Gervais, Merchant, and Pilkington on Art: Enlightening Bollocks

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Merhant, Gervais, and Pilkington in front of Damien Hirst’s shark tank, pretentiously called, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”.

My favorite thing about The Ricky Gervais Show is the animations, which were done by a group led by the managing director of The Ren and Stimpy Show, which is why they’re so good. But the short segment in which “the little round-headed buffoon” Karl Pilkington is questioned about his feelings on art is also interesting because in it Gervais and Merchant make a case for the contemporary art narrative that is most popular today. Not surprisingly, a couple accepted notions irritated me, and after a couple days I decided to write about it.

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The three of them discussing in the studio.

If you don’t know anything about the show – I just discovered it a few days ago – Ricky Gervais (most famous for his role in “The Office”) and Stephen Merchant (who co-wrote and directed “The Office”…) grill their friend Karl, who is less educated and the endearing butt of all their jokes, about various topics.

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Stephen outlines the history of contemporary art in a nutshell.

After the initial opening, in which Karl compares art to dust and argues that “the eyes get bored”, Stephen segues with the standard educated person’s angle on contemporary art:

This I think may be intriguing to you. Uh, Damien Hirst, of course, is more of a conceptual artist like Tracey Emin. A lot of what contemporary art does is follow along from a guy called Marcel Duchamp, who I’m sure you’re familiar with. And he famously took a gentleman’s white urinal that you find in a pub toilet, and he put it on its side, and he signed it with a fake name, and he put it in an art gallery. Now he did that in about 1917, perhaps a bit later.

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Marcel Duchamp and the urinal.

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Tracey Emin.

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Tracey Emin performing.

Karl, unwittingly representing the Philistinic position, counters:

It just annoys me because there will be snobby people who haven’t got a clue. And they’ll be looking at that and saying, “Oh yeah, I see what he’s trying to say”.

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Karl, making his case.

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Snobby person saying, “Oh yeah, I see what he’s trying to say”.

I was rather relishing this controversy.

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Ricky introduces the idea of marketing as art.

Ricky then introduced the notion that marketing is a form of art, in relation to Damien Hirst.

Some people think that the greatest art form of the last hundred years is marketing. Some people say that that is his art. It’s not good enough to do it, you’ve got to then get away with it. If the point of art is to inflame, I don’t think anything inflames people more than the discussion of whether something is art or if someone’s taking the piss; or if someone gets fifty million for something, do they deserve it?

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Damien Hirst.

The conversation turned to Hirst and his infamous shark tank, ironically titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” – the possibility of death is inescapable when gazing at a pickled shark sealed in glass. I could probably watch hours of similar, charmingly animated discussions on art.

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Hirst in front of his shark tank.

After Ricky declares he was “blown away” by the shark, and Stephen asserts it was “a remarkable achievement”, Karl comes back with the standard ignorant noob’s dismissal.

Karl: What he did, anyone could have done what he did.

Stephen: Yes, but not everyone did it, he did it. This is an interesting point that you raise, it’s the same old point you always raise, “anyone could have done it”. But they didn’t do it.

Ricky: Karl, you could say the same about Michelangelo…

Before I make a couple of my own arguments, you can watch the art segment below if you like, and it’s only the first four glorious minutes.



The debate appeared to revolve unknowingly around the difference between ignorance, and “a little knowledge is dangerous”. In the end I found myself agreeing more with Ricky and Steve on the small picture, and Karl on the big one. Karl’s initial comments that the eyes get bored and all that are amusing, but don’t say much more than that he’s not interested or invested in art. The other two characters are peddling a more serious position. I disagree with Ricky and Stephen on three counts: marketing is the greatest art of the last 100 years; the object of art is to inflame; and “anyone could do it, but they didn’t”. These are fairly commonly held truisms in the art world, and I was taught the same things in art school.

 1) The best art of the last 100 years is marketing.

At first the idea that “marketing” might be the real art can seem ridiculous, but then as one starts to ponder the skills and challenges involved, which can easily be as daunting as shading and modeling a still life, it makes some sense. But then if you think about it some more it transforms back into perhaps a different shade and configuration of the same sort of bullshit.

Marketing is a separate skill from art, unless we want to call everything art. But before we go there, let’s just try the argument on some other mediums. The greatest music of the last hundred years is marketing. The greatest fiction writing of the last hundred years is marketing. The greatest architecture of the last hundred years is marketing. These arguments all sound like jokes.

What if we look at marketing itself as the greatest art of the last century? Then would we conclude that cigarette advertising was the greatest artistic achievement of the 20th century? A cynical pseudo-philosopher could probably make that case, but it’s not a very convincing position. Sure, advertising employs creativity, but unless your favorite bits of film, photography, poetry, or songs come from commercials or advertisements, it’s not that creative, largely because the “art” (in the respect of relating to traditional arts, and not, say, marketing strategy) is in the service of selling a product, and appealing to the lowest common denominator. In this sense, seeing marketing as the greatest art of the 20th century is akin to seeing the Big Mac as the ultimate achievement in cuisine. The other way to look at it is to focus on marketing strategy itself as art, or pure business acumen.

