The Dissing of the Artwork is a ceremony now quite as rigid in its forms as the Cornish Furry Dance or the celebration of the Hindle Wakes

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The Season, it seems, is now in full swing. It isn't Ascot and Henley I have in mind here but another ritual calendar, marginally less predictable in its fixtures but no less rigid in its observances. I have in mind the Art Row season, which is traditionally kicked off with the gala event of the Turner Prize shortlist announcement - the Queen Charlotte's Ball of aesthetic indignation. No true gentleman would dream of taking aim at a work of subsidised art until that date has been reached. But after the Turner Prize shortlist - a spectacular jamboree in which rival teams (the Vox Pop and the Curators) pelt each other with colourful epithets, while cheered on by television crews and journalists - pretty much anything is fair game. The Season goes nationwide with a series of provincial celebrations of our immemorial right to grumble about contemporary art.

Those who argue that the Arts Council has contributed little of lasting value to the cultural fabric over the last five decades surely reckon without this addition to our native traditions - the Dissing of the Artwork, a ceremony which is now quite as rigid in its forms as a Cornish Furry Dance or the celebration of the Hindle Wakes. A perfect example of the ceremony took place the other day in Darlington, where David Mach's sculpture of a Mallard locomotive, made out of 181,757 Accrington Nori bricks, was unveiled. The role of Wet Blanket, a masked figure who can be identified by the traditional row of Biros in the top pocket, was splendidly performed by Peter Jones, a former Durham county councillor. It is the task of Wet Blanket to interrupt the formal proceedings with loud cries of fraud and outrage, and while his or her speech is left open to individual inspiration, it is not deemed to be complete unless it contains three crucial elements - some reference to larceny, an explanation of how the money might otherwise have been spent and the invocation of household refuse. (In some places it is also customary to make a disparaging comparison with the abilities of a local child, but this is a regional variation and in no way obligatory.) Mr Jones performed splendidly on point one ("The last man to get away with something like this was Ronnie Biggs") and point three ("Darlington Council has gone ahead with the first rubbish put in front of it") but was rather weak on point two, merely suggesting that an open competition should have been held.

Lord Palumbo was also felt to have acquitted himself well in the role of Chief Booster, a figure whose task is to offer a cheerful riposte to