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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage