Issue 23
Volume 6 Number 2
May 2001

In This Issue

 •  Contents
 •  Cover Illustration
 •  Editorial
 •  An Appraisal of the Utility of a Chocolate Teapot
 •  Referee's Comments
 •  Bridget Plokta's Diary
 •  The Simulacra
 •  Lokta Plokta
 •  All Your Catfood Are Belong To Us
 •  Census Results

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The Simulacra

ALISON SCOTT'S article was interesting, but chiefly because it was so comprehensively wrong. (Good title, though.)

Capote once remarked that Jack Kerouac's (rather incontinent) novels were not writing but typing. That was a little unfair, since Kerouac does have compensating merits, but in the case of Glenn Brown it seems entirely fair and justified to say that his work is not painting but interior decorating. He certainly covers a good large area and he may produce "a smooth glossy finish" but this is no more than could be said of any conscientious worker. Essentially what he's doing is just Painting by Numbers on a much larger scale. Far from being "layered with endless shades of meaning" and "many levels of irony" his work is fundamentally empty-headed and devoid of any real artistic merit. Perhaps it's not absolutely a waste of space, but it's certainly no more than one small step up from wallpaper.

Still, give the guy credit: at least he's been shrewd enough to work out a repertoire of the kind of tricks which might get him noticed in the modern art world.

First trick: make it big. Any painting, if large enough, will make an impact by virtue of sheer size, regardless of subject or treatment. A two inch splodge is just a splodge, but a ten foot splodge acquires significance simply by being overwhelming. Most modern paintings depend very heavily on their dimensions, which is why they look so unimpressive when reduced for reproduction. The book cover original was probably no larger than A3, but I have no doubt that an enlargement to the size of the Brown copy would make it just as striking.

Second trick: make it representational. Most people like to know what they're looking at. Something recognisable puts them on firm ground, whereas the non-representational leaves them floundering in a sea of uncertainty. From the public's point of view the great drawback to abstract art is that (apart from area of canvas covered) there is often no obvious way of telling how much work has gone into a picture and to what extent the execution has been intentional rather than accidental. (Is this guy trying it on? A chimpanzee could do as well etc. etc.). From the artist's point of view abstract art also has the drawback of offering much less scope for the display of technical expertise and the production of recognisably original and distinctive work. Looming large there is an awful possibility: it may all have been done before. If one takes, say, Jackson Pollock (dribbles), Mark Rothko (bands of colour) and Piet Mondrian (hard-edge geometry in flat colour) there's no trouble at all in telling their works apart, but as one extends the list it soon becomes obvious that the total number of recognisably different approaches to abstract art is quite limited. Every picture may be different, but within any particular style every picture is too much like the others for comfort. The result is that newcomers are likely to find themselves ranked as imitators rather than originators, followers rather than leaders. Brown is quoted as saying that if his paintings "were completely abstract people would take them very seriously". Well, it's theoretically possible, but given his rather obvious lack of original ideas it seems much more likely that any abstract work he did would be judged too secondhand and derivative to be taken seriously at all. Much better to go for the representational, where the infinite variety of subject matter offers at least the possibility of producing something distinctive enough to be remembered. For this boy, a smart career move. In fact, it's the only real irony in Brown's case: as a non-representational artist he would probably have been regarded as a copyist and unoriginal, but as a representational copyist he makes a claim to be original.

Third trick: seize the initiative and browbeat the audience into submission. Remember that for all its assumptions of superiority the art world in reality is just like Hollywood: nobody knows anything. All the old certainties broke down nearly a hundred years ago when Marcel Duchamp (to name only the most visible exponent) first articulated (and demonstrated, with his ‘ready-mades') the principle that anything at all becomes art as soon as it is labelled art, since the label alone will change the way the audience sees what is being presented. Having been hit over the head with this true (but treacherous) insight for so long, (and having been softened up by earlier innovations such as Cubism and Futurism) most people do have at least a dim general idea that art is not necessarily limited to photographic realism, chocolate-box impressionism and the range of subjects traditionally favoured by the Royal Academy. Unfortunately, having given up the old standards they seem to have despaired of having any standards at all. They fail to realise that to classify something as ‘a work of art' is only the first part of judgement, the second being (as ever) to decide whether it's any good. A great deal of ‘modern' art is not good. This is not because it is shocking or iconoclastic or revolutionary (as its adherents would like us to think) but because it is dull, stale, derivative and unimaginative. ‘Modern' is a terrible misnomer for works which do nothing but recycle the ancient ideas of Pop Art (40 years ago) and Dada (80 years ago). The most remarkable thing about the efforts of such as Damien (pickled sheep) Hirst and Tracy (old bedclothes) Emin is not how daring but how conformist they are: this is exactly the kind of thing ‘modern' artists are expected to do. (Same old shit—literally so in the case of Gilbert and George.) In effect, the artists have sabotaged themselves: by relying on the idea rather than the execution they are directing their work into a series of dead ends, since once the central concept has been laid down there is nothing else to say. My favourite example here is Meret Oppenheim's (1930s) fur-covered tea set. A great idea—but a very limited idea, since any fur-covered teaset would do just as well and there's no way of taking the idea further. Likewise any pickled sheep (Damien Hirst), any pile of bricks (Karl Andre) and any packaged object (Christo) would do just as well since the artistic merit (if any) lies not in the specific details of the work but in the challenge of its claim to be considered art at all. At the most, it's criticism rather than creation, a commentary on art rather than art itself, and since the same basic points have been coming up for nearly a century it now represents nothing more than the triumphant discovery of the perfectly obvious.

