Bear with me on this one…
The most important overarching avant-garde artistic movements of the last 150 years have set out to subvert, unsettle and challenge prevailing notions of creative acceptability, in order to break down barriers to the fulfilment of creative and expressive freedom. The aesthetic world has been forced, piece-by-piece, to hold an unblinking mirror to its carbuncular visage, to comprehend its vapid nature. A prime responsibility of art must be this process of intellectual and visceral disquieting, the middle finger held up to the heavens, the challenge to the rules of its form, to the rules of the state.
Artistic subversion has worn many mantles, shattered many forms. Anthony Julius asserts in “The Offence of Art” (Thames & Hudson), that, “Taboo-breaking art, in our times, has had three distinct moments. There is the originating moment in 1860’s Paris, with the exhibiting of Olympia and those other works of Manet’s. There is then the moment of maturity, which is Surrealism. Here, the transgressive aesthetic is realised in a series of remarkable, uncompromising artworks. At last, there is the moment of closure, which begins in the 1960s, and is itself just ending… In the first of these moments, transgressive artworks had a complexly antagonistic relationship with the academy (representatively, the Paris Salon); in the second, it was outside, and indifferent to the academy (all academies); in the third, it tended to be inside, and complicit with, the academy (representatively, the Royal Academy in London)”
Julius asserts that, “the third version of transgressive art is the weakest”. On the surface he appears to be correct, the subversive, shocking nature of art has seemed to slide away from underneath its feet in recent years. Much avant-garde has moved through postmodern pastiche and evolved into increasingly predictable cliché of itself. Baudrillard’s prophesies born out by increasingly uninspired art-stars. The problem, I would suggest, is not in the weakness of the third version of transgressive art, but rather in that we are sat witnessing the petering of the embers of the stage. Contemporary attempts from within the ranks of self styled avant-gardists at subverting the form may never again attain the inflammatory, society wide impact affected by punk, or surrealism. The establishment has claimed as its own, its bedfellow, those would-be mavericks of our age. Nothing shocking remains in the palate of Damian Hirst, of Tracy Emin, nothing that is that can compare to the subversive, and growing significance of the cigarette.
That’s right, the cigarette.
Clearly, the construct of the artist is no longer equipped with transgressive power. His postmodern rhetoric has robbed him of that. It therefore falls to those remaining dissidents, the unannounced, the devotees to dissidence, the smokers. Clearly there is no functional logic to defend the loyalty of smokers to their drug of choice. As vices go, nicotine must be the worst value for money that I have yet encountered. Cocaine, ecstacy etc. may do you a whole load of harm, but boyohboy do you have a good time on the high road to hell. Nicotine enjoyment merely constitutes the satiation of an addiction. But then, that’s part of the appeal. The most attractive stars were always those with a smattering of the self-destructive. Every establishment source that you choose to engage with will tell you that your vice is wrong. Every day, the offensive power of being a smoker grows. The Royal Academy seems unlikely to come out in public as defending the moral rectitude of smoking. As modern art’s teeth fall out, day after day, and Gap retails its very own punk range, you, the proud smoker stand proud on the smouldering embers of dissent.
When some well meaning, self-righteous git comes up and engages you in some polemic about your evil status as a smoker, calmly extend that middle finger to heaven, and reply, “Fuck off, I’m an artist.”