“Ooo. There’s been some bad racism and stuff like that going down today and no mistake, my liege. It’s made Mr. Winky go right small it has. Oh yes it has. Oh yeah. And my ball bag, my old ball bag has only gone up my bum. Here’s H from Steps…”
(Something Russell Brand didn’t actually say in 2007.)
A year or so ago, I hit an artistic brick wall during my fine art degree. The sort of maker’s malaise that occurs when you used to produce figurative sculpture, but accidentally pick up Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics in the university library. My ideas worked well in theory, but the act of bringing them into existence seemed to contradict my aims. To create an experience that possessed the incidental quality I wanted, would be irritatingly and ironically obstructed by the fact that I had created it. My big, clumsy, authorial hand was always visible and my need to control something into seeming uncontrolled spiraled me into a postmodern paradox.
And so I came to a conclusion of sufficient wankery, befitting of a Central St. Martins student. I would present the ideas themselves, as fictional works that I had not made, artists that never existed and quotes never uttered about ideas never conceived. It seemed to me, in any case, that the most ubiquitous resource in art school was not the work itself, but the commentaries surrounding it: studio chats, critiques, workshops, referencing other artists and passing on what someone once said about what someone else once said about someone else’s art. So, commentary was to be my platform and bullshit my medium. I would describe sculptures, installations and performances without the fiddly logistics of reality getting in the way of what were otherwise perfectly good pieces of non-existent artwork. I would quote artists, philosophers and politicians, without the burden of validity getting in the way of an interesting enough sentiment. A bit of a cop-out, you may say. Although, I must make clear, these were not lies. They would not claim to reality. They were not to fool anyone or to pretend that I was less lazy than I was. No one was deceived, only bullshitted.
A bit of a cop-out, you may still say. Well anyway, by the time I decided on this coppy-outty con, it was too late in the academic year to actually execute it. No more critiques, open studios or studio chatters. The only option, therefore, was to add another layer of bullshit to the mix. When it came to assessment, I told my tutors about these fictions that I hadn’t managed to get around to. After all, maybe the act of actually constructing the bullshit wouldn’t function as well in reality as it did in concept? I was now in meta-bullshit territory. Bullshitting tutors about bullshitting students about bullshit art. In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, “For fucks sake, it was so much easier making ceramic fish for art GCSE.”
In 2007 the reality TV show, Celebrity Big Brother, faced a racy racism scandal after some of the racist housemates said some racist things to another housemate of a particular race. Russell Brand, the then presenter of Big Brother’s Big Mouth did not actually say anything about his Mr. Winky in condemning the housemates’ behaviour. In fact, the opening misquote is an extract from Stewart Lee’s stand-up, where he discusses the ineptitude of celebrity in trying to deal with a subject as severe as racism, especially while dressed as a cartoon pirate. In a DVD extra, an uncharacteristically po-faced Johnny Vegas interviews Lee and grills him on this manipulative misquote of Brand for his own comic agenda. His justification of it becomes a kind of extension of the stand-up routine as his commentary only serves to further the joke. He, in his typical postmodern, ironic style, then steps outside of the conversation to justify it in real-time.
For all the value of Lee’s overall point – or so he asserts – Brand may as well have said it. Lee’s misquote of Brand is not a lie, but instead, an example of bullshit as a means to a necessary end. In the same way that my college cop-out was not deception, but an engagement in bullshit where all parties are complicit in the mistruth. I can smell your skepticism. Allow me to make a case for the distinction:
In his book, On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt explains how bullshit is able to shirk a responsibility for truth, where as lying is still dependent on one. To deceive, you need a particular perception of truth so to claim a mistruth. You’re communicating one thing, while believing the contrary. Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is not constrained by a concern with truth at all. ‘Bull sessions’ have historically been used for the experimentation of ideas and opinions. Almost like the classical notion of dialectic, where ideas can be bounced around for the sake of resolving problems and accessing truth. Not like debate, where you argue from a fixed viewpoint in order to win your case against an opponent. According to Frankfurt, an expression of bullshit “is not to be understood as being what [is meant] wholeheartedly or believed [to be] unequivocally to be true.” In this context, bullshit is an inclusive, creative endeavour. Throwing (bull)shit at a wall and seeing what sticks.
Stewart Lee’s bullshit attribution of frivolous willy-gags to Russell Brand is believable enough to ring true, yet caricatured enough to not matter whether or not it is true. “He didn’t not say it”, Lee tells us, “he just didn’t say it.” The truth, in this case, Lee sees as a “casualty of war”. And the war is the pursuit of truth. And so we spiral…
When Picasso said “art is a lie that makes us realise truth”, he was pointing out that our aesthetic pursuit of truth comes from the subversion of it. Art is, in essence, artifice. Fabrication. Fakery. But maybe Pablo would have been better to describe art as bullshit rather than a lie. Not to call art ‘bullshit’ in the dismissive, Daily Mail, “I could’ve made that!” sort of way, but simply to describe the process. Bullshit as a tool for making. Not a lie, as art knows that it is bullshit and only claims to describe truth, not take part in it. An early proponent of this idea was René Magritte in his famous painting of a pipe, with its own built-in commentary; “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe). Everyone had a pop at decoding and decrypting the claim that the painting made, but simply put, it just wasn’t a pipe. It was a painting. “Try putting tobacco in it”, Magritte snorted at irritated critics. “Oh.” they replied. “Stick that in your surrealist painting and smoke it” he muttered smugly.
Magritte was dealing with a prototype of postmodernism where we confront the elephant in the room: all art and language is mediated by a conscious author, so we can never truly present an idea, only ever represent it. Postmodern irony waves at the camera, points at the studio-audience and shows the compartment in the magician’s hat where the rabbit is hiding. (That’s why postmodern children’s birthday parties are always so rubbish.) As the artist takes a step out of the art into ironic commentary, acknowledging it’s bullshit and making meta-bullshit, the next logical step is to acknowledge that this step is bullshit too: meta-meta-bullshit. We’re no closer to presentation of an idea, just another layer of representation. And so it continues, meta-meta-meta-meta-bullshit ad infinitum. This is what Hegel called ‘bad infinity’.
This kind of nihilistic paradox perpetually creates something more similar to itself, spiraling into absolutely nothing new. To describe this inefficiency in language is no more efficient than the inefficiency it’s describing. Hence, Hegel condemned it as naughty. But before you slam down your crayons and jump off a cliff, Slavoj Žižek provides us with one more cop-out. This failure, Žižek says, doesn’t present the truth of the dilemma, but creates a ‘truth effect’ where the failure represents itself. The question that self-referential irony poses behaves as its own answer. The truth is highlighted in its lack. In an embrace of bullshit-smeared failure.
Whether you buy into Stewart Lee’s reasoning or not, he includes himself in the failure. In his role as entertainer, he can’t achieve much more than Brand and so settles for simply pointing it out. His bullshit is his failure and his failure is his success. The eternal irony of the postmodern condition means that the artist can never win, but never quite lose either. If I have failed in articulating that point, maybe I can wriggle out of your contempt with the success of my failure.