Wednesday, 26 October 2011

I Don't Know If It's Art, But I Like It

According to the BBC, Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry has claimed that the art world is disengaged with the real world, before implying that realness is in some way related to sitting in front of the X-Factor* drinking a beer. Oh, and just to hit a trifecta of Things That Bug Madeley, also implied that the Tate is in some way deficient because they don't display the work of Banksy**, Jack Vettriano, or Beryl Cook.

There's a lot of unpacking to do here. I'm particularly taken by the way Perry pulls off the trick of appearing as both a patronising elitist and anti-intellectual at the same time.

I probably shouldn't be too mean about this. I'm a big fan of the BBC, but I know from experience they're just as likely to twist and edit information for shock value as any other outlet. The soundbites come from a longer talk, so I don't know, maybe context changes things. But there are things touched upon that are worth discussing.

There's this thing people do sometimes, where we imagine there's an Elite Artistic Cabal that has set themselves up as ultimate arbiters of what is GOOD, and are busy sneering down at the rest of us scum. Why, I've even been known to imply such a thing myself! In the second footnote below, no less!

It is rarely a helpful stereotype. It doesn't add anything useful to discussions surrounding art. It's a strawcabal that distracts from some very interesting questions, because it plays on the ever-present inferiority complex of damn near every human being.

Perry manages the impressive feat of siding with two completely separate groups. On one hand, the kind of conservative Daily Mail reader who hates intellectual, craft-less "modern" art, and wishes that artists made Real Art, like the nice painted dancy beaches of Jack Vettriano. On the other, he chucks in a bracing dose of class warfare, conjuring a vision of a ruling elite uninterested in Banksy's urban street troof or Beryl Cook's Real Life working class women.

He's barking up the wrong 'un, for several reasons. But, first! An admission.

I have spent a lot of time in my life wallowing around in the shallows of Low Art. And at the same time, as we discuss frequently, both I and Brother Paul take a dim view of enjoying anything quote-ironically-unquote. If I like something, I like it for reals, and that includes the ridiculous pompous bombast of, for example, Metallica's S&M album (and hellooooo questionable Google searches, but it's not S&M in the way you're thinking).

Mea maxima culpa, however. Music is the one thing where I'm most guilty of getting on my high horse about what constitutes "good" and "bad" art. I'm ashamed to say I've often been the one getting sneery about stuff that other people like, when really I should have kept my gob shut. Which brings us, I suppose, to the X-Factor.

What does Jack Vettriano share with the X-Factor? Why exactly has Perry drawn a parallel there? Because both are well-loved by Perry's Real People in proportion to the amount they're disliked by Perry's, I don't know, Unreal People.

Both are relatively popular in their fields. But both are unbelievably cynical, and both are facile. There is a fair amount of raw talent, and some craft, even an effective formula. But there's very little else. There's nothing to talk about. Pretty posh people dance on pretty beaches. Some people sing, occasionally well. That's really it.

And to be honest, I'm being as diplomatic as I can here, because I fucking loathe everything about the X-Factor right down to my fucking bones. The implication that Real People like it while only an out-of-touch Unreal elite don't spins my nut. Remember, everyone, Alarm Clock Britain loves the X-Factor!

Over on Twitter, while I was having a meltdown about this, Will Entrekin said "I always just think art is art. Some things just don't achieve it." I hope Will doesn't mind me intepreting this as the argument usually posited as "there's no High Art or Low Art, only good and bad." Bob Dylan at his best is Good Art. Soulless***, corporate X-Factor covers are Bad Art. They push the definition of Art to its very breaking point, although I do tend to side with folk like Scott McCloud who define art in about as wide a manner as is possible.

We sail perilously close to the waters of Objectivity and Subjectivity. Let's acknowledge the area's existence, and row off in the opposite direction.

There's something nastier going on here than an attempt to spark warfare beween the highbrow and lowbrow, between elitist and popular. I'm a fan of superhero comics. I've seem damn near every iteration of that particular conflict, from every tired angle. Here's where I set out my stall:

I think that Jack Kirby is one of the greatest, most important artists of the 20th Century. I think few people have shaped popular culture, or the language of its portrayal, as much as him. I think he's the best of all the Pop Artists, and I'm including Warhol in that.

At the same time, I think that Marcel Duchamp is THE most important artist of the 20th Century, and that his Fountain is the Century's greatest work of art.

I love craftspeople. I love watching someone of talent doing something well, whatever that is. A craftsperson at work can be hypnotic, whether it's sculpture or piano playing or whatever. I rate craft highly, and believe me, there's a big part of me that regrets the loss of craft and precision in 20th Century art. I am never going to like Tracy Emin's work as much as I like [insert famous classical painter's name here]. I rate Da Vinci highest of all classical artists. I love Peter Green's music as I love Joni Mitchell's songwriting, or Hergé's draughtsmanship. But the fact is that as great as these people are at their craft, at their art, none has changed the way we think about their field- or about art itself- in the way Duchamp did. Not even Da Vinci.