If business skills are seen as art, then we side step into the megalomaniacal self-delusion of the likes of phramaceutical CEO, Martin Shkreli, who declared his raising of the price of a life-saving drug (used by AIDS patients and babies) by 5,000% “art” (see news article).

To me, what I’m doing right now in the media, raising prices, all this shit, believe what you want, but it’s interesting… It gets people talking. At the end of the day, that’s what art is. ~ Martin Shkreli.

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Is Martin Shkreli the greatest artist of the 21st century thus far!?

Shkreli’s assertion is not far from Gervais’ argument about marketing being art, or the purpose of art being to inflame. Apparently there’s a fine line between radical art theory and justification for blithely price gouging the desperate and needy.

I prefer to give Gervais and Merchant the benefit of the doubt about their understanding and appreciation of art, so I want to acknowledge that Gervais said, “Some people think that the greatest art form of the last hundred years is marketing” and not that he himself did. I’m confident Gervais didn’t mean “marketing” that literally, and wouldn’t consider overcharging people who need a drug to save their lives “art”.

Nevertheless we can see the error of taking this theorizing too far; we can can acknowledge that while marketing strategies and business decisions require skill, they are not the same skills as music, writing fiction, or designing buildings. So, Gervais is not talking about “marketing” in itself, but rather specifically the marketing of art. We also see a distinction between marketing someone else’s art, as it’s traditionally been done, and self-marketing. If you are an artist’s agent or a gallery and handle all the promotion for the artist, it’s not considered art. The real artist has to be like the snake oil or salve huckster who peddles his own potions and placebos.

Why does this only apply to “art” and not to music, architecture, writing, film-making, or dance? The answer is that strange confusion in which anything that goes in an art museum is “art”, in which case displaying a urinal is understood as essentially requiring the same skill set as painting. This is a really hard association to disabuse people from. As someone who has done both painting and conceptual art (my graduate thesis was an installation), they are not the same thing. Conceptual art has no more or less to do with painting than it does with guitar playing or writing a novel. Conceptual art is art in the sense that music, dance, writing and painting are all art, but somehow it is seen as separate from music but conflated with the visual arts. Even “sound sculpture” and “video” are not categorized as contemporary forms of music and film, but rather are lumped in with painting as “visual art”. This is a mistake.

The whole quandary of whether or not something is art is really a question of whether or not conceptual art belongs in the same category as painting and sculpture. The usual answer, which Ricky and Stephen appear to subscribe to, is that it does. This is not at all surprising, because when I majored in art as an undergrad, you couldn’t take painting classes without taking classes in conceptual art unless you got special permission. But you could take music, dance, and film without any conceptual art courses.

The answer to this grand question is simple. Conceptual art does not belong in the same category as painting, but doesn’t need to. I don’t mean conceptual art isn’t on par with painting, and am not implying a hierarchy of artistic forms (even if conceptual art frequently claims to have made painting redundant). It is its own category. Conceptual art and visual art are apples and oranges. Magically, the confusion and controversy disappears.

I get what Ricky is driving at, but if I told him that the best form of comedy of the last hundred years was marketing, my guess is he’d tell me I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, or worse. The marketing, he might say, doesn’t make people laugh, and he’d be right. It’s a different skill, and has nothing to do with comedy.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s another sense in which anything can be called “art”, such as “the art of fly fishing”, “the art of bodybuilding” or “the art of massage”. I’m fine with that. It just means a certain sophistication or finesse of technique at doing something. There’s no real controversy over “the art of French pastry”. It’s understood that we are talking about being good at making pastries. We aren’t saying that making a tart is the same as making an Impressionist painting, and that making a tart renders all painting irrelevant (a claim which is made for Duchamp’s urinal).

2) The point of art is to inflame.

I can refute this argument in just seven words: the point of music is to inflame. It becomes obvious that only some music would have that as an objective at all. Think Simon and Garfunkel. And often the art or music that has historically outraged the public, wasn’t necessarily intended to.

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Impression, soleil levant, by Claude Monet, 1872.

A critic contemporary with Monet wrote of this painting, “And what freedom, what ease in the brushwork! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more labored than this seascape”. Never mind for the moment that by today’s standards that criticism is the art, and the painting is mere fodder for discussion, but we can look at it and see it’s not really intended to inflame the public: it’s intended to beautifully capture a fleeting sunset.

And even if we were to accept for the sake of argument that all great art initially is controversial or “inflames”, not all controversial art is great. [All brown dogs bark, but not all barking dogs are brown.]

3) Even if anyone could have done it, they didn’t, and you could say the same thing about Michelangelo.

