If a band as big as U2 cannot guarantee universal appeal, you wonder who can. Photo: Getty
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With so much “stuff” out there in the world, can we still tell what is art and what isn’t?

From U2’s forcedly ubiquitous new album to “rediscovered” paintings from centuries ago, we are surrounded by things that lose and gain artistic status according to their context.

It must have seemed like a great idea at the time – Apple and U2 deciding to team up and give every iPhone and iPad user a free copy of the band’s new album Songs of Innocence along with their update of the operating system. The response from users was not so gracious though, with many taking to Twitter to declare their annoyance and puzzlement at finding an album on their iTunes that they didn’t want and that they couldn’t delete (something Apple later rectified by popular demand). Leaving aside the presumptuousness of imagining that everyone in the world is a U2 fan, the debacle was most striking for its offloading of an item onto an unwilling public (even in the virtual world, things take up space). As George Carlin once famously said in his sketch on the personal belongings that define us, other people’s stuff is “shit” while your shit is “stuff”. In the minds of many iPhone users, the new U2 album, despite its alluringly Blakean title, was very much someone else’s shit camping out among their stuff.

Few objects have a value that is completely innate. Value and worth are more often than not contingent on either usefulness or desirability. Even the iPhone, that totem of contemporary technological prestige, for which thousands of presumably otherwise sane individuals will queue overnight to buy, becomes little more than an expensive paperweight if you forget your charger and the battery runs out (which doesn’t take so long). Ever since Marcel Duchamp pressed into service his “readymade” bicycle wheels and urinals for use as art, the mainstream media and public have carped at the affront of mere “things” appearing in art galleries and fetching huge sums. Be it Carl André’s bricks, Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes or Tracy Emin’s bed, there are many who will take umbrage at the suggestion that such things can be considered art. The main reason, of course, is the perception that these works are “easy” and the status as art unearned – figurative art, on its most basic technical level, is so beyond the capabilities of most people that it is recognised as “worthy” art. It often takes quite a long time to produce – another thing that reassures the majority of people whose income is intimately tied to the amount of time they spend working.

This sentiment is, of course, misplaced, as the only prerequisite for something to qualify as art is for it to be perceived as such. Even the most profoundly mediocre art will do well for itself if it can induce desire in collectors, buyers and museums. This all seems very unfair but, even allowing for the deforming inflation of the art market since the Second World War, it has always been the case. Most great art in history stands out on its artistic merits but not a single artist who has survived through the ages has not benefited from good luck or the prevailing winds of fashion – some have had to weather those same winds: Vermeer’s work languished in obscurity for almost two centuries before being “rediscovered” in the 19th century, and Laurence Sterne’s proto-postmodern novel Tristram Shandy (published in 1759) was largely forgotten until the Russian formalists championed it in the early days of the Soviet Union (no less an authority than Samuel Johnson predicted it would “not last”).

Take a long walk through the Louvre, the National Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum in New York and you will find much of the “supporting cast” of paintings to be admirable in their own right but rather indigestible in mass. In some instances you will find it difficult to ascertain why they are less esteemed than the Leonardos, the Velasquezes and the Monets that they rub shoulders with, other than for the fact they lack the cachet of historical renown that the more famous artists enjoy. Many paintings with a strong similarity to major painters remain unattributable or divide art historians on their provenance, so they get lumped with the tag “of the studio”, having to be content to bask in the glow of proximity to the Master. Until it was authenticated as a Caravaggio in the early 1990s, “The Taking of Christ” was simply a fine Renaissance tableau hanging in the Dublin headquarters of Ireland’s Jesuit order, presumed to be one of a dozen or so copies of the long lost original. While the painting was not exactly “unrecognised”, its authentification was no doubt delayed by its being viewed first and foremost as a piece of religious art. Its surroundings made the Christ more important than the painting, an ironic reversal of the phenomenon that makes much of the devotional art throughout history so difficult to parse for modern secular audiences.

There have been countless examples of priceless art slipping through the fingers of gormless dealers and owners. Knowledge is the key to transforming a piece of bric-a-brac to a valued item. I have a friend who deals rare records to a number of high-profile clients, many of them well-known DJs and musicians. Much of his stock he sources in the most inauspicious surroundings – car-boot sales, flea markets and even second-hand record stores – bought for next to nothing off sellers unaware of the true value and then sold on for much larger sums.

People can also be subject to the shifting values of a libidinal economy. Fame is craved by some and feared by others. For what the famous gain in visibility, they lose in anonymity and they find hard to do some of the everyday things that the rest of us take for granted. There is a picture of Elvis Presley, taken by Alfred Wertheimer on 4 July 1956, where the singer, on the verge of becoming one of the most recognisable faces on the planet (this was three days after his appearance on The Steve Allen Show), stands unnoticed buying his lunch at a railway platform stall in Sheffield, Alabama. Elvis stares into the camera – it was one taken with publicity clearly in mind – and the image is a disorienting one. The man’s face, which would soon become so familiar as to be practically a registered trade mark, is like that of a ghost looming amid the ordinary Joes who are completely indifferent to him. Despite having built up a name for himself since the release of “Heartbreak Hotel” in January that year, Elvis is still “nobody”. All that was soon to change.

It is not just visual art that can gain or lose value depending on context. Books, when they are not of interest to one, become just books. In Jean Renoir’s film La Grande Illusion (1937), Rosenthal, the Jewish intellectual incarcerated along with other French prisoners of war, protests strongly at the burning of books by his fellow inmates for heat against the winter cold. He is outraged by the violence done to the books (though the film is set in the First World War, the burning of books by the Nazis was clearly the reference here). Book-burning these days is generally seen as synonymous with barbarism, even though there is nothing innately “good” about books per se, and millions of books get pulped by the publishing industry worldwide every year, albeit discreetly out of the public eye. These volumes are destroyed because they are unwanted, they are someone else’s “shit” as opposed to one’s own “stuff”. But even one’s own favourite books can quickly become “useless” as soon as one is finished reading them, or if you end up with multiple copies. For a bibliophile, there is nothing quite so forlorn as a pile of books that does not move you in the slightest. These poor, unwanted objects just take up space – you cannot conceive of wading through their text, of investing the book with the necessary attention to bring it to life. Books in languages you can’t read likewise suffer. While the typographical beauty of books in Arabic, Japanese or Chinese might lend them some interest, with more workaday Latin scripts, the book is not quite the thing. Of the foreign languages I speak to varying degrees of ability, I read French the best, and I try to read French literature in the original whenever I can. But even when I am capable of ploughing through a 1,000-page doorstopper such as Jonathan Littel’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), a book in French never seems as real or as vibrant to me as one in English. Even when you can read the language perfectly well and detect style and tone as well as a native might, your reading it is mediated, and at one remove. It doesn’t mean, of course, that those books are any less valued in your estimation but it does make it harder for a lesser book in a foreign language to grab your attention. Still, the writers of those lesser books are not necessarily trying to reach me. And not every artist in the world has the luxury of combatting falling sales by spamming unsuspecting consumers with their latest product, as U2 have done. If U2, a band more used to selling CDs in supermarkets and on service station forecourts, cannot guarantee universal appeal, you wonder who could. There is a lot of superfluous stuff out there in the world.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era