Please Like Me, Please

David Lee
July/August 2020

It’s been hard to avoid following the fortunes of our present crop of self-appointed ‘war artists’. You may recall from the past, as I do, that many of the finest achievements in 20th century British art were produced in response to war. Artists rose to the occasion. So how has the performance of our State Art stars measured up during the most socially disruptive, deadly and economically disastrous crisis since 1945?

Chancers to the last, during solitary the Usual Suspects have left no stone unturned to keep their names up in flashing lights (while masquerading as benefactors naturally). Thousands may die – how sad – but there are points to be scored, positions to be consolidated and the whiff of medals in the air. 

And so it is that we’ve been deluged with slogans, printed and projected, all of them featuring the subtlety of mind typical of conceptual artists for whom even basic thinking is a Boot Camp assault course (retired hurt). So what have they done? They have: issued banal posters by the ream (that bonehead Deller to the fore here) supportive of the NHS, an unavoidable theme; phoned The Guardian at a minute past nine to give advance warning of stunts imminent; taken arty-farty self-portraits on their phones; adjusted historical masterpieces so they wear protective uniforms; confided favourite lockdown recipes; configured ‘installations’ from food tins, cartons and toilet rolls; written confessional diaries in what some had the audacity to believe was poetry  (the Margate Express ­– Sunday service only – was first in line here); collaged newspapers à la Cubism, except 110 years late and not as well; faffed about on balconies with lengths of flapping cloth and improvised stage props; knocked out knobbly caricatures and virus paintings (Marc Quinn this one) which “explored the paradox of living through a real, life-changing time with an unseen enemy that is strangely abstract”; and designed face masks in signed limited editions, some at ridiculous prices. Then there was the ubiquitous O’Bisto who ‘curated’ a programme of interviews with animals and flowers for an app, or something. Others tried desperately to be filmmakers with predictably amateurish results. Gormless, who was frightfully concerned, turned up regularly to spout bollocks, no change there. Some even showed off their pets and made miniature exhibitions for them, while others, considering their woke politics worthy of sharing, blamed a sitting-duck Government of wafflers for everything ever. Some were even suffering such acute interview cold turkey they resorted to cross-examining themselves and then each other, before airing and twittering the results. It was relentless, a daily siege. And all in the name of art.

There were lighter moments, especially when Dick Flasher popped up. In what can only have been intended as an amusing self-parody, he proffered advice to aspiring painters. That was a cracker – ‘Dick the Mahl Stick Maestro’. ‘First Commandment: Buy yourself some big brushes and a mop, load up ferkins of emulsion at Wickes and then – here’s the really clever bit! – get someone else to slap it on while you phone round the papers to tell them what you’re challenging today.’ His limited edition rainbow butterflies looked bad enough to have been knocked out by himself. Then he cropped up again trying to encourage everyone to make their own swirlers using a special switch on their phones. Surprise surprise, if the results didn’t turn out to be just as swirly as his own. “Totally mega”, declared an ecstatic Dick.

But no – there was even more. Up leapt the ‘elusive’ Banksy, and didn’t you just know he would. When a populist bandwagon skids round the corner you know that as night follows day Banksy will be running alongside in his balaklava trying to be first aboard. Stripped of his street canvas due to being forced to stay indoors (the dummy should have tried Barnard Castle, there are tempting stretches of virgin old walls there), he stencilled some rats in his bathroom to signify … something about rats I suppose.

You couldn’t keep these geniuses down. They viralled and virtualled till they were blue in the face. We will build a new world, they threatened, not realising the depressing, art-historical irony in that choice of phrase. And, guess what, it all totted up to bugger all that was either interesting or memorable. For all the help they were we might as well have resorted to the self-harm of watching a box set of Tacita Dean videos.

As usual, our finest – ‘The Few’ – have yet to produce anything of lasting worth. Where are Spencer, Sargent, Muir, Lavery, Lamb, Ravilious, Piper, Orpen, Lewis, Moore and the Nashes when you need them?