ART FOR ART’S SAKE

Hot on the farcical heels of the Booker Prize being shared between two authors (Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo), this week the painting & decorating equivalent, the Turner, was shared between all four nominees. I so wish it was a case of the quartet inadvertently receiving the same number of votes, as infamously happened in the four-way-tie of the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest; but bless my boom bang-a-bang, no. The artists themselves made a decision to share it. All being of an age to have been raised in an educational environment that frowns on open competition and preaches the ‘everyone’s a winner’ mantra, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo, Tai Shani and Lawrence Abu Hamdan were making a ‘statement’ – and guess which side of the divide they were making it from, folks!

The reasons given for their decision are peppered with predictable buzz-words – ‘patriarchy’, ‘toxic political environment’, ‘climate chaos’, ‘hostile environment’ – and one of them even has the gall to compare their stunt to the two American athletes who gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. No. Tommie Smith and Walter Carlos were putting their careers on the line by expressing solidarity with a radical political movement that was almost viewed as ISIS-like by the US establishment of the time; they were consciously going against the consensus held by the majority of the American public, the governing body of their sport, and the general powers-that-be – and they paid the price for their actions. Neither Smith nor Carlos was ever picked to represent their country at an international sporting event again.

By contrast, the four artists in question are consciously boosting their profiles by allying themselves with the consensus; there is nothing remotely brave or daring or career-threatening about their stance, completely the opposite. They are expressing solidarity with the media establishment, and virtually every public face of the creative industries. Their stance is akin to The Sex Pistols acting as Max Bygraves’ backing band on a special Silver Jubilee edition of ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium’ in 1977. It’s really about time the outdated falsity of artists being renegade desperados operating on the cutting edges of society was shown the door; this quartet has demonstrated once again that most artists today are conservative, conformist and about as dangerous and subversive as your average edition of ‘Songs of Praise’.

Surely if they really were what their PR paints them as, they’d all vocally advocate Leave; nothing could isolate you from your peers and elders in the Arts quicker than that. The ensuing blacklisting and backlash such a shocking move would entail could cast them as genuine outsiders within their Woke world, i.e. actual bona-fide rebels. Of course, that’s not the case. One of them apparently wore a pendant proclaiming ‘TORIES OUT’. Ooh, how outrageous! This is pure ‘Rik, the People’s Poet’ stuff.

Moreover, the real deal wouldn’t even have accepted being nominated for the Turner in the first place; YBA Sarah Lucas, for example, has turned it down at every opportunity – just as David Bowie refused to sanction the notion of a knighthood whenever it was pushed his way. The four were so quick to compare themselves to Tommie Smith and Walter Carlos, but perhaps if they had done what Marlon Brando did when he won the Best Actor award at the 1973 Oscars and sent a representative of the persecuted minorities they seek to align themselves with to say ‘up yours’ to the entire awards ceremony industry by refusing it, they might have earned a bit more respect beyond the smug, self-righteous echo chambers of Guardianistas.

It goes without saying that the political opinions of the winning quartet will inevitably bleed into their work; wherever they stand, they have an absolute right to declare it through their prime vehicle of personal expression – as artists always have. But please drop the pretence of contemporary artists being in the tradition of the disreputable thieves and vagabonds that have peppered the creative firmament for centuries – particularly when your point of view is entirely in line with establishment thinking. When more or less every notable figure to have emerged from the Arts over the past couple of decades is promoting the consensus, one would imagine a young artist would instinctively go against the grain, to distance themselves from the old guard and create their own agenda that gets up the noses of their predecessors. But perhaps that’s a redundant concept now. And maybe that’s the problem for those of us who grew up in an era when ‘rip it up and start again’ was the maxim, when cultural creativity was engaged in a cycle of constant reinvention that meant each new generation alienated and aggravated the one before it.

Lest we forget, however, money is a big issue here too. Artists today are careerists, in it for profit as much as any other businessman or woman. But art is more than that. You don’t choose to become an artist; it chooses you and it won’t let you go, even if you desperately need to eat or sleep and are down to your last quid. It’s routinely dismissed as not ‘a proper job’ by philistines whose concept of work is doing something you hate for 40 years; anything remotely creative that could have moments of enjoyment is regarded as a hobby. Bollocks. If it’s in you, it’s what you’re alive for. No, it’s not a job; but it’s not even a vocation – that is too gentrified a term to describe what is closer to an incurable medical condition.

