Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Love in the Days of Rage, 1988

Chapter 7.

….. She thought back to another spring when she had fallen in love with one of her teachers at the Art Students League, he one of the great teachers, a man in his sixties then, what the students called ‘an old rad,’ of the thirties generation, one of the WPA artists who went around with the old Partisan Review crowd, but at this time, her time, he was not very far away from retirement and used to like to have some of his favourite students come up to his flat on West End Avenue on Sundays and drink beer and talk about painting and politics. There didn’t seem to be any woman in residence at his house, and it was only much later she found out the truth, but then that summer back then after classes were over for the year she used to drop in now and then and usually found him alone in his huge studio and always glad to see her. Looking back now she could see that she was the one who had made the advances, although he certainly did respond with affection. But in the end it came out, it all came out that he was very gay, and there was no way around it. A very solitary man, living by himself and still living for his students, and Annie didn’t stop seeing him, but in the end she had to leave, she had to move on, with her own needs, and he gave her a silver ring set with a scarab which she still had and still wore. In addition to that he gave her much more, he showed her the artist as perpetual enemy of the state, as gadfly of the state, the artist as the total enemy of all the organized forces that bore down on the free individual everywhere, the artist as the bearer of Eros, as bearer of the life force itself, as bearer of love, in a world seemingly bent on destroying all that, Eros versus civilization, life against death. Yes, in his printmaking classes you learned not only stone lithography and drypoint etching, you also learned you had to use that art to say something important, not just a bunch of minimalist nothingness. You learned the radical tradition of the WPA artists and muralists. ‘Speak up and stop mumbling!’ he would yell at them when he bent over their work and saw that the drawing was saying nothing. And it was strange, she reflected now, how his ideas were like Julian’s, as now Julian had fallen silent, watching the musicians in the square, but suddenly then in the middle of that sunny idyll came a dissident sound from down the rue Mouffetard, the sound of drums beaten by students carrying placards who now came streaming into the Place Contrescarpe, circling the still-playing musicians and the old couple, who now stopped dancing and hurried off down the street. And the three students with drums led a straggling line around the little square, with more of them pouring in all the time, waving placards and banners upon which were scrawled and painted the first murmurings of that wild new spirit of rebellion. Among them were posters she recognized as having been done by the poster brigades at the Beaux-Arts, some by her students, some of them indeed in the style of WPA artists but with messages hardly dreamed of in the American thirties: 

Alcohol kills: Take LSD

THE YOUNG MAKE LOVE, THE OLD MAKE OBSCENE GESTURES

I’M A GROUCHO MARXIST

‘Revolution is the ecstasy of history’

MAKE LOVE AND BEGIN AGAIN

POWER TO THE IMAGINATION!

‘Nous sommes tous les enrages – Ortega y Gasset

TO FORBID IS FORBIDDEN

Open the Windows of Your Heart

MAKE LOVE NOT WAR

THE SORBONNE IS THE STALINGRAD OF THE REVOLUTION!

Chapter 11.

