Looking down on our art scene from wherever they are, Plato and Aristotle must be having a good laugh.
Their guffaws probably have an element of I-told-you-so pride (hubris to them). For they knew that a moral and intellectual catastrophe was bound to ruin aesthetics as well.
The great Greeks considered what Aristotle called ‘transcendentals’ and what Plato specifically identified as Truth, Beauty and Goodness to be the inseparable ontological properties of being.
One can infer that a deficit in any element of the inseparable triad would automatically produce a failure in the other two. And a failure in two elements would leave the third one with nowhere to go but straight into the bin – like Banksy’s Love.
Banksy is a clever graffiti ‘artist’ for whom any wall or fence is a natural canvas. In terms of genuine aesthetic value, he relates to real artists as a subway busker relates to a concert virtuoso.
Yet he isn’t without some wit and ability (including, self-evidently, commercial acumen). Once, for example, he spray-painted PLEASE DRIVE CAREFULLY THROUGH OUR VILLAGE on a naked concrete wall in a particularly nasty London suburb.
Another time he painted a giant word BORING, on the wall of the brutalist Southbank Centre, showing a sound aesthetic judgement.
Of course, in the past, when art was defined as an expression of the ontological quest for beauty, Banksy would have been regarded as not so much an artist as a vandal.
But these days art is defined as anything its perpetrator says it is – provided critics and buyers agree. The actual reality of art has given way to the virtual reality of image, conveyed by smoke signals in the shape of currency signs.
That’s why Banksy has graduated from wall art to art auctions. Critics write serious proselytising articles about his work, and collectors pay serious money for them. Never mind the aesthetic value, feel the cult.
Hence the art world has happily fallen for the neat trick of artistic chicanery played by Banksy at – and probably in cahoots with – Sotheby’s.
His painting, Banksy’s Girl with Balloon, was bought for close to £1,000,000, which by itself is remarkable. After all, a few years ago a Lucas Cranach painting had a reserve price of £800,000 at Christie’s.
In the eyes of modern art connoisseurs, Cranach and Banksy are clearly comparable figures, with the latter slightly ahead of the former.
Admittedly, the price a painting fetches has never been solely a reflection of its artistic quality. But never in the past was the former totally divorced from the latter.
Thus it’s possible that, say, Canaletto’s depictions of Venice were more expensive than Guardi’s, who was the better painter. But neither of them would have faced serious competition from a street dauber, knocking off 15-minute pictures of the Rialto Bridge for the tourists’ delectation.
But Banksy isn’t just any old dauber. He’s a Conceptual Artist. This genre replaces art with ‘concept’, such as an unmade bed or livestock pickled in formaldehyde.
Actually, I wonder if I could make a splash in the art circles by putting a turd on a bathroom tile and calling that conceptual artwork Conceptual Art. Worth exploring, that.
Anyway, in this case Banksy’s concept was to hide a remote-controlled shredder in the painting’s massive frame.
The moment the auctioneer’s hammer fell, some accomplice pushed a button, and the painting was immediately shredded into long strips before the gasping audience.
The shredded fragments transformed one masterpiece into another, this one called Banksy’s Love is in the Bin. (I wonder what the police feel about a little girl described as Banksy’s love.)
One would think that the tricked owner would demand her money back. However, if she were the kind of person who’d do that, she wouldn’t have bought a Banksy in the first place.
The winning bidder wasn’t the last, essential, element in a transaction involving a work of art. She was a follower of a virtual-reality cult and reacted accordingly.
“At first I was shocked,” she said, explaining why she had decided to keep the work, “but I realised I would end up with my own piece of art history.” And obviously, should she want to sell, people will pay through the nose for a piece of art history.
At least the cult appeal of graphic arts is limited, what with the typically one-on-one nature of their transactions. Pop music, on the other hand, has millions of consumers, making it a truly mass cult.
Even in the salad days of rock ‘n roll, music played second fiddle to the cult. Presley in particular became a Christ-like figure, even acquiring aspects of resurrection after his death.
The cult aspect of pop became particularly prominent with the Beatles, who started out as singers of cute songs and ended up as false prophets, cult leaders of the modern world.
Somewhere along the way they acquired the help of musically trained assistants, so their later records display competent harmonies and even direct quotes from real composers, including Bach and Beethoven.
Yet it’s precisely in their late albums that music, even at its most primitive, no longer mattered. No one listened to it any longer anyway.
Instead, hysterical, drug-addled audiences were hanging on to every garbled word of the semiotic infra-musical message they discerned behind the ‘music’: hatred for everything that made the West Western.
In extreme cases, the message was literally understood and faithfully followed. Charlie Manson’s ‘family’ went on a murderous rampage partly as a result of the subliminal signal of hate they had correctly perceived in The White Album.
While the Beatles still tried to preserve a semblance of musicality, their followers have abandoned any such attempts. More and more, pop began to acquire overtly Satanist characteristics.
More and more, it began to appeal not just to the darker side of human nature but to the sulphuric swamp concealed underneath it. The appeal continued to be quasi-religious, in the same sense in which the antichrist is the negative image of Christ.
While Jesus redeemed his followers by dying on the cross, the messengers of the new cult would commit suicide or else die of alcoholism, drug overdose or in due course of AIDS.
In the process, pop has become a big business, perhaps the biggest of all. Tone-deaf adolescents can become billionaires overnight, provided they can tickle the naughty bits of the masses in a particularly effective way.
They belch their anti-capitalist invective all the way to the capitalist bank, and many critics sneer at the alleged paradox. None exists. These ‘musicians’ are expert manipulators of today’s cults, expressed commercially.
Modern commercial shamans don’t make products. They create markets and sell brands. They slap together sub-cultures. They fuse the markets and the sub-cultures into a uniform whole.
Pop music is only a part, although an important one, of what passes for modern culture. It’s the heart of the new Leviathan whose tentacles are numerous and ever-reaching.
Pornography, fashion, show business, a great part of the publishing and record industries, electronic media, drugs – all reach for the immature hearts and minds of modern consumers.
Step by step, the last three letters have fallen off the word ‘culture’. Only ‘cult’ has remained.