The Arts, and Other Social Diseases

A wittily written rant against art students and artists. "Students of the arts ... are the only masturbators to act as carriers of social disease"



Rex King

The author would like to thank the Institute of Comparative Boredom for hot meals and counselling.

First published by Pentagon, 1992.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this pamphlet are not necessarily those of the ICB or the author.


I would especially like to thank Rebecca Gadd, Benjamin Franks and Alexis Lacheze-Beer for their support and ideas.

Traditional acknowledgements of course to the staff of Pentagon.

Rex King


We were well pleased with the title of this pamphlet and the name of our imprint, born of pints drunk on balmy summer nights in good company. Like students forming a rock band, we've devoted more time to our name than our songs. We are seduced by the radical chic of so many avant-gardes and harmless, if slightly sad, Little Magazines before us.

And yet you know, those blokes over by the bar really hate us; it's a wonder we don't get beaten up at closing time. They think we're a 'bunch of wankers'. Now, we know that they're just ignorant, probably resentful of their own tiny lives, shaped by the banality of jobs and homelife. We threaten that. We have independence, ideas, and a sense of living. So are we, here in this pub, seeing the lines being drawn up for a sort of class war? We huddle around the table, catching the eyes only of each other. We don't want no trouble with them by the bar. Ours is a peaceful protest, our weapon is gentle art. We want to massage minds, not bruise bodies.

These people across the bar, they base their judgements on nothing more sophisticated than bigotry, against the vocabulary we use and the way that we dress; it is a mild neo-Nazism.

But it is a problem that has to be addressed, and that is the purpose of this pamphlet. What issues should we be addressing here?

Students of the arts are careerists

Enough snivelling apologism: this requires polemic, because it's extraordinary how often involvement in the arts innocently postures as something important, alternative, socially useful, even radical: even revolutionary.

We can dismiss the clearly identifiable right wing in the arts: English Literature students perhaps, anxious for a career in misinformation, media, call it what you will. Or architects, whose portfolios invariably contain a few interesting conceptual projects as evidence that they have an imagination, before they become lackeys of pre-determined plans tailored more to the tastes of their capitalist-bureaucratic paymasters. Likewise designers tout their one 'socially-conscious' project - a wheelchair with lightweight yellow plastic wheels, a new logo for a charity, a water tank for a Rio shanty town, all production-ready, of course, and always marketable. The designer leaves Polyversity trained only in the defeat of consumer resistance through the deployment of aesthetics and mutant functionalism.

At the time of writing the future looks bright: vast numbers of these zombies are destined for the dole queue, offering them the slim chance of becoming the radicals that they fancied they were. They are willing victims of a giant lie from the previous decade, that lots of designers were needed to build the great post-socialist society.

All this and more goes for the 'left wing', Drama, Music, the Fine Arts and so forth. The risk contingent with choosing a career in the arts has become confused with the notion that this lifestylist choice was somehow radical. Taking a personal career risk is as radical an act as the staking of a new investment by a venture capitalist. The arts offer one of the few chances to join the leisured classes, stardom even. One is as likely to honestly pursue art as a means of 'opting out', which of course it can never fully be, as one is of consciously pursuing poverty and material failure. It happens, for sure: they are our secular monks, and they are precisely not to be found wiping the café tables of Nashville, Hollywood, Greenwich Village, Montmartre or Whitechapel waiting to be discovered. Whatever the lore that has grown up around it, poverty really isn't very inspiring, but enduring it is a risk that may pay off. Even were it not, it would remain a perfectly rational option for increasing one's leisure time - to do more time doing what one wants to do, create art, and less time doing what the losers do in every extant society, labour at banal tasks. Actors have famously tried to blur the distinction between real labour and professional leisure by appropriating terms like 'workshop' and 'sweatshop'. But the hedonistic consumption of time remains quite as glamourous as the hedonistic consumption of goods.

It is hardly surprising that the arts remain almost the preserve of the burgeoning middle classes: however liberal the entrance policy of the arts academy, however great the fight against cuts in grants, the arts thrive upon a culture of ultimate financial security, good education, and aspiration to join the Professions. Those students of the arts who don't fit the typical middle-class profile quickly assimilate - or risk being forever cast as a 'minority' or 'working-class' artist. Assimilation only boosts the arts' reputation for liberalism. The state tolerates black and gay artists in a way that it will not tolerate black and gay political activists. And surely no-one still pretends that a successful career in the arts is a more socially authentic way of making a living than employment in pharmaceuticals or business consultancy. The private view, the literary lunch, the television appearance, the sponsorship meeting, are barely distinguished by the cut of the suit and the currency of the jargon from those found in the boardroom. The arts don't do this as a necessary evil, as a concession to business and media. The arts are business and media.