Back in 1920 Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q." (French alphabetical for ‘Elle a chaude au cul') showing the Mona Lisa with beard and moustache really was revolutionary, a scandalous gesture in the face of the old over-reverential and tradition-bound approach to painting. Eighty years later Brown's copy of a Rembrandt figure given the title ‘I Lost My Heart to A Starship Trooper' seems merely inane, neither art nor criticism but simply an extremely feeble joke. (I've used copies or pastiches in cartoons myself, but I like to think the jokes were a great deal more pointed than this.) Calling a copy of a routine SF book cover ‘The Loves of Shepherds' is equally fatuous. Titles such as ‘Coming from Evening Church' (painting by Samuel Palmer) ‘Great Balls of Fire' (record by Jerry Lee Lewis), or ‘The Taming of the Shrew' (play by Shakespeare) would have done just as well, since the purpose of a title here is not to encapsulate anything which is actually in the picture but to encourage the audience to drag their own Deep Meaning out of thin air. This is the kind of intellectual dishonesty which gives ‘irony' a bad name, since the label is being used as a sort of universal escape clause. If challenged about his intentions or meaning the artist simply changes his ground and claims that what he seems to be saying or doing is really an ironic reference to something completely different. It's the audience's responsibility to figure it all out but the artist reserves the right to damn them for a bunch of ignorant philistines if they come to any unflattering conclusions. It has to be taken on trust that there some significance to be found, but once that difficulty has been overcome the onlookers will be sure to find something—just as they would do if they speculated on any random collection of objects. The title doesn't have to mean anything, just provide a starting point for the free association of ideas.

The Tony Roberts book cover was a rather mediocre piece of standard SF art with only the vaguest connection with the novel it was supposed to illustrate. I remember Double Star as mildly entertaining, but in his treatment of the themes of identity and impersonation Heinlein was about as profound as Anthony Hope in The Prisoner of Zenda. (For some rather deeper thoughts, see the works of Philip K. Dick (as advertised in the title) and such others as Kurt Vonnegut's Brother Night and Bluebeard. But it's not exactly a neglected topic.) Brown's ‘reference' here, even if intentional, is hardly a major stroke of subtlety. A copy is a copy is a copy, as Gertrude Stein might have said, but for any deeper insight it's the audience who have to do all the work—which does make one wonder what use the artist is.

No doubt someone somewhere has used the tag ‘The loves of shepherds' for ‘pastoral' but I couldn't find it in any of several reference books, so it shouldn't be too surprising if the critics failed to recognise it. In any case, its application to Brown's picture seems ill-chosen. Apart from being stunningly banal, the idea that SF is the modern equivalent of ‘pastoral' escapism can only be justified by a distortion of art history. The idea that ‘realism' means the least favourable and most unattractive view of the world, and that anything else is ‘escapism', is a fairly recent development. In earlier times the main business of art was seen as presenting the ideal rather than the literal, and in the case of ‘pastoral' this was a deliberately artificial and formal approach based on classical tradition stretching back two thousand years to Theocritus and Virgil. In this context ‘escapism' is a meaningless term. Indeed, as far is painting is concerned it remained meaningless until pictures became available to the masses in reproduction. No doubt patrons of the arts have always been perfectly ‘well aware of the realities of agricultural life', but since they owned the shepherds (and later the factories) they were hardly oppressed serfs in need of ‘escape' in the modern sense. If they rejected the unattractive it was simply for aesthetic reasons.

Using Holman Hunt's ‘The Hireling Shepherd' as an example of pastoral is an even worse misreading of art history. Apart from featuring a shepherd the connection with the pastoral tradition is practically nil. Hunt's picture represents neither escapism nor idealism but symbolic realism. The basic principle of Pre-Raphaelite art was absolute fidelity to nature meaning a rejection of artificial artistic conventions (as featured in ‘pastoral') in favour of a near-photographic realism and detail. As the most serious (or solemn) of the bunch Hunt also favoured throwing in a good strong moral. ‘The Hireling Shepherd' was, he said, intended as ‘a rebuke to the sectarian vanities and vital negligences of the day". Exactly who and what he had in mind may now be a little obscure, but it ought to be obvious that this is very much a picture with a message. The amorous Shepherd is showing the girl a butterfly (symbol of evanescent worldly vanities); she has a lamb (symbol of innocence) on her lap, but also several apples (reminder of temptation in the Garden of Eden). Meanwhile, in the background, the neglected sheep are banging heads, falling over, and straying into the corn. Moral: God's Nature is truly wonderful but you'd better stick to the path of duty and lay off the sinful frivolities or it will all end in tears.

Hunt's picture has a discoverable meaning; Brown's picture does not. Hunt's picture is an original; Brown's picture is not. Not to put too fine a point on it, Brown's claims to artistic merit are 99% eyewash. The man is not an artist but an artificer, a technically skilled copier of other people's designs. Assuming his share (after the dealer's large cut) of the proceeds from ‘The Loves of Shepherds' was, say, £5000, one could break that down into £4999.50 for labour and materials and 50p for artistic inspiration. This is not good enough, and the excuses put forward in mitigation are not good enough either. whatever the specious theory may claim, copying is not creation, and creation is what it's all about. The Emperor has no clothes, and the people shouldn't really need telling.

—D West

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