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Joyous Anarchy


“Art is the Saboteur”

Two hours after the fire was set, thick plumes of smoke still drift across the grey East London sky and I stand triumphant by my apartment window staring steady at the blaze, a stink of sweat and petrol.

This must be my finest work.

Bedraggled clouds weighed down by great puffs of sulphurous smoke float grimly to and fro as though they had been plunged into the interminable darkness of a Victorian winter.

Fire is the father of all things. This is my lament to beauty on the occasion of its birth.

At the base of two thick, black, smoking columns intense fires continue to burn: flames lurch and stroke the air as tiny firemen struggle to achieve the impossible. Their water jets swish like whips.

Which piece perishes now?

The stench of destruction burns my nostrils. I have to snap the window shut before resuming my silent watch.

Fearing that gas canisters may blow, firemen have evacuated local residents from their homes. These people, some still in their pajamas and clearly confused, are pacing up and down the pavement beneath my window.

These people.

Petrol stings my knuckles.

It’s impossible to convey this much destruction.

A group of elderly gentlemen in their nightclothes gather to chatter for a few minutes and I inexplicably realize that this what it must have looked like when they evacuated the residences at Cambridge during the Blitz.

Yes, yes. But is art?

My wordlessness drowns out their gossiping speculation.

I demand silence.

Silence.

Ambulances dash to and from the fire’s outer edge, screaming hysterically. A helicopter winches someone to safety.

You cannot step into the same fire twice.

This is hellish. This is violent.

So am I.

I am Art.

Art is the saboteur.

*

This has been an interesting month for aestheticians on the original side of the pond.
The National Portrait Gallery, London unveiled a 67-minute long looping – continuously looping – video portrait of David Beckham, the England football captain, sleeping. Imaginatively entitled “David,” Sam Taylor-Wood’s video is scheduled to loop in a continuous fashion for the next year.
Could “David” be Beckham’s and the artist’s most interesting work of 2004?
Soon after, Boris Johnson (irritating upper-class twit and the new Tory Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) challenged Damien Hirst (Brit Art’s prematurely-aged enfant terrible) and “the Saatchi brigade” to a debate about the nature of art.
The silver-haired Johnson undoubtedly hopes to undermine, expose and embarrass Brit Art’s trendy, postmodern elite and stir up some debate about the place of art in society; a fruitless endeavour considering that it’s none of society’s business. A former editor of the Spectator, New York (and yet, to the Manor)-born Johnson takes the view that Brit Art is a shallow and conceited swindle.
He’s not alone.
Not forgetting those still on the ascendant side of the pond, Picasso’s Garcon a la Pipe sold for a Wildean $104m in Sotheby’s, New York. The subsequent media coverage invariably included a Top Ten Most Expensive Paintings segment, reinforcing the notion that the price of a work of art is more newsworthy than its value.
As the month drew to a close, the most shocking art story of the year broke: a London warehouse fire that destroyed three large storage units owned by Supercollector, and renaissance advertising executive, Charles Saatchi.
Vandalism? Sabotage? Enlightened pyromania?
Again, the mainstream news coverage of the blaze focused on the financial cost – estimated to be in the region of STG100m – but in reality, with the insurance company unwilling to comment on the fate or value of specific pieces, it’s extremely difficult to accurately estimate the true extent of the devastation.
Known to have perished are works by Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin’s confessional installation “Everyone I ever slept with 1963-95” and the Chapman brother’s “Hell.”
However, it is feared that many more pieces may have survived.

*

I was fortunate, through such a palette-dropping chronology, to have the chance of interviewing Donald Kuspit, renowned art critic and author of The End of Art (Cambridge University Press, 2004), for The Modern Word.
Just as well, because I’m finding it easier than usual to slip into the uncomfortable but sadly familiar feeling that contemporary art has lost its way and The End of Art – a sustained attack on postmodern art or what Kuspit calls “postart” (in the sense of ‘no longer worthy of being called art’) – is a good antidote.
Is commercial success the new aesthetic standard? Has celebrity replaced authenticity amongst publicity hungry artists? Aren’t artists losing their artistic abilities, constantly working their way downwards through successively more mediocre ideas (recreating classic paintings using spaghetti) and progressively less-complex forms (why paint when you can snap?)?
The End of Art had to some extent already answered my sense of being cheated by many contemporary art values – not by replacing them with alternative visions, but by unraveling the mysteries of postmodern art, the central mystery being “How the hell did that get in a gallery?”
But it was M- that was affected by the book more than most.

