Naked Emperors

A few days ago, there was a programme on TV about art students preparing for their final show. Much of the art shown was conceptual, with the emphasis on idea rather than technique. One particular artist stood out for me, and not in a good way. Her concept was to shoplift presumably small items, swallow them, shit them out and call it art. Someone else on the programme said words to the effect that if someone thinks your work is rubbish, it’s because they aren’t thinking hard enough about it. It made me wonder just how hard you have to think to make shit become art.

Whilst conceptual art is an easy target, it also has the luxury of the Emperor’s New Clothes effect: its acceptance by the establishment makes some people afraid to criticize for fear of being thought ignorant. By its very nature, conceptual art can effect an air of mystery in a way that other, perhaps more mainstream, art forms can’t, and thus never has to explain itself.

A few Twitter friends and I bantered online while watching the programme, one of whom remarked that he’d seen it all before in the 1970s. This is precisely why I don’t accept that the idea is the most important thing. There is nothing new under the sun. It is only the execution of an idea that makes it become something new.

Children learn by copying the actions of those around them. Artists, writers, musicians, etc., learn by imitating their heroes; but there comes a time to put away childish things and find your own voice. As a child I was classically trained in singing, and when I joined a band in my late teens, I had to unlearn much of this training. I did this by copying one of my favourite singers of the day. And If I haven’t told you who it was, I defy anyone to guess correctly. I learned what I needed to, and moved on.

Recently, I told a friend that I didn’t like music. This was only partly true. Of course, I love music, but I dislike about 90% of what I hear today. One of the main reasons for me not liking an artist is that they sound like someone else, someone who has gone before, and who is often still making music, therefore I can’t see the point in them existing.

Each new generation thinks they’ve invented everything, and some of what I listened to while growing up probably sounded like something else, only I was too young to have known the reference. Though back then, the ‘mimicry’ was less obvious, and such artists often went on to develop their own style. Nowadays that isn’t the case. Artists do their growing up in public, and most of them never make to the end of their fifteen minutes.

I don’t want my music, art, film, or whatever to be a ‘brave, innovative, idea’ because it won’t be. It can’t be. There are only twelve notes in a scale, three primary colours, seven (some say one) basic plots in literature. Ideas are nothing. Anyone can have one, and that’s the reason they can’t be copyrighted. Everything is in the execution. And for the brave, new and innovative execution of an idea technique is needed. Rules must be learned before they can be broken.

But in these quick-fix times technique is frowned upon: if a singer can’t sing, the software can fix it; if an artist can’t paint, well, we know what they can do instead.

There is an arrogance to the mediocre. They expect to be heard, expect a stage, a spotlight and applause merely because they want it. Most great artists suffer from crippling self-doubt and work hard to hone their skills, discarding wonderful pieces of work that don’t live up to their own exacting standards, whereas the mediocre spew out garbage and expect it to be lapped up.

I have been privileged to know and work with some of the most amazing musicians, writers and artists, all of whom work ceaselessly to perfect their skills and their creations, and none of whom have an ego. Generally speaking, I’ve found that the bigger the talent, the bigger the heart. The only people I have had grief from are the mediocre wannabes, who tend to believe that their ‘vision’ is so great they can ride roughshod over common courtesy.

Sometimes the knowledge that so many of my friends and colleagues work so hard for so little recognition causes me actual physical pain.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this other than to say that I wanted to stand up for the truly talented, who are often underappreciated, and to point the finger at all those naked emperors out there. I can see you, and I’m not afraid to say it.

By SJB