…… An ancient waiter actually wearing a pince-nez came bowing up, took their order, and tottered off, looking like a Degas dancing master. It was a long way from the Place de la Sorbonne. The lace curtains, the brightly polished brass railings, the discrete booths with lush leather banquettes, the elderly dame in black lace at the caisse, gave the impression of still being deep in the nineteenth century, caught forever in an impressionist painting, and one almost expected to hear the soft clop-clop of carriage horses outside. ‘I should have brought a sketchbook,’ Annie said, as she began drawing on the menu, which seemed perhaps to embarrass Julian a very little. He fidgeted. ‘Well, if you can do a Daumier or a Goya . . .’ he began. `Imagination au Pouvoir?’ said Annie, drawing the slogan at the top of the carte, and Julian decided to enjoy himself, lifting his glass of wine. ‘Go ahead on the tablecloth too! After all, it’s in the great tradition. They all did it, the impressionists did it, Picasso did it, the symbolists and dadaists and surrealists did it, they all drew on tablecloths, except they were paper tablecloths, and then of course they took the paper back to their studios and copied it on canvas sometimes, and got their whole world down on canvas, for everyone to dream about today -‘ ‘As if that world still existed,’ Annie put in, drawing on the menu. ‘Just like all these elegant people in this restaurant still think it exists – nothing but a painter’s dream forever and ever!’ Julian wasn’t laughing anymore, watching her draw contorted bourgeois figures in top hats and picture hats, writhing on the paper, hanging on the phrases of the haute cuisine, running off the elegant page, dropping off, as it were, into the real world of 1968 under the students’ revolutionary slogan ‘Imagination au Pouvoir!’ It was a cry heard around the world that year, a cry of rebellion everywhere, more than a ‘hippie rebellion’. Annie was still drawing when the soup came, and she continued, pushing it aside. ‘I have this fantasy,’ she went on, ‘this painter’s fantasy about Paris, which should really be called L’Huile-sur-Toile – Oil-on-Canvas, as they say in the descriptions of paintings in museums. So once upon a time there was this little village called L’Huile-sur-Toile – a tiny little village on a little tiny river called the Toile. Now, that was a very long time ago, maybe in the Middle Ages or earlier still. Before that, painters mostly painted on wood – huile-sur-bois – but then, L’Huile-sur-Toile started growing, and more and more painters construc-ted paysages all around the banks of the Toile, and the little town grew larger and larger and larger, with all kinds of different neighbourhoods or quartiers springing up, all built in different styles, and the styles swept the town from one end to the other, age upon age the styles changed, like the changes in architecture itself, like the changes in dress and in life-styles. There was the pastoral and then the Gothic quartier and then the baroque quartier, and eventually the symbolist and the surrealist and every kind of neighbourhood that any artist could imagine. But at first there was mostly darkness on the Toile, because it was still the Dark Ages, and they only had candles and oil lamps and no electricity, and their heads were full of shadows and superstition and darkness too. But – but gradually the light grew in the heart of the darkness, at first only a faint light in the distant sky, behind the dark landscape, behind the dark buildings along the Toile, and then it broke through over the rooftops, and flooded the Toile itself. Then the forces of darkness entrenched themselves on the Right Bank and the forces of light took the Left Bank as theirs, so that from the earliest times the reactionary Right faced the avant-garde progressive liberal Left, and each viewed the other suspiciously, each considering The Other Side to be treacherous territory, alien land. But the light kept growing, and then in the nineteenth century the first impressionists came marching down the boulevards from Montmartre to the river’s edge, all of them looking obsessively for light and nothing but light, their easels under arm. And they strolled along the Toile and set up their easels and started painting the light, and some of them crossed over to the Left but many remained on the Right, where most of them had been born in good bourgeois families. But they all were obsessed with light and many of them didn’t care where it came from or where it would lead them, they were not concerned with the sociology or the politics of L’Huile-sur-Toile. And their style swept the city and the suburbs and the countryside all up and down the Toile, as far as the eye could see in the new light, and swept even down to the far sea, through Normandy to Honfleur and back again, back past the Grande Jatte and the promenades and quays all along the Toile, and in the centre of Paris­-sur-Toile the good burghers of the city clapped their hands and danced and sang the “Marseillaise” and other stirring nationalist anthems, while the impressionists and the postimpressionists kept on painting everything in sight, including the Opera and their own dear Bourse right here. And they painted Notre-Dame over and over, although neither the Right nor the Left could really claim the Church as being exclusively theirs, since it stood in the middle of the river on the Ile de la Cite, although many times the towers seemed to tilt to the Right and at rare times to the Left. There was one gang of artists who had descended as impressionists from their Bateau Ivre high on the Right in Montmartre, and this gang of impressionists refused to stick to the same style of paint­ing with their newfound light but insisted on constantly changing their styles. Their leader was Picasso, who con­stantly broke up the old formulas and forged new styles of seeing and invented cubism and painted everything all over in cubes and then destroyed them, after which came the dadaists and surrealists and symbolists and other ists and the taxis of the Marne and the First World War, while the painters all kept repainting the landscape of the Toile over and over, until finally the Spanish Civil War ushered in the Second World War, and with the Second War came the American invaders, and they came, they saw, they conquered but then didn’t leave as they were supposed to, but stayed on to take advantage of the very good exchange on the American dollar and to take advantage of the very good light for painting. Then these foreigners and others of their ilk from all over the world also started repainting the landscape of the Toile, only this time it was no longer recognizable as the adorable little bourg it had always been. It all began to look like a huge imitation abstract-expressionist canvas by Franz Kline or Willem de Kooning while the Bourse went on looking just like it always had in impressionist pictures, with its inhabitants still looking and thinking like their impressionist portraits. And then General de Gaulle himself came in here, into this very restaurant, and he bowed and saluted and bowed again, without taking off his pillbox hat or even offering to check it, all the while murmuring to himself, “La Gloire, oui, c’est La Gloire!” And everyone rushed into the streets of L’Huile-sur­-Toile waving the tricolour and shouting, “Don’t change anything, ever! Don’t rock the boat! The Left Bank doesn’t exist!” And everyone went around acting as if the world of L’Huile-sur-Toile was perfect and no need to change anything ever, everything should go on as it always had on the avenues of la Grande Republique. But, but the students, alors, merde, the students – ces enragés, ces chienlits – were hungry and bored, and they had had enough of All That, they wanted an entirely new mix of colours, an entirely new palette, entirely new tools and new types of brushes to paint with, and they used spray paint on everything. They woke up the workers everywhere, they inspired the hunger strikers, and every other brand of forgotten humanity came pouring out of the side streets – the anarchists and the Trotskyists and the communists who hated everyone else, especially the anarchists, they all began to unite, because they were all hungry and fed up with the flat flabby ancien régime and with de Gaulle’s grandeur, which didn’t include them. They were all totally frustrated by the plutocracy that ruled the world even beyond the Toile, and they wanted to focus a huge magnifying glass on the canvas of the whole world and concentrate the new light on the very centre of the canvas until it caught fire and burned a hole right through the whole landscape!’ This time it was Annie who was fairly carried away, her voice tending to rise to a higher octave, so that now the antique waiter with the raised eyebrows came hurrying up, and Annie broke off and sat back, looking at Julian, who sat silent looking at her as if he had never really seen her before. Then he raised his glass to her, smiling in her eyes, and drank, as she spooned her cold soup. Then after a while Julian signed a chit, and they went out together into the loud afternoon traffic that crept past the Bourse, the multicoloured cars like myriad drops of paint flowing over an immense abstract-impressionist landscape whose perspective had long ago been destroyed. 