Actual cutting-edge performance artist veteran Marina Abramović put it better; in response to wannabe artists who approached her with the aim of becoming rich and famous, she told them that is not the reason to make art. ‘Those things are just side effects that you may be lucky enough to achieve,’ she said. ‘Your reason for doing art should be much deeper. You know you are an artist if you have to do art – it’s like breathing and you have no choice. Nothing should be able to stop you.’ But she also recoiled at the way in which artists have capitulated to the demands of millionaire art dealers treating expression as an investment. ‘The success of an artist is generally measured by how much he can sell his work for, especially in America,’ she said. ‘This is shocking to me. How can you measure people like that?’

I recently read the autobiography of record producer Joe Boyd, an entrepreneurial American who came to the UK at precisely the right moment in the 60s. He effectively discovered Pink Floyd when running London’s legendary Psychedelic nightspot, the UFO, and then went on to oversee Island Records’ impressive roster of artists to have emerged from the British folk scene – Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, John Martyn et al. But he was also a sound engineer at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan delivered a resounding ‘fuck you’ to the humourless folk puritans by turning his amp up to eleven and bringing them the electric future. Nobody today would react in the way they reacted to Dylan’s groundbreaking move in 1965 because nobody would care when music, along with the Arts in general, has been downgraded to the level of a ringtone rather than a matter of life and death. Well, some of us would; maybe that’s why I’ve penned a post highlighting just four more virtue-signallers in an already overcrowded marketplace of charlatans and hypocrites.

This year, my day-to-day life has largely followed a dismally familiar path of acute anxiety, crippling depression, and all their myriad offshoots – with the vital exception of those feverish outbursts when my benign creative juices have been flowing. I think I finally understand the purpose this serves for me now, for whilst I haven’t had much fun, I have produced two novels, a children’s book, and two collections of poetry as well as compiling four volumes of ‘Winegum’ essays. And though I barely made a penny from any of them, that wasn’t the point. Like I said, it chooses you. And it singles you out probably because it knows you have very little else. Art can save lives.

© The Editor

TEN YEARS GONE

As referenced in a recent post, less than a month from now we will apparently be in a new decade. This used to be cause for both reflection and celebration, but any attempt at it now might come across as somewhat forced. Television viewers became accustomed to the ten-year review on or around New Year’s Eve whenever we reached the end of such a cycle. I can remember watching those shows in 1979 and 1989, whereas 1999 had an excuse to cast its nostalgic net far wider – stretching over both the twentieth century and the previous thousand years. The 1990s were somewhat short-changed as a result; but that in itself was probably about right. Before the 90s ended, we were already entering a more homogenised world in which the old custom of each decade being distinctive from its predecessor was becoming redundant as a cultural touchstone.

If the 1990s had any lasting cultural impact, it was through both building on what had been developed during the decade before and laying the ground for what was to come. The manufacturing of, say, The Spice Girls, echoed the way in which Madonna had packaged herself in the 80s, but was done so with more clinical cynicism; the difference between the pop star and the tin of baked beans was even less evident. Once Ginger, Sporty and the rest were split into separate acts, the limitations of talent that gluing them together had just about masked was laid bare. No wonder they now seem to be engaged in perpetual reunion tours. However, the lesson of how they had been so spectacularly marketed as a triumph of energetic enthusiasm and grasping hunger for fame and fortune over having something to say was not lost on Simon Cowell. And if the way in which he has ruthlessly reduced a once-viable and valuable art form into a commodity indistinguishable from a packet of fish fingers defines this decade, so be it.

I suppose, from a British perspective, certain moments jump out from murky memory if one is asked to sum up the last ten years. The ‘I agree with Nick’ General Election of 2010 that opened the decade, and the Coalition and Austerity that kept its first five years on a tight, miserable leash; the 2012 London Olympics that momentarily restored a fragile equilibrium following the previous summer’s riots; the shock result of the 2016 EU Referendum that has more or less dictated discourse and discontent ever since – certainly, if pressed for an instant response, I guess all of these would loom fairly large. But – bar the odd euphoric moment in the Olympics – it’s not like recalling Beatlemania or Mods & Rockers or Psychedelia or Glam Rock or Punk Rock or anything else that still has the power to energise and inspire.

If anyone who didn’t actually live through the 1960s thinks of the 1960s, the instant imagery that appears has essentially been shaped by documentaries produced after the event; as has always been the case with the Second World War for those who didn’t fight it, the 60s has been kept alive by documentation in the shape of film and sound recording in a way that past centuries miss out on. How wonderful it would be to see and hear the likes of Dickens or Napoleon or – if we travel further back in time – Shakespeare or Elizabeth I; but their images exist solely as either faded photographs or oil paintings – something that undoubtedly distances them further and places them in a different realm to the one we inhabit. We can’t see them move or hear their voices, and I often think the mediums that really came into their own in the second half of the last century played their part in keeping the genuinely transformative decades present tense – and if you stand those decades alongside this century’s efforts, the 2000s and 2010s inevitably pale.