*

Sam Taylor-Wood’s “David” falls neatly into the postart category, but art is the saboteur: just when you think you have established common ground for discussion, it pulls that ground from under you.
“I wanted to create a direct, closely observed study. Filming while he was asleep produces a different view from the many familiar, public images,” Sam Taylor-Wood, the creator of “David,” told the BBC, apparently unaware that his work was on public display and that he was talking to the BBC.
I feel that had Taylor-Wood been more aware, he would have realized, perhaps with some shock, that his work is soon to be counted amongst the “many familiar, public images” of Beckham with the inevitable consequence that it is destined to negate its only artistic selling point with a speed directly proportional to its popular success. This is unintentional self-sabotage on a grand scale.
“Compelling” said Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery. “All his famous goals are replayed on television all the time, and quite right too because they are wonderful. But I think if you are going to try to get to the person, to the man, to him, you need perhaps a different approach. She gives us the chance as viewers to be very close to him, almost examine him, in a way that would not otherwise be possible.”
In other words, it’s fetishistic rubbish.
I was about to fire off an angry letter (under an angry pseudonym, such as Ferocious Frank Fury, Esq.) on the matter to the National Portrait Gallery, when a trip to their official Web site stopped me in my tracks. There, I discovered that:

The National Portrait Gallery was established with the criteria that the Gallery was to be about history, not about art, and about the status of the sitter, rather than the quality or character of a particular image considered as a work of art. This criterion is still used by the Gallery today when deciding which works enter the National Portrait Gallery's collection.

“David” may be a dreary, unchallenging work, but within the remit of the National Portrait Gallery that’s not important.
Kudos to the National Portrait gallery for their devil-may-care approach to aesthetic value, but the quality and character of any image considered as a work of art is important to me.
It is worth noting, on the grounds that we care about such things, that you and I are of more artistic significance than the Board of the National Portrait Gallery, London, which is an empowering if slightly frightening thought. It is also worth noting that in disregarding the “quality and character” of art works, the National Portrait Gallery, established 1856, can be called a postmodern institution.

*

M- (a musician and friend of mine who shall remain nameless, despite his best efforts) was halfway through re-reading The End of Art when he called me on the telephone to make no less of a declaration than it had made “an insane man sane.”
This avowal was accompanied by laughter.
He then promised to abandon all ironic gesturing. “This book has given me a language to think about art in!” he said. More laughter. “It has lifted a blanket of disillusionment and quiescent despair.”
It was obvious from the background noise – the rattle of a door, the bark of a dog – that he was sitting outside somewhere. His excitement was contagious.
“Are you at home?” I asked.
“Yes. I am.”
I looked out my window and although the sky was drab and grey and M- lives nearby, I imagined him sitting against a white outside wall under a hot sun, illuminated by The End of Art. Anyone who has been to Dublin will know that this is a massive feat of imagination for a local.

