Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.
In order to keep track, I’ve made a table:
Things which art is
Things which art is not
It’s lovely, isn’t it? If, however, we want to explain what art is without a metaphor, then we might have to come up with a slightly more detailed definition.
If you ask the man on the Clapham omnibus “What is art?” He’ll say to you “Fuck off, you posh twat!” I know. I’ve spoken to people on buses. They are not poetic souls. If you were somehow able to distract them from staring fixedly and aggressively out of the window, and then somehow able to persuade them to answer the question, then they might say something along the lines of “Well, you know, it’s pictures and stuff, isn’t it?” If you were to take your life in your hands and press them to amplify their answer they may concede that art also encompassed songs and films and books and that.
This is, however, obviously, nowhere near enough. A map quickly sketched on the back of a napkin is not art and yet it falls within the description of “pictures and stuff”; likewise a half-hearted, tuneless, group recital of “Happy Birthday” is clearly a song, nevertheless, one wouldn’t think of it as art. A song is not art merely because it is music and a picture is not art merely because it is a graphic depiction of something.
An object does not become art by simply belonging to a particular category of things. In most instances this is all very obvious. It’s the kind of thing that everyone knows. It is even accepted by the twats who write angry letters to right-wing broadsheets; furious missives saying that Tracey Emin ought to be publicly birched for the crime of exhibiting an artwork that the letter writer was too dim to appreciate.
So we know that some things, like the Mona Lisa, are art, and we know that other things, like the sign that says “All shoplifters will be prosecuted,” are not art. The tricky question concerns the intermediate objects . I shall list three, and, instinctively, you’ll be able to work out which are art and which are not – if you fail then you’re quite the Shallow Margaret and you really ought to go and carve the words “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” into your forearm. Shall we proceed? Magnificent.
1. A bowl of ice cream
2. The song “Roxanne” by the group The Police
3. A poster with the words “Take Me To Your Dealer” written beneath a stylised depiction of a cannabis leaf
Well, here’s the thing. You’re probably convinced from your socks to your soul that a bowl of ice cream is not art. You have my fawning congratulations, it is, indeed, not. It is pleasant and nice and delicious and cold and sweet and riddled with cookie dough, but none of these admirable qualities confer upon it the status of art. The pleasure we receive from it is reactive rather than reflective, animal rather than human. It is good because it feels nice. No more, no less than that. If someone says that ice cream is bad you cannot argue with them, they simply reacted to it an unusual way. In the same way that if someone is allergic to cat hair you can’t argue them out of their allergy. This is why it is not art. Its qualities are not the subject of discussion.
How about the poster? It is unlikely that someone would call it art and yet it satisfies all of the form requirements. It is a picture that we put on our walls, it is about something rather than actually being something. What is there that distinguishes it from Hogarth and Hockney? Perhaps it is the purpose. It is not there with an artistic motive. It is there to say “I am crazily iconoclastic, and to prove it I am going to plaster my walls with a poster that says I am dismissive of this country’s drug laws – I’m like the Che Guevara of my provincial university!” But there’s plenty of art which did not have an artistic motivation. Toulouse Lautrec is the most obvious example, but a couple of years ago there was an exhibition of Soviet propaganda at the Tate Modern and that was undeniably art without ever having had an artistic motivation. There is a simple reason why the poster isn’t art. No one wants it to be. The badge of art is a status conferred upon an object not a whole lot different from the status of Lord or Sir or Duke. Someone who gets a knighthood has a particular status conferred upon him but physically he is no different before he had the chit chat / sword dabbing with the Queen; we all recognise his new status and so it is achieved. No one recognises the poster’s artistic validity so it is not achieved.
As to the song “Roxanne” by the group The Police*, one might ask the following question “Why do people like this song?” And one might answer “People don’t, it’s a steaming cunt of a song.” However, one’s chippy interlocutor might say “Oh, no, I beg to differ.” To which one might retort “Okay, some people do like it but only demoralised, exhausted and stupid people.” So we must then ask “Why do demoralised, exhausted and stupid people like the song “Roxanne” by the group The Police even though it is a steaming cunt of a song?” The answer is that they like it because it’s comforting and easy; because they don’t have to think when they are listening to it; because it’s got a tune and a motif that morons can follow without getting confused. They like it with their reactions rather than their brains. They like it in the same way that they like ice-cream. This is why it is not art. The point, purpose and pleasure of the thing is the comfort, something we desire with our reflexes rather than our minds. Things which are there just to make us feel warm and snug tend to be duvets rather than art. That which comforts rather than confronts is fine, in the same way that an air freshener is fine. It may make the environment more pleasant but it is without meaning.
What’s massively important is knowing the difference between Art and Porn. The latter is media which cause glands to release chemicals to cause the body to react in a way that the individual enjoys. Man A watches dead-eyed heroin addict B being vaginally pummelled by the veiny cock of cretin C so that gland D releases chemical E so that man A’s own veiny cock releases spunk** allowing man A a few moments of joy. The brain’s not involved at all, the higher capacities of civilised man don’t come into play; it is the ignoble savage’s pounding desire to feel good and nothing else. Likewise the song “Roxanne” by the group The Police causes the body to release chemicals which make demoralised, exhausted and stupid people happy. It’s porn. Whether you want to leak cum*** from your cock or tears from your eyes, it’s still that animalistic desire, that itch that goes way down the evolutionary ladder. It’s preposterous to beatify the song “Roxanne” by the group the Police, in the same way that it’s preposterous to beatify the short film CasaWanker****.
There is a claim often made by stupid people that the quality of art is subjective. This is untrue. Art is not something we appreciate with our senses. Banana muffins, leather chairs, hand-jobs, summer breezes, the smell of cut grass, musical theatre, custard, lying beneath a glass table as an elderly Belgian woman squats over it and defecates, the texture of Camembert, stroking a rabbit, these are things we appreciate with our senses. These are nice or nasty depending on your reaction, they are none of them art and nor is anything created by the band The police.
*One could equally refer to the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” by the group Queen, the song “Yellow” by the group Coldplay, the song “In The Air Tonight” by the tax exile Phil Collins, the song “Another Day In Paradise” by the tax exile Phil Collins, the song “A Groovy Kind Of Love” by the tax exile Phil Collins, or countless other examples of tedious drek produced in the factory of commercial avarice.
**The author considered several alternatives to “spunk” including “spermy-sperm”, “spaff juice”, “ejaculant” and “passion porridge” before landing on “spunk” as the best of a bad lot.
***Again several options were considered including “man milk”, “salty out-pourings” and “viscose cock snot” before mercifully being narrowed down to “cum” as the most sensible choice.
**** This is not a real pornographic entertainment, although if it were I’d imagine Ilsa having to tug off a series of German soldiers and Vichy French officials in order to secure the documents required for her husband’s escape from the Nazis. Just an idea, that’s all. It is mine though. You can’t have it.