When it comes to the popular culture that always seemed to push things forward, we also have to now acknowledge that the 60s, 70s and 80s were anomalies in which a pace of change previously spread over a century was condensed into not much more than thirty years. Talk of decades as individual entities with their own unique look, sound and style is an entirely relevant approach when describing that trio; but it doesn’t fit now. This decade that’s poised to conk out in a few weeks has felt like an extension of everywhere the world has been since 9/11 – and it appears to grow more depressing with each passing twelve months. And this isn’t an ‘old man’ wistfully looking back on his youth either; I probably hated living through the 80s more than I’ve hated living through the 2010s. If anything, all the happiest moments of my adult life have taken place this decade; but that doesn’t alter the fact that it still doesn’t feel like one in the tradition of the decades I grew up in.

Whichever political party is sworn-in as the Government in just over a week from now – and, bar some unforeseen sensational development or the dreaded Hung Parliament, I think we can safely guess which one it will be – the decade to come will open under the same black cloud that has hung over this one; and it’s difficult to discern when, or if, it will clear and the sun will come out again. Of course, life has a habit of springing surprises on us when we’re not expecting them, so something could happen that might hold this post up in five years’ time as woefully inaccurate in its pessimistic predictions. But most of the surprises life has sprung on us recently haven’t really been that great, and unless World President Thunberg discovers gold flowing through Antarctica in 2025 and we all receive our equal fair share, the 2020s may well turn out to be just like the 2010s – only not as good.

BOB WILLIS (1949-2019)

Stanley Matthews, forever endearingly modest when it came to his own outstanding talent on the football field, always visibly winced whenever the 1953 FA Cup Final was referred to as ‘The Matthews Final’; his assertion was that it should be known as ‘The Mortensen Final’, as Blackpool’s centre forward scored a hat-trick to bring his team from 3-1 down to beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3. But it was the dazzling skill of the Wizard of the Wing that played a vital role in Blackpool’s memorable comeback and rewarded Matthews with his only medal in a remarkable career that spanned the era from the Great Depression to the Swinging 60s.

What this shows is how an individual with star presence can stamp his name on a sporting occasion that grows in stature the further away we travel from it, even if it tends to overshadow equally important roles played by team-mates. Such was the position Bob Willis – whose death at the age of 70 has been announced – tended to find himself in ever since the legendary Ashes series of 1981. The Surrey, Warwickshire and England bowler played an immensely significant part in reversing an anticipated whitewash by the Aussies at Headingley. Known both at the time and ever since as ‘Botham’s Ashes’ in recognition of the undoubted impact of England’s great all-rounder, Willis nevertheless made an important contribution.

He took eight wickets for 43 runs during that Test, a career-best performance that helped England wrench victory from the jaws of defeat. By his own admission, the lanky Tom Baker lookalike was often secretly listening to his musical hero Bob Dylan on his Walkman during team talks in the dressing room; but that didn’t affect his determined focus as he charged towards the Aussie batsmen during that match at Headingley, something Ian Botham himself often remarks upon whenever 1981 is mentioned; and when it comes to Ian Botham, 1981 does get mentioned rather a lot. But the part Bob Willis played in one of the all-time great sporting comebacks means his name should never be far from the retrospective scorecard either.

© The Editor

THE GORY SO FAR

The murder of Jo Cox was politicised and weaponised within 24 hours of it happening, and that awful event continues to be a dependable default reference whenever a (usually) Labour MP needs a few re-tweets to stand out during a rowdy Commons debate. Therefore, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that Friday’s grisly incident on London Bridge provoked a similar response with similar haste. Remainers have made a big deal out of the fact that one of the extremely brave members of the public to subdue the wannabe Jihadist with nothing more than fire extinguisher and whale’s tusk was Polish – thus apparently demonstrating the benefits of free movement; the Conservatives have blamed the presence of the killer on early release laws introduced by the last Labour Government; Labour have apportioned blame to Tory cuts in police numbers, the security services, mental health support, prison officers and…oh, I dunno…the weather?

In truth, it was probably a combination of all the factors mentioned rather than one isolated element. Just as hectic was the swift addition of further information in the hours following the attack that left two people dead – that one of those who held the killer down was himself a convicted murderer on day release; or that the presumed ‘ordinary member of the public’ seen holding a bloodied knife and urging pedestrians to move away was in fact an undercover member of the security services. And then there were questions over the fact what appeared to be a disarmed assailant on the ground was shot dead point blank by the police. Then it turned out he was wearing a suicide vest he was allegedly poised to detonate – a vest that was found out to be fake once it could be examined on his lifeless body.