I don’t know why Ricky used the example of Michelangelo, which is just the worst example he could have chosen. Nobody looks at the statue of David, the Pietà , or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and thinks, “anyone could have done that.” We pretty much know that if you gave us a block of marble, a chisel, and whatever other sculpting tools Michelangelo used, we wouldn’t be able to make something like the Pietà . And nobody is saying, “my six year old could have done that.”

ca. 1498-1500 --- by Michelangelo Buonarroti --- Image by © Araldo de Luca/CORBIS

ca. 1498-1500 — by Michelangelo Buonarroti — Image by © Araldo de Luca/CORBIS

However, when museum-goers walk into a Cy Twombly retrospective, they might ask themselves if they could do something similar to his Cold Stream of 1966.

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Cy Twombly, Cold Stream, 1966.

Probably if they were given a suitably sized chalkboard and some chalk they could make a pretty good approximation [note this may not be chalk on slate, but it looks like it). The point is that you just would never say that about a Michelangelo. The harder argument to defeat is the one which would apply to this Twombly, and that is that even if you could do it, or something like it, you didn’t. You didn’t think of looking at a chalkboard quite this way, and of savoring the different thicknesses or line, how some of the swirls come forward and some recede, or how the lines are a record of the artist making circular motions across the board. So the argument goes.

I get it, and I can self-mesmerize in front of a Twombly painting, but I’m also quite sure I did that while bored off my ass throughout my years in school. I can remember looking at swirls made by erasers and finding them more interesting than whatever the subject being taught was. Someone even created an exhibition of partially erased physics chalkboards as art.

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Partially erased physics chalkboard on display in a gallery.

In the case of these hastily erased teacher’s chalkboards, a professor who was inclined to take on contemporary art rhetoric could retort, “I not only could do something very like this, I HAVE done it, and it’s hanging in a gallery!”

Can you guess what the next argument is for the other side?

“But you didn’t do it INTENTIONALLY.”

This is true, the physics professor didn’t deliberately write calculations and formulas on the board in order to create a wonderfully unforced composition. He or she didn’t think to present it to the world as art, or go through the trouble of finding a way to do so. That’s a valid argument, but I don’t think nearly as significant as it’s thought to be. In instances where one actually could, with a bit of money or a little practice, make a respectable knock-off of the piece in question (as in the case of some works by Robert Ryman, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, or Cy Twombly, but not in the case of Picasso, Frank Auerbach, or Jackson Pollock, as is frequently claimed), the problem then becomes that the primary purpose of the art is to communicate some nebulous idea, or else just to be the first to put this or that on a pedestal or hang it on a wall.

The debate on whether it matters if anyone could do something or not could stand a lot of fleshing out, and I’ll save that for another post, but here’s an example I just came across a couple days ago on Hyperallergic. First, read this blurb about the artist: “Rasheed Araeen is a Pakistan-born, Britain-based, self-described “Afro-Asian” artist whose art and writing are so wildly subversive, it’s taken 40 years for the critical dialogue to catch up to his tremendously prescient but fractious vision.” Sounds promising! Now look at one of his seminal works.

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Rasheed Araeen “Untitled B” (1962), suite of six drawings (image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi)

If you look at Untitled B carefully you can see it’s just one line. It might have taken Rasheed several hundred attempts to get it just right, and years to come up with the idea, but the result, without question, is something anyone could do with just a wee smidgen of effort.

Claims for the revolutionary quality of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du primptemps (The Right of Spring) parallel claims made for radical conceptual art, such as Rasheed’s squiggle, or Duchamp’s urinal, cleverly named The Fountain. The composer Julius Harrison claimed The Right of Spring “demonstrated Stravinsky’s abhorrence of everything for which music has stood these many centuries … all human endeavour and progress are being swept aside to make room for hideous sounds …” Harrison appears to be lambasting Stravinsky, but the claims of sweeping aside everything that went before for something profoundly new are the same as are made for Duchamp.

“Fountain was many things, apart, obviously, from a mis-described piece of sanitary equipment. It was unexpectedly a rather beautiful object in its own right and a blindingly brilliant logical move, check-mating all conventional ideas about art. But it was also a highly successful practical joke. Duchamp has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci, as a profound philosopher-artist…” ~ Martin Gayford, for The Telegraph.

The difference is that nobody hears The Right of Spring and thinks, “I could do that.” Further, we don’t value the orchestral work because of its alleged contribution to music, or because its initial performance met with a near riot, but because of what we get out of listening to it. That other stuff is bullshit. People who think that talking about art is the purpose of art, rather than looking at it, listening to it, or otherwise absorbing it, completely miss the point.

To sum up, I’m saying that marketing can be seen as art in the same way as fly fishing or colonoscopy, but not as painting, music, or literature…; the purpose of art is seldom primarily or secondarily to inflame; and we can’t say “anyone could do that” about Michelangelo.

~ Ends


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One thought on “Gervais, Merchant, and Pilkington on Art: Enlightening Bollocks

  1. You make some great damn points here mate. Sort of depressingly so, actually. You see, much of my self-deluded “accomplishments” are rooted in the notion that “well… I did something. And that’s at least something.” You sort of poked a hole in my boat there, didn’t ya. 🙂 Cheers.

    Like

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