I don’t only do Artbollocks Theatre because I’m a horrible person who likes mocking idiots mercilessly. Although as it happens I am also a horrible person who likes mocking idiots mercilessly, over the six months or so I’ve been doing it live and as videos online I’ve had lots of really interesting and thought provoking conversations with artists and art people because of it. While I was in the shower yesterday morning and not particularly thinking about anything else (no, don’t bother thanking me for that image, you’re welcome) a related question percolated through: why do some people feel they need to do so much special pleading on behalf of contemporary art and artists? Why is an artist whose paintings all look more or less the same “exploring the poetics of seriality” and not just repeating himself? Why is an artist who copies old science fiction paperback covers a fine artist and not a plagiarist… and how is what he does substantively different from a hack doing the same thing in a factory in Guangdong? Why is an artist who misunderstands basic scientific concepts “questioning established hierarchies of knowledge” and not just a lazy woman who likes the sound of words like “research” but doesn’t know what any of them mean? And so forth, ad nauseum.
The obvious answer is that a lot of people’s jobs depend upon these kinds of excuses. If you’re a certain type of academic, a curator who thinks you’re more important than artists, or a gallerist who found a way to sell the unsaleable, or an artist whose work doesn’t have any obviously accessible or meaningful content, then of course you’d be mighty pissed off and probably out of a job if International Art English and all the flimsy art world edifices built upon it were to disappear. But in a more general and less obvious sense there’s still a strange disconnect between the positively baroque excuses made for contemporary visual art (or artists) and the pragmatic approach most of us have to other art forms, no matter how invested in them we may be.
If an actor is wooden and fails to convince us or move us, we have no hesitation in labelling her or him a bad actor. Indeed, mocking and laughing at bad actors has been around for as long as actors themselves have. You don’t need to be a RADA graduate to unerringly identify somebody who’s miscast for the role they’re supposed to play, or doesn’t know their lines. Most of us can cogently explain how and why a film, a play or a television drama failed to satisfy us. Perhaps everyone was doing their best with a terrible script that was never going to work, or the cast and crew failed to do justice to an excellent script, or the idea was good but the execution was bad, and so forth. The criticism and academic discourse related to drama and literature is by no means devoid of pretentiousness and claptrap, but one thing it has never really done is make desperate excuses for lowbrow, inept or cynical work. Probably the closest dramatic or literary theory comes is with the notion of camp or kitsch, but even this approach has a built-in recognition that the work under discussion isn’t intrinisically good by any conventional measure. Kitsch or camp works are subjectively good (to some people, in some ways) because of their ineptitude, or because their values are so out of sync with our own, or because their delivery is so laughably at odds with their intentions, or because they were expressly meant to be unapologetically bad.
A dancer who couldn’t actually dance would get pretty short shrift from their colleagues and from audiences, if they ever got as far as trying to perform in front of an audience to begin with. Humour is notoriously subjective, but a professed comedian who can’t make a single person in the room laugh causes profound embarrassment to all concerned, and may even provoke violence. Musicians have been valued for qualities other than their musical talent since before the advent of recording technology, and these types have continued to evolve via The Monkees through 90s boy bands to autotune Muppets like Katie Perry and her Japanese and Korean idoru counterparts. Nobody feels compelled to create whole schools of specialised critical discourse to excuse them. In their proper context nobody expects or even wants profundity from Rihanna or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. They are what they are.
Likewise, it’s evidently no hindrance to becoming a bestselling author when you’re an absolutely atrocious writer who seems to have written more books than you’ve read. On the contrary, it may be a distinct advantage: Call for Dan Brown on line two, Stephenie Meyer your caller is still waiting on line one. Many of the people who enjoy these authors are under no illusions about them and happily admit that their favourite books are utter trash.
Yet when it comes to contemporary art, most critics, artists, even the baffled general public lose confidence in their own judgements of what they’re seeing and their ability to talk about why it doesn’t work. Again, it’s in the interests of certain artists, curators and critics to portray people who don’t get contemporary art as gauche and ignorant, but that can’t be the whole story.
I’m not sure I have an answer to all this, not yet anyway. It’s just something to think about.