Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Excellance Be Blowed!

I just read Tony Trehy's blog and, as we Quakers put it, it "spoke to my condition." The idea that art has to conform to some "standards of excellence" really gets my goat. There are lots of things that art can be, including messy, unruly and - actually - bad; and I think it should be allowed to be so, without interference from some jumped-up arbiter of taste.

"Excellence" targets and the like strike me as about that awful thing, the promotion of "good taste". I think it might have been the Futurists, or the Dadaists, or some such band of reprobates, whose slogan was, "TASTE IS THE ENEMY OF ART", and while the capital letters might be a bit much these days, it's still true. Taste is not something an artist should be worrying about. In fact, if we're always looking over our shoulders to see if our art will fit certain criteria of fashionable good taste, we will never produce anything that's any good. We'll provide the kind of art that looks nice on a wall, or the kind of books that sit nicely in a middle-class family bookshop, probably unread but with a nice coffee. But we won't produce anything that makes people think, or feel, or be disturbed, or feel like the top of our heads have come off.

I can still remember the way I say the world after I'd been to see the Patrick Heron exhibition in the Tate. Everything was more colourful and clear than it was. The same is true of the first time I read TS Elliot, or Frank O'Hara; or John Donne. Something that I couldn't explain was happening. I doubt very much that any of those people were thinking about whether their art fullfilled certain criteria of excellance. Was it accessible? No, it was quite often strange and inaccessible. Did it meet the needs of the local community for cultural product? Not in the least. It was elitist high art and it didn't pretend to be otherwise.

Art still can do that; but not if it has to fullfill certain criteria, if it has to conform to standards of taste, or appeal to certain groups of people. It can only take the top off your head if it surprises you, if it makes you feel and think differently from how you thought and felt a moment ago. Down with excellence!

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