Absolutely no human understanding taking place at such an uneducated level. Photo: John Franks/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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No, Jake Chapman, opening culture to young people is never a waste of time

The artist, nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003, has stoked controversy to gain media attention. It is still worth resisting his fundamentally misguided claims.

Art world insiders are frequently charged with accusations of “snobbery”. Why are artists so self-aggrandising? Why are families who visit art galleries so self-applauding? Of course, it is a stereotype which dogs visual art in particular, where pretentiousness is seen as par for the course. Stereotypes can stem from legitimate concerns. They can also have pernicious effects. If we want culture to remain a vibrant part of our society - and we do - where people are encouraged to explore new and fulfilling aspects of life, we need to deal with the perception that “art just isn’t for me”, or worse, “I don’t get it anyway”.

Set against these worries, comments made recently by Jake Chapman seem especially absurd. The visual artist, whose work in collaboration with his brother Dinos is often shocking and confusing (Sex – an array of decaying bodies fastened to a tree – and Death – two blow-up dolls in a 69 position, are prominent examples), has claimed that taking children to art galleries is a “total waste of time.” On the familiar comparison of Henri Matisse paintings to a child’s, he asserted that that “there is no connection ... It’s a ridiculous thing to say.” Assertions of this nature are rooted in a desire to underscore the depth of meaning behind works of art and bolster “high culture”. Exploring the message behind artistic works is a valid enterprise. Telling people not to help their children experience art is detrimental and irresponsible.

The most stinging, and most revealing, element of Chapman’s critique was his statement that presenting a child with a work by Jackson Pollock is “like saying ... [the work is] as moronic as a child.” “Children are not human yet,” he added. It is clear that Chapman – whose father was a school art teacher – is deliberately trying to be provocative. That’s his aim here. But the result will be that the popular impressions of art as esoteric and self-important will prevail, and the artistic community will become isolated. It is unlikely that Chapman actually wants this latter effect. If he did, then “snob” would be an appropriate label. If he were to aiming his comments purely at those who are “less than a village idiot,” then we could reject his ideas as unpleasant and move on.

However, there is something much more objectionable in the targeting of children. To understand why, Anthony Gormley’s rebuff of Chapman is a good place to start. Suggesting that art isn’t to be understood, but instead should be “experienced,” Gormley touched upon the central issue here. Trying to reject children’s interactions with art on the grounds that they are not “human” makes little sense. The human experience is something that, as Dea Birkett has pointed out, begins at birth. To reject that is to reject any creative work that uses a child’s experiences or interactions as grounds for its message. Birth, says Birkett, is the “magical moment” that qualifies us to experience art.  This is completely accurate. Merely existing as a human being is all we need connect emotionally and consciously to a form of expression. It is simply not true that we must always rationalise our feelings into highbrow statements of meaning. Even if the faculty of artistic experience lacks practice in a child, claiming that we shouldn’t foster it from an early age is madness.  

Not every person who enjoys abstract art could list off all of the deep, psychological or emotional ideas it revealed to them (or the theory that underpins the work). Are those who are unable therefore less “human” than the artists themselves? His is a dangerous game to garner attention. There cannot plausibly be any harm in taking a child to view some works by Picasso even if the child will merely develop a taste for bold colours drawn in interesting ways. There is no zero-sum game here; children enjoying art aesthetically doesn’t mean that some buff of high culture need suffer. If people begin to think that it does, we will be worse off for it.

All things considered, perhaps the children who enjoy art in their earlier years, for whatever reason, will continue exploring, or even producing, works as they age. What could be better for the maintenance of a vibrant artistic community and the health of culture in our society? Chapman’s comments are more than just incendiary. His view is counter-productive for the cultural world and would impoverish artistic life universally if he had his way.

Discussion of these points can go on indefinitely. For Jake Chapman, it seems that the most enjoyable – and lucrative – part of his performance is offending people. Will Gompertz, the BBC’s Arts Editor, cynically described Chapman’s craft of media manipulation. “The formula is simple: When you have an exhibition to promote, say something mildly inflammatory to the press, and watch the ticket sales soar.” But if more people enjoy Chapman’s work thanks to this exposure, that would be no bad thing. Resfreshing our ideas about art is always worthwhile. Avoid taking the kids to Chapman’s exhibition though - it really isn’t pretty.

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.