——

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1919-1997. Love in the Days of Rage, 1988. Chapter 7 / Chapter 11

Images: Interior view of l’Atelier Populaire, 1968. © Atelier Populaire d.r. Courtesy École des Beaux-Arts, Paris

Set in Paris, in May 1968. An American artist, Annie is teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts. To a background of cultural action and police presence in the streets the novella weaves the story of a love affair between Annie and Julian Mendes, an anarchist banker, with descriptions of the romantic Parisian daily life of cafes and restaurants, and references to the artistic and architectural past of the city as the scenario of political events changes around them.  

The novel presents the critical aesthetic moment of May 1968 as the point where art changed from a cycle of avant-garde movements of Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Cubism, Symbolism, Dada and Surrealism forever repeating the language of the canvas. As Annie considers her previous career as an artist in New York she is also a symbol of a changing aesthetic reality. She links May ’68 to the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the United States. A Federal Art Project (1935–1943) that funded artists as workers to produce public artworks in a social realist style as part of the New Deal program. Annie sees that the traditional nostalgic bourgeois views of the old grey buildings and stone labyrinth of the feminine landscape of Paris have been appropriated by American artists as huge abstract expressionist canvases. The studio has been replaced by a collective Atelier Populaire – a peoples studio. The École des Beaux-Arts, and art schools and institutions throughout France, were occupied by the students who produced thousands of posters and political slogans. The ideas and images were pasted on the walls of Paris, but artists began to realise that the power and potential language of art had changed as direct action and media sensation could reach the eyes of the world.

An Artist – Punch. March 14 1945

William Roberts, 1895-1980. Drawing. British Museum

WITH the heavy mashie-niblick I have rather a special technique. To begin with I wiggle a good deal to give my Eustachian tubes a chance of warming up to their vital task of establishing a true balance. Comparable to the run-up in the bomber world, my wiggling. Next I stand perfectly still except for my eyebrows, which. I slide up and down very slowly three times, like pistons, with terrifying concentration. This movement has often been criticized unfavourably by the crowd at Westward Ho and St. Andrews, but it puts at least three yards on such balls as I hit, and a lot of useful backwash as well.

This time there was no crowd to distract me, and vou would think a man’s head, nicely teed up on a stiff white collar, was an easier mark than a golf ball, but I found to my surprise that this was not so. My eyebrows were going under for the third time when a vision of fatherless children swept over me and I remembered that the chair-covers had only just come back from the cleaners. I flung the club away in disgust. The man, who was sitting with his back to me examining one of my Georgian tankards through a jeweller’s glass screwed into his right eye, sprang round.

“You did give me a fright ! ” he complained.

“I had every intention of laying you dead by the pin,” I said, going towards the telephone. “Put that can down and sit quiet. The last burglar who doubted my force of character is still on the danger-list.”

“You don’t look’ at all a violent man,” said the burglar, studying me with some surprise.

“The two years I spent with the cannibals when I was a lad were very formative,” I told him, as I spun the dial. “Once I’m roused there’s no holding me. I pull big men to pieces like flies.”

“I’ve been admiring your silver,” he said politely, pointing to the pile on the table.

“I hope you liked the whisky too ? “

“I must apologize for helping myself, but I got frozen fiddling with that patent catch on the window.”

“I’d have put a thermos out if I’d known you were coming. Blast this exchange!”

“These country ones are getting very uneven in their work. I sometimes think all one wants in the country is a commodity-phone, on which one could dial PUB for refresh­ment and TAX for a cab and, naturally, POL for the police.”

I suddenly felt very angry, not only with the exchange. It was four in the morning and I was in pyjamas.

“You miserable little son of a dustcart!” I cried. “If there’s one crime that sticks in my gullet it ‘s larceny. It’s so wretchedly inconsiderate!”

My burglar regarded me mildly. I forgot to say that he looked like a Cabinet Minister on the way to the funeral of an Under-Secretary, national mark, second grade.

