The Progressive Uglification of Everything

It is time again for the most important—which is to say the most publicised—prize in Britain for contemporary visual arts, the Turner Prize. It is as well-named as would be the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Prize for rap music or the Ceausescu Prize for the preservation of ancient churches.

Needless to say, those short-listed for the prize have done more than their little bit for the progressive uglification of the world—one would expect no less. In a world of injustice, after all, beauty as once understood is socially-regressive and unjust, the privilege of the few. To be concerned with aesthetics or to create anything in any way beautiful would thus be to be complicit with the status quo, the unbearable conditions in which 99 per cent of the world’s population are forced to live (especially in the West, and more especially artists in the West). To create beauty would be to reinforce the oppressive structures that brought about and maintain such conditions.

Anthony Daniels appears in every Quadrant.
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The director of Tate Britain (how I detest the “re-branding” of cultural institutions, perhaps the nadir of such condescension towards the general public by culture-apparatchiks being the Bozar of Brussels) delivered himself of the following judgment:

After a year of lockdowns when very few artists have been able to exhibit publicly, the jury has selected five outstanding collectives whose work has not only continued through the pandemic but become even more relevant as a result.

Incidentally, the director of Tate Britain is described by the BBC as “the prize chair”, though I should describe him as a prize something-else. I suppose, though, it is appropriate that those who have, or express, robotic thoughts should be described as pieces of furniture. The BBC reported:

The efforts—by Array Collective, Black Obsidian Ground System (B.O.S.S.), Cooking Sections, Gentle/Radical and Project Arts Work—have included artwork in support of law changes in Northern Ireland, a 24-hour fundraising rave for queer, trans and intersex black and people of colour, and the use of food to help understand the workings of the world, as well as a lockdown doorstep neighbourhood story-telling campaign and work by a group of neurodiverse artists.

The judges are reported to have said that all the above collectives had showed “solidarity” with various communities in the country during a difficult twelve months. The way in which the work of the groups is described would make a speech by the late Leonid Brezhnev seem like a Hamlet soliloquy:

Black Obsidian Sound System … work across art, sound and radical activism. Formed by and for QTIBPOC (queer, trans and intersex black and people of colour), the group aims to challenge the norms of sound-system culture across African communities in London—through club nights, art installations, technical workshops and a film documenting QTIBPOC nightlife.

Trying to write about what is wrong with all this is like trying to explain a joke or refute a madman’s delusions. Surely no one is going to exclaim, once informed that Black Obsidian Sound System (or any of the other contenders for the prize) is not exactly in apostolic succession to Piero della Francesca and Vermeer, or to Li Song or Payag, that he now realises that what B.O.S.S. do is so far removed from all previous art that it cannot be put in the same category of activity. (The question “But is it art?” should be avoided, however, not because the question is necessarily wrong in itself, pace the philosopher Arthur C. Danto, but because even asking it puts a person immediately into the category of those who would have approved of the exhibition of degenerate art in Berlin in 1937.)

As soon as one reads words such as deep commitment, hyper-local community, collaborative practice with, for and by neurominorities, or slogans such as “The marginal is our normal”, one smells a rat—or perhaps I should say bureaucracy and public funding. The fact is that, even by the very low standards of modern-day billionaire patrons, the work of these collectives is nil, trivial, and evanescent. The billionaires may grossly over-value the works of, say, Jean-Michel Basquiat, but at least, in buying one, they have something tangible in their possession whose value will never fall quite to zero. And so long as the gas of quantitative easing keeps flowing, the price-bubble of such artworks will keep inflating.

The various collectives that have been chosen for the prize are collective in more than one sense. I doubt that anyone will be much surprised to learn that they are funded, in what part I cannot say, by entities such as the government’s Arts Council and the National Lottery Fund. This last is particularly egregious. Doctor Johnson once said that lotteries were a tax on stupidity, but in this case a lottery acts as a subsidy of people play-acting at artistic activity by poor people who have little or no hope of making a fortune any other way.

I am not sure that Doctor Johnson was right, by the way: for once his human understanding seems to have deserted him. The hope of winning a lottery is real and exciting, but the failure to win is not really a disappointment because the hope was not allied to any expectation. Thus, for a small fee, the purchaser of a lottery ticket is provided with hope for a week, or a month, and not prey afterwards to any disagreeable or unpleasant emotion of equivalent strength. In other words, it is a pretty good bargain.