I saw the ‘uncut’ footage on Twitter, though not through voyeuristic searching, mind; it was my first exposure to the incident rather than TV or radio and I didn’t know what to expect before I saw it. Yes, it was shocking, but before the MSM news became squeamish, such graphic images of unpleasant incidents used to air on bulletins, perhaps in order to show grownups the brutal realities of brutal events rather than the ‘I’m sure the viewers at home don’t want to see that’ approach in place today. Anyway, it wasn’t nice, but neither was what Usman Khan did in the name of Allah.

Of course, it’s not much more than a couple of years since the last General Election campaign was momentarily derailed by terrorist incidents and, lest we forget, Jo Cox was murdered just days away from the 2016 EU Referendum. It seems that such high profile political events are now viewed as a prime platform for any stray radicalised lunatic to have slipped under the MI5 radar to achieve tawdry immortality; and the fact these campaigns have become more regular than the World Cup or the Olympics over the past half-decade means there are growing opportunities for the deluded and deranged in this particular branch of showbiz. The Jihadi community must be looking forward to the prospect of a People’s Vote and another Scottish Independence Referendum.

The ramifications of London Bridge have naturally fed into the Election narrative, but it’s a sad measure of how normalised such attacks have now become that just as much coverage is still being given to the usual electioneering point-scoring. Boris won’t submit to an Andrew Neil grilling, Channel 4 replaces the absent Boris with a block of ice, then the incurably-unlikeable Michael Gove strolls into Channel 4 HQ accompanied by his own film crew in a desperately cheap stunt; Jezza is still being pilloried for his inability to apologise to British Jews for the anti-Semitic elements in his own party; and the electorate are still being cornered in vox-pops, only to express the same despair with the choices on offer as they expressed before the PM even announced the date.

When this General Election was called, there was a brief hoo-hah over the fact it was scheduled just a couple of weeks before Christmas – as though a two-minute detour into the nearest polling station to scrawl a cross on a piece of paper was a massive inconvenience to a populace who would be devoting every spare moment for a whole month to trudging up and down shopping malls. Who’d have thought you could buy the lot on Amazon these days, eh? Maybe it’s just me, but I’m quite happy about the timing. If it pushes the relentlessly tedious festive juggernaut out of the spotlight for a week or two, I’m all for it. Cut the ‘Christmas Month’ back to the ‘Christmas Fortnight’ we used to have and I won’t be complaining.

Last week’s YouGov poll placed the Tories on course for a 68-seat majority, though we should all pause before accepting this prediction as Gospel following the pollsters’ performance in 2017. Having said that, it’s difficult to see how – valid points re the NHS and Universal Credit not withstanding – the Labour Party won’t be indulging in one of its perennial soul-searching sessions once all the results are in. More so than last time round, it looks like this really will be the Election Labour lost rather than the one the Tories won; as stated in a previous post, it’s hard to think of an incumbent administration in power for almost a decade that has presented its opponent with so many open goals and yet still stands poised to be returned to office. Both Labour – in its belated realisation it needs to reclaim its Leave voters – and the Lib Dems – backtracking on their ‘Cancel Brexit’ brainwave – are now attempting to prove the pollsters wrong; though one can’t help but feel they’ve already missed the boat.

Apparently, there was another one of those seven-way ‘leader’s’ debates on ITV last night, something I’ve only just found out about whilst writing this at 1.45am; mind you, I saw the similar one on the BBC last week and came to the same conclusion that prompted Andrew Oldham to axe ‘Sixth Stone’ Ian Stewart from the band in 1963 – that five is the absolute limit when it comes to any kind of ensemble. Any more than that and the audience are struggling to get a grip on who’s who. Mind you, I didn’t even know the stand-in for Boris who’s apparently a member of the Cabinet, but I guessed correctly that he’d defend his party’s immigration policy by mentioning his ethnic origins in true Sajid Javid style as soon as he opened his mouth. I see Farage was the cat amongst the careerist pigeons on the ITV outing, so it might be worth skimming through on catch-up to see how much he winds up the likes of Jo Swinson and Sian Berry. That’s entertainment.

Well, we have just over a week to choose between shit and shitter now. I was marked as a ‘don’t-know’ by the Labour canvasser who door-stepped me last week, and I think he was probably pretty accurate in his summary. I reckon I’ll probably continue to be so until the moment I’m in that bloody polling booth again. Come back, Screaming Lord Sutch. All is forgiven.

© The Editor