• Good art and bad art

    In the brave new world of self-publishing and ebooks, the question of “What is art?” becomes more and more pressing. How do we decide whether a novel or other form of written work is art, and how do we decide if that work is good art or bad art? There are plenty of views on this, from the ultra-democratic view that everything is/can be art to the more widely accepted notion that good art is identified through a kind of filtration process applied by experts, other artists and those in charge of the means of production. The corporate publishing industry would propose that part of its raison d’etre is to apply the definitions of art and select only those books which meet demanding criteria. The reality, however, in an age when most corporate houses don’t even read slush piles any more and pretty much only accept submissions from agents (who themselves don’t read much of their own slush piles), is that they can only be applying themselves to a small proportion of the world’s literature which has reached them by an elitist and self-defining route. That’s not to say that plenty of the work they publish isn’t art, good or bad, it’s just that a novel which doesn’t manage to get seen by the corporates is not necessarily bad or non-art.

    It gets worse when we look at what artists do. Is someone who writes unpublished novels or poetry in the early hours of the morning before heading off to work an artist? If not, do they become an artist if one of those works gets published? What if they self-publish? Do they only turn the corner from being a bank clerk who writes poetry (TS Eliot) to being an artist if they are published by a producer with a reputation? And what happens once they start producing a steady body of work? Is all their work art? What happens if a great artist produces bad art? Bob Dylan, the man who wrote Visions of Johanna, is also the man who wrote Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Ian McEwan wrote The Cement Garden, but he also wrote Saturday. Martin Amis…well, enough said.

    I think we have to accept that great artists sometimes produce poor art. I would argue that their poor art is no better or worse than the poorer offerings at the madder end of the self-publishing spectrum. It’s just stuff that doesn’t really achieve what we want art to achieve, which is to enable us to look at the universe afresh. Dylan, in fact, was characteristically fascinating on this in his first book of Chronicles, where he states that during his prime years – the mid-’60s when everything poured out of him in one astonishing wave – he felt like a channel for universal energies, that the art just flowed through him and his primary objective was not to allow himself to stand in the way of it. It’s an attractive notion, and perhaps explains why great artists can produce bad art; they do that when they allow their ego to get in the way of their art, or when the sheer relentless drive to produce more and more art eventually dries up the universal energies running through them. Hemingway said that the pencil always has a tendency to become blunt, and the writer has to be aware of this and never try to create when it is blunt.

    Perhaps we are coming closer to the end of the classical definitions of what is art and what is good and bad art. Perhaps the very concept of “art” will itself disappear, and we will be left with what they used to call in the ’60s “happenings” or “manifestations”. I’m quite attracted to that. I like Bill Drummond’s endless projects (shown here), I like the news filtering out of the work of the matriarchal culture of the Mosuo in the Yunnan province of China (shown here), I like the freshness and enthusiasm of events like East London club Jamboree’s Open Pen Live. Much as I love the work of American writer Richard Ford, I’m still struggling to find the energy to dip into the latest tales from Frank Bascombe. Instead, I’m thrilled by Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roche, first published in 1953 and Roche’s first novel – he was in his ’70s when it came out. It’s great art, written by a man who spent his life amongst artists, but would never have been called an artist – until he was 75.

  • Issue 16 of international creative arts magazine tribe out now

    The sixteenth monthly edition of international arts magazine tribe is out now at http://www.tribemagazine.org/magazine.html. This issue features Jude Buffum, Norio Fujikawa, Cristina Venedict, Michael Jantzen, Sarah Ahmad, Celeste Rojas, Pedro Almodóvar, Rogério Degaki, Robert MacNeil, Stephen Harwood, Kim Niehans, Lee Auburn, Tom Warner, Felicity Notley, Brogan McCulloch. Do please take a look – tribe is one of the finest contemporary arts publications in the world today.

  • Our first title, from Big Issue John Bird, launches with London show

    For a social enterprise whose objective is to help members of the community to realise and release their stories, we couldn’t be more pleased to announce that our first title will be a new book by social entrepreneur and Big Issue founder, John Bird.

    John’s book with us, Why Drawing Naked Women Is Good For The Soul, will be published in a week’s time, in ebook and initially a limited physical edition. We are collaborating with John on a six-night London run of shows in early May to promote the book, and here’s some information about that:

    Big Issue founder John Bird’s six-night London show

    What makes a man move from wrongdoing to do-gooding? For John Bird, it was the pursuit of art. As a boy locked up in remand homes or prison, he used art as a way of thinking. Living on the streets of west London, he enrolled for evening life classes at the Chelsea College of Art, and combined a life of crime with a love of art.

    On May 6th, John Bird opens a six-night show in London entitled Naked Bird, in which he is interviewed about current politics and the need for social change by fellow Big Issue founder Phil Ryan. In the second half of the show, John will be interviewed live on stage by a member of the audience, whose naked shape he will draw while he answers her questions about the role of art in his life.

    Bird will be simultaneously launching his new book, Why Drawing Naked Women Is Good For The Soul, which goes on sale on 6th May.

    Art, for John Bird, is about redemption, and he hopes these six nights will be an opportunity for Londoners to come and talk about making change.


    John Bird: “I was born into poverty, brought up in care, and have lived through a lot. My life’s journey has included spells as a thief, prison inmate, artist and poet. I launched The Big Issue in 1991 with the help of Gordon Roddick of The Body Shop in response to the growing number of rough sleepers on the streets of London. Together we believed that the key to solving the problem of homelessness lay in helping people to help themselves, and were therefore determined to offer a legitimate alternative to begging. I have always drawn, I have always felt a need to draw, and I feel that only by doing so have I been able to save my soul.”

    Naked Bird runs for six nights, starting at 7.30pm each night, at Theatro Technis, 26 Crowndale Road, Camden NW1 1TT: http://www.theatrotechnis.com/show.php?id=101

    Tickets for the show are available from http://www.ticketweb.co.uk/search.php?tm_link=tm_header_search&language=en-us&keyword=naked+bird

    Why Drawing Naked Women Is Good For The Soul will be published by The Word Machine CIC on 6th May as an ebook priced £5.99 and a limited edited physical edition priced £9.99.