But it seems to me infinitely preferable that the profits of a lottery should go to a private entrepreneur, or alternatively to a genuinely good cause, than to alleged artists selected either by a hapless bureaucracy or by morally and intellectually corrupt arts apparatchiks, including those from the world of art commerce. Art needs patrons, of course, but discriminating ones: which no doubt helps to explain why practically all public art these days (almost everywhere in the world) manages to combine the qualities of mediocrity and monstrosity.

I do not say that the Turner Prize is of absolutely no utility: it permits a number of young people to play at their kindergarten activities while imagining that they are creating something of artistic value. To this extent the prize adds to the sum of human happiness, as also by fomenting the derision of many others, who are probably vastly more numerous. The kindergartners can believe that they are misunderstood, even persecuted (there is no surer guarantee these days of feeling in the right than to be misunderstood or persecuted, or to imagine that you are); the deriders can believe that they are defending civilised cultural standards by their derision. Like the lottery ticket, then, the Turner Prize is not bad value for money.

One of the collectives in line for a prize is neurodiverse, a term I had not previously come across, though it is not very new. But even the neurodiverse themselves cannot quite make up their minds whether they like the term or not: whether, for example, being autistic, or rather being on the spectrum as it is known these days, is an illness, a handicap or merely an alternative, but not inferior, way of being. Some include psychopaths among the neurodiverse, but psychopaths are probably not very good at forming a community of their own, at least not for long. And then there is the question of whether, when it comes to the award of prizes, having Asperger’s syndrome trumps being intersex, especially black intersex. The award of art and other prizes is coming to resemble golf tournaments or steeplechase races in which handicaps are given to the competitors.

I once had a patient with Asperger’s syndrome, a poor unfortunate young man of low intelligence, whose obsession was with light bulbs. He collected or accumulated so many that he could hardly move in his bedroom for them. If someone tried to interfere with them by rearranging them or by reducing their number he became aggressive and even violent. Economists may talk of market- or use-value, but for him light bulbs had neither market- nor use-value: they were the very meaning or essence of his existence.

When I read of the kindergartners who are engaged on pseudo- or para-artistic activity, such as that upon which the candidates for this (and every other) year’s Turner Prize are engaged upon, I confess that I think of my patient with Asperger’s syndrome. Social reform is for them what light bulbs were for my patient, the whole meaning of their existence. Do they never get bored with all their simulated grievance and outrage? No more than did my patient with his light bulbs.

How long before neurodiversity becomes neuro-uniformity?       

Anthony Daniels recently edited the Everyman anthology The Best Medicine: Stories of Healing, which was published in March, under his pen-name Theodore Dalrymple

9 thoughts on “The Progressive Uglification of Everything

  • Harry Lee says:

    Yes sure: Anti-Beauty is all the go.
    And so is anti-Good.
    And obviously, so is anti-Truth.
    And we must expect the foodie, drinkie, druggie masses to continue to watch it all on TV.
    But we might note this:
    The tiny proportion of the populace that is nominally still for the Good, the True, and Beautiful, under God, cannot be bothered actually to volunteer, to self-organise and to self-fund themselves and counter-attack with all their might-
    -which is what it’d take to save the joint.

  • Biggles says:

    Barrie Humphries’ description of Fed Square is spot on: ‘It looks as though someone has dumped a load of old linoleum and kerosene tins.’

  • Stephen Due says:

    Perhaps the best explanation for the role in this fiasco of the Tate Gallery, now officially known as ‘Tate’, is to be found in this extract from its website:
    “Tate is an institution that houses, in a network of four art galleries, the United Kingdom’s national collection of British art, and international modern and contemporary art. It is not a government institution, but its main sponsor is the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport”.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Neurodiverse. That’s a new one for me too, in spite of having a slightly autistic son and his level 2 autistic son, my grandson. It’s a pity this pathetic political art crowd have got their claws into autistic people re art as well as the ideological gender bending crowd having their claws into autism sufferers (yes, it is a disease state and they do ‘suffer’ it) re ‘transitioning’. I’d prefer to fund art expression for autistic people rather than the silly political lot who are perfectly capable in neurological terms of addressing real art via a lot of hard practice and study rather than garbage art which they do because it is easy and gains ideological plaudits.
    The focus gained by many with autism does release an artistic intensity that can be genuinely interesting, sometimes wonderful, especially when the idea of training and practice in sculpting, painting and sketching are included. My grandson does so amazing things too with photography, as does his father, my Aspberger’s son. Send the others off to trial life in a garret working as a slushie for a while. Character building.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Every time I see a pic of Melbourne’s Federation Square I think the camera lies.
    It does too. In real life, as you gaze upon it, it is actually worse.

