Thursday, 12 January 2012

A Kiss With A Fist (Is Better Than None)

It's been a while since we had a rant, so here we go.

One of the things that strikes me as most characteristic of human society, the older I get, is our bottomless capacity for what you might call therapeutic self-delusion. We see what we want to see. This seems to be a characteristic particularly evident in those who are in love with the idea of art. Art lovers are like people trapped in an abusive relationship, staggering out of the house with a black eye, only to return later that evening for more of the same.

Artists of a modernist, post-modern or conceptual persuasion, of course, are the habitual abusers. They adore basking in the sunshine of the love of the art lovers, but are violently opposed to the idea that any sentimental little bourgeois could possibly understand what they're on about. Much art has, in essence, become little more than two fingers waved in the tear-streaked face of an incomprehending yet love-struck public. It's not a pretty sight.

Just like the victims of abuse, art lovers provide their own justifications for this appalling behaviour. The cult of "genius" has let a lot of real monsters off the hook, socially and artistically. I'm both impressed and depressed by the public's ability to take the cold, cosmic pessimism of modernist despair and turn it into something cosy, optimistic and trite. Oh, he's really saying "We should pay more attention to our everyday surroundings", or "It's the small things that matter", or "You have to work really hard to see the point of this work, its pointlessness is its point, that's why I love him it so"...

Sweet, really. Artists don't deserve it, by and large. You want to say: Listen, they mean it, these bastards: they believe in nothing, they abhor "beauty", they despise the very idea of transcendence, and want nothing more than to humiliate you for your persistent soppy belief in the "truth of feelings". And yet they also want to take your money, love and admiration as if by right. Leave him, girl, he ain't worth it!

Pointless. We see what we want to see. That human gift for therapeutic self-delusion will labour as hard as is necessary to re-read work of deliberate in-your-face meaninglessness as work of revelatory significance, to the point where a room with the lights going on and off, or a blank sheet of A4 crumpled into a ball (both actual works by Martin Creed) are prime candidates for the most prestigious art prizes and exhibition spaces in the land.

Ah, but that is precisely the point, say the art lovers, squinting painfully through two swollen black eyes.

Meanwhile, dear old David Hockney is offering us shelter from the storm. He's everywhere at the moment, putting the case for painting and the pleasure and discipline of looking. I particularly enjoyed the slogan on the poster for his recent exhibition, "All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally". It reminds me of the reassurances of purity printed all over my morning box of muesli, or on the old Levi's jeans label ("bar-tacked at points of strain"). He may deny that this is a dig at the likes of Damien Hirst, but I don't believe him.

And that other thing he has been slyly slipping into public consciousness -- a Chinese saying that "to paint you need the eye, the hand and the heart. Two won't do" -- may well end up doing a lot for the health of contemporary art and art-lovers. Having the words that help you to say "No" is a big step out of any abusive relationship.

Don't see what you want to see, see what is truly there. If you don't like it, leave it alone. But be open to surprise. Admire and support the ones who help you see what is there, not those who play on your worst fear, that there is nothing there. Do you know the song "Simple" by K.D. Lang, on her album Hymns of the 49th Parallel? It's one of my favourites, and always seems to hit the right note:
I worship this tenacity
And the beautiful struggle we're in
Love will not elude us
Love is simple
Amen, sister.


Martin said...

Shortly after starting my final year with the OU (Aesthetics) I realised I'd taken a wrong turning. Being more of a 'life and death' sort of chap, I should have been heading for Ethics. And no, I haven't developed a lisp. By the way, Hockney gets my vote, and Hirst gets some sneaking admiration for making his fortune from an E grade in GCSE Art, and the blind adulation of the self-deluded you refer to.

Mike C. said...


Saw an Ethics Girl joke coming my way there, but you headed it off at the path. Pass, rather.

As an artist, Damien Hirst's lasting value is pretty questionable, but he is a first-rate publicist and businessman, no question. And he's very generous with his dosh in supporting other artists, too.