BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 07 JUN 06
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Issue 100

Poisoned Pen

The art world has long been a favourite target of satirical writing; but can it have a critical effect beyond mere caricature?

BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 07 JUN 06

BANK, The Bank, Issue 24, 1997

In 1999 the now-disbanded British artist group BANK began a project entitled Press Release. Publicity information released by galleries was corrected with handwritten comments about the use of language and grammar. A mark out of ten was given, and the document was faxed back to the relevant gallery, rubber-stamped with the slogan ‘The BANK FAX-BAK SERVICE; Helping You to Help Yourselves!’

Many of the remarks highlighted inanities or contradictions. In correcting a sentence describing one artist’s work as ‘portrayals of characters from the realms of everyday life and fantasy’, for instance, they observed that ‘this would seem to cover the whole of human experience – BE MORE SPECIFIC!’ The criminally common pairing of adjectival opposites got many a kicking too: ‘“at once appealing and disconcerting” – your press releases always use these opposites […] This technique just means you have nothing to say about the work.’ But they were also catty and rude: ‘this last sentence is completely meaningless: CONGRATULATIONS!’ Some galleries were livid. Christine Rose Gallery in New York, for instance, replied without an inkling of irony: ‘we’re really blown away […] that somebody in that pitiful little island called England would take the time out of their life to do something so absolutely insignificant […] y’know karma’s a boomerang and it’ll come round and smack you in the face some day, so I hope you have a miserable life.’

I first came across Press Release six years ago, around the same time as I began writing about art, and it has remained in my memory like a stubborn carpet stain after a party. I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly original idea; moaning about bad art-speak is not a new sport. Essentially it’s a vital piece of satire, one that belongs to a particular sub-genre of art writing, often appearing in self-published ’zines, that performs a deliberately Rabelaisian role in biting the hand of art-world systems of which it simultaneously desires to be a part. There is something about the way Press Release targets language and the mannerisms of art-writing – specifically the terms used by a specialist sector of the culture industry to frame information about exhibitions for the public or media – that made me stop and think. Here was a hilarious piece of work that attempted to agitate core questions about the ways in which language, when used by the systems that support art, not only perpetuates certain power structures but also obfuscates or undermines the efficacy of critical discussion.

Art works, films (such as this summer’s release of the film Art School Confidential) and books that satirize the art world are nothing new. Well-known artists and writers from Mark Twain through Ad Reinhardt to Sean Landers and David Robbins have deftly used a kind of self-reflexive humour as a strategic tool with which to analyse cultural production. Satire, as classically defined, falls into two types: Horatian, which tends to be gentle and urbane, or Juvenalian – bitter and vitriolic. One of the salient features of the sub-genre that Press Release, and also BANK’s parody tabloid newspaper The Bank, belong to is that – as opposed to the Horatian tone of Reinhardt or Landers – it’s largely Juvenalian, with a lineage that could be traced back to Wyndham Lewis’ The Apes of God (1930). An acidic, barely disguised attack on Roger Fry and the Bloomsbury set, Lewis’ novel describes the journey of a wide-eyed Irish poet named Daniel Boleyn – loosely based on Stephen Spender – through the London art world of the 1920s. The book, which unsurprisingly made Lewis even more enemies than he already had, features such luminaries as Jean Cocteau (who appears in the book as ‘Jacques Coq d’Or’), the critic Lytton Strachey (‘Matthew Plunkett’) and the painter Dora Carrington (as ‘Betty Bligh’). The Apes of God is apoplectic with hatred, envy and bitterness (and at over 600 pages hardly an easy read, given Lewis’ idiosyncratic way with syntax).

Much of satire’s bite comes from its proximity to its subject. The fact that it is written from the ‘inside’, and that its targets are thus easily recognizable, lends satire a frisson of danger. The element of parody often functions as a form of permission, a humorous convention that allows that which cannot be said to be said. In terms of traditional political satire this is not such a risk – politicians expect to be lampooned. However, for satire to operate as a form of cultural criticism the humorist has to risk potential isolation from the much smaller and politically powerful communities of the scene in which he operates. This is fine if you don’t care about those social structures, but a good deal of people do care more than they let on. Part of the thrill of reading a dig at the cultural sphere you’re part of is – as with gossip – the dangerous possibility that the joke may be on you. The Bank made use of this, with headlines ranging from funny to nasty, including ‘Artangel Realistic Road Project!’ and, at the height of 1990s yBa hype, ‘London is Over’. So too the Los Angeles-based publication Coagula, started in the 1990s, much of which is not satirical but status-obsessed, crass and abusive. As its editor, Mat Gleason, wrote: ‘if we can unnerve just one trust-fund kid’s grasp on taste and sentiment, we will have done our job.’

To some extent this form of brute art-world satire feeds off exclusion and paranoia. With its cut-and-paste Punk aesthetic, Pig Magazine, edited by Jon Lekay in the early 1990s, self-consciously played with artists’ and critics’ perception of themselves within the art-world hierarchies; something akin to what it might be like inside the mind of someone who spends an unhealthy amount of time reading’s ‘Scene and Herd’ blog. A piece in issue 1, for instance, read: ‘I want to be in all the shows everyone else is in. And I want all the good reviews. And I want to be liked by people of different backgrounds and colours. I want to be collected and saved and adored and treasured. I would like to be so independent that none of the above was true […] or at least not so true that I thought about it as much as I do.’ Stellar magazine, based in Manchester, devotes each issue to a different UK artist, curator or gallery. Collaged press clippings that mention the artist in question are accompanied by a psychopathically cheerful commentary that is so unrelenting as to re-purpose sycophancy as a weird form of criticism. November, published earlier this year, takes a more direct parody form, targeting – you guessed it – October. On inquiring where they could get hold of a copy, news website received the following, all too plausible reply: ‘The matrix of November’s current distribution is constructed largely from the result of aleatory scatterings and (re)inscribed focus groups in an attempt to maintain the dialectical tension between preserving a revolutionary aura of objecthood in this age of debased mechanical inauthenticity and self-reflexively completing the text’s projected feedback loop by having others recognize our own editorial subjectivity.’

At best these kinds of publication caution against the devaluation of language. ‘Official’ or ‘formal’ registers of discourse can be forced to be more transparent (or at least to stop being so lazy). Satire highlights the ways in which linguistic complacency only serves to perpetuate bad habits of thinking about art or the structures that support it, narrowing and weakening the terms in which we can talk about or evaluate them. As Terry Gilliam said, when interviewed this year about the controversy generated by Monty Python’s Life of Brian on its release in 1979: ‘I can’t believe what a timid people we have become. Offence is good. Offence makes people think. It makes people argue.’

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and co-director of Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).