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.