The new emblem of British culture has been unleashed. From the great system of dynamic enterprise which tried to sell us the Sinclair C5 and Charles ‘n’ Di mugs has emerged the ubiquitous Mister Blobby. Once a mere pseudo-personality to share a screen with the non-personality of Noel Edmonds, now Blobby has achieved the success of shooting to the top of the Christmas record charts and being mobbed by adoring fans wherever he appears. That he is not real (there is not even an out-of-work actor inside him, we are told by an official at the BBC) well reflects the condition of contemporary art. Like a glove puppet with no human hand to manipulate him, Blobby embodies – if not emblobbies – the emptiness of late-twentieth century market culture.
Blobby was not invited to be a judge in the Turner Prize for the greatest art in Britain. His comments would have been about as meaningful and dynamic as the Snobbies from the art critics’ enclosure whose task was to determine which piece of socially estranged exhibition art deserved the jackpot. It was awarded eventually to Rachel Whiteread whose dislocated semi-house structure beat the pile of rice with neon lights running through it which was another contender for the most vacuous piece of insignificance to stun the red-rimmed spectacled spectators. A pile of bricks in the Tate Gallery, a sack of neon-lit rice, an inside-out house, Mister Blobby booming from the radio … is somebody trying to tell us something?
Perhaps they are telling us this: that capitalism has run out of ideas. Just as its political defenders can think of nothing at all except to go back to basics which they can’t define, those who write, paint, sculpt or dance to the tune of a social order which is increasingly socially fragmented and ideologically unconfident in itself will all too frequently produce nonsense.
This is not to attack artistic modernity in defence of some romanticized memory of high art which was largely the production of pompous postures for the privileged. The art critic, Brian Sewell, whose arrogant dismissal of “the new” is a thinly-disguised fear of artistic expression by those previously excluded from “posh art” (women, non-Europeans and the non-rich), persists in defending a vision of artistic quality which means little more than the fading values of a worn-out aristocracy. Anyone tempted by the snobbish ramblings of Sewell should read William Morris’s Art Under Plutocracy (1883) or Art And Socialism (1884) as an antidote.
The issue is not really about art at all. It is about finding meanings in a world that has become meaningless to so many people. The old-guard defenders of High Culture seek meaning in a past where capitalist relations were still dynamic and able to offer some inspiration to creative minds. The new snobs invent ever more outrageous adventures in escapist and abstracted imagery in a bid to create meaning where nothing is meant. It is like a restaurant which has run out of recipes selling expensive bowls of boiled water which is coloured purple to make the punters imagine they are tasting something new.
The problem of capitalism’s current cultural crisis is that productive relations are so outmoded in relation to the potential for dynamic productivity of creative abundance that artists thinking and working within the belief-structure of the capitalist system are only likely to reproduce the stagnation arising from redundant relationships. Just as the late Roman Empire produced a decadent and dying artistic culture and the collapsing Ottoman Empire found itself artistically adrift, so “art” in the present stage of capitalism is increasingly divided between the commercial populism of cartoon video imagery which is pointless and often poisonous and fake innovations which impress only those who are paid to be impressionable.
Living art must relate to people as we are and not to trained consumers of warmed-up relics by the dead or pretentious trash by the dead boring. The rhythm of art is social activity: productive work in its broadest sense (from wood-cutting to mixing paints). As Ernst Fischer explained in his very clearly-stated Marxist analysis, The Necessity of Art:
“Art… is a form of work, and work is an activity peculiar to mankind . . . Man takes possession of the natural by transforming it. Work is transformation of the natural. Man also dreams of working magic upon nature, of being able to change objects and give them new form by magic means. This is the equivalent in the imagination of what work means in reality. Man is, from the outset, a magician.”
But the magicians of our age are more like tricky conjurers pulling imitation rabbits out of their hats. For, the principal art of capitalism is the advertising industry and its insidious assault upon our tastes and desires does not reflect the rhythm of life but rather seeks to dictate it. Today’s “artists” are the producers of ads for Renault and Guinness – the product is immaterial: drive it or drink it, but the boys in red-rimmed specs will make you buy it.
Is there any hope for meaningful art in a society where money buys creativity, distorts wants and crushes hope? Is such a wretched social order capable of much more than Mister Blobby?
And yet there does emerge subversive art. Sometimes it is appropriated by those it threatens. Just as armies defuse explosive devices, the artists who rebel are made safe by being given jobs and allowed to turn rebellion into a fashion. So it is that designer-made Anarchist symbols can now be purchased from the trendiest clothes shops and chinless wonders frequent the wine bars of Kensington wearing ripped jeans and expensive punk labels. Capitalism finds it easier to buy subversion than to fight it.
Exceptions do exist. The photo-art of the Brazilian photographer, Sebastiao Salgada, whose images of the hellish lives of workers were recently exhibited in a remarkable free exhibition “Workers – An Archeology of the Industrial Age” at the Royal Festival Hall, shows just how much of an impact the depiction of the conditions of contemporary wage slavery can make.
For the present writer (as for several other socialists who saw the exhibition) this was a refreshing glimmer of haunting reality within an art world usually inhabited by preciously insignificant artefacts. Without lionizing workers in the grotesque manner of the old “socialist realists”, Salgada’s pictures capture the essential dignity of productive creation while never flinching from the nightmarish wretchedness which characterizes so much daily labour. (A book containing some of the photographs has been published.) Here is art penetrating existing relations rather than retreating from them into the pseudo-inner-soul of the artist.
Those who saw Tony Hancock’s satirical depiction of the pretensions of the art world in his 1960 film, The Rebel, will recognize that with the Turner Prize art has come to imitate comedy. Likewise, readers of Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, will detect in the recent superstardom of Mister Blobby the rise of a form of artistic expression only possible when its audience is being conditioned to the idiotic level of meaningless entertainment. Poverty takes many forms, and not the least of them is that which holds up an artistic mirror to the social ethos and reflects in it an abstract, ludicrous portrait of a system of social chaos.