Wednesday, 22 October 2014

But is it art?

Another Banksy - Shop Until You Drop
I find it interesting the way that the media gets in a state of outrage when someone defaces a Banksy artwork - most recently his new Bristol work, The Girl with the Pearl Earache. There's something that feels a touch hypocritical about the whole thing.

I'm reminded of the early performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Stimmung. This an a cappella vocal piece that lasts over an hour (typically) and features a single chord. This isn't as boring as it sounds, as the six singers come in and out of the chord at different places, make interesting vocal sounds and generally muck around with the concept of music. I'll be honest, I couldn't sit through the whole thing now, but when I was a student and significantly more pretentious, I would listen to it end-to-end (apart from the irritating need to turn over the vinyl record) in a darkened room, perhaps after a glass or two of something, and rather enjoy the experience.

But here's the thing. At one of the early performances, some of the audience members started joining in. In an ordinary concert, this would have been disruptive. But given the way Stimmung (it means 'tuning' by the way) corrupts and opens up the form, it seemed both a natural and creative thing to do. Yet Stockhausen was apparent furious and stopped the performance. It might be structured disorder and chaos, but it had to be his structured disorder and chaos. Which rather makes you wonder, is this about art, or is it about ego? Who was to say that the version with the audience joining in wasn't better? It was certainly likely to have been more enjoyable for the audience.

So to Banksy. It's interesting that the Metro article is titled New Banksy artwork attacked by vandals. It would have been just as accurate, but would underline the potential hypocrisy better had it been headed New Banksy graffito has more graffiti added. Interestingly, in the case of Banksy, the motivation for the hypocrisy is likely to be more about money, now his pieces are worth a lot, rather than about ego. But even so there is something here that really gets to heart of what art is and what art isn't.

What is the difference between Banksy spraying on a wall and someone else? Because Banksy's art looks prettier? That's hardly a good way of making a distinction in modern art. No one ever accused a Tracy Emin piece of being pretty. Neither is the fact that Banksy's picture takes more skill that the other graffiti artist's scrawl - if you make that suggestion I have two words for you. Jackson Pollock. Does something have to have a message to be art? Arguably the 'vandalism' graffiti have more of a message (however unwanted) than this particular Banksy. As far as I can see, the only difference is that Banksy's graffito was witty. But is that enough? Should that really transform vandalism into art?

Don't get me wrong, I like Banksy's work. I think it genuinely is art. But I suggest that it underlines the way we need to get the skill back into modern art. Banksy is very skilful. His work looks good and gets the message across. It shouldn't be enough that any old tat can be interpreted as art if you give it the right label. A true artist needs more than that. Otherwise he or she is just a piss artist.

Intrigued at the thought of Stimmung? Take a listen (darkened room and medication recommended):



Shop Until You Drop photo by QuentinUK (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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