The Many Battles of Little Sparta

It seems a fair rule: artists should never respond to criticism of their work. But few artists are able to resist the temptation, and the outsized role that critics play in an artist’s success, especially in more rarified fields, makes it almost inevitable that the result will be rancorous. The critic has the privilege of print and access to a large readership. How can the artist hope to respond to opinions with which they disagree, especially when these opinions seem to present an existential threat to their reputation and livelihood?

In the case of Ian Hamilton Finlay, famous concrete poet and landscape architect—whose work I had the pleasure of archiving recently, through a collection sold by Graeme Moore, a landscape artist and Finlay’s longtime associate—the answer was a form of ideological warfare. In 1986, two architecture critics, Gwyn Headley and Wim Muelenkamp, under the auspices of the UK’s National Trust, published Follies, a guide to what they saw as eccentric buildings and gardens throughout the United Kingdom. The authors included Finlay’s Little Sparta, a garden full of sculpture and concrete poetry, in this volume. Perhaps they meant this as a harmless designation, or even a way to drum up interest in what they saw as an unfairly neglected site.

Ian Hamilton Finlay did not see it this way. He had long struggled to have his work taken seriously in the United Kingdom (it took acceptance from U.S. poets, especially the Black Mountain school, to solidify his reputation), and he wasn’t willing to be cast in the role of the village eccentric. So he began an all-out war on Headley, Muelenkamp, and the National Trust. To call it a war is not really an exaggeration; Finlay categorized it as such in his pamphleteering, and used military iconography to drive the point home.

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This pitched battle against the National Trust was not the first time Finlay had used open combat to resist an institution. The Strathclyde Regional Council (which oversaw the district in which Finlay lived) had already provoked his ire by imposing commercial taxation rates on Little Sparta, forcing him to close down the garden to the public for long stretches. In his pamphlets, Finlay referred to this as the “First Battle for Little Sparta.”

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The dispute with the National Trust, however, was larger and more complex than a struggle over taxes. Finlay’s professional reputation was at stake, and in order to fight against what he saw as this critical injustice he formed a loose band of supporters that he dubbed the St. Just Vigilantes (after the famous French revolutionary Louis Antoine de Saint-Just). Over the next several years, this group produced a seemingly endless series of inflammatory pamphlets, prints, and postcards attacking the authors of Follies and, by extension, the National Trust itself.

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Many of the incendiary material produced during this period uses themes from the French Revolution, a period that Finlay studied closely, often using names and iconography from the period in his poetry. Many of the prints are signed “The Committee of Public Safety, Little Sparta,” in reference to the Comité de salut public from the French Revolution, overseen by Saint-Just and Maximilien Robespierre. These references, combined with images of the guillotine, give some of the St. Just Vigilantes’ prints and pamphlets a gruesome, violent tinge, as in the following, “Terror is the Piety of the Revolution.”

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But Finlay did not stop at defending his own work. He attempted, in his own prints, to attack the critical legitimacy of Follies by pointing out errors in the authors’ research and aesthetic opinions. This list of failures gives a sense of Finlay’s all-encompassing disdain. (As a Scotsman, he was particularly offended by what he saw as the priggish Anglo-centrism of the authors.)

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Nor was Finlay’s ire restricted to Follies. In 1987, in a response to a bad review of his work in the Guardian by their art critic Waldemar Januszczack, Finlay added him to the list of names that merited censure in his pamphlets. He even went so far as to create a life-size cartoonish head of the critic and have it ceremonially decapitated.

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Once Finlay settled on this method for responding to his critics, his scope gradually expanded. By 1988 he had heard word that Catherine Millet, famous French art critic who published in the iconic magazine Art Press, had derided his work as having Fascist sympathies; this, in turn, led to the removal of several offers of work in France. Enraged, Finlay added Millet to his list of offenders. Indeed, what had begun as an attempt to address a single book had become a multi-front war against a host of offenders, as this publication of New Acadians Press—another forum for Finlay and his admirers—shows.

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Plenty of artists find themselves misunderstood by the critical establishment, but few find themselves with the necessary time, energy, and friends to fight back in an effective manner. Graeme Moore, who sold the Finlay material I’ve been processing to Kislak, was a member of the Saint-Just Vigilantes, and the collection contains several of his scrapbooks, one of which, “War Art,” is a loving reconstruction of the battle between this loose group and those they saw as Finlay’s artistic enemies. The care with which Moore collected and preserved the group’s screeds against the misapprehension of critics helps demonstrate how loyal many of Finlay’s admirers really were. Finlay may have been irascible, but he also had friends loyal enough to send a plaster cast of a decapitated head to a well-known art critic. How many of us could say the same?

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