“I hate it too,” he said, and sighed deeply.

“I suppose your heart is really in the missionary field ? “

“In art,” he said simply, and sighed again. I went on dialling, and the girl at the exchange went on sleeping.

“Do you mind if I look at your pictures while you ‘re getting through ? They may be the last I’ll see for some time.” He got up and turned slowly towards the mantel­piece. Then he whistled loudly.

“You know who that’s by? ” he asked, pointing to a small painting which hung above it. The apple of my eye. Imagine the Flying Scotsman piling up in a fish market that has joined forces with the House of Lords, a thriving marine store and an acre of artichokes, and as near as can be you have it.

“A man called Albert Skeffington,” I said.

” You know about him of course ? “

“I’ve never been able to find out anything. It was a wedding present.”

“Then you’re in luck. I shared a studio with Albert for five years. In Paris. It was the interregnum between the Absinthe and the Methylated Skeffington periods. What a painter!”

“This is extraordinarily interesting!” I said, stopping dialling.

“You ought to hang on to that. It’ll be worth twenty thousand one day. You know when he did it ? “

“No?”

“The night Rosa left him. I found him hanging over the Pont Royal about to chuck himself in. I dragged him back to the studio and talked to him like an uncle. He grabbed his brushes about midnight and worked without stopping for forty-eight hours. That ought to be in the National Gallery!”

“I’ve always thought it terrific.”

“Terrific ? It’s a classic.”

“What sort of a man was he ? “

“Short. Red beard. Had been an engine-driver. Kept hares under his bed. What mastery of the primaries! And just look at the way he disciplines his verticals!”

He was prancing up and down in a great state of excite­ment. He was rather a dear little man. I caught it too.

“My wife will be tremendously pleased to hear all this. Where is he now ? “

“I wouldn’t like to say. Poor old Albert!”

“Not dead ? “

“Long time ago. Practically spontaneous combustion. Nothing else of his, I suppose ? “

” Why, yes. Give yourself another whisky and I’ll get it.”

“This is the most wonderful thing that’s happened to me for years,” he said, rubbing his hands. And I think he meant it, because when I got back, carrying the bedroom Skeffington of the snowplough reversing through the bishops in Brighton Aquarium, he was gone. And so was the silver. But the Skeffington over the mantelpiece was still there, all right.


An Artist. PUNCH or The London Charivari. March 14 1945. Anonymous – Author byline: Eric.

Image: William Roberts, 1895-1980. Drawing. British Museum.

A comic short story which presents the traditional role of the eccentric Bohemian artist in Paris. This perspective of the artist can be traced from Henri Murger, 1822-1861, Scènes de la vie de bohème, 1847–49; George du Maurier, 1834-1896, Trilby, 1894; W Somerset Maugham, 1874-1895, The Moon and Sixpence, 1919; to Tony Hancock, 1924-1968, and the film  The Rebel, 1961, published as Alan Holmes, The Rebel, 1961.

The artist, Albert Skeffington, is described as a manic genius, a consumer of Absinthe and Methylated spirits, whose once unconsidered paintings with scenes of “the Flying Scotsman piling up in a fish market that has joined forces with the House of Lords, a thriving marine store and an acre of artichokes” and a “snowplough reversing through the bishops in Brighton Aquarium” have acquired a high market value.

John Lanchester – Capital, 2012

Chapter 39

Smitty’s assistant was called Parker French, though that wasn’t how Smitty thought of him. As was his practice, Smitty thought of his assistant as his assistant. What they did mattered much more than who they were. In fact who they were was barely relevant; in so far as it was relevant, it was, in direct proportion, annoying. The more he had to notice his assistants as people, the less well they were doing their job. If he could have got away with it, he would have quite liked to do that thing of calling all his assistants by the same name. Nigel, say. His assistant would always be called Nigel. Every year or so there would be a new Nigel. Short Nigels, tall Nigels, hairy Nigels, skinhead Nigels, Rasta Nigels – but always, in the final analysis, Nigels. That would be funny.

Smitty’s assistant, however, didn’t think of himself as Smitty’s assistant. He thought of himself as Parker French. If Parker had known what Smitty thought of him, he would have been shocked and upset, but he would have nonetheless found out that he and his employer were in full agreement about one thing: Parker wouldn’t be Smitty’s assistant for ever.

