DICKIE FANTASTIC ON THE SCHMOOZE

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on the schmooze

It is not hard to spot the drunken, scary, homeless person at the glamorous First Night Art Party. He or she is usually readily identified, isolated and dealt with, and thus prevented from sullying our aesthetic enjoyment. But tonight, when the man with the tattooed hand starts yelling: "You're all a bunch of toffee-nosed bastards" before falling into a plate of grilled-cheese finger dips, we smile benignly - for he is probably one of the artists on view.

We are at St Martin-in-the-Fields' catacomb cum chic art gallery and cafe complex (can you think of anything worse than being laid to rest in an exclusive London burial ground, only to discover, 200 years later, that your decayed corpse is wedged between the rocket salad and the espresso machine?), for an exhibition of selected Prison Art. The paintings and sculptures collected from jails across the country will be seen and sold over the coming weeks (for remarkably little money - but then, pounds 50 probably goes a long way when all you have to worry about is bribing bent guards).

Kittens, girls with big hats, teary-eyed clowns - the outside world, painted, cutely, from the inside. Alas, the identifying cards give only the name of the artist, the painting and the price. What a shame; nobody admits it, but we're all dying to know what heinous crimes the contributors have been banged up for (D Bradshaw, Kitten with Frilly Hat; Assault with a Deadly Weapon).

But it is an honourable endeavour, even though it opens a can of worms when it comes to art chit-chat at the First Night Party.

"So," I ask a man with huge beard and glaring eyes, "that painting there. An element of early Warhol? Lush colours."

"I haven't got a clue what you're on about ."

Then I hear tonight's special guest - a bow-tied judge - making small talk with a man in ill-fitting polyester.

"We're giving an award," he says, "to that remarkable sculpture over there. It really is a substantial work."

"Well," replies the polyester man, "you're probably the bastard who sent him down in the first place."

"No," smiles the judge, politely. "I didn't send him down."

"You or one of your mates. You bastard. Showing your face round here! What have you got to say for yourself. Bastard! You wanna know art? This is art!"

He points to a painting of a sunset over the sea. "I did that. That's mine. You bastard..."

And whatever you say about the quality of the paintings, this is the first art event I've been at where an artist has to be physically restrained and ejected by three quivering exhibition supervisors.

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