Peter Howson on art and politics


By Erik Sandberg.

Peter Howson shouldn’t have to struggle for inspiration from where his studio’s situated. Towering over the River Kelvin in Glasgow’s west-end, it sits at the top of a massive red sandstone building near Kelvinbridge – an old primary school, which I’m told now acts as a community centre – teaching English for immigrants amongst other activities. You’d never guess at the top Peter Howson would be busying himself with his huge canvases and when I arrive I’m shown a work in progress: ‘Golden Dawn’ – named after the fascist political party in Greece.

PH: “Politically I’ve always been left orientated, my uncle used to work for the libraries in Middlesex so I used to read a lot and he would always give me all the books they were chucking out, but I still understand a lot of the right-wing stuff I mean, even today I agree with a lot of what Cameron says even though I fundamentally disagree with what he stands for.”

What did you think about Nigel Farage’s recent comments that the SNP are racist?

PH: “There’s this rise of the right in middle England just now, but a lot of people in middle England are just fundamentally stupid. I think the English are hugely racist in comparison to Scots – I don’t see much racism up here at all – the only place I see it is in the Orange areas of Glasgow. I despise bigots.”

Have you ever considered painting Mr Farage?

PH: “I’m fed up doing politicians. The show in London was a political show. Ever since I’ve been about 4 or 5 years old I’ve been doing caricatures of politicians, when I was very young I did Edward Heath, Jeremy Thorpe – people like that. But this show is about religious fundamentalism and the rise of the right in Europe.”

Peter’s most recent show, Demokratia, opened in London and was quickly snapped up by an unnamed, private buyer for a six-figure sum. Taking place in the run-up to the General Election, the show is a reflection on the social and political issues of our time. Politics seeps through Howson’s most recent work and he’s frustrated by the ‘vapid’ art that’s currently doing the rounds at some Scottish galleries.

PH: “Art was always political, it’s only recently that it’s become very vapid. I always separate the art from the person. I don’t rate new Scottish art at all, a lot of it looks like advertising. Real art is Otto Dix, George Grosz, Goya, Michelangelo and Ken Currie here is the only artist doing serious stuff at the moment, and when I say serious I mean social commentary – art has got to speak to people, it’s got to communicate.”

“If you’ve got something to say then you need to say it. Can you imagine Rembrandt not saying what they wanted to say? I know when George Grosz went to America his work just died, it softened; he became a pornographer and just lost it. If America influences you you’re in big trouble because American culture is so vapid. European culture – underneath it all it’s very strong, a lot of that comes from Christian roots. I’m not trying to push Christianity, but look at the poet Dante – he made political statements. The poem the Divine Comedy is a political poem. He was a failed politician, he joined the wrong party and ended up being chased all around Italy having to seek refuge with a war-lord.”

What role does the Modern Institute have to play in Scottish art?

PH: “I mean the very word ‘modern’ it’s a certain thing they’re trying to sell really, nothing to me is modern I mean, Michelangelo to me is modern. Art is very powerful so if only more Scottish artists could tackle political subjects then it’d really move people.”

“I’ve got this thing about cultural identity, I want Scotland to be the centre of the arts and not this offshoot of London. Artists like Jim Lambie and Douglas Gordon have had to make it through this London establishment, I know there’s this mini thing going on in Glasgow but that’s all just rubbish – it’s just mutual masturbation – it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t go anywhere.”

Ken Currie aside – are there any Scottish artists you like?

“There’s very few people doing any good art that means anything and a lot of that is do with the Internet – it’s lazy, people aren’t drawing properly. The best art I see is on a Saturday when I go into Waterstones and look at comic books – that’s the best art, some of the guys that do that: their sense of anatomy is amazing. Then you look at the Turner prize stuff – it’s unbelievably bad. There’s not one artist that’s won the Turner prize that I’ve ever admired, that’s the problem.”

What about your own work, is it better received abroad than it is in Scotland?

“You’re never a prophet in your own town. The Scots have got this terrible inferiority complex – they don’t like seeing people succeeding, having said that it does bring you down to earth a lot of the time. The work is the main thing; it’s not the fame or the adulation. This whole party circuit of the young British artists including the likes of Douglas Gordon – it’s a pile of shite, I’ve did it – I’ve done it. I used to go to parties at the art fair in Madrid, these people: they’re not interested in art at all – they’re only interested in money and celebrity, it’s a circuit, a kind of Mafia that run the whole thing.”

Peter was a vociferous supporter of independence during the Referendum and handed back his OBE that he received in 2009. He’s clear that he’s voting SNP in the General Election and has been involved with the SNP for some time.

“What happened during the Referendum was incredible. We have to thank Alex Salmond for that and Nicola’s taking it up brilliantly – it’s them that have caused all this and there’s a big movement that’s happening here and the Westminister establishment can’t stop it. I’m not anti-English, but there’s a certain English mentality, which I can’t stand, and I understand it because I come from there. Glasgow is such an amazing place and the Scottish psyche is so self-destructive which is brilliant in a way because they don’t care, a lot of the vision in Scotland is like ‘we’re going to do it – we’re taking a risk but we’re going to do it’ even if it fails and it does fail a lot, but we’ve also succeeded in a lot of stuff.”

“The flip side to that is your Daily Mail reader who is so tied into what the London establishment thinks of them – they don’t have any sense of ambition for Scotland – they just want things to go along nicely, it’s all about money, pensions, security – there’s no such thing as security, just look at the state of the world.”