A job like today’s was one reason for that. Smitty was going to a party, an art-world party. It was in a warehouse in Clapton, and was given by a gallery owner who had been one of the first and most alert about tracking the London art world’s relocation eastward. They had been onto Hoxton, onto Shoreditch, right as they were happening, and now they were onto Clapton. The stuff on display was by one of their new clients, an up-and-coming pair of brothers who specialised in smashing things and then incorrectly gluing them back together. It wasn’t a question of whether they were going to be big. That was a given. It was only a question of just how big. For this first high-profile show, there were about ten small pieces and two big central works. The small pieces included a mound of four bicycles, some sofas, a fridge (that was quite funny because the doors had been glued on backwards), and some sets of golf clubs (also funny). In the middle stood one of their most controversial works, a number of paintings and artworks which they’d been given by other artists and which they’d chopped up and glued back together and given a one-word name three hundred and forty-four characters long which was all the individual titles of the artworks run together. Hareonagreenshutteraftersoutineperformanceonesketchesincharcoal1  baconwaswrongileftmymuminthecarparkpartsevenwinterdrea mpicturemehavingsexdoesmymumlookbiginthis(canisterofherash es)knickerpaintingifyouwantmybodyinspiredbyphilipkdicknumber twoselfportraitselfportraitselfportraitbyphotoshopspunkingupyogh urtpotbymoonlightshortfilmsstilllifewithfish was one big central piece, which had already been bought by a collector. Smitty quite liked it and quite liked the idea too. It was funny to think of how pissed off all the other artists must have been to have their work chopped up, while having to pretend to be cool about it. But that wasn’t his favourite piece in the show. The brothers had smashed a Ford Focus – or rather had found a chop shop to cut it apart – and glued it back together. The result was memorable, truly. It looked like a child’s idea of how you might assemble a car, executed by a giant whose hands were too big to make the necessary fine movements. Because bits of it stuck out and were added on at the last moment – bits that the brothers couldn’t fit in anywhere else – it also had something a little hedgehog-like about it. Everyone agreed that it was a very strong piece. It was called Can There Ever Be a Politics of the Dream? That was where the party had got its theme. The party was called Politics of the Dream, which was why there were sword-swallowers and fire-eaters by the warehouse door as people came in, and also why the waiters were dwarfs.

Smitty had been sent an invitation via his dealer – his dealer in the old sense, as it happened, who was now his dealer in the new sense – and he felt coming, so he did. He wanted to have a look around, not just to see the brothers’ work, which he already knew about, but to get the feeling of the room, of the vibe, of what was happening and what might be about to happen. Art was a business, which might not be your favourite fact about it but was a fact you were unwise to ignore. It was good to sniff around, to look at the players. Because of that, going to art parties was something Smitty loved to do. There wasn’t too much chance he would be recognised, even among an art-world crowd, because among that crowd there was a rumour – a rumour started by Smitty, as it happened, via a hint he’d got his dealer to drop – that Smitty was black. The existence of that rumour was Smitty’s single favourite thing in the whole entire world.

So his identity was protected here. At the same time, he was careful not to do the party thing too often, because if he did do it too often, people might start to wonder who he was; might start to wonder properly, not just to be faintly, briefly, idly curious. Smitty liked to play games with his anonymity, but he preferred to be the person who was playing the game; liked it to be a private game with one player, Smitty himself. So he always dressed up in a suit and tie, a not-too-smart formal suit, not a wide-boy-at-play suit, and if anyone asked him what he did, he said he was an accountant who worked for the artists’ insurers. That shut people up and made them go away pretty fast. If they didn’t, well, Smitty had an economics GCSE and was confident he could bluff his way through. Plus he always took an assistant as hanger-on and as cover. Even a useless Nigel like this one could be good cover, because Smitty looked as if he was standing talking to him while in fact he was checking out the talent in the room – the talent in all senses.

Smitty recognised about a third of the people in the room; that was about average. There were some dealers who were mainly drinking champagne, a few artists who were mainly drinking Special Brew (nice touch) and a few civilians who were either on champagne or London tap water; that was being served out of magnums with ‘London Tap’ printed on the side (another nice touch). The dealers were for the most part wearing expensive versions of smart casual, the artists were carefully superscruffy, and the civilians wore suits. Hence his disguise. There were more foreigners than usual, which was interesting; mainly Germans, Smitty thought. The word about these guys had got out quite far quite fast. Germany was a good market, as Smitty well knew. About a third of his book’s earnings had been in Germany. That was really all there was to see here. Another glass of bubbles and Smitty would be off.

All this made Parker very unhappy. Smitty was right to think that his assistant wasn’t exactly convulsed with respect for him. In Parker’s opinion, Smitty’s entire oeuvre was based on a mistake. Once you ignored the particulars of what Smitty did – which, in Parker’s view, you could easily do, without missing too much – what Smitty’s work was really about was anonymity. He was all about being anonymous, about the idea of, and consequences of, being anonymous. Warhol only had one idea, about the commodification of the art image; and he got that idea in all its implications, from every possible angle. Smitty too only had one idea, about the possibilities and consequences of anonymity. But his idea was, in Parker’s opinion, a load of bollocks. People did not want to be anonymous. More: anonymity was one of the things that they liked least about life in the modern world. They wanted to be known, they wanted to be named, they wanted their fifteen minutes.

