The Greatest Irony
by Miles Mathis
In my response to John Carey’s new book What Good are the Arts? the subject of the “common man” was a central concern. Neither he nor I were very precise in our definition of the common man. Some contemporary writers have called this statistical or theoretical person the man on the street, others have created a group called the masses. In the recent past the common man has been given both to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This paper is not about a precise definition, but I do want to fine-tune my grouping a bit before I get started.
Mr. Carey and his biographers take some pains to remind us that he grew up working class. This is only partly to the point, since we are not told if he ever held any jobs that were working class. He may have outgrown his “humble” origins by the time he was 18, graduating directly into the privileged existence he now has, where he can keep bees and ice-dance and, one supposes, drink expensive sherry.
I did not grow up in the slums or even the factories. My parents were and are white-collar (accountants) and we were even members of the country club in my little town in North Texas. But I have held quite a few jobs that were not white collar—that were very working class. In fact I consider my current profession to be blue-collar since I don’t work in an office—I work with my hands and produce things directly.
I have waited tables, done light construction, done petty clerical work, watered plants in a tree nursery, bagged groceries, been a disc jockey, dusted pictures in a gallery, and so on. Even after I began selling paintings, I never existed in any rarefied atmosphere (except when I created it myself). I have never been set up at a university or a company or a consortium or any other group. For the most part, the people I have talked to and interacted with have been “common people.” Meaning that they were not rich or powerful, they did not have exciting jobs, they were not from any cultural elite. And even in the few instances that they were, they did not have extensive educations in art. They had a common American art education, which is to say, almost no education at all. Being who I am, I talked art with most or all of them anyway. I still talk art with almost everyone I meet, and almost all of them are common people when it comes to art. Most rich and privileged people are common people when it comes to art, since their money or other elevation did not come from the field of art. Most of them, rich or poor, educated or not, don’t know much about art and admit it cheerfully. For the most part it is because they just aren’t too interested. They tell me what they like and I tell them what I like, and beyond that there isn’t much to say, since if I go off their eyes glaze over and I quickly realize I am boring the pants off them.
What all this means is that I have some experience with what Mr. Carey calls the common person, maybe more than he does. I have hung out in the pool halls and all-night diners and shady bars, the truckstop coffeeshops and foodcourts at the mall and the loud danceclubs. I have some respect for the people there, but no more than they deserve. I don’t glorify them. I don’t think they are especially pure or vital or any of that. Some of them are, most of them aren’t, just like anywhere. But one thing I have discovered that may shock Mr. Carey is that these common people don’t agree with him about art. That is the greatest irony. He has allied himself to a people and thinks he is taking their part in some debate, when in fact he is simply making himself look foolish, especially to them. For the fact is that most people who are not “in the arts” in some monetary way don’t like Modernism or the avant garde or the trend by any other name. Not only that, but they don’t want to call a can of excrement art. They do not feel like they are being granted any creative freedoms by being able to call excrement art. They feel the same way about train tickets and Brillo boxes and commodes and all the rest. They really don’t see how they can benefit from the death of art or from its illogical infinite expansion. If anything they are a bit nostalgic. If they are going to take the time to look at art, they would just as soon look at something impressive, like the David or The Birth of Venus. Not one of the common people wants the hierarchy of art to be dismantled, because if they are impressed by anything it is this hierarchy. If artists aren’t going to show them great things, they would just as soon go to the movies, where the directors will give them hierarchies in spades.
In my experience, the people who like to talk about modernism and postmodernism and the avant garde and poststructualism and all the rest are not common people but what one might call mid-level intellectuals. People who have just enough cultural education to turn them into blithering idiots. They have taken a course on 20th century art or on the Bauhaus or on Derrida or something and they are now flush with new-found power. They have discovered the key to the inner sanctum. They rush home to psychoanalyze the children and to redecorate the doghouse in primary colors. Some of these people subsequently get a lot more “education.” They read lots of recent books with lots of pictures in them and memorize a vast list of names. But none of it does them any good. They can better browbeat the common people who haven’t read these ridiculous books, but they have not found any wisdom. They have only found critical elevation. This elevation allows them to see clearly the artists below them who are working away grubbily. The most ambitious among them become critics or museum directors, and they can lecture to artists on art. Not one of them has the intellectual honesty to see how ridiculous this is, but the common people do.
The common people think it is all a great joke. Art is not their sacred cow. If the artists will not entertain them with art, then sometimes it is worth a chuckle or two to see a group of fools biting their own butts and scratching in public and drooling. It is like watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or like going to the circus back in the ‘20’s: “Come see the Freaks! Pay a dime and see the rich and privileged people acting like cretins! They will say anything no matter how asinine! Step right up! An Oxford don who thinks shit is art. Step right up! Freakish behavior! Compost in a museum! What will they do next folks? Look, the rich man is paying $20 million for a cigarette butt! Beautiful. You get your dime’s worth here, ladies and gentlemen! I couldn’t script it better myself!”
And the rich man and the Oxford don keep posing and primping and scratching, with one eye to the public. They love the attention. They could never draw a crowd any other way. They have no talents beyond being freaks. How could they ever have existed before the circus came to town? And the show is even richer for them, for look, across the way. The doors of the old museum have closed. The crowds are all here, laughing and pointing. The Punch and Judy show has bankrupted the opera house. Joy of joys! All is accomplished. And the rich man and the Oxford don smile at eachother. “We have won,” they say to themselves. “The artists have left town and the crowd is forever ours! Just think of the money we will make. Now if we can just get rid of those elitist Jewish bastards in Hollywood. Those old-world hierarchists selling that horrible kitsch.”
