Beyond criticism, or, Notes from fantasy island (a response to Criticism and the collapse of culture)

Artist Paul Wilks responds to Eric Coombes’s tour de force of an essay (Criticism and the collapse of culture, The Jackdaw Mar-Apr 2011)

Matthijs Van Boxsel cites, in The Encyclopaedia of Stupidity, a ‘Fame Machine’ devised by Villiers de l’Isle Adam, (1883) in which fame could be manufactured ‘by organic means’. Simply put, the ‘machine’ is a theatre but with a paid audience to respond appropriately and overtly to the performance, call for encores and apply liberal use of the claque; the device never fails to impart Fame. As de I’Isle Adams puts it: “All fame has its claque, that is, its shadow side, its part in deception, in mechanical tricks and in Nothing (for Nothing is the origin of all things).” I invite Jackdaw readers to consider how far his fantasy has become our ‘reality’.

The long and thoughtful analysis by Dr Eric Coombes (The Jackdaw  96) on the links between celebrity culture, Diana-death syndrome, the ‘Sensation’ show (particularly the Myra Hindley ‘portrait’) and the impoverishment of art criticism, suggests the immanent emergence of a culture in which truth and fiction are indistinguishable from one another. Rather than conforming to the whims and currents of such a culture the artist would do well to stay aloof rather than be absorbed into such a maelstrom of self-deception. The malady is now deeply rooted in our everyday experience, be it via tabloid, TV or BBC, politics, celebrity or ‘soap’, surrogate reality permeates our existence at every turn and is entering the genetic structure of Western society.

The thespians’ edict to ‘suspend disbelief’ before entering a theatre seems now the prerequisite for much everyday experience, let alone an expedition to the Turner Prize.  In Theatre something was to be gained from this exercise in emotional immersion. One’s thoughts may be diverted, adjusted, confirmed or refuted by the performance. In short the audience deliberately subject themselves to a kind of learning process which they may apply to life. But lurking within this helpful edict is the embryo of celebrity culture (it used to be called the ‘Star System’ in the film industry) which now dominates whole swathes of peripheral media. Soap stars ‘become’ their character, actresses devise tortured pasts for their biographers, rock singers live up to the expectations of tabloid journalists, pious politicians bonk their secretarial staff and defraud the public purse, artists and their acolytes spout artbollocks. In this fuzzy land between truth and lies, fact and fiction, the media’s ability to elevate criminals, hucksters and pornographers to celebrity status erodes


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what small vestige of public morality survives and paves the path to ‘Myra’ at the RA.

Much of what we are urged to accept as art involves subscribing to a critical fantasy as flimsy as a house of cards yet as opaque as the pyramid of Cheops, and, as Dr Coombes points out, the ambiguity and impenetrability of its language puts it beyond refutation. The starting point of this flimflam, which is the lingua franca

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of all salesmen, politicos, critics and curators alike, is an ability to first sell oneself the ‘product’. To thus eliminate in oneself any doubts as to its authenticity, importance, or value, and so marooned by one’s lie to oneself one can disseminate it to others with a straight face and placate any doubts regarding this new ‘truth’.

The Diana phenomena, which Dr Coombes observes as being at the pinnacle of the 90’s fantasy graph, illustrates exactly this blurring of edges between truth and fiction. A bland Sloane who served every public and journalistic fantasy, she played them like fishes in a trout stream. ‘Candle in theWind’, come off it! Before her death we had been battered with her moods for a decade. Yet in life she epitomised the addiction of every self-delusional wannabe in the land, and her death  (utterly appropriate) sent the nation into a dramatic frenzy in which we could all have a ‘part’ and even speak lines. Tears were shed, florists prospered, her island grave attracted thousands.

Artists who pander to celebrity culture are at risk of falling into this hinterland of echoes and twisted shadows between fact and fiction. The temptation to go-with-the-flow reaches not only the crumbling heights of the RA but is evident in a value system in which all measure of talent is ultimately subordinate to the measure of publicity acumen and financial success. Contest with another artist the merits, or otherwise, of the work of any celebrity artist, and the ripostes quickly resort to expressions of admiration for the subject’s manipulation of the system and invariably conclude with a litany of sale-room prices as the final, undeniable proof. Of what? Talent, skill, originality? Such slavish conformity amounts to a value/aesthetic principle no better than that of the Antiques Road Show; i.e. “I didn’t like it before but I do like it now”. It’s amazing how so many artists are willingly led by the nose by the critical acclaim heaped on the talentless but ‘successful’ few. “Get real !” is the ludicrous response of these happy Lemmings. The frightening aspect of this abandonment of objectivity is that many who bend to this imperative are holders of lecturing posts. With each step towards accommodating the appalling output of celebrity artists, their integrity must, of necessity, become increasingly foggy and doubtful. I know of a lecturer who, despite all contrary evidence, not only ‘revised’ his opinion of ‘our Tracey’ and her drawing skills but, faced with her published One Thousand Drawings, now claims her as one of his own and extols her talents as an exceptional draughtsman as being evident to him way back in art college.

The closing of the gap between truth and fiction is no accident but neither is it a conspiracy. Most probably it is the inevitable 404 Not Found by-product of the chemistry of Capital and Media (or greed and stupidity if you prefer). Dr Coombes’ polemic regarding the demise of coherent art criticism indicates this deeper fault in Western thought. The West’s new ability to ‘suspend disbelief’ at every turn now clashes with a religious value system in which an irrational Faith is the hub of existence. From the expedient blurring of truth and our ‘creative’ relationships with modern history, to Blair’s self-delusion on WMDs, it implies that civilisation now walks a tightrope of what we prefer as truth over the void of the reality. As BB King says,  “better not look down”.

 The Jackdaw May-Jun 2011