‘It’s not about being invisible,’ Parker would say to his girlfriend Daisy when he talked about what was wrong with Smitty; which was fairly often. ‘He’s got it backwards. Art should be about making people visible. Making things visible. It’s about attention,’

She knew well enough not to say anything, just to stroke the nearest available body part.

Parker knew just how being unknown, unacknowledged, unseen, presses on people; he knew because he felt the pressure inside himself. He felt it as an aspect of the city, of the crowds and the blankness and the attention always going elsewhere, up and out towards dreams of celebrity and fame, down and into the reveries of the self; and never where it belonged, some small but loud and passionate part of him secretly felt: towards him, Parker French.

‘Yeah, we’ve done this,’ said Smitty, draining his glass and handing it to one of the dwarfs. Parker knew what that meant: we are leaving immediately. Smitty’s absolute indifference to most other people could seem a form of geniality, the affability of an older man, but Parker knew that Smitty wasn’t at all genial, not even a little bit. Parker put his half-full glass on the same tray and the two men headed unnoticed for the warehouse exit.

John Lanchester – Capital, 2012

Capital presents a chronicle of characters in a south London street where various tales interlink to reflect the capitals changing demographic of ‘ordinary’ and ‘new’ Londoners representing themes of gentrification, disparate income, lifestyles and diverse nationalities. The residents of Pepys Road are participants in an allegorical story linked by their urban habitat.

The story involves the successful and anonymous performance artist, Smitty – a parody of the Young British Artists (YBAs) and the era of Brit Art that emerged in London in the late 1980s and of the artist ‘Banksy’. Smitty attended Goldsmiths’ – the institutional epicentre of Brit Art. The YBAs were noted for their provocative attitude and their appropriation of the money and celebrity connected with the art world which changed the hierarchical position and public perception of the artist. Smitty is described as a ‘natural barrow boy” from a modest social background. His assistant, Parker French, has the privileges of education and social position, but his jealousy at Smitty’s success as an artist causes him to take revenge in the form of a sinister art prank which implicates Smitty and threatens his anonymity. The narrative on art in the novel is fermented through a campaign of graffiti, petty vandalism, CDs with 40 minutes of amateur film of Pepys Road, dead blackbirds in jiffy bags, and postcards with the slogan “We Want What You Have”. The phrase acts as underlying motto summarising the resentment and envy at the materialist disparity of the capitalist economy. 

In Chapter 39, Smitty and Parker French attend a gallery opening in unfashionable Clapton in the East End of London. The exhibition describes the work of a “pair of brothers who specialised in smashing things and then incorrectly glueing them back together” which resembles the style of work produced by real-life artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Michael Landy. John Lanchester writes with an intimate understanding of the creative processes and styles of the contemporary world as well as the physical locales and the seemingly anarchic entreprenurial modus operandi of the contemporary artist. “We Want What You Have” is a motto describing the ability of the artist in turning the world upside down – to be an individual in a hierarchical society.

John Lanchester- Capital, 2012

Chapter 12

Smitty, the performance and installation artist and all-round art­world legend, stood looking out the window of his studio in Shoreditch, waiting for his new assistant to come back with a triple-shot cappuccino and the daily papers. He had a black suit and white shirt on for visiting his nan, and could just see in the reflection that he looked, though he said so himself, pretty sharp: if his mum could have seen him, she would have been pleased. So that was good. Other things were not so good. He wasn’t impressed by the performance of his new assistant, who had gone out twenty minutes ago, and who only needed about a quarter of that amount of time to get out and back, and who would therefore be returning with a cup of frothy coffee which was odds-on to be cold.

Looking out the window, Smitty surveyed the London scene: oldsters struggling with carrier bags on their way back from the supermarket, a crack whore topping up with Tennent’s, pram­faces from the estate and their grub-white babies, immigrants from who knew where, Kosovo probably or wherever it was the latest lot came from. The street was noisy with distant traffic and drilling and people had put their orange recycling bags out, piled and spilling, but they hadn’t been collected yet, so the pavement was a military-grade obstacle course. Smitty loved and approved of all he saw. London, life, London life. He felt an idea coming on. At the other end of the road, a group of workmen in bright orange safety jackets were standing around a hole they had dug about a week before. Two of them were smoking, the third was laughing, the fourth was drinking something from a thermos, and to one side of them their mechanical  digger stood with its scoop pointing downwards. The way they were all grouped around the hole made it look as if the hole were their focus of attention, as if they were admiring it. That was what gave Smitty the idea: make a work of art about holes. Or, make holes the work of art. Yes, that was better. Dig some holes and make the hole the artwork, or rather the confusion and chaos the hole caused – people’s reaction, not the thing itself. Yeah – bloody great hole, for no reason. Let the tossers argue about who fills it in. That’s part of the artwork too.

