Original Article courtesy of The Times Literary Supplement. October 18, 2017. By Jonathan Meades.
This is the edited text of a speech given in June at the annual dinner of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Your Excellencies, Ministers, My Lords, Academicians, Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s a privilege to be invited to give this speech, to stand where the great have stood – and the less great.
A privilege but also a seductive danger. Walter Sickert warned against the fatuous flatteries of the after-dinner speaker. Poor Hugh Casson, sometime president of this academy, fell so deep into tail-coated temptation that he found himself being introduced to a New York audience by Philip Johnson as “England’s finest after-dinner architect”. Casson was a consummate Man About the Arts but, equally, not much of an artist: witness the sodolite mausoleum in London called the Ismaili Centre. The gulf between the arts, plural, and art is chasmic; the one is an unwieldy bureaucracy, the latter is creative endeavour.
The last time I attended this dinner, thirteen years ago, the speaker was the late Robert Hughes. In contrast to Casson he was supremely indifferent to whether or not he was liked. Hughes evidently considered that a writer who is not causing offence is a writer who is not doing his or her job. The volume of disconsolate muttering that Hughes provoked in this room might be taken as a sign that he was doing his job. He had embraced the craze for slowness, a craze which had begun in Piedmont in the late 1980s with slow food. Slowness was a triumph of PR on behalf of root vegetables grown on the moral high ground. There followed slow living, slow science, slow thought.
To discover what slow thought means you have to go to the other end of Italy, to Syracuse, and there dig up a 2,000-year-old grave. Its disgruntled Sicilian inhabitant will tell you vaffanculo – I’m still planning my revenge.
We owe carpe diem to Horace. We also owe to him a fuller version of that exhortation. A slow bucolic “benny” is standing on a riverbank, wanting to get to the other side. He decides that he must wait till all the water has gone by before he crosses. Benny was the name given by British troops in 1982 to Falkland Islanders because of their perceived kinship with the very slow character Benny in the TV soap opera Crossroads. Wrong sort of slow.
The Falklands are due to become the model for the excitingly monocultural, endogamous, isolationist, crippled, pelting-farm Britain which has detached itself from civilization and is floating off into the mid-Atlantic in search of a prosthesis. That is one implication of Theresa May’s prevaricating and unreflective assertion that “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world you’re a citizen of nowhere”. A second implication is that she sees an immutable geocultural bond between one people and one place, one race and one soil. That is a dogma with unfortunate precedents.
Hughes’s proposition was that this slow mode should somehow be adopted by artists. He railed against what he called fast art, which seemed to mean an art which was in defiance of the mass media. But it has always been the case that the mass media is entirely preoccupied with the atypical, the sensational. Tortoise beats hare!
But we never hear that it was a long dead rubber, with the hare having won all the previous races. The fifth horseman of the apocalypse is overlooked. The guy just didn’t feel like coming out that day and stayed at home to do some grouting.
Fast art is necessary. What other sort of art can respond to the volatility of the past year – and the years to come? What other sort of art will make sense of The Lout’s ascent to the White House? If anyone doubts that the man is a lout look at his vandalism at Balvenie, just north of Aberdeen; the depredation of the dunes is shocking. Maybe sense cannot be made of The Lout – but that’s no reason not to try. Engagement is required. This does not have to mean adoption of the nostrums of the Left. Or, for that matter, the Right – those polarities are, anyway, worn out.
Engagement means abandoning solipsism and squeamishness, taking active notice of the world outside oneself, making something of it. The aim of the 52 per cent that shot itself in the foot was so poor that it also shot the 48 per cent. This is a subject that is glorious in its squalid hypocrisy. A subject with a multitude of unknowable consequences which will not be felt by the freakish galère of single-issue paranoiacs and monoglot xenophobes who militated for self-harm.
A work triggered by specific circumstances such as these will often outlive the memory of the circumstances. It will aquire independence. We do not need to know much, if anything, about Napoleon’s Iberian adventures to appreciate Goya’s “Disasters of War” or Jan Potocki’s Manuscript Found in Saragossa. We don’t need to be acquainted with early eighteenth-century jobbery, venality and doctrinal disputes to relish Swift.
“The Murder” – by Cézanne before he was Cézanne, as Howard Hodgkin had it – was made at a time when Cézanne’s friend Émile Zola was immersed in the English sensation novel. Again, familiarity with this background will neither diminish nor increase our horror and our elation.
