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A Martian up a ladder throwing paint at a canvas

Bowie never stopped collaborating, never stopped travelling between media, walking through walls with a light-footedness that few have ever matched.

Art, David Bowie once told the New York Times, “has always been for me a stable nourishment”. You don’t think of stability with the Thin White Duke, locked in a room in Los Angeles or Berlin, the blinds pulled down, living off cocaine and frightening himself half to death with forays into black magic. All the same, art permeated everything he ever did, a source of succour and reliable inspiration, one of the few constants in his restless, roving life.

The only O-level he got was art, and like many glam rockers and proto-punks he did the obligatory stint at art school, too. Bowie didn’t stick around, though, abandoning Croydon College in the early 1960s in favour of making dogged stabs at rock stardom. When this didn’t seem to work he backed away from music, spending a couple of years studying and performing with the visionary mime artist Lindsay Kemp. It was Kemp who introduced him to some of his most lasting influences, including kabuki theatre, and who helped him develop a captivatingly visual, physical dimension to his songs, bringing high art to bear on the disposable medium of pop.

In September 1971, just before the release of Hunky Dory, he went to New York to visit another hero: Andy Warhol, the consummate magician of the 20th century. Among the things Bowie got from Warhol were his permissive, prodigal mixing of high and low culture and his thrifty willingness to snatch inspiration from anywhere.

Bowie turned up at the Factory wearing white Oxford bags and yellow Mary Janes, a slouchy bibbety-bobbity hat pulled low over his long blond hair. He sang his homage “Andy Warhol” to the master (“Tie him up when he’s fast asleep/Send him on a pleasant cruise”), who was reportedly not wholly flattered. Then he performed an earnest mime for the nonplussed Warhol in which he opened up his heart and let his guts spill on the floor.

It spoke, perhaps, of what was to come: the annihilating effects of serious, cult-level fame; the sense of being haunted by his own creations, of careering with them into places inimical to physical and mental health. Bowie was always willing to take a risk, to expose himself, to go further out than anyone else might have thought possible. Album after album wore its influences on its sleeve: the avant-garde German expressionism of Heroes and Low, the Chatterton-meets-Beau Brummell lushness of The Man Who Sold the World.

Like many other rock stars, he started collecting art, including a pair of Tintorettos, a Rubens and a Frank Auerbach. But at some point in the 1980s he began making it, too. He’d got himself stuck creatively, and as a way of edging out of the doldrums he switched media, using painting as a way of swimming back to himself. At first it was a private business, a respite and release from music, and then a fertile way of solving problems and nudging around blocks.

Always exceptionally courageous in his reinventions, he made this aspect of his life public in 1994 when he first exhibited his expressionistic, interestingly static and melancholy paintings at the Flowers East gallery in London for War Child, the charity backed by his friend and collaborator Brian Eno. By this time he was already part of the art establishment. He was on the editorial board of the magazine Modern Painters, where at an early meeting he had shyly suggested that he might interview the painter Balthus, then a neighbour in Switzerland. This was followed by serious, knowledgeable interviews with other contemporary artists, among them Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Roy Lichtenstein and Julian Schnabel.

Bowie was an inveterate collaborator; among the many works he created with other artists is a painting made with Hirst. (“He encouraged me to dress up like a Martian, stand on a ladder and throw paint at a spinning canvas. I had a ball. I felt like I was three years old again.”) In 1997 he co-founded 21, a publisher of art books. Among its first ventures was Nat Tate by William Boyd, a hoax biography of an imaginary painter that suckered much of the art world in a typically playful piece of Bowie subterfuge.

In 1996 he played Warhol in Schnabel’s film Basquiat. Much is made of Bowie’s inability to act, but there is something almost eerie about how well he embodies Andy, with his spacy intonation and awkward grace. It’s a loving homage, circling back to his own youthful ambitions.

Bowie never stopped collaborating, never stopped travelling between media, walking through walls with a light-footedness that few have ever matched. One of his last great songs was “Where Are We Now?”, a plaintive, heartbreakingly spare hymn to ageing, to abiding loss and abiding love. The video, directed by Tony Oursler, is set in an artist’s studio, that site of rigorous and messy transformation, Bowie’s psychic home throughout the years. “As long as there’s me,” he sings, his face lined and sorrowful. “As long as there’s you.”

Well, there is no him now; only the ­record of those impossible, breathtaking, seemingly endless transformations. Ch-ch-ch-changes, as he once sang: the absolute essence of art.

Olivia Laing’s new book, “The Lonely City”, will be published in March by Canongate

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.