In this follow-up to my last article, which covered the work and sensibility of the Italian sculptor Claudio Parmiggiani, I attempted to established a precedent for the synecdochal object and traumatic processes in particular as a way of implicating wider culture. I now want to move on to explore, albeit briefly, what I would see as a conceptually related, but aesthetically distinct approach to creating monuments that similarly collide virtue and terror.
The melodrama of my article’s title is probably recognisable for its textual appearance in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, and attribution to Plato. In fact there is little evidence that Plato’s Dialogues ever contained this sentiment1. In fact, it sounds to me more like something translated from Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zhou) Nan Hua Ching (Nan Hua Jing). Forgive the digression here, but what I am driving at is the tonality of the phrase and its resonance with the work and approach of the focus of this article, Ian Hamilton Finlay.
Although renowned as the archetypal Scottish Concrete Poet, Ian Hamilton Finlay was born in the Bahamas, to parents of Scots descent in 1926. At the age of 17, after one year of study at the Glasgow School of Art, he saw active service in Germany. Immediately after the war, he spent a brief period on Orkney as a shepherd before starting his career as a writer, poet and artist.
To cut to the chase, I would draw attention to Finlay’s life and work as they perhaps epitomise an attitude to authority that brought him into open conflict over the idea of culture. Symptomatic of Finlay’s willingness to battle the establishment over the value and status of culture dates from 1978, which in essence, was the start of Finlay’s long-running and acrimonious war with the establishment over the nature of his garden estate, ‘Little Sparta’ at Dunsyre in Scotland.
Essentially this was a glorified tax dispute over the status of the artist’s garden which was increasingly populated by his (and other’s) artworks. Finlay argued that the garden was a place of contemplation and as such should be designated for tax purposes as a religious, spiritual site - free from rates/council tax as opposed to a secular residence. The Council, of course, did not agree.
He entitled this dispute (which dragged on for years), ‘The Little Spartan Wars’, referencing themes from the French Revolution and modern warfare. Finlay boiled the dispute down to two different elements, these he determined as wars between ‘nature and culture’ and ‘law and culture’. He also was fond of declaring himself an Avant-gardener.
A number of works created at this time are badged with the Latin phrase Et in Arcadia Ego (‘I too was in Arcadia’), ancient Arcadia being an area of Greece that is associated with an unspoiled rural idyll. In this series of works (of which there are many!), Finlay conflicts with the idea of his idyllic garden paradise with a decorative faux-camouflage pattern rendered onto a Panzer tank. ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ was also used by the seventeenth-century French painter Nicolas Poussin in a painting of a group of shepherds discovering a tomb. Like Poussin, Finlay’s monuments remind us that mortality is present everywhere, even in paradise.
During the Wars of Little Sparta, Finlay frequently cites/quotes the Revolutionary figure, Louis-Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, such in this work: The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future (Saint-Just) was known variously as either ‘the incorruptible’ or the ‘angel of death’ depending on one’s situation in the Terror. It was Saint-Just who ushered many hundreds to the guillotine during the Revolution.
In 1986, Finlay was awarded a coveted 500,000 Euro commission to create 2 national monuments at the Palace of Versailles to be installed in 1989 on the bicentennial of the French Revolution. The French art establishment did not react well to this being awarded to a foreign national, and the art press rounded on the commissioners, the Ministry of Culture. Unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism were aimed at Finlay in a notorious live radio interview between the then culture minister and French art critics, which ultimately led to the cancellation of the commission and ugly lawsuits from Finlay against the commissioners in a further public legal battle. Accusations were made regarding Finlay’s use of runic symbols, and references to Luftwaffe weaponry and an ugly situation deteriorated even further, partly due to Finlay’s very public quest for revenge and vociferously unapologetic stance in relation to any aspect of his work.
Finlay was utterly dismayed by what he saw as a refusal of the French establishment to acknowledge the existence of historical or contemporary racial animosity within the Republic. ''You don't deal with the problem by pretending it doesn't exist, you deal with it by recognising it. they have exploited the Jewish question for their own ends. The accusations are grotesque.''
The French Revolution proved a rich subject for the embattled Finlay; he first received international attention for his guillotine installation A View to the Temple at Documenta 8 in Kassel in 1987 and thereafter the guillotine became one of the most enduring elements of his iconography. The references to the French Revolution in the texts Finlay inscribed into the guillotines were meant to serve as a reminder of how easily utopian philosophies can swiftly pivot and give rise to terror and violence.
Both Parmiggiani and Finlay, and their difficult relationships with the mainstream/establishment, seem to resonate particularly strongly as we appear to have arrived at a moment in human history where many aspects of life and the key global actors upon it seem to operate increasingly at the extremes; climate change, AI, crypto, the virus, (desperate) space exploration and weaponised robotics are all driving terror and virtue, but sadly not often in equal measure.
Finlay never forgave the bureaucrats of Scotland or France, and he never capitulated, but he did see the end of his war.
1 It can be traced with some accuracy, however, (albeit attributed to Plato), in General Douglas MacArthur’s leaving address to West Point cadets in May 1962.