If you see one art show this year, you should make it Generation. The mammoth, nationwide contemporary art show that opens in Glasgow and Edinburgh this weekend has many things going for it. First, all the shows - 60 across the country, with more than 100 artists in total - are free. And the chosen artists are indeed among the most successful, the most acclaimed of their generation. This generation of contemporary artists is one that has been lauded, feted in the press, bestowed with prizes (The Turner Prize in particular, among others) and acclaimed abroad. There are several excellent shows opening this weekend: in Edinburgh at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and at the RSA building on The Mound, and in Glasgow at the Gallery of Modern Art and Tramway, among other venues.
But in a chat with Sir John Leighton, director general of the National Galleries - which are mounting the nationwide show with aid from Creative Scotland, Glasgow Life and other partners - he said something that was interesting. He said that Scottish contemporary artists are really not very well known in Scotland, certainly not as recognisable to the general public as the nation's finest musicians or writers. This is partly due to the nature of their work: art works are one-off pieces, or at least few in number. Ian Rankin's books can be sold by the hundredweight and even relatively unknown, avant garde Scottish musicians, such as Boards of Canada, can sell thousands of copies of their work, just by dint of the respective industries in which they work. But the work of Karla Black or Kate Davis cannot be purchased on a mass scale, and then enjoyed in private, in the same way. The work of these artists has to be viewed in public spaces, and for a short time.
Scotland's press, and of course The Herald, has reported and reviewed the work of contemporary artists in various ways over the years and there has been increasing media coverage of "Glasgow's miracle", as many of the artists graduated or trained at Glasgow School of Art. But it may not be until Generation has sunk in, been visited, appraised and enjoyed by the public, that the achievements of these artists will be more broadly appreciated by the general public. Perhaps, too, there is still a suspicion of, or reluctance to engage with, contemporary art in some quarters. And one feels that Generation will not be a success unless it engages with those who have yet to engage.
The new Glasgow shows open this weekend, and I will review them for the Sunday Herald next week. But the Edinburgh exhibitions that open today are truly excellent, as is the guide that goes with them, edited by the former art critic of The Herald, Moira Jeffrey. The shows are, of course, only fragments of the practice of each artist chosen and are not attempts to "sum them up". As Alison Watt said, they are but parts of the artists' "life's work". And even with 100 artists in the shows, some, I would argue, are missing (no Martin Creed or Susan Philipsz?). But if you are interested in Scotland and its culture, Generation is essential viewing.