*

It was with great excitement then, that M- and I found ourselves, just two weeks later, standing outside the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square.
Vandalism? Sabotage? Enlightened pyromania?
No. We were awaiting a debate between Donald Kuspit and Norman Rosenthal, Director of the Royal Academy, on the topic of contemporary art. So soon after the Saatchi fire, the scene was set for a bruising encounter between two heavyweights of the visual arts establishment – Kuspit proposing a rejection of the blurring of the distinction between life and art, and Rosenthal opposing.
Hundreds of soccer fans, celebrating England’s victory over Switzerland that afternoon, rolled past shouting and singing. Performance art, I supposed.
Inside, “David” whirred as a small crowd gathered for the debate. More than 10 million people had watched the England-Switzerland match, I counted less than one hundred in the small auditorium.
The debate itself was more like a friendly joust: Rosenthal and Kuspit are old friends and accepted each other’s criticisms with exceptional good humor. I sensed they were looking forward more to catching up on old times than to tearing down each other’s perspective.
The essential difference between their aesthetic worldviews seemed to be that Rosenthal is afraid to exclude from the gallery any work that calls itself art, whereas Kuspit is quite confident about limiting what we call art to a specific class of objects: artworks. Forget found objects, ashtrays, and empty beer cans, Kuspit seemed to be saying, give me craft, paint on canvas, and an authentic quest for criticality and expression. Oh, to be so old-fashioned.
Shortly after Kuspit started speaking, M- noticed a solitary figure dressed entirely in black emerge from a side-door. M- nudged me and made a motion with his eyes. I turned to see a man with a pinched face slink secretively sideways into a seat on the edge of the auditorium. He snorted when Kuspit spoke. I thought I smelled petrol.
By virtue of being so inclusive, Rosenthal effectively ended up not taking a position with regard to what constitutes a work of art. This naïve position, which sidesteps the challenge of defining art, offers little of the sort of guidance I would expect from the Director of the Royal Academy. The democratization of art, in which anyone can be an artist as long as you can convince gallery owners that your work is important and representative – regardless of its beauty – is a dangerous trend. In political terms, Rosenthal is advocating pure democracy whereas Kuspit is arguing for a republic.
I found it revealing that when Kuspit attacked artists like Hirst for creating works short on beauty, Rosenthal’s response was that those works are important. Perhaps Rosenthal could not defend their beauty because he secretly knew that Hirst’s work possesses little of that quality? He opined that Damien Hirst was a fine draughtsman. The strange latecomer shifted in his chair and coughed loudly.
The Saatchi fire flared briefly again when someone in the audience asked why so many paintings had been in storage in the first place. The humanity in this question produced a small titter of admiration from the crowd. Rosenthal fumbled with his reply, arguing simultaneously that it would be awful if every work of art were on permanent display and that it is terrible to have works of great importance hidden away. The mysterious figure in black clapped energetically.
At this point I thought I spotted Boris Johnson in the audience, but it was another bulky, silver-haired aesthete with a penchant for blue pinstripe shirts. What are the chances? A woman in the audience charged that artworks that require a supporting thesis to be appreciated have failed as art. Ironically, it was Kuspit, professor of aesthetics, and a man who has spent much of his life creating theses about artworks, who agreed most with her position.
The uncanny visitor made lots of noise as the debate wound down (especially when Kuspit poked fun at Tracy Emin), and during the closing statements provided a constamnt stream of criticism and applause, sometimes simultaneously. But when the lights went up, to our amazement, he was nowhere to be seen.
Afterwards, Kuspit introduced M- to Stephen Newton, a painter with a special interest in out-of-body experiences.
These experiences may be more common than you think in London, as it is now legal to purchase magic mushrooms in a number of West End stores. With a loveable, typically English stab at governance, the authorities have decided that as long as you haven’t gone to any real trouble to transcend your normal brain chemistry, you remain within the law: that is, as long as the mystic mushrooms haven’t been dried for the purposes of enhancing your pleasure, you are free to buy and sell them, regardless of their psychoactive potential. Fierce battles between the burning desire to regulate and an equal drive to enshrine the liberty of the individual are quintessentially and admirably English. I find it hard to imagine another race so simultaneously dedicated to governance and dissent: proof, as if it were needed, that these are two sides of the same coin.
M- listened as Newton appeared to move in and out of the wallpaper.

*

The figure in black returned to me, as me, in a dream. As the personification of art (the kind of claim one can only make under the guise of a dream), I surveyed the destruction my imagination had wrought with a sickening mixture of hubris, horror and Hercalitean glee. Sic transit gloria mundi. Art is the truly the saboteur: it silences all our attempts to linguify it and it destroys all our attempts to pacify, quantify and replace it.
The unverifiability of art, its ability to elude utility and sabotage ratiocination, is a virtue. But art is not supposed to be suicidal. Art should not be made to sabotage art. It should be made to sabotage everyday existence and everyday perspectives. It should be made in an attempt to point the way towards the eternal. Most of all, art should sabotage ugliness. This is what many of the pieces in the Saatchi collection singularly fail to do.
While Saatchi picks through the ashes of his warehouse collection, I’m reminded of the dangerous reciprocity of the relationship between the language we use to talk about visual art and our conception of art itself. More dangerously, I wonder if the depth of one’s artistic vocabulary dictates the degree to which you can appreciate any given work of art and the kind of visual art one really enjoys. Words of a feather flock together.
As aestheticians prepare for another interesting month and “David” continues looping in an eternal recurrence of the same, M- and I have reached the provisional conclusion that aesthetics is not at all unlike theology: its object is elusive, completely transcends language, and yet spurs us towards great acts of passion. And in both aesthetics and theology, excepting cases of fire and the occasional burning, the object under investigation remains intact throughout our chatter.
Chatter is the joyous froth of language, whereas Beauty, like God, is ineffable. It is a nihilistic dream in which only our chatter truly exists.

Emmet Cole
26 June 2004


Emmet Cole is a journalist and writer from Ireland. His work has appeared in Red Herring, The Irish Times, and BookView Ireland. He co-authored a comedy play, “The Indestructible Sandwich” with Mid-Day columnist, Rohit Gupta, and is currently working on a novel. His column “Joyous Anarchy” will appear monthly on The Modern Word.

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