No, it’s not okay just because “it provokes debate”

Picture of butt-plug tree (inflated)
LOOK at the butt-plug tree! LOOK at the butt-plug tree! We spent a lot of your money on this, because it’s ART that PROVOKES DEBATE, so you’d better LOOK at this ART and DEBATE it you ungrateful philistines!

COMMENT: Contemporary art, no matter how pretentious, is fine in places where people have the choice to see it. But it’s wrong to impose it in public places if it’s clearly not wanted.

You think aspiring writers have a tough time? It could be worse. You could be an aspiring fine artist. When unpublished/unperformed writers look at their more successful peers, at least there’s usually some evidence they’ve earned their success: ticket sales, book sales or even work you that enjoy. Sure, there’s the odd piece out there which is pretentious twaddle, but it’s thankfully a minority. Not so in the fine arts. Christ, if you’re a fine artist who actually knows how to paint, it must be so depressing to see the stuff that dominates the Turner Prize and Tate Modern (and, to a large extent, the Baltic and Mima up here in the north-east). Especially when critic after critic fawns over this guff. As far as I can tell, there are broadly three reasons used for this sycophancy for these “works” of “art”:

  1. Arts critics are far better qualified than the rest of us to appreciate the meaning of contemporary art, and if you don’t like it, it’s your fault for being closed-minded and not understanding the work deeply enough.
  2. Yes, anyone could have created a spot painting (or whatever we’re gushing over this week), but the point is you didn’t. (Actually, I’m sure other people must have created coloured circles prior to Damien Hirst – it’s just that most of us don’t have an army of critics ready to acclaim it as genius.)
  3. It provokes debate about what is art, and that is a Good Thing™.

For reasons I’m about to explain, it’s the last one that’s the most dangerous. But we all get too angry over people like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin, I will make a point in their defence: at the end of the day, most contemporary artists are quite harmless. Sure, it might be seen as a waste of money, but there’s far worse wastes of public funds out there. Yes, they take up limelight that could go to someone seeking their first break, but so do shows like The X Factor. Apart from that, what harm does Tracy Emin’s unmade bed actually do? If you think something like that is a load of crap, you don’t have look at it … That is, unless you’re unlucky enough to live somewhere where they inflict “public art” on you, and there can be no worse offender than pretentious piss-weasel Paul McCarthy. This year he has struck again, in Paris.

Deflated butt-plug tree
WHAT???? How DARE you ignorant CRIMINALS deny a GREAT ARTIST his FREEDOM OF SPEECH! You’re worse than HITLER!

For those of you missed this story, last October the “International Contemporary Art Fair” (FIAC) commissioned this artist to create a sculpture in Place Vendôme in Paris. And lo and behold, he designed an inflatable sculpture called “Tree”, which was shaped like a butt-plug. Cue a couple of days news where Parisians find themselves the laughing stock of the world, until some vandals took matters into their own hands and deflated it. Now, at first glance this seems like an amusing story over incompetence of public officials. Whoops-a-daisy! What are they like? But you only have to look a litter deeper to see this is an alarming development in the utter contempt that some in the fine arts world hold the public in.

I came across Paul McCarthy this year when I watched the equally tasteless and pretentious Looking for Paul at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Frankly, the ending of that play couldn’t have been a bigger love letter to him if the actors gave him a blow job on stage (nor would it have been any more disgusting to watch), but it did at least alert me to this artist and how bad things are getting. He’s a so-called “contemporary artist” whose sole agenda, so it seems, is to try to outdo all other artists on shock value. I’ll refrain from giving the details of how tasteless it is – if you must know, you can read this. Apparently, this is a comment on consumer-driven American society, although exactly what special insight’s offered by sticking a Barbie Doll up your arse I’m not sure.

Statue of gnome holding butt-plug
Ha! Ha! Ha! Can’t get rid of this! Now you uncultured plebs will have to LOOK at this ART forever! Serves you right for wanting a fountain or something.