It is never the common people who say this. It is never the common people who want everything watered down and mediocritized and squashed into a strict egalitarianism. The philosophy of non-distinction always comes from the political specialists at the university—the art history experts and cultural studies experts. And it comes from the institutions that these experts seed—the museums and foundations and cultural centers.
The common people have never been that impressed by equal achievement. They like equal opportunity of course, what unprivileged person wouldn’t? But the whole point of democracy and egalite was for them not mainly to pull the lords down but the raise the lower classes. It may be a temporary thrill to see the prince groveling in the mud at your side, but common people, like everyone else, are more selfish than that. The main point is for them to get into the castle and to sit in the plush chairs themselves and to drink the fine wines themselves and to wear the pretty clothes themselves. The prince can rot or not, but the common person is worried about his own hide, is concerned mainly about elevating himself.
This is because the common person is usually clever enough to see that equal opportunity is an empty ark unless there is some ladder to climb. Equal opportunity is not as much about equality as it is about opportunity. In that term, "equal" is just the adjective; "opportunity" is the important word—it is the noun. Consider this parable: “Everyone has just won a chance to climb to the top of the Empire State Building! No one is denied entry. Come see the beautiful view. You are close to the clouds and the eagles, close to the very gods! Climb as high as your lungs can take you. Oh the freedom. Oh the bliss.” You can substitute the Eiffel Tower or Mount Ararat or Mt. Fuji for the Empire State building if you like.
And then you arrive with your ticket, only to find that the Empire State building or the holy mountain has been demolished overnight, and in its place is a two-story brownstone with an elevator. A sign on the front says that the mayor and the city council felt that many people would not have the lung capacity to make it to the top. It was unfair to them not to have an elevator. And besides, it is dangerous up there! Some people might jump. Others might get dizzy and faint. A few at least would get a queasy stomach. That is risky and unfair. And think of the lawsuits.
Suddenly your ticket isn’t worth so much is it? You might ask why you killed off all the aristocrats for this. You could get a view from a second story window in the slums. And your dreams! You used to see the rich and polished man sitting up there in the clouds, eating his sweetmeats, and you thought, Ah, one day that could be me! I will climb that lofty tower and breath that fresh crisp air. I will have his library, I will know what he knows, I will impress the girls with my great knowledge and my high white collar and the world will swoon. I will have time to learn the violin, or to take up watercolors, or to learn polo by god.
All gone. The dreams of the ignorant masses gone. You may get rich, you ignorant plebe, but you will still be ignorant. Some of us in the world are capitalists and we will grant you your polo pony and your cars, if you are lucky. But the library and the violin and the watercolors and all that upperclass claptrap, forget it. That is just pretension. Theoretically, we can’t allow it. And as for fresh air, get serious.
Well, OK, you can read books if you have to. But for heaven’s sake don’t pretend to learn anything. Collect facts only to further dismantle pretension and hierarchy. If you claim to know more about anything important than the most ignorant person you will be ostracized from the fraternite. We don’t want anymore snobbish long-fingered lily-white effete atavisms. Oh, and don’t use big words either, unless they were invented recently. That is just annoying.
I said earlier that I considered myself blue-collar. That was from no desire to ally myself to the common person or the workers or anyone else. I can fight my own battles, and the common people can agree with me or not, it won’t change a thing. I don’t need a thumbs-up from anyone with any collar or no collar. I am blue collar simply because I think I am closer to the dictionary definition and I like to state things the way they are. I don’t honestly think I have a lot in common with “common people” or with rich people or with anyone else. Art is my sacred cow, and that makes me an oddity these days, no matter what company I am keeping. I have a hard time respecting the critics and rich people and “educated” people who think it is poignant and progressive to call shit art. And I have a hard time respecting those of the masses who find amusement in watching art history deconstruct. The people who put sharks in tanks, the people who display sharks in tanks, the people who write about sharks in tanks, and the people who pay to see sharks in tanks are all about equally lost, in my estimation.
A dot of education to all the people above: a shark in a tank may be a bit fascinating, but it is not art. It is a science project. It should be a display at the aquarium, not the art museum. In fact, there are several displays at various aquariums and natural history museums around the world that are similar to Hirst’s display. There is a very good reason that the creators of these displays are not famous artists and are not getting paid millions. The reason is because they are not artists and because the work they did is not worth millions.
In conclusion, there is not an
alliance between the avant garde and the masses. The Oxford don has almost no constituency among the common
people. He made it up. The choir he is preaching to is mostly with
him at the universities and in those uppity institutions that run the
arts. It is made up, ironically, of
privileged people. Privileged people
who want more privilege without having to do anything to earn it. They want the field of art to be theirs, but
they don’t want to have to paint or sculpt anything or learn to play an
instrument or design a building or learn ballet or practice singing or write
any decent novels or poems or even screenplays. They just want to administrate.
With real artists around, that isn’t so easy, since real artists don’t
like to take orders or be subordinate to self-appointed administrators. So the administrators have hired
stand-ins. That is what all those
Turner Prize people are. The
administrators have taken the van down to the psychiatric ward, rounded up a
few people who are still partially mobile, and glued their hands to various
tinker-toy projects. Then the stand-ins
can go on BBC2 and stutter and mumble and drool and it is great fun for
everyone. Who needs Monty Python when
we can get a belly laugh from these unfortunate wretches who are the poster
people of the avant garde? What a
big-hearted people we are, to be sure.
After all, we are paying them to be our fools.
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