It is futile to set out to achieve the illusory state of timelessness. Everything is watermarked with its date of creation. James Gillray’s “Fashionable Contrasts” is of 1792. It is now also of 2017, which is when another great cartoonist, Steve Bell, nicked it. The original subjects, only partially shown but evidently conjoined, are the Duchess and Duke of York. In Bell’s version the subjects are The Lout and Theresa May, again evidently conjoined, but in a different configuration. It’s just the President’s way of showing what the illusory Special Relationship really means.
Bell’s cartoon was widely lambasted as vile, seditious, tasteless. It would have failed had it not incited such responses. Bell and Martin Rowson have followed Steadman and Scarfe and have revived the necessary practice of caricatural mockery, bile, hatred and vituperation – all seething in a cosmic midden of scatology and eschatology. This is an essentially Northern European idiom which treats the powerful as corrupt and despicable and more generally revels in human imperfection. It is monstrous, gothic, harsh. Its sympathies, such as they are, lie with the underdog. Its many antagonisms are towards the overdog. The precursors are Bosch, Bouts, Hogarth and Dix, Grosz and Rowlandson, Gillray and Schad, Heartfield and Isaac Cruickshank, Georg Scholz and Burra.
This idiom accords with such characteristically Northern European and specifically British diversions as public drunkenness, mob violence, “bantah”, taking the piss, vertically tanned horizontals throwing up in nocturnal streets. And it accords too with contempt for those who we are instructed are our betters, those whom William Cowper, in The Task, calumnized as “peculators of the public gold”. Like the poor, the overdog peculators are always with us, expecting the underdog to pay, for instance, for their absurd garden bridge or for cleaning their moat: a Scottish grandee remarked that had his moat been as puny as Douglas Hogg’s, he’d have mucked it out himself.
Satire is not to be confused with parody, which is a mere lark. Satire is didactic. It’s a sharp jolt. It’s often cruel. It’s meant to hurt. As Swift said, it is intended to vex rather than divert. It is, if you like, secular blasphemy.
In the orthodox hierarchy of visually expressive forms satirical caricature is deemed to skulk in the lower foothills. But as Duke Ellington said, the question is not whether it’s jazz music or classical music, the question is whether it’s good music. Jean-François Revel’s dictum that “there are no genres – there are only talents” is pretty much akin.
Ellington and Revel are both dead and were anyway not part of the arts loop – so what they said is blissfully irrelevant to visual culture’s hermetic high command. Satirical caricature remains below the salt. It is impure. Why? Because it is about something, there is a subject. It is noisy. Whereas official art is the far side of silent. Muteness is de rigueur. Minimalist installations have been sworn to a vow of silence. The Trappist dictum “be in the world not of it” is the very worst precept that an artist should follow. And we live in Trappist art’s golden age. It’s an art which fails, deliberately fails, to engage the eye or to stimulate the intellect. It is neither harrowing nor consoling: we don’t weep, we don’t laugh. It neglects to promote aesthetic bliss. It doesn’t speak to the base of the spine.
The arts loop comprises soi-disant artist, collector, curator, critic, dealer, PR, trustee, philanthropist (again soi-disant), gallerist – every cult requires a clumsy neologism. Many distinct callings there. But only two or three persons – who augment what in French political life is called the accumulation of appointments without leaving home. The critic Otto Otto praises the artist Dot Tod’s swarf work Albatross Soup as courageous and challenging; the curator Dot Tod advises the trustee Otto Otto to purchase Albatross Soup whose paracultural radicality has excited the dealer Dot Tod.
If they got out more they might encounter people from beyond the loop who do not subscribe to their cult of puritanical, po-faced, censorious nothingness which is, globally, both conventionalized good taste and an object of derision. Its zealous blandness makes it appropriate as official art. It is affectless and impotent, it has retired from life. We’ve been here before with the Congress for Cultural Freedom funding Abstract Expressionism: neutral, apolitical, harmless.
Anthony Burgess wrote “There can be no art till craft has been mastered. Art must be dangerous. Once it has ceased to be dangerous it is no use”. Burgess was born a century ago, 1917 – the year that Marcel Duchamp changed forever the face of urinals. His tiresome schoolboy jest has spawned numberless hackneyed imitations which are far from dangerous. And no use.
Such philistine frivolity has irresponsibly given licence to artists who have no craft and some truly duff ideas at the expense of those who possess great craft but fail to accord with the stipulated fashion for an art that is like water rather than like the bottle and a half of gin a day which Burgess often drank. He was of course matched in bibulousness by such masters as Francis Bacon and Edward Burra and John Bellany.
