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25 September 2014

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.

By Oliver Farry

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.

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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.

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