The trouble is, shock value is old hat nowadays. Gone are the days of The Exorcist when you could publicise your work by provoking outrage amongst the moral majority. Today, most people are so weary of these outrage stories they don’t take any notice. Not even when high-brow critics gush praise for pushing the boundaries – that’s old hat too. It’s just too easy to ignore it and get on with your life. Which means new ways have to be found to provoke outrage. And it seems the most effective one is to impose your “art” on people whether they like it or not. The more tasteless, pretentious and obtrusive your art is, the more people you offend. Problem solved. And Paul McCarthy has a long track record of this tactic, such as a giant turd in Bern and a gnome holding a giant butt plug in Rotterdam, all there for the public to “enjoy” on a compulsory basis. Yes, this is no story of silly officials failing to spot a suggestive shape; FIAC knew exactly what they were comissioning, knew exactly what upset they were inflicting on Parisians, and they’re proud of both.

I should say at this point that I’m not outright opposed to controversial public art. The Eiffel Tower, after all, was divisive when it was built, but the public warmed to it and it’s now the definitive symbol of Paris. There’s a similar success story for the Angel of the North. But if the public don’t warm to it, the time has to come when you concede defeat and accept it’s not wanted. That is not the case with “Tree”. That was clearly loathed by all but a handful of modern art sycophants (and they must have been expecting that reaction), but McCarthy and FIAC responded by closing ranks and dismissing it out of hand. They might have underestimated the lengths people would go to destroy it, or it might have been part of the plan. Either way, after it got deflated, FIAC got to bleat about the great man being denied freedom of expression by ill-educated philistines, the Mayor of Paris got kudos in the arts world for pushing to re-instate the art in defiance the unwashed masses, and Paul McCarthy got to play the wounded martyr by requesting it be kept down because of the threatening atmosphere. Oh, boo hoo hoo.

And there lies the problem: they always find a way to spin the outcome in their favour. It doesn’t matter what the rest of us say or do, they always win, we always lose. I’ve tried and failed to find something from FIAC explaining why they commissioned this, but I assume the justification was that “it provokes debate”. That is convenient, because the more outrage you cause amongst people who want nothing to do with this, the louder your own supporters shout back. Brilliant, debate, and the stronger the opposition, the more justified you are. In fact, the line “it provokes debate” can be used as a catch-all excuse for anything and everything. You may as well claim that Dapper Laughs is a great artist because he provokes debate about the boundaries of sexual harassment.

Worst of all, their claim of provoking debate is a piss-poor one when you think about it. So, mixing Christmas and sex-toys highlights how consumer-driven and decadent Christmas is? Oh please. That debate has been going on for decades. Are we really supposed to believe this would be debated less is if hadn’t been for Mr. M’s butt-plug gnomes and trees? Ah, but it also provokes debate about art, doesn’t it? Come off it. I concede that when whole contemporary art thing started, Duchamp’s Urinal did indeed start a debate on this subject, but everything else since then is a re-hash of the same debate – and frankly, nearly 100 years on, the debate of “Oh, but what is art anyway?” is getting kind of tedious.

But I expect even this will be used as vindication of the argument. So, I’m complaining about the extreme lengths and shock value being used in the name of “provoking debate”? Perfect for them, it’s exactly their point on provoking debate about the pushing the boundaries. Oh look, now I’m dismissing the very idea that it’s okay if it provokes debate. Well, they’ll retort, that provokes debate about the merits of provoking debate, so doesn’t that prove them right? It provokes debate. It provokes debate. It provokes debate. And so on, infinitum. Far from work like this provoking debate, the logic these people use makes it impossible to have a meaningful debate with them. It’s as if it’s a game where the winner is the artist who provokes the most outrage.

Picture of Lumiere from 2011
Eurgh! People! Popularity! Pretty lights! How DARE they give the proles what they want! This is what needs banning!

I suppose the only consolation is for me to consider myself lucky that my city values public popularity: Durham gets Lumiere, Paris gets a butt-plug. But this dual mindset – that 1) anything’s okay if it provokes debate, and 2) opposition to public art makes it a good thing – is becoming a real menace. And I am completely at loss as to how we can fight their circular reasoning. It’s similar to the craze for brutalism, where approval of architects came first, and the ordinary people affected came last. The butt-plug gnome blights the lives of the people who live in Eendrachtsplein on a daily basis. Had the “Tree” not been destroyed, the businesses in the square would have suffered and people would have lost their jobs. Maybe you should consider that when you pick your side. Public art affects real people. It is not a game to them.

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