  • stephen.fairweather says:

    As almost always, Anthony Daniels has come to heart of a matter in a few thousand words; what many academics art historians and other associated cultural theorist spend their careers dancing around, yet cannot bring themselves for reasons of talent or ideology. So this is what the western world has come to (and any brief look at our own most recent Archibald nominees or Miles Franklin award would confirm this): public funding of artistic endeavour as state-sponsored welfare, feeding the delusions of the few from the largess of the many.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    A short while ago, in connection to the Archibald, I mentioned Christopher Allen, the art critic for the Weekend Australian, and compared him to his predecessor Giles Auty. It seems appropriate in the comments to this contribution by Anthony Daniels on the deficiencies of public art in Australia some of Allen’s comments in the latest Weekend Oz issue. Writing about recent collective exhibitions of contemporary art he notes:
    “They are almost comically predictable, particularly in what they exclude. As I write, for example, several well-known painters have exhibitions in leading commercial galleries in Sydney, but it is unimaginable that their work would ever be included in a show such as The National; the contemporary art establishment and its clique of curators are like the popular girls at school who define themselves as cool mainly by excluding non-conformists.”
    Following a critique of the wooly language used to promote these exhibitions, he continues “Bad style, as George Orwell pointed out long ago, has moral and political consequences; and the reason this kind of writing is so wooly is that it is hypocritical, just like the black pages acknowledging Aboriginal ownership of the land that visitors to museum websites today have to click past to get to the sites themselves: formulaic acknowledgements are hypocritical because they are meaningless and self-indulgent substitutes for real concern and action.”
    Allen then describes the various exhibitions he is reviewing, ending with Gabriella Hirst’s Darling Darling, concluding:
    “The contemporary art curatorium never trusts audiences to be intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions, or perhaps they are simply afraid that they won’t draw the right ones. In any case the label assures us that “Hirst draws attention to the role of institutions like the Gallery, that are byproducts of the same colonial ideology that has wreaked havoc on First Nations’ people, culture and country”. What might that so-called colonial ideology be? No matter, the gallery has clearly learned its lesson, which is why it is spending so much money healing and caring for the natural environment by erecting a vast concrete convention centre on what used to be unoccupied neighbouring parkland.”
    Having commented on Mark Powell’s Quadrant contribution on the Archibald, I regretted not explicitly recommending Allen’s art criticism and suggesting that Quadrant try to persuade him to contribute here. I do so now.

  • DG says:

    A wonderful essay, and more than a couple of chuckles had!
    On the public funding of art: I’m reminded of a Yes Minister episode where the Minister wanted to publicly fund a local football club. Humpy was aghast. He preferred the public fund his interests. On this I wrote to my local MPs suggesting that by true Liberal principles, the public should make all art funding decisions along the lines of the clever NSW ‘Dine and Do’ scheme, where one gets vouchers to encourage dining or going to shows. The subsidy goes to the operator of the individual’s choice. Market at work.
    Instead of the government sending our dollars to offensive derogatory non-performers (players in the game of aesthetic-diversity on the ‘not very good’ side), it would send the dollars to all Seniors Card holders and drivers with a clean record via vouchers to subsidise their purchasing of anything from tickets to an opera, to a show at the club, or an experimental aesthetic-diversity play about cardboard and vomit. The whole scheme could be funded by sacking the arts bureaucrats and council sitters.

  • pgang says:

    I detect the ghost of Wodehouse in this highly entertaining ‘dis’-sertation.
    ‘Trying to write about what is wrong with all this is like trying to explain a joke or refute a madman’s delusions.’ Daniels has the gift of honing the English language to its sharpest components.

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