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The Vacuum Issue 9 spacer Issue 9
Lovely Art - The Duffer And Friends
by Daniel Jewesbury
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Look. It's everywhere. You can hardly move for it these days. Littering our cynically manufactured 'public' spaces, cluttering the walls of banks, wanky cocktail bars and many other suitable venues for a suicide. Bad art is worse than bad décor, because it's fundamentally dishonest.
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When I say 'bad' art I'm not necessarily talking about art that's technically bad, or uninspiring, or ideologically objectionable. Art can be all these things and still retain the integrity of having been sincerely executed. The 'bad art' I'm referring to is the stuff that gets used to make someone else look good. There are a few distinct varieties of it, but broadly, bad art tells its owner that because they can afford to buy 'culture' and 'sophistication', they are cultured and sophisticated. In different environments this works in different ways. In public spaces, bad art, by suggesting that we are somehow being involved or implicated or included, is used to ameliorate and disguise the aesthetic brutalisation of the city by a small bunch of very rich people, entirely for their own gain. A few utterly pointless bits of public sculpture make these robber barons feel that their latest atrocity is somehow humanised, just because a couple of tons of oddly shaped metal have been dumped in an inconvenient location, or in an improbable configuration. For artists to collaborate with the programmatic resegregation of the city in this way is, well, bad. See?
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In a bar or restaurant, bad art is used to convince both owner and punter that they are cultured and sophisticated. There are apparently an unlimited number of people eager to buy into this charlatanry, which is surprising given how (genuinely) bad the art itself usually is. In an institution like a bank art is supposedly used to make the customer feel at ease, more welcome, and also to make the point that the bank supports the arts, understands the finer things. And of course, the point is that money is linked with taste. A homeowner walking into a block of soulless, overpriced apartments is confronted in the lobby by a painting; it celebrates the fact that the residents are all supremely tasteful, since they have the money to live in such an exclusive location. It tells the owner of the development that by gentrifying a run-down area of the city, their speculative accumulation actually has a positive, even indispensable social role. A few more flats for young, single professionals and the prostitution and drug addiction will disappear, and everyone will congratulate themselves, and the painting will have worked its magic. And even though the young professionals will have to drive a little further away to pick up their prostitutes, they can still bring them back to the apartment block, and then the prostitutes can look at the painting, and feel good for having found such tasteful, wealthy, stupid punters.
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This is why 'lovely' art is 'bad'. To sustain the argument, of course, one would have to be pretty absolute; which is why it's useful to be able to define some things as 'illustration', and therefore OK, because illustration is meant to be just decorative. Art, surely, is supposed to challenge, to stimulate, to unsettle. Art is not meant to reinforce, but to disturb. As soon as it's used to make us feel better, there's something wrong.
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Which is not to say that gratuitous shock is any more worthwhile. Overpaid sensationalists exhibiting their banal (yet strangely lucrative) meditations on genitalia (Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, the Chapman brothers), or their latest adventure with office supplies (Martin Creed, any number of dull Glaswegians) are just giving us more of the same. Their infantile musings are generated by only the most obvious motivations: money, notoriety, a noseful of coke. All this supposed mould-breaking is still just 'lovely', because it is used, yet again, to convince a wealthy buyer of their cleverness. You might as well stick it on a chocolate box. Someone probably already has.
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I do not want to live in a chocolate box. I don't want to be made to 'feel better' about the way in which a clique of developers, and their hangers-on, carve Belfast up amongst them. But then it would take more than a couple of brightly-painted figures up a pole, or a row of insipid portraits on a building site hoarding, to make me feel better about anything.
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