Saturday, 28 January 2012

David Shrigley

I try not to be unduly negative about people. In the comics' world I may think Craig Thompson and Chris Ware are unduly self obsessed, but I cannot for a moment deny the beauty of their art. I try not to moan too much - but part of me enjoys snark far too much. It's easy for me to translate mild annoyance of someone such as, say, Devendra Banhart being such a vocal, irritating, showy bit of pantomime nonsense masquerading as a musician into a full on rant (see? It's starting already!) but I have heard songs of his that are, damn it all, lovely. For all the half arsed, idle scraps of nonsense he records he sometimes knocks out a properly beautiful bit of music (don't expect me to find out what it is, because that would mean subjecting myself to his output. Just take it from me he occasionally does something a bit worthwhile). I was discussing this with friend/ neighbour Gavin of the excellent Arkhonia blog just yesterday. He was talking about how what he hated in music was just that sense of... laziness, of half formed ideas, of settling for just "okay" rather aspiring to do something new. He was saying this in the context of music - he was startling me with the music of This Heat at the time - and comparing it to countless lazy bands who aren't trying to startle or do something new.

I'm not so bothered by this as Gavin is I think. My interest in books, in cinema and in music is to find something new and wonderful in it rather than it be entirely new and wonderful. My reaction to, say, hearing "Firebird" by the White Noise for the first time - or indeed the above This Heat song - is rare, because you only expect to be properly steamrolled by something so new and exciting on the very rarest of occasions. I'm happy in music to be excited by just a harmony or a noise or a middle eight that's exciting - even just a texture. Similarly, I'm happy to watch a middling film like "Exorcist 3" just for that extraordinary hospital scene that just sucker punches you. I'd like to think the best of anyone creative and that for the most part they don't really want to phone it in. Those who do, I just sort of dismiss as of no interest to me (Oasis is a good example of this, again in musical terms, and so, so many film makers) and don't really let them bother me.

But what I do hate is the willfully lazy and half formed. And especially when those people are formed. And today's burst of anger? David Shrigley.

The Guardian have just posted the most ludicrous bit of nonsense about the man here and the piece is peppered with the most incredible hyperbole from the title onwards ("one of the cleverest, funniest conceptual artists...simple but profound"). Now, if you're happy with Shrigley, then we may agree to disagree. But people who I know and have regard for like him and his work. They say it's funny. I don't go along with that. I look at something like this...

That to me is an idly amusing doodle. It's not terrible, no... but it is a bit lazy. Especially as he never seems to be interested in developing his art skills. Let's look at another ostensibly lazy looking cartoonist for a moment: Jeffrey Brown...

Jeffrey Brown is an incredibly important figure for me because his simplicity and spontaneity are matched with an obvious artistic skill. Only someone who doesn't really look at his work closely would mistake it for lazy. There's a lot of simple artistic skill to it but it still looks immediate. Another similar talent, and possibly the closest to Shrigley in terms of the surreal humour, is Vic Reeves' drawings...

Again - simple, spontaneous and silly. With a gag. But the difference is that this is but one facet of what Reeves does. His jokes can also take the form of paintings and, again, his artistic skills are obvious to those who look carefully... there's a lovely pastiche of Francis Bacon's "Screaming Popes" on the back of "Sun Boiled Onions". I haven't seen any obvious progression in Shrigley's work.

Lezard in that Guardian article does though - in fact he claims a stuffed dog and cat with a "I'M DEAD" sign is, and says of it "First, you notice the audacity. It's a work of what seems like blinding obviousness. But in attributing the ability to express a condition to something that is manifestly unable to do so." No. It isn't. It's a simple gag, like so much of Shrigley's work. Whether or not you think it's weak or not is irrelevant - it's a joke, not art.

Lezard makes so many claims that I find so hard to understand. So much of it can be aimed at so many other people who I like on the web who are simply trying to make people laugh. But Shrigley has somehow managed to be mistaken as having done something important. And I don't really understand why. Why is this anything more than a doodle? Why?

Two more quotes from Lezard:

"by adopting the aesthetic of the disturbed adolescent who can't draw particularly well, or the disturbed man in a pub toilet with a pen, a blank surface to draw on and a bit of time on his hands, Shrigley sneaks profundity in under the radar. He is adept at blurring boundaries, as everyone who thinks about him notices: "naive/sophisticated; whole/part; framed/unconstrained; to scale/in perspective; naturalism/fantasy"... To which one can add, among other things: funny/not funny."

And then:

"the thing about Shrigley is that he produces insider art: manifestations and expressions of an interior weirdness to which he grants us access, and which we can, at some inarticulate but immediate level, identify with and understand. In the vile and unending struggle against futility, shame and violence, you gather pretty quickly that Shrigley is on your side."

I know plenty of cartoonists who blur boundaries, who mix naive and sophisticated and naturalism. In fact dozens and dozens of the cartoonists online I follow do this very thing. Why aren't they art? Why is Shrigley? And as for the second quote about articulating inner weirdness - isn't this what people like K C Green's "Gunshow" do all the time? Gunshow is a particularly good example because it seems like a fever dream appearing on the page of the rate Green can write it.

What annoys me about Shrigley is the claims made for him. The claims he's doing something important. Claims that ring hollow because others do it better and are still struggling. Yet Shrigley just seems to sail above it all, recording records and having people fawn all over his work... and why? Is he the ultimate Emperor's New Clothes for a new century?

In what I do, all I am trying to achieve is something that amuses me and other people and find new and better ways of doing it. New and better forms to do it in. And to improve and improve and improve. If it's what you consider as art, then bless you. But the moment I coast and just provide you with what I doodle in the side of a newspaper as the finished article, you're well within your rights to call me an asshat. And accordingly I now feel I am more than able to say that both Shrigley and Lezard are pretty much that thing as well.

Ugh. Sorry. Rant over. For now.

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