Not long ago, a small mosaic appeared on the wall of our nineteenth-century block of flats in Paris. No one in the block wanted it, and the best that one can say of it is that one has seen worse vandalism. To remove it will, of course, cost money, and the proposal to do so will therefore lead to acrimonious discussions among the co-proprietors.
There has been an epidemic, so to speak, of these little mosaics affixed recently to walls in Paris, many of them with a motif taken from the first video game to achieve world renown, Space Invaders. There has been an admitting article about them in the New York Times: they represent something called “street art”, that is to say art created by the People (I use the word in its technical sense) and therefore good. Adverse criticism would be adversely to criticise the People, and that would be to break what is often called, but never is, the last taboo.
Anthony Daniels appears in every Quadrant.
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Among the genres of so-called street art, the predominant form is, of course, graffiti. Although it covers what by now must be millions of acres of wall, it receives very little commentary, and such that exists is mainly laudatory: for who can be against self-expression? The same is true of commentary on tattooing, the graffiti of the skin. I have tried in vain to find a publication, other than an occasional brief article, that dares to suggest that this self-adornment or mutilation is anything other than a serious art form, perhaps a search for individuation in mass society without individuality, and therefore both egoistic and narcissistic, simultaneously an act of rebellion and conformity. (How much rebellion is disguised conformity!) There are many books in praise of tattooing.
Ours is not an age of acute aesthetic judgment, except in the culinary field. Here there is no question that food (especially for the middle classes in the Anglo-Saxon world) has improved out of all recognition in the last decades. When I look back on my childhood, I recall food that was almost comically bad: it took skill and determination of a kind to render food so unappetising, at least from our current perspective, though we ate it because there was nothing else and perhaps because we knew no better. There was an almost puritanical vendetta by cooks (or rather, those who cooked) against flavour, one which was for the most part successful. I remember dry grey roast meat with vegetables reduced to a mush by overcooking, served carelessly with some of the water in which they had been cooked seemingly for hours, if not for days, as a kind of punishment for those who displayed the human weakness known as hunger. No doubt such crimes against the culinary art are still committed in places, but something better is now to be found even in the smallest towns.
On the other hand (there is always another hand), the fashion in restaurants in which the much better food than formerly is served also tells us something disquieting about modern forms of sociability. In many of the best places—best from the culinary point of view—it is not possible to have a quiet conversation. All sound-absorbing materials have been removed from the décor, and frequently one has to raise one’s voice, even shout, to make oneself heard to the person across the table. Talking thus becomes a physical effort, where it is not an actual impossibility, and is certainly not a pleasure; one leaves the restaurant both exhausted and exasperated.
I have been told by restaurateurs and others that the reason for the increased noisiness in restaurants is that the public appreciates the sense of buzz that the noise implies or creates. It stands guarantee that the restaurant is fashionable, in the centre of things, a place to be seen.
Be that as it may, it guarantees something else: no possibility of real intimacy or discretion. This is in accordance with a world of psychobabble, in which people talk endlessly about themselves while revealing nothing. In such a world, conversation becomes ersatz, at best a series of monologues whose end everyone awaits in order to proceed with his own, only tangentially related to what has gone before. Speech is audible tattooing.
The décor of restaurants is increasingly impersonal and interchangeable among them. Curiously (and perhaps significantly) enough, the same is true of hotels. My wife and I decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary by taking a week in some delightful European city or other, and looked for hotels where we might stay. After looking at hundreds, we came to the conclusion that somewhere there was a world office for the design of hotel rooms, imposing stylistic uniformity in the way that le Corbusier and others wanted to impose uniformity in building styles around the world (and very largely succeeded).
The style is purely impersonal and forbids any local reference. A hotel room in Barcelona could be a hotel room in Munich or a hotel room in Copenhagen. It is as if every traveller, having braved the horrors of airports and experienced a change of scene, wanted the reassurance of familiarity, even at the cost of character. Not a single one of the hotels we looked at online had, apart from its facade, any individual character whatever. Some were more lavishly furnished, though in recognisably the same fashion, than others, but essentially they were interchangeable.
Not only did the rooms preclude any aesthetic surprise or interest, but they made it quite clear that the summum bonum of hotel-keeping was convenience and a certain kind of bug-in-a-rug comfort. Of course, I am not against convenience or comfort, and I have no vocation for mortification of the flesh. But it is as if the public would be disturbed, discomfited by the unfamiliar, by anything that they did not expect to find in a hotel room. It is as if the poem by Cavafy, “The City”, had become true in the most literal sense, almost a goal to aim at, at least with regard to hotels:
You said, “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
Find another city better than this one …”
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you …
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
There’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
And is it not strange that in multicultural times, people should demand uniformity (I assume that hoteliers are responding to market pressures)?
Human beings are both social creatures and blessed (or cursed) with individuality. They feel the need both to fit in and stand out. Advertisers, who are sincere in their cynicism, are fully aware of this seeming contradiction. They constantly suggest that people should stand out by buying exactly what they hope to sell to as large a number of people as possible. And what, after all, are graffiti of the kind that deface whole areas of cities nowadays but an attempt by young people both to conform and stand out, by imposing themselves on a townscape by doing precisely what so many others do?
Hideous though their efforts are, yet the perpetrators retain some aesthetic sense, if only unconsciously or subliminally. The distribution of graffiti, its epidemiology as it were, is of great interest. Nothing human is susceptible to universal generalisation (except, perhaps, this generalisation), but the fact remains that graffiti artists largely confine themselves to ugly surfaces, at least in places where there are also graceful surfaces. This is not merely because they come largely from areas where ugly surfaces abound, or because graceful surfaces are better protected from their depredations; they are often highly adventurous in reaching places which require courage, determination, ingenuity and even foolhardiness to reach. I conclude, therefore, that whether they know it or not, their activity is an aesthetic commentary on the world, and therefore they also know the value—the negative value—of what they do, albeit that it is praised, I suspect in bad faith, by middle-class commentators who affect to find value in it. Thereby they, the middle-class commentators on it, think that they are displaying sympathy for, or solidarity with, the unprivileged or downtrodden. That is why also that tattooing has not found its detractors.
Few things reveal a man more than his aesthetic judgments, which is why so much art and architectural criticism, at least of contemporary art and architecture, fails to make any. A whole vocabulary is employed to avoid them: they are as much to be avoided as rude remarks at a garden party. Which of the desiderata of truth, beauty and goodness remains standing after the postmodernist assault?
Under his pen-name Theodore Dalrymple, Anthony Daniels recently published the collection Neither Trumpets Nor Violins, co-written with Samuel Hux and Kenneth Francis (New English Review Press) and The Wheelchair and Other Stories (Mirabeau)