it to give off some kind of inspirational, motivational glow?
Is this a risk we should worry about? Is it peculiar to the library?
Let’s now imagine the new artwork with the huddle of fathers still in place, but – as Nathan proposes – with their faces defaced, as if stricken by iconoclasts.
No, not defaced, gilded. Gilded like Byzantine icons. Gilded all over their weird, shitey, patriarchal faces.
What does that do? It makes them noticeable, but not as objects of veneration, a performance of filiation. They are elevated, but not as themselves. And to hold them up like this is no longer just playing out the elevation of the ancestors. That performance has been scrambled.
What’s more, they speak to the new artwork (or the other new artwork – they’ve now been made new, after all). Not just in the way that they provide a humanist context for words such as ‘word’ and ‘letter’, but in their peculiar – even uncanny – form. They speak to its performance of inheritance, its debt to Hamilton Finlay, its functioning through medium and context. Can you see this as homily now? Next to these golden boys?
Can you disown, denounce or bury your inheritance? Perhaps, but not without leaving the acts through which we constitute it invested still with an unreckoned power.
Can we find ways to reckon with it instead?
Could this be just such a way?