The Why?s Man

"My art is place specific and people specific." George Wyllie

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George Wyllie makes work with a lightness of touch - a humour, a nostalgia, an easily accessible meaning - but the more one considers each work the more it becomes a focus for intense thought. The question mark real or implied at the heart of every performance, statement or scul?ture acts as a gateway to political and philosophical debate which brings to mind Peter Abelard's words, as relevant now as they were in the twelfth century: "In truth, constant or frequent questioning is the first key to wisdom... For through doubting we come to inquiry and through inquiry we perceived the truth".

Through his work Wyllie opens such inquiry to anyone who wants to participate. An unequivocally good thing, one might think, and yet there seem to be arts institutions which have perceived this social participation and relevance as a kind of Original Sin - as though society is something to which art should only pay lip service - witness his otherwise inexplicable exclusion from Scottish Art Since 1900 at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh in 1989. But this decision to attempt to write him out of history has at least established Wyllie unequivocally as an artist of the people not of the State, that State so full of what Isaac Bashevis Singer, in his Stories for Children, called the "many grownups (who) have made up their minds that there is no purpose in asking questions and that one should accept the facts as they are".

Like Singer, Wyllie finds "facts as they are" less than convincing, as often as not false conclusions based on incorrect assumptions (to paraphrase the chorus from A Day Down a Goldmine), and it is the insistence on taking things back to first principles that places him firmly in the intellectual tradition of Scotland. It is a happy accident that Wyllie shares his background in the Customs Service with both Robert Burns and Adam Smith, but it is no accident that the portrait busts of those tow thinkers, which can be seen in the Customs House at Greenock, remain in his memory. Both are important to Wyllie, not least because of the distorted appreciation of them today which blurs their real contributions. For example Smith is misused as a prop for right-wing ideologues who, in complete contrast to the philosopher, ignore humanitarian considerations except when they enhance profit, while Burns seeps through history as a stereotype of Scottishness, but what that Scottishness might mean in terms of philosophical concerns or ways of thinking is no longer examined.

One thing that it meant to Burns was this: "Whatever mitigates the woes of increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion of goodness; and whatever injuries society at large, or any individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity". The sentiment expressed here seems to underpin all George Wyllie's question marks.


Murdo MacDonald (1991)


Why is there a ? in Scul?ture, George Wyllie

George Wyllie Education Initiative

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