Public Enemy


The fluidity of the term ‘art’ makes it vulnerable to misrepresentation; it does not draw its boundaries and defend them aggressively in the way other terms do. Its open borders make it susceptible to attack, and, unfortunately it is frequently the victim of aggressors.

Because ‘art’ classifies the in-between and the unknown, it has also come to represent the unsafe. Unfortunately, we often cannot tolerate the uncertainty that negative capability demands – we rush to definitions and meanings as to safe houses, relieved to find shelter and the familiarity of four strong walls. We are afraid of the freedom of the sea, and its endless confusion of possibilities. Our definitions – our structures – act as bulwarks against this anxiety, giving us something solid to hold onto.

This individual fear of freedom is reflected on a societal level, in the structures and systems that we erect in order to protect us from it. Our systems restrict us, but often we appreciate this restriction, just as we once appreciated the protective custody of our parents. Yet the process of maturity necessitates a breaking free of parental restraint, a breaking of bonds that allows us to flower in our own right. Our systems allow us the luxury of remaining immature; they are our surrogate parents, offering us a place to rush to where we can remain dependant. And, as we’ve seen already, it is in the interests of the overarching system for us to remain this way.

With this in mind, the artist – artist as a person who swims, who does not fear freedom – presents a problem to the system. The artist is not as dependent upon its comforts, its definitions, and so is not as susceptible to its manipulations. Art – the sea, the area of slippage – is an eternal thorn in the side of a system that wishes to eliminate freedom. It represents a challenge both to the individual who fears the sea within, and the society that refuses to acknowledge that its foundations rest in water.

Society deals with this danger in a number of ways, not least through the systematic ridicule of ‘art’. It is kept at arms length through repeated negative characterizations of art and artists in popular culture; in newspapers we see the regular lampooning of art, along with a stock caricature of the modern artist, and stories will often concentrate on its market aspects (i.e. buying and selling) rather than its ideational value; in films art is frequently a roughly sketched diversion (we see a recent example of this in the film (500) Days of Summer, in which the two main characters attend an art show, where they find the usual array of random art objects – which, presumably, they are meant to address with the usual clich├ęd air of contemplative distance – before unanimously deciding that they’d prefer the easy familiarity of the cinema instead). These instances all help to create and maintain a negative image of art in the popular consciousness, which allows it to be more easily dismissed whenever its tide threatens to wet our feet.

Because art is a place where new forms are tried out, it also becomes a place of deviation from established structures. It is the running ground of the deviant, the vantage point from which an individual can see our structures for what they are, can get a feel for them, and can offer us alternative perspectives on them. Deviance can come in many forms, from the transgressive performances of Paul McCarthy, to the playful initiatives of the S.I., through to the everyday deviance of the free publication (in a society in which saleability is an utmost virtue, to give away is always an act of deviance).

To deviate from the structures of the State is to risk condemnation. We have, through the various ideologies in which we have been immersed from an early age, been conditioned to react in an alarmist fashion to deviation, and as a society we are very sensitive and suspicious of it. So drenched are we in State ideology that we condemn and castrate its troublesome members on its behalf, often without stopping to think about the unexamined assumptions that led us to these condemnations. “Why give stuff away – you must be rich or crazy”, “Why spend time studying something that won’t result in a job? It’s a waste of time”, “His father left when he was only young (his father is evil)”

As someone who swims outside the structures of society, the artist is nearly always a deviant. His determination to enter the crashing waves is perplexing and troubling to those who value their moorings, and the news he brings from the depths is disconcerting and unwelcome to those who rely on the stability of the status quo.

We’ve seen why art may pose a threat, both to the individual and to society, as well as to a system which has no place for its nebulous refusal of form. It should come as little wonder that, in the popular imagination at least, art is a ridiculous and pretentious deceiver, with nothing of real value to offer. When painted this way, it need not be given a serious hearing, and its potentially subversive words can fall harmlessly on deaf ears. Through being assigned a character and a set of traits by society it has, in the words of the Situationists, been recuperated. The system has dressed it up in a variety of ridiculous outfits – the pierrot, the hopeless dreamer, the impractical rebel – and in these guises it is set before the crowd; its threat neutralized by the farcical costumes it has been made to wear.

So, whilst ‘art’ may stand for the sea, or for freedom, for many it simply stands for something that isn’t worth their time.

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