This was how Smitty had made his name: through anonymous artworks in the form of provocations, graffiti, only-just-non­criminal vandalism, and stunts. He was famous for being unknown, a celebrity without identity, and it was agreed that his anonymity was his most interesting artefact – though the stunts made people laugh, too. He had a crew who he had known since for ever, and who helped him when he needed helping. Last year, the sale of signed works and his own book about himself had taken his earnings over £1,000,000 for the first time.

Smitty disliked writing things down – a dislike which meant he had struggled at school and been directed to what were regarded as non-subjects such as art, which had led him to art school, which had led him to where he was today, thanks – so he preferred to use a crappy hand-held dictaphone. He liked the way the object, which seemed so much a tool of corporate subjugation, so much the kind of thing which would belong to the kind of man who would murmur the kind of thing like ‘Take a memo, Miss Potter: was in his hands an instrument of subversion, of creativity, of chaos. Also his assistant would transcribe it later and then send him a text message, to his pay-as-you-go mobile which couldn’t be traced, since a large part of Smitty’s work, and an even larger part of his allure and his fame, was the fact of his total anonymity. No one knew who he was, or how he got away with what he did. In the case of the hole project, getting away with what he did would be a big part of it. A certain sort of artist would get council permission for the hole, would apply for a fucking grant for it. Not Smitty. He pressed Record and said:

‘Bloody great hole’

The assistant came up the stairs, put a slab of daily newspapers on the table and brought Smitty his cappuccino. It was half-hot, not quite cool enough to complain about, and he was out of breath so he had obviously been hurrying, which added together meant Smitty didn’t feel quite justified in giving him a bollocking. All the same, he was a little displeased. The assistant was a middle-class boy pretending to be a streetwise working­class kid, which in itself Smitty didn’t mind, since he had once been like that himself – but he did prefer his cappuccino piping hot. Then the boy took out the day’s mail from the pocket of his manbag, and Smitty cheered up, since one of the things instantly recognisable among the letters was a fat packet from the clippings agency. His favourite reading, his favourite viewing and listening, was anything about himself, or his work. The coverage usually turned on the amazing thrill given to all by his anonymity.

Smitty tore open the envelope and a bunch of clippings fell out. Some of them were about the paperback of his book, a couple of them were reviews of a new piece he had made on an abandoned building site in Hackney. It had been called Bucket of Shit and had involved putting ten abandoned toilets around the rubble – only instead of being filled with shit, the toilets had been full of cut flowers, crunched together and spray-painted to look like oversize turds. He and his crew took photographs and sent press releases out by email. The council’s contractors had cleared the piece within forty-eight hours but the harvest was here in the clippings, most of it favourable. Urban renovation and the ease with which we passed by, unseeing, the urban underclass; that was, apparently, what this latest ‘guerrilla intervention’ had been about. One or two of the usual twats didn’t get it, but so what? It wasn’t a popularity contest.

‘Can I have a look at the clips?’ asked the kid. He was – this was one of his better points, perhaps even his best – visibly excited by Smitty’s fame and danger and aura. Smitty lobbed the cuttings onto the table in front of the boy and went back to looking out the window. Calmed and buoyed by his reading, Smitty felt himself become expansive.

‘You’ve got to be a brand, man. Then you find some shit to flog, yeah? That’s the way it works. A stunt like that, Bucket, takes effort to think through and set up and it’s harder still when you’ve got to do it hands-off, so no one can trace it back. Got to be careful, got to cover your tracks, like those Indian dudes walking backwards in their footprints, yeah? And there’s not a penny in it either. Nada, sweet FA. Which doesn’t mean there’s nothing in it, no forward movement. The stuff which can’t be sold, that’s the stuff which makes everything else seem real. You can’t commodify this shit. Which is the whole point. But it adds to your mojo, to your aura. And that allows you to make shit you can sell. See? So that thing which cost whatever it was, four or five grand, by the time it was all in, the long run, it’s what’s paying for those papers and this cappuccino.’

The assistant, who had heard other versions of this speech before, nodded. But he did not look as fully alert or on the ball as he might do, and Smitty disapproved. He was, truth be told, a little tired of all the people who wanted to be him. Whose admiration was expressed as envy. He wasn’t old, nowhere near – he was twenty-eight, for fuck’s sake! – but he was already thoroughly familiar with young kids who thought that making your name was easy, that all that needed to happen was for the oldsters to budge up and make way and then it would be their names all over the papers. Achievers who hadn’t achieved anything yet. Hanging out a shop sign with nothing written on it. That kind of would-be up-and-comer was half in love, half in hate with the people they wanted to be, fizzing with envy they hadn’t diagnosed in themselves. This boy was like that, and was showing signs of insufficient respect. He liked Smitty’s fame but didn’t seem to appreciate that Smitty came attached to it. More interested in his own work than in his employer’s – even though he didn’t have any work of his own to speak of. He had come recommended by Smitty’s art dealer and agent, a bright kid related to somebody or other, freshly graduated from St Martin’s or Clerkenwell or wherever it was. The kid was bright and on his better days had a hungry look that Smitty approved of, but the boy also needed to be careful. He had the air of someone who liked to take a few pills of a weekend. Smitty liked to talk about living large and caning it, but his attitude to drugs was, beneath the rhetoric, cautious  and epicurean: small amounts, meticulously chosen, at the right time and in the right company. He took as much trouble sourcing his drugs as a different kind of person would take sourcing organic meat. If his assistant was getting off his face Friday-to-Sunday to such an extent that his concentration was wavering at work, he was soon going to find himself being an ex-assistant. An ex-assistant with a watertight confidentiality clause in his contract.

