Back in March last year, Berlin-based art critic Tirdad Zolghadr wrote a piece for Frieze magazine entitled ‘Spare Me!’, subtitle: ‘Sometimes no art is better than more art’. The first paragraph runs as follows:
‘Lately, I’ve caught myself feeling relieved when I arrive at an exhibition to find the doors locked and bolted. Instead of shock waves of exclusion, I notice a weird sense of deliverance. Very interesting. Recently, on a trip to Zurich, I found Hauser & Wirth hosting a designer ‘concept store’ for the luxury clothing brand Clemens en August. No art…just the gallery assistants helping you into corduroy outfits, frowning at your shoes and commenting on your unnaturally long forearms. I did briefly scoff at the embarrassment of calling one’s gallery a ‘concept store’, but quickly succumbed to hubris and joy, marking the occasion with a three-piece flannel suit’.
Where to start with this paragraph? Elsewhere – even within this particular article – Zolghadr comes across as an interesting, engaged and warm-natured writer but here he seems unbearably self-indulgent. We don’t all live in Berlin, and many of us would rejoice at the opportunity to engage in its artistic life. We don’t all have the funds to ‘mark the occasion’ of a trip to Zurich with a brand-new luxury three-piece suit, and yet Zolghadr presents it as a universally viable alternative to attending an exhibition. In the same way, he complains of gallerists’ attempts at minimal decor by remarking that “If you’re going for the soothing whites of a branch of Wagamama, you may as well serve the duck gyoza along with it”. Zolghadr identifies with complaints of ‘exhibition fatigue’, but this is the fatigue of a jet-setting international art world professional, which is converted into a moral exposition on the state of the art world in general:
“What if all shows and venues were shut down for a little while? A one-month moratorium? A one-year vacation? It might come across as curatorial moping, but no harm done. Think about it. It’s re-educational, it’s poignant, it might even be fun. We’ll do ‘concept stores’ and duck gyoza.”
Zolghadr seems gleefully ignorant of the fact that the majority of contemporary art’s potential audience could not afford this ‘moratorium’. His article is guilty of an increasingly ubiquitous media sin: the critic has very little to complain about but complaining sells, so he’s doing it anyway. Much as it pains me to compare this generally enlightening writer to Jeremy Clarkson, the parallel seems inescapable.
As implied by the word ‘ubiquitous’, it’s not just Jeremy Clarkson and his series of tedious, narrow-minded, profit-driven summaries of ‘The World’ that is the problem here. British satire has, in the last few years, moved towards empty gesticulating about the news’s easiest targets. Illegal war? Forget that, Gordon Brown only has one eye! Islamophobia? I bet Osama Bin Laden can’t get laid! Fascism gaining strength in deprived areas of Northern England? Have you seen Nick Griffin’s fat sweaty pug-face?
If it’s a lack of focus to blame for this fixation on lowest-common denominators, then maybe that has something to do with the exponential proliferation of information that is constructing an ever-more complex world around us. Quite simply, Mock the Week and Top Gear are the expression of a scared flight from all this novelty and ambiguity, a retreat from reality into the warm embrace of convention. What is really needed is someone that can stick around for the fight. Satire can be a powerful weapon against bullshit only if it stops trying to use more bullshit in its defence.
Ironically, one of the real heroes of this fight is Charlie Brooker, whose series Newswipe, which recently completed its second series, features a section entitled ‘The Week in Bullshit’. Another is Stewart Lee, from whom I drew a great deal of inspiration in the writing of this article. They both offer searing, inspiring, and at times deeply moving, deconstructions of the sorts of things that really need to be deconstructed. No one really needs to redress the demands of the exhibition circuit on the international curator. We do, however, need to redress the almost innumerable ills of the media: its deceptions, its self-perpetuating moral panics, its inwardness and its damaging biases, drawn along class, gender and racial lines. These clips, in which Brooker and Lee analyse the media storm surrounding Jade Goody’s death and the misogynistic moral crusading of Richard Littlejohn, speak for themselves:
Aside from the fact that these two men are often very, very funny, the most important feature of their social critique is its essential humanity. No narrow-mindedness of vision, no gratuitous rabble-rousing. Brooker and Lee see human life, human tragedy, human farce, as humans, first and foremost. They do not dress suffering in an air of pantomime, like Mock the Week’s stable of ‘satirists’ champing at the bit to make fun of the latest human catastrophe. They understand suffering as suffering, and it makes their comedy all the more powerful that they do not shy away from exposing it as such.
These comedians have been able, in some small way, to become spokespeople for two successive generations, and they have done it by living and writing in accordance with two widely scorned principles – sincerity and indignation. These principles may take on absurd, irreverant or whimsical forms, but they are consistent and integral throughout their work: sincerity, in that they refuse comedy’s conventional buffers and confront the world directly; and indignation, in that they recognise society’s injustices and declaim them as such. This, despite society’s general suspicion of impassioned engagement, is more valuable than a thousand mopey articles about ‘exhibition fatigue’. This blog will therefore aim to construct itself along the same lines, at least with regards to sincerity. Meanwhile, we will store up the indignation, waiting for the right target to come into view.
by Luke Healey