"Modern" art asks questions about what art is. It exists on the level of concept. It examines how thoughts and ideas are passed from brain to brain. No, it might not be aesthetically pretty, but it can be conceptually satisfying.

I'm tying myself in knots here, and making the same mistakes that some folk use as sticks to beat MODERN ART with.

Much like Economics, big-A Art is something that people shy away from. At some point, the narrative of our society tagged Economics as something too difficult for average folk to understand. It isn't. Yes, it can go to some complex places. It can't be summed up in its entirety in a tidy, simple manner. And all too often, knobheads like your humble Jedi head off on one with long words of uncertain meaning that, in the end, are neither useful or applicable. What can I say, there's no doubt the world would be better off with a little less jargon in it. But at the heart of things, both Economics and Art are based around some very simple, straightforward concepts that absolutely anyone can understand. We shouldn't be put off by sneery gatekeepers, whether real or imagined. We shouldn't let these things be taken away from us.

Some time ago, I saw a discussion of art in Irregular Webcomic. It's still one of my favourite bits of writing on the internet. It says a lot of things I'm trying to say here in a far more elegant fashion than I ever could. You should all go read it.

Let's back up a bit. If I think Duchamp's Fountain is so important, why do I rate Kirby above Warhol? Jack's good, yeah, but he never seeks to understand society or humanity, or to examine culture itself, in the way Andy does. But this is where it becomes interesting: Kirby's not just a great craftsman. He evokes abstract concepts, from simple things like energy and movement to the complex, unknowable vistas of the cosmos. And, being comics, he ties it to narrative in a way that, for want of a better phrase, Gallery Art has no hope of achieving. And Jack practically invented an entire visual language and context while he was about it.

Bringing this back to where we began, why do watchers of the X-Factor, or EastEnders, or Corrie, or whatever, exist as a shorthand for Real Britain, anyway? How many people watch these shows? Ten million? Twenty million? My point is, when these shows are on, most of the British population are doing something else. The import of the advertiser's darling, the WATER COOLER TELEVISION SHOW, fetishises the lowest common denominator. And the worst thing about it, the very worst thing, is that it's patronising. It's not about what you watch, or your views on Jack Vettriano, or where you think Bob Dylan and the Beatles and Beethoven should come on an absurd list of relative merit. What Perry does, in effect, is assume that most of Britain has neither the interest or ability to understand the Tate's brand of art.

I hate this attitude. I hate it because it assumes that Real People are unintellectual scum who have no capacity to enjoy Proper Art. I don't think I'm going too far in saying that this is the same attitude that drives a Government of ruling class Etonians intent on cutting funding to arts and education. The scum don't need it. Look at them, the scum don't even LIKE it. They can't possibly understand it. Leave them wallow in their X-Factor effluence. It's all they can understand.

Perhaps, once again, I overstate.

Oh, I don't know. I don't fucking know how the Tate chooses who they display. Maybe they do have a giant snooty wankathon where they drip hot liquid sneer all over art they consider Low. But I wouldn't put Jack Vettriano in either. Or Banksy. Or poor old Beryl Cook, and to be honest I think she has been treated badly by The Establishment over the years. But I'm pretty sure I'm not one of Perry's Boring Cool People who swig champagne in contemporary galleries. I don't like the X-Factor, but I do like Batman****, and Predator 2, and I've spent a hell of a lot time on this very blog talking about Megatron.

It's not about High Art or Low Art. It's not even about Good Art or Bad Art. It's about Perry's assumption that Real People have no hope of defining this for themselves. And I think Perry is completely wrong.

* I'm going to take a wild punt and assume Perry's not talking about the Marvel comic.(^)

** Now, if you know me out in meat space then you know I'm no follower of The Football. Even so, I once got a hilariously stinking look from an artsy-fartsy type back when I worked in a bookshop because she asked for a book on Banksy, and I thought she was after the autobiography of English international goalie Gordon Banks.(^)

*** I have a theory about Good and Bad music. I think we all kind of know what I meant when I used "soulless" up there, but "soul" has, of course, another meaning in pop music terminology. I think that "life" is a better word for it. When Nobody McPointless off of X-Factor covered Biffy Clyro's "Many of Horror", an utterly lifeless recording was created. Meanwhile, the Manic Street Preachers' Holy Bible is alive in a way few other albums are, even though every single track deals with death and sickness.(^)

**** In fact, BAT FANS, there's a hidden BAT REFERENCE in this very post! Can you find it?(^)