On Art

Enough! Enough, I say, with your talk of Art. I shall have no more of it: it is meaningless, it is useless, and it is elitist. You can have “the arts,” you can even have (at a push) “work of art” as “something created.” But Art, oh! that capital letter, that mythical finger that comes down from the sky and selects certain cultural items and purports to grant them greatness, this is not only balderdash but culturally regressive balderdash at that. So, let’s start with—

—well, in fact I have just remembered that, right back at the start of this blog, I convened the International Court of Poetic Justice to hand down apposite and suitably amusing penalties upon those who commit poetry. You may have thought that this was a one-off piece of whimsy, despite the promise of its return, but it conveniently turns out that it’s actually been very busy, looking into precisely this question. As so many of the initial pleadings cited “it’s Art” in their defence, the court decided to look into the whole matter and, as such, started an inquiry and summonsed Art to appear before it. So let’s start by paying a visit to the court, and observing the proceedings.

Counsel for the Inquiry: You are, or you claim to be, Art, am I correct?

Judge (interrupting): Where’s Robert Jay? I want Robert Jay. Couldn’t we get Robert Jay?

Counsel (irritably): He’s too expensive, m’lud. Plus this was largely written on a beach in Brazil without a thesaurus to hand.

Judge (disappointed): Oh well, you may proceed.

Counsel: Thank you, m’lud. I shall try to use the word “propinquity” if the opportunity arises. (To Art) So, you are, or you claim to be, Art?

Art: Yes.

Counsel: I put it to you that, your presence in this court notwithstanding, you do not exist. That you are nothing but a myth used to justify matters of taste, and give a fake sheen of objectivity to what are actually purely subjective claims.

Art: But if this was the case, why would so many people agree on my existence?

Counsel: There are many myths in which a majority of people have believed in their time. Fate. The humours theory of health. Fairies. That whole “God” business. Belief in you certainly does not grant you objective existence, and it only would grant you secondary existence as a “social construct” if it were consistently applied. I suggest that there are many different types of entertainment in the world, and that you are simply a label used by people who wish to claim that their favoured form of entertainment is superior to others.

Art: No: I am that which is of objectively higher quality, or more essential to culture.

Counsel: But who gets to define quality? It seems it cannot be popular acclaim, or else One Direction would have a greater claim to being Art than Bach. It seems to me that you are used precisely to try to justify an elitist oligarchical set who wish to maintain that their tastes are more important than those of the majority.

Art: No, I, Art, endure. I am not transient; this is evidence of my quality.

Counsel: Oh, I certainly agree that the passage of time filters culture; but endurance cannot be the necessary condition for being Art because, otherwise, we would never be able to speak of new creations being Art. Yet clearly one need only look at the Turner Prize, or go to the Tate Modern, to see something made last year being given your title. So it cannot be the case that that which endures is Art. The quality that is Art must lie elsewhere.

Art: But I, Art, have meaning.

Counsel: Is that so? As a criterion of demarcation, that seems odd. The graffiti outside my office indicates, quite clearly though improbably, that “Kilroy was here.” Is it Art? Conversely, does this not make the whole concept of “abstract Art” an oxymoron? And where is the meaning in a Bach Partita, or a Rothko painting? It seems to me that we value these for how they make us feel, not for a specific message. And that feeling is a personal, subjective response: otherwise everyone would, surely, like the same things. You, Art, are merely a stick with which to beat people with different tastes. “You must appreciate this, it is Art.”

Art: No, no, I give a deep insight into the mind of the artist, I provide a connection between the audience and the creator.

Counsel: But this is just a dogma of the nineteenth century, and once again it returns back to how it gives one pleasure. Wagner was a despicable shit of a man, are you really claiming that everyone who enjoys his music enjoys a connection with his vile, supremacist brain? That seems deeply unfair on them. Bruckner was an obsessive-compulsive religious maniac, Gauguin a syphilitic pederast, and Mallory a thug and a rapist. Why would I want a connection with these minds? Can I not simply enjoy the product of them?

Art: No, you see the insight, the connection, enhances your understanding. This is why I, Art, have greater value than your so-called “other entertainments.” You do not need to sympathize with my creators, but I do make you empathize; as such, in encouraging empathy, I am morally improving.

Counsel: Once again, this is just dogma. Hieronymous Bosch’s depictions of hell may be thrilling, but the pleasure is ultimately sadistic. Turandot is nothing more than a manual for date-rape, and it’s a pretty poor defence of The Merchant of Venice that it is simply not as antisemitic as The Jew of Malta. Where is the moral improvement in these? I suggest that people who enjoy you, Art, ultimately are just people enjoying themselves. They may get some of their enjoyment from the illusion of enhanced understanding, even moral improvement; but actually all they are doing is simply enjoying themselves. Some people enjoy the emulation of religious fervour, and so listen to Bach; some people enjoy geometric simplicity, and so put Mondrian on their walls; and some people enjoy feeling that they are clever, and so read Finnegans Wake. And some people enjoy emoting, and so absorb themselves in romanticism. There is no common thread, simply the fact that all of the adherents of these entertainments feel the need to pretend that their enjoyment is morally or culturally superior, and so have invented the notion of you.

Art: But don’t you claim to be a devotee of late Wittgenstein? You seem to be trying to pin me down to a single necessary and sufficient condition, why can I not simply be a “family resemblance” concept, like game?

Counsel: This is true. (To the recorder) Defendant seems to have scored a point there, please strike it from the record. (Rallies) But if we are to take the linguistic turn, then we must examine how you are used, not defined. And the prosecution’s case remains that you have no use other than as an elitist attempt to justify the unjustifiable. You are, in fact, an gigantic exercise in begging the question; in covertly concealing one’s conclusions within one’s premises. “This is Art, therefore it must be good,” the humbuggery which we are expected to accept goes. But in actuality it is nothing more than “I think this is good, therefore I shall call it Art.”