Art is socially useless and damaging

The artist is the prodigal son or daughter. The artist is typically precocious and resentful of the society upon which he or she nonetheless depends for patronage. This parasitical relationship of artist and society is tested in microcosm in a hundred thousand student households around the country, in splendid isolation from the gullible families supplying the handouts, uneasy perhaps that son/daughter might actually be wasting everyone's time and money. Maintenance of this relationship is normally dependent upon one's parent's grounding in the arts being modest, thus facilitating the con that one's pursuit is intense and complex and cannot and need not be justified. Dead Poets' Society was a wagging finger to those illiberal parents who attempt to deprive society of genius.

The ultimate failure of professional artists to function in a healthy way with society is anticipated by their social life as students. Planning to make a living as a witness of one's own alienation can be a lonely business, and so artists form cliques as surrogate families, a pooling of insecurities and superficial conversation over bottles of wine and dope. The pressure ultimately to compete professionally with each other is at the root of the cliques' social problems: paranoia, an inability to make judgements about each other's art and personality, role-playing, art-rageous behaviour, all these wreck the potential for collectivism in the students' shared joy of art.

My belligerence might seem to imply that arts students are some sort of force, society's fifth column, that needs to be dealt with. Maybe; but art is no more life threatening to the state than the curiously tenacious verucca (that is currently resident on the ball of my foot) is to me, and is likewise an object as much as of fascination as of disgust, to be picked through with a razor blade, its fascinating mutations a source of conversation with a few unfortunate friends. The state loves the enfants terribles. No tanks have to be deployed to control their quizzical little rebellions. They are as easily bought off as a contract to do a few advertisements: the more 'outspoken' the artist has been, the more 'credible' will be his or her product endorsement. The succes de scandale is a career move, raising the price on the artist's head, its worse risk being a review in the Independent or the suspension of funding from the Arts Council. Artists, society's subversives-in-residence, feign shock when the National Endowment for the Arts gets cold feet over Piss Christ. When the money dries up from daddy state, the artist is visited by naughty uncle Saatchi. Because the fact is that state-lovers will ultimately look after their own: the artists' wares can confirm the 'need' for wealthy and elitist patronage within statist society. Art and state co-exist as did church and state, a simultaneous orchestration of secular and imaginative life: artists are part of the fabric of power, integral to the patina of repressive tolerance, the shop window of liberality that allows Daimler Benz to sponsor exhibitions of Berlin Dada on the pretext that they are partners in the German achievement.

If to propose that the artist be ostracized threatens a tragic sacrifice of talent, it also permits us to question the need for specialised cadres of artists. The hard fact is that vocational engagement with the arts precludes wider and healthier social interaction. It creates myopia, leaving little time for a wider variety of experiences other than the creation of art. Why hot-house school-leavers in their premature experience of life and their study of, well, art? In a society based upon the division of function, artistic specialisation precludes to some degree the development of the non-specialist artist, the member of the general populace. A patronising stigma has become attached to the concept 'amateur', distinguishing amateur art from superior professional art. If superior, then more vital? Does professional art have a more important social role to play? This is not to embark on a patronising advocacy of amateur dramatics and library art - an artistic desert that is the end result, indeed, of the amateur's anxiety to demonstrate 'skill', 'beauty', or 'expressiveness' in an attempt to emulate professionalism. Yet even at this level amateurism's potential is to permit its participants to experiment with a variety of lifestyles, be it the collective luvviness of the stage or the romantic individualism of the poet. It is an attempt by the participant to increase the quality of leisure, part of the struggle to survive the routine imbalance of everyday life.

