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 Is someone who writes unpublished novels or poetry in the early hours of the morning before heading off to work an artist?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.