Tuesday, 8 September 2009

But Is It Art? - John Dougherty

Depending on how you look at it, Hackney council has just (a) done its duty in removing unsightly graffiti, or (b) committed cultural vandalism and destroyed a work of art, in sending a couple of workmen to paint over an original Banksy.

I'm going with (b), myself. Mind you, I feel I have a bit of an investment in Banksy - not financially, you understand; but in common with thousands of others, a couple of weeks ago I queued for over four hours in order to get in to Bansky vs. Bristol Museum (the little cherubs in the picture, by the way, are my kids, who joined me in the queue an hour and a half in, by which time I'd managed to get about half-way through Philip Pullman's Once Upon A Time in the North), and as far as I'm concerned, that's a serious investment of time. In total, after all, I spent more time queuing than I did actually looking at the exhibition.

So: was it art? Here, I have to shrug my shoulders and say, 'dunno'. And I don't really care, either, if I'm honest. I enjoyed it. My wife enjoyed it. My children enjoyed it. Thousands of people from all over the world enjoyed it. And I've never, in any exhibition at any museum or art gallery I've ever been to in my entire life, laughed out loud as often as I did at Banksy vs. Bristol Museum. Given all that, does it really matter whether or not I know what the correct label for it is?

By this point, some of you are probably checking to make sure you are actually on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, and thinking, 'what's all this got to do with children's books?' Before I answer that question, let me put up another photo from my day at the Banksy exhibition:
I do like that one particularly. Anyway, where was I?

Oh, yes. It's easy to dismiss a lot of kids' - and, for that matter, adult - literature as "light" because its aim is to be funny and entertaining. Michael Rosen founded the Roald Dahl Funny Prize partly because funny books just don't get picked for prizes, and he felt it was as important to celebrate them as any other kind. Well, I'm with him on that. And at this point, I was going to start talking about how humour can be hugely intelligent and instructive; and I was going to use Banksy's How Do You Like Your Eggs as an example of something that first made me laugh and then made me think, and that posed questions... and then I thought, hang on, I'm falling into the same trap. To justify comedy - funny pictures, funny books, funny whatever - in that way is to say that it has no value unless it does something other than entertain. And I don't think that's true. I like to laugh. I think it's good for me. Yes, I like clever comedy; I like the thought-provoking stuff; but I also like comedy that's just plain silly - and what's wrong with that?

One voice is notably absent from the debate about whether Banksy's work is art, and that's Banksy's. He really doesn't seem to care. In the same way, Michael Rosen's response to people who think he doesn't write proper poetry is, well, don't call it poetry, then. Call it "bits" or "stuff". And Terry Pratchett, awarded an OBE for services to literature, commented, "I suspect the services to literature consisted of refraining from trying to write any". I love that attitude. These are people who know what they're good at, and who do it, and do it well, without worrying about which labels properly attach to their work.

Dr Johnson once said,"One of the amusements of idleness is reading without the fatigue of close attention; and the world therefore swarms with writers whose wish is not to be studied, but to be read." Well, all those clever writers whose wish is to be studied definitely have their place. And so do the rest of us. If people read my books, and enjoy them, that's good enough for me.

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com


Nick Green said...

I remember that Douglas Adams once suggested that P G Wodehouse was, in his way, a genius on a par with J S Bach. That his command of humour was as much an act of virtuosity as the composer's command of a musical score. I can definitely see what he meant.

Humour has to be one of the highest art forms simply because it's so dashed hard to do.

John Dougherty said...

Absolutely - and harder still to do consistently. Rob Brydon said recently about panel games: "We all have mates who can be really funny, but the question is: can you be funny next Tuesday at 7.30?"

Katherine Langrish said...

We were there too, John, a few weeks ago. It was enormous fun. I particularly liked the cages full of slowly crawling frankfurters and cheeping chicken nuggets.

There was a guy quoted in the Guardian this week - an art critic - fulminating that Banksy should have been 'drowned at birth'. 'It doesn't matter if they like it,' he growled about the people of Bristol et al, thus qualifying for the Stuffy Old Bugger of the Year Award; 'it's not art.'

John Dougherty said...

That's Brian Sewell, who I believe is ineligible for the Stuffy Old Bugger of the Year award by virtue of having won it too many times already, rather like JK Rowling and the Smarties prize.

My Apple dictionary defines art as "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power". I think for Brian Sewell (whose initials are rather fortuitous, don't you think?) beauty may be the defining factor, whereas for me you could leave that word out; it's about emotional power (including that found in beauty, of course) - and anything that can make you laugh out loud has some sort of emotional power.

I found the frankfurters fun but just a little creepy, by the way. Partly because I was there with my kids, my favourite bit was finding all the items he'd sneaked in to the other displays, especially the art galleries upstairs.

Katherine Langrish said...

And how amazing to see hundreds of people queuing for hours to visit a modern art exhibition!

Lee said...

It's great fun to read the Johnson quote in context, where he talks about inventing pleasures for the rich and idle, also about news writers (Idler No. 30). I'm a great fan of Johnson's tongue. How appropriate to quote him in a post about humour! (Surely he'd be a blogger today.)