Art: “Prosecution?” Isn’t this an inquiry, not a trial?

Counsel (sulkily): It’s a family resemblance concept.

Judge: OK, this has gone on long enough. Can we sum up please?

Counsel: Your honour, it is the prosecution’s case that Art has no objective existence, nor even any meaningful and consistent conceptual use. The prosecution suggests that there are multifarious forms of entertainment in the world, and that all value pertaining to them is a subjective response based on the pleasure that they bring an individual; that whilst it is perfectly acceptable (though a little silly) to adhere to nineteenth century aesthetics and appreciate certain entertainments because one believes that they are “deep” or “connect with the artist,” this ultimately is simply the locus of the pleasure, and grants them no higher status. Further, the prosecution suggests that if Art were merely a label attached to certain forms of entertainment—those that are “deep” or “meaningful” or “connective”—then this would not be problematic, but that it is used as a discriminatory and elitist weapon, as a (regrettably, largely successful) attempt to appropriate, validate, and grant an apparent objective superiority to certain forms of culture and to exclude others. As such, Art should be seen alongside other nineteenth-century pseudo-objective elitisms, such as the misappropriation of Darwinism in support of racial supremacism, and consigned to the waste bin of rejected anti-egalitarian dogmas.

Judge: Art, would you care to sum up your defence?

Art: Nah, it’s a fair cop, guv’. Guilty as charged.

Judge: Well, we got there in the end. No “propinquity,” though. Robert Jay would have got “propinquity” in there somehow. Henceforth, Art, you shall not be an acceptable defence in pleadings before this court. Further, though the purpose of this court is to rule upon specific instances of awfulness in the domain of poetry, it has been clear from the start that the court will define its own jurisdiction and whilst it is generally loathe to impose the gravest of penalties, in this instance it seems clear that the only option open to it is to declare your non-existence. Do you have any final words?

Art: Well, I was wondering, to be honest, about the rather substantial inconsistency between the relativist and pluralist arguments the court has used in this case and the absolutist and objectivist claims it seems to normally arrogate to itself in the prosecution of its cases; it seems to me that the author should have thought a little bit before making his serious case against the myth of objective value in precisely the context in which, presumably for the sake of humour, he has represented his own opinions as having absolute objective val…

(Disappears in a hurriedly imposed puff of reason)

The International Court of Poetic Justice

Poetry, as I observed recently in that most august of domains — a Facebook comment thread — is like war. Neither of them do I fundamentally object to as a point of principle: both are occasionally necessary, though almost always regrettably so. It may even be possible to defend an instance of either as having provided, in the past, a net benefit to society. But this is no reason to encourage the production of more.

Wars beget more wars, and poetry — especially the bad — begets more poetry. Yet whilst the world has procedures, however flawed, intended to hold those who conduct illegitimate warfare to account, we have no comparable system in place with which to punish the perpetrators of literary crimes.

This can no longer stand. I therefore hereby convene, and declare myself the sole advocate, jury, and judge of the International Court of Poetic Justice (ICPJ), which will hear cases from across all time and duly, summarily, and wholly arbitrarily dispense justice. No case shall be too big for us, and none too small. Our nets shall be cast wide. Be it the krakens of the literary deeps — ancient, silent and brooding, yet still capable of rising to the surface covered in the centuries’ accreted slime of mindless and unquestioning reverence — or the minnows of poetic world — flashing rapidly past us with barely a mouthful of mawkish nonsense, individually little more than a sickly sweet burst of sentimentality, but en masse forming a vast, swirling maelstrom of maudlin gush — the court considers itself fit to try them all.

The court is well named, for not only will its sole task be the handing down of judgments upon these poetic violations of reason, but the penalties imposed shall be apposite to the nature of the offense. As a minimum they shall manifest poetic justice, but the court reserves the right to extend its punitive powers to the ironic, the sarcastic, the vexatiously obscure (where fitting: watch out, Ezra Pound, we’ve got our eye on you), and almost certainly the excessive and hyperbolic.

The first case has already been dealt with.

Re: The Court vs Andrew Motion

No poems were cited in evidence, for none were needed. The sole exhibit offered by the prosecution was a 2002 interview with the Daily Telegraph, in which the guilty — sorry, accused — indicated that he drank a daily cup of Lemsip to aid his poetic muse. It helped him achieve the sensation of having a cold, “that sort of slightly introverted self-pitying mood that a mild illness can give”; a state which, the defendant brazenly admitted, was “absolutely conducive to poems.”

Held, that the court could think of no other such open and shameless defense of everything that it stands against. That, on those few occasions where it is justifiable, poetry is so by virtue of concision in both language and imagery; the making of a precise and effective point. That “introverted self-pity” is for teenagers’ bedrooms, and should not be paraded anywhere else. That the defendant has willfully promoted exactly the kind of mawkish, intellectually flaccid, and emotionally vapid view of poetry that the court exists to stamp out.

Noted, that though the court has not read any of the defendant’s works, it vaguely recalls he wrote a poem on Diana’s death. Holy crap, wasn’t there enough unrestrained emotional diarrhoea over those few days?

Ruled, that since Motion appears so fond of snot, he is to be immersed in a lake of it up to his neck, until he has had enough (we are stern but humane, here at the ICPJ). His poems, since they were assembled deliberately and with scant regard for public welfare to emulate the excreta of contagious illnesses, shall be declared a species of biological weapon, and handed over to the corresponding authorities to safely destroy.

We shall, I suspect, hear more from the ICPJ. Its backlog of cases may be vast, but its mission is vital.