A beeping noise went off. The boy fished his phone out of his pocket.

‘You asked me to tell you when it was half eleven,’ he said.

‘Yeah, OK,’ said Smitty. He picked up his mobile and his wallet and his car keys. ‘Got a thing to go to. My nan.’

‘Sorry,’ said the boy with a hint of something in his tone Smitty didn’t like, an only just detectable irony of some kind. OK, that’s it, he told himself. You’re fired. He headed out the door to his car in a genuinely shitty mood.

John Lanchester. Capital, 2012

Capital presents a chronicle of characters in a south London street where various tales interlink to reflect the capitals changing demographic of ‘ordinary’ and ‘new’ Londoners representing themes of gentrification, disparate income and diverse nationalities. The residents of Pepys Road are participants in an allegorical story linked by their urban habitat. The narrative on art in the novel is fermented through a campaign of graffiti, petty vandalism, CDs with 40 minutes of amateur film of Pepys Road, dead blackbirds in jiffy bags, a blog, and postcards with the slogan “We Want What You Have”. The phrase acts as underlying motto summarising the resentment and envy at the social and materialist disparity of the capitalist economy. 

The story involves the successful and anonymous performance artist, Smitty – a parody of the Young British Artists (YBAs) and the era of Brit Art that emerged in London in the late 1980s and of the artist ‘Banksy’. Smitty attended Goldsmiths – the institutional epicentre of Brit Art. The YBAs were noted for their provocative attitude and their appropriation of the money and celebrity connected with the art world that changed the hierarchical position and public perception of the artist. Smitty is described as a ‘natural barrow boy” from a modest social background. His assistant, and dogsbody, Parker French has the privileges of education and social position, but his jealousy at Smitty’s success as an artist causes him to take revenge in the form of a sinister art prank which implicates Smitty and threatens his anonymity. 

Smitty has the attributes of the successful contemporary cool metropolitan figure – a well cut black suit and white shirt, a studio near Hoxton Square with a £5,000 music system and a sixty-inch plasma flat-screen TV, and most importantly, an income of £1,000,000 a year. What Smitty understands is the significance of Isiah Berlin’s phrase ‘The fox knows many things; the hedgehog, one big thing’. Smitty understands the advantage of the one big thing – idea, bluff, or trick – and his one idea was “about the possibilities and consequences of anonymity” (Ch 39, pg 225) 

Smitty represents the change from the private musings of the mid-twentieth century studio or academic artist to the generation of Brit Art and artists who assumed their role as public figures – independent, entreprenurial media-manipulators and unequivocally confident of their talent and celebrity, recognised in international exhibitions and lavishly illustrated books about themselves. His art reflects the visceral elements of Brit Art: “Smitty’s art was all about confrontation. It was about shocking people, jolting them out of their well-grooved perceptions. Parodies, defacements, obscenities, spray-painted graffiti of Picasso being sucked off by an octopus – that was what Smitty was all about.” (Ch 46, pg 264) In Chapter 12 Smitty, “the performance and installation artist and all-round art­ world legend“ reflects on the nature of his “anonymous artworks in the form of provocations, graffiti, only-just-non­criminal vandalism, and stunts.” The work of art was not concerned with practical skill and technique absorbed or acquired at Art School. Instead, the artwork was the product of a conceptual process that created “provocative temporary site-specific works” (Ch 13, pg 86). Ideas are dictated into a dictaphone and the artwork – entitled, ‘Bloody Great Hole’ or ‘Bucket of Shit’, or a nine-foot high concrete dildo ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time’, is fabricated by specialist workers in a factory. The artist is not a solitary figure in a studio but a manipulator of ideas, a ‘brand’ and mastermind of a ‘crew’ who photograph and publicize’ the idea of an artwork. The idea is the work. The work is the publicity and recognition, and the peripheral sale of the artist’s identity and artefacts related to the work. The artist has reclaimed the Romantic notion of the visionary and independent ‘heroic’ status’ of the artist. The value attached to the work comprehends the artists’ place within the corporate art market and the administrative quangos of museums and galleries. Smitty craves fame, but as an anonymous persona. As the artist he has claimed his power as creator and controller of the artwork, market and media.