Masters? Are they? According to the fashion-obsessed Tate, they are mere easel painters. That prefix easel contrives to be a patronizing slight, a sly deprecation of one of the world’s greatest artistic forms, and a boast of self-perpetuating power – the incumbent tyrant thinker assists in choosing its successor tyrant thinker. That’s how a cult or a dogma is perpetuated.
An adherent of the cult believes that objects are transformed by being in a gallery. Five hundred identical staplers in a line is a work of art because whoever placed them there says so. Believers see what they believe in. Non-believers believe in what they see. For non-believers the eucharist is no more than a wafer that sticks to the top of your mouth and liquid made from rehydrated grape powder and ethanol. And a line of staplers is a line of staplers.
It’s here that things shift beyond mere silliness. Helpfully we are supplied with a text that tells us what the staplers are up to. This text is composed in very approximate English or with loosely English-derived words: Performative, deconstructability, dialectic, visuality, haptic, interrogality, transversal, trope, curate, curate, curate – and of course the ineffable, unavoidable, ubiquitous “questioning notions of . . .”. You have to scream: stop questioning . . . give us some answers.
This massacre of English has ceased to be funny. Non-anglophone art students and architectural interns believe that this self-important and, needless to say, humourless pidgin is English. Who will correct them? That’s a silly question. There’s almost certainly a social crime called linguism which prohibits pointing out errors of usage, syntax, pronunciation and so on. Besides, everyone in the arts loop, anglophones included, speaks it. There are even degree courses in art writing – both art and writing require quotes around them. Novices know that it is to their advantage to acquire fluency. Unlearning a language as complex and rich as English in order to communicate like primates is clerical treason.
Slang is the vital, graphic poetry of the gutter. The orthodox take is that it is designed to exclude or include. It is more likely a boast of low-level verbal invention. It is, rather, jargon which excludes and includes. Jargon is no kind of poetry. Jargon is lifeless, uninventive, prosy – it’s the language of the joiner, the crony, the sycophant. The jargon of the arts is pervasive because the arts have usurped art.
Save in this exceptional academy which was founded by artists and which is to this day run by artists in the interests of artists, the power throughout the art loop has been seized by a managerial caste which exercises patronage, commissions rather than creates, edits rather than makes, inflicts its off-the-peg taste, does deals and builds empires. The arts are parasitical upon art. Operatives in the arts call the shots. They can read the spreadsheets.
Just as foreign aid ends up in the pockets of tyrannical kleptocrats rather than reaching the desperate and the starving, so does art aid go to the arts rather than to artists. This is not to suggest that the arts nomenklaturapeculates with the licence that politicians enjoy. Nor that it feeds its critics to crocodiles in the time-honoured manner. What it does suggest is that the fate of artists and of art itself is in the hands of too few persons, who share kindred tastes and cultish dogma.
We are a long way here from the days when poets starved to death of syphilis in a garret for the sake of an adverb and Augustus John could announce: “We are the people our parents warned us against”. No more. Bohemia has been subjected to cleansing and class clearance.
Cheap space has been swallowed by blingstead blocks. Vocation has been replaced by careerism in the arts, official arts, by people who don’t realize that a life spent in meetings is a life thrown away. Rise high enough in this milieu and you get to commission a world-class gallery from a world-class architect who specializes in world-class sloping walls on which nothing can be hung. The buildings conspire against the primacy of painting. The entire world-class structure is a three-dimensional logo, a sightbite, a landmark beacon, an iconically iconic icon. It is created in a manner that’s inimical to any form of display other than that of installations. And of itself.
Two decades after the Guggenheim fell from the sky on Bilbao , the global arts establishment clings to the faith – and it is a faith, a belief with no empirical evidence to support it – that run-down cities can be healed by something called cultural regeneration: by building museums and galleries. The number of people unemployed and dependent on welfare in Bilbao has risen during those two decades. Like prayer or relics, it seems not to work.
Nonetheless the director of one of the most supposedly prestigious international festivals proclaims: “you can never have too much culture”. There speaks the authentic voice of the arts, a political endeavour measured by volume and by the cost of glittering venues: which is often no more than four times the initial estimate. The regeneration racket in general benefits no one but the construction industry and its lackeys. This particular branch of it is based in the confident and entirely wrongheaded persuasion that art is a sort of moral balm, a tonic, Sanatogen for the soul, that art is good for us, it makes us better people.