Aficionados of Laurel and Hardy will need no recap of this scene, but on the off-chance that there are some readers out there who are not aficionados – and such readers really should have a word with themselves – I’ll describe it anyway. It occurs quite early in the short film Below Zero. Stan and Ollie are out in the snow and ice, busking in the bitter cold, and singing, rather incongruously, “In the Good Old Summertime”. A passer-by hits Ollie in the face with a snowball, and Ollie, after stoically allowing the snow to fall from his face, sets out to confront his assailant. But at this point, Stan holds him back with the sage advice, “Ignore him: he is just one of the lower elements”.
It is a piece of advice that I am often told I should take myself. That there are bound to be, I am told, all sorts of things that will enrage me for all sorts of reasons: ignoring them is by far the best option. And the fact is, I do. Most of the time, at any rate. But every now and then there comes that proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, and I can no longer ignore. After all, I say to myself, I have a blog at my disposal, and the very least I can do is to go there and let off some steam about it.
And so, while instances of my forbearance pass by unnoticed, the instances of my rage do not, and, over the years, the blog becomes filled with intemperate rants. As a consequence, far from being perceived as the gentle, avuncular soul that I think I am, radiating a warm conviviality and a quite Pickwickian goodwill to one and all, I show myself instead to be a bitter and angry hothead, forever at or near the boiling point. It is all most unfortunate, but what can one do?
The straw that has most recently broken my camel-back may be considered by many to be too slight a matter to get very upset about. Well, of course it is: it is but a straw, after all. But it is nonetheless an example of the sheer witless drivel and inane triviality into which mainstream commentary on the arts has sunk, and which, yes, I confess, does enrage me. Here it is. It is taken from the arts pages of a serious and prestigious British newspaper, the Guardian, and is written by one of their regular arts columnists.
(For those of you who do not want to give the Guardian website extra hits, the headline reads “Is Kanye West Hip-Hop’s Greatest Cubist?” and the sub-heading reads “Whether West’s latest album The Life of Pablo is a homage to Picasso or not, the two artists share a genius for presenting the world in creative collage”. Both the headline and the sub-heading are entirely consistent with the gobbledegook that follows.)
Now, those readers who think that Kanye West is possessed not merely of genius, but of genius of such magnitude that bracketing him with Picasso is not incongruous, and that to question genius such as his is but elitist and snobbish, and even, perhaps, racist, may well be wondering what I could possibly have found in all this that is enraging. I won’t argue those points. “Why Picasso Is a Greater Artist than Kanye West” is a post that a blogger with greater patience than I possess may care to write: I do not wish to go there myself. Rather, I would like to focus on matters I find more interesting – such as why and how we have come to the stage where professional writers plying their craft in mainstream and prestigious papers can pen such embarrassing nonsense without so much as batting an eyelid.
Not so long ago – at least, an oldie such as I can remember those halcyon days – arts commentators had a fairly fixed idea of what constitutes “art”. Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Dante and Shakespeare, Bach and Beethoven – not only are they “great”, but they, and others like them, define what greatness is; and our part is not to question, but to take the time and have the patience and make the effort to understand. Of course, this was never going to last very long in an age such as ours that is, often for very valid reasons, suspicious of and frequently hostile to the very concept of authority. Also, it was pointed out, such an approach to the arts excluded the immense contributions made to the enrichment of our lives by popular art: it is blinkered, at best, to sing the praises of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko while ignoring a popular artist such as, say, Edward Hopper; it is foolish to consider the art of fiction by focussing on Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, but overlooking Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse; and that if we are to talk about the art of song-writing, why focus on Schumann and Mahler and Berg but leave out Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Lennon & McCartney? These are all entirely valid points: to exclude the popular, merely on the grounds that it is popular, is certainly snobbery.
But not excluding merely on the basis of popularity is not quite the same as praising on the basis of popularity. If popularity is deemed the principal, or even the sole, criterion of artistic merit, then sales figures alone determine quality; judgement and discernment then become pointless, and there is really nothing further to talk about. And that, it seems to me, is where we have arrived: arts pages, even in prestigious publications, are filled with utter garbage simply because there is nothing further to talk about. It is not so much that discourse on the arts has become diminished – it has become meaningless. And, even taking Stan’s advice on board, it does become difficult, at least for myself, to keep ignoring this, for, after a while, constantly ignoring it is effectively to condone it. One can at least express one’s dissent – even if it is just a post on a personal blog that not many people will even read.
So is Kanye West really the Picasso of Hip-Hop? Yes, absolutely – why not? As I said, I don’t want to argue that point. So let Kanye West be the Picasso of hip-hop by all means! But only if the Carpenters can be the Proust of Easy Listening.