No wonder the arts profession tends to treat this sort of thing with disdain. It shifts the emphasis of art from saleable commodity to mass activity, threatening professional status and the hierarchy of leader/follower. It is a shift of paradigm, not just as an activity but also as an aesthetic: the professional is genuinely bored by the amateur aesthetic. It is probably too translucent, insufficiently challenging, or most likely it is simply not on the agenda agreed between the artist and the art broker. Artistic specialisation creates paradigms which are always already ahead of non-specialised comprehension. Massively ahead; like any other commodity in a capitalist economy, specialist production is for specialist consumption. The same holds true for the seventeenth century painters to the courts of Europe and the late twentieth century 'minority' theatre companies who make a living out of wearing their hearts on their sleeves for a minority-minority audience. The lights go up in the auditorium and the cast sees its reflection. One might as well throw open the doors of MIT, the citadel of science, as throw open the doors of the Tate, a citadel of art. In both, hermetic languages are created. The ICA and its provincial progenies have the atmosphere of private hospitals. I ask you, what sort of model does this scientism provide the artist for the fulfilment of social obligation?

Artistic 'communication' is as ingeniously packaged as a greetings card, or in the case of fashion it arrives as mere fashion. Art arrives abstracted and objectified into a poor substitute for real human presence, even in the presence of humans. It is no less polemic than this pamphlet. And all the time artists are buffered against direct answerability to society by the gangs of professional brokers - critics, historians and curators - which the artist ostentatiously holds in contempt, unable to face the truth that they are the artist's pimps and partners in crime. Rarely, and beautifully, is art given by its creator as a gift, without publicity, without prior attempts at its sale. More familiar is the absurd mark-up, market manipulation within the framework of advanced capitalism. Crucial to the system is the U.S.P., the unique selling proposition, the progenitor of the absurd and cultish aesthetic of originality. In a market where almost everything is avant-garde artists have had to resort to the prosaic in an attempt to remain avant-garde: Pop, New Wave, and Postmodernism. Now we have a chronic relativism, a sort of fake democracy in which we are terrified of making a value judgement. Yet all the time artists exhibit the same sort of fanatical competition that has rendered the Games element in the officially amateur Olympics unrecognisable. To win is all, everything, survival itself. No more players, only enemies and allies. In their professional capacity, artists never have, nor can they ever, engender social revolution.

The arts are a freakish sideshow. It's a tonic for the troops that detracts from the barren terrain of everyday life. The minority of artists conscious of this dilemma come up with invariably embarrassing schemes, like 'audience participation', contemptuous of the fact that the audience has paid to relax and be entertained. If it wanted to participate, it would make its own entertainment. Its members are rightly terrified of becoming another prop for the artist, and this is indeed all they are - unless perhaps the cast then would be prepared to resign altogether. It is excruciating to watch someone being bullied into a direct encounter with a trained performer, a circus Socrates. The final indignity comes when the happy performers resolve, under the pretext of social commitment, to leave the theatre or gallery in search of new audiences, new markets, the sick and the weak, those too distracted or scared to boo, regardless of whether they have paid the price of a ticket - schoolchildren, shoppers, holidaymakers, commuters, pensioners. Posturing as leftists, artists preferring to be known as art workers are as welcome an addition to a community as social workers, their social usefulness barely offsetting their gross invasion of privacy.

Professional artists are not only "wankers" but deserve to be dealt with violently

Either the pressure to be a prostitute like the rest of the populace forces the artist to accept commissions, accept artistic hierarchy, create propaganda or give in to the diluted aesthetic of the collective will, or it does indeed become a sort of onanism, a self-love, a self-obsession, an exhibitionism that has left us manifestoes and treatises, 35mm stereo sex, expressionism, celebrities, fashion, immortality. The artist lives in a solipsistic universe: he or she is the measure of all things, and she bridges the gap with other people and objects and ideas and emotions not through communication and investigation but through imagination. It is sophistry.

I suppose we ought to back away from the second reaction of the people at the bar. Nothing qualifies them, or me, to cast the first stone. More important, the suppression of art and artists, like the suppression of any problem, would be an admission of an inability to deal with it effectively. It is half-baked in rather the same way as the proposals of the left to prohibit private education and health: the point is to make these institutions obsolete. If art is masturbation, it is only fantasising about the real possibilities of life, and in the meantime it remains a source of pleasure, for many a matter of daily recourse. It is a redemption for an unsatisfactory life in a flawed society.

But once and for all, students of the arts must be honest about the contradiction which they perpetuate. If there are no new ideas in this pamphlet, then how long must they remain without effect? Students of the arts are wasters. They are the only masturbators to act as carriers of social disease.

Posted By

May 15 2006 20:00



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