EXHIBITIONS / Butt is it art?: Smoking Who Needs It? is a new government campaign to persuade the nation's youth to stub out. Iain Gale reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Smoking Who Needs It?' Don't answer. It's just one of those unconvincing rhetorical battle-cries the Health Education Authority likes to issue from time to time - remember 'Just say no,' and 'I can 'andle it'? But this is no advert. It's the title of a competition launched by the Authority last year in youth clubs, schools and art colleges to find a work of art which can get across its tough anti-smoking message. The results, now on show in London, are intended to dissuade our impetuous youth from taking up the habit. How effective they'll be remains to be seen. Would they, for instance, be powerful enough to persuade a hardened gasper like me to give up? I did cut down to three a day. But could I do without those?

Liz Drake seems to think so. Her 'Dog Butt' is one of the competition's three winners. A muzzled cartoon dog is pictured attempting to kick the habit. 'It's a dog's end,' puns the caption. And she's used nice, bright colours too. Well it might work for Butt the dog, but it's going to take more than this to make me stop. What about the other two winners? Emily Kavanagh has drawn a cigarette in a boxing ring, arms raised, gloves on. Entitled 'Knock it out in the first round', it is reminiscent of the old- style Guinness advertising posters. He's quite a friendly-looking fellow this ciggie. You'd almost think she was trying to sell the fags rather than knock them.

Perhaps the third winner will be more effective. Yes, this is the stuff. Alexander Lowe gives us an X-ray of a pair of blackened lungs, Dymo-taped with the word 'Sucker'. Like the humour. Black as tar. And it's a strong, memorable image. A Gothic memento mori. But what it recalls most immediately is the source of my own addiction. It exudes the dark romance of the cigarette as agent of both creativity and death. The fag is friend to both writer and artist. Remember those photographs of Picasso, Sartre, Coward and Pollock? Artists and writers need cigarettes. They use them to think with. Blame Byron. He was mad, bad and dangerous to know (especially for the passive smoker). 'Magnificent in Stamboul, but less grand / Though not less loved in Wapping or the Strand,' he wrote. With a fag in your hand the Isle of Dogs became Cythera. En masse the youth of Europe lit up. Doomed, of course, but tragedy can be fun. No, this picture is far too romantic to make me flatten my flip-top. But somewhere here there's got to be something nasty enough.

It's not Sandra Curtis's entry though. Her cartoon baby asking 'Got a light?' is sick, but it's too close to home. It's fatherhood that has persuaded me to cut down to three a day. What I want is something really powerful. Something perhaps like David Convey's sinewy male injecting himself with a lit cigarette. It looks painful enough and in terms of artistic quality it's among the best on show. But, here's an important point: disturbing art does not necessarily make for effective propaganda. And, talking of propaganda, here it is at its most blatant in Lee Crocker's inscribed print of a couple at a restaurant table: 'You pollute other peoples' surroundings and it pisses them off and makes them sick'. I should feel guilty, but I never smoke in restaurants.

Here's something more promising - a pair of nicotine-stained fingers you can almost smell. Cut the hilarity, let's have halitosis. Something that hits you in the face. Barbara Taylor Jones's photograph of a full female mouth, its red lips opening wide to take in a cocktail of fag-ends, used matches and ash. 'Like snoggin' an ashtray,' she's called it. This is the one. It's not funny. It's not darkly romantic. Would it make me give up? It's possible. But I'll have to think about it. And while I'm thinking . . . Where did I put my lighter?

Smith's Gallery 2, 54 Earlham St, London WC2. To 29 Jan (071-836 6252)

(Photographs omitted)