Been meaning to post something on this for a few weeks: on holiday this summer I read (recommended by an Italian friend) Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island. He’s a very good but pretty bleak writer, with a very disturbing vision of humanity. The TLS describe the book as ‘a charging bull in the china shop of modern fiction.’
There certainly was plenty of bull in the book – and, yes, read that how you will – but one section jumped out at me and set me thinking. One of the characters, an artist involved in a rather shady religious cult, is speaking to the protagonist and comments:
There is a famous phrase that divides artists into two categories: revolutionaries and decorators. […] I was a revolutionary then, and convinced of the revolutionary value of my work. I was convinced that people were going to change their attitude as soon as they saw my work. […] Of course, none of that happened: people came, nodded, exchanged intelligent words, then left.
The ‘famous phrase’ appears to be an invention of Houellebecq’s (unless someone can point me to another source?) but it provides a nice platform for him to talk about art and its effect on people. He goes on to note that:
It is possible that the decorators are fundamentally more ambitious than the revolutionaries – the artist no longer contents himself (sic) with putting forward a world view, he seeks to create his own world; he is very precisely the rival of God.
I think there’s something very interesting here about the way that change happens, and how it can be different to the way that we can expect it to happen. First thing to note though: the split of art in this way is in many ways false. Art is simply art. However, accepting the idea that, as Houellebecq puts it, the supposedly ‘revolutionary’ artist responds to a brutal world by being more brutal than the world – and thus, by implication, the ‘decorator’ by being less brutal – we can proceed from there to open up some interesting thoughts.
Our initial instinct seems to tell us that the way to change people’s minds is by shocking them. Using over-brutal imagery presents such a strong visual idea to an audience that they have no option but to be transformed. But Houellebecq’s artist realises that this doesn’t work. The brutality doesn’t force the change it desires, it instead lifts a defence mechanism and people nod, exchange intelligent words, and leave.
In contrast, the decorator – and by that I think he means the artist whose vision meets the brutality of the world with a counter-vision that is less brutal – potentially achieves greater change in people’s lives. Why? Because their vision comes in weakness, too mild to give rise to any defence mechanisms. It gets through us and into us, and thus, linking back to the idea of decoration, the decorator is the artist we bring into our homes.
The decorator’s work is domestic – a term used pejoratively in art – but what Houellebecq is suggesting is that it is only when art gets into this inner space that it can effect real change. Looking again at the second quote: rather than putting forward a view of the world (observed inside a single frame, for example) the decorator creates an entirely encompassing world (by, for example, painting the whole room.)
So the shocking truth could be this: Damien Hirst has done less to change people’s lives than Ikea. The true revolutionary – the one who turns the world around – is the decorator, the artist we invite into our homes, our inner spaces. Those invites generally go to those with a less brutal vision of the world we experience outside of our homes.
Houellebecq’s characters are talking about visual art, but all of us who are interested in presenting an alternate vision of the world are artists too: writers, theologians, technologists, poets…even politicians have their craft. The wider question this passage asks is about the appropriate strength of the vision that we should present if we are genuinely interested in change. The problem appears to be that the revolutionary move (can I say radical?) can be so strong that it actually prevents change. But the parallel problem with decoration is that in being weak enough to get through defences it fails to present a radical enough vision which can lead to the artist or idea being ignored – or changes being so incremental that they fail to break down structures that support old orders.
JK Galbraith once said:
All successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door. The violence of revolutions is the violence of men who charge into a vacuum.
I think this might help in that it suggests that for change to occur both sorts of art-work are required. The decorators move in first, doing the work of more gentle internal change – or, to use Galbraith’s language, stripping things away from the inside. But there comes a point where the rotten door needs kicking in, a time when the old superstructure needs tearing down to show to the world that internal change has already happened. And this is perhaps the job of the (apparently) revolutionary artist: to do that final act of destruction.
But we shouldn’t be fooled by this. They might get the glory for this spectacular work – but they are tearing down rotten walls. That’s the easy part – just as lifting the concrete slabs from the Berlin Wall was, in the end, beautiful to watch, but an easy final act in what had been a more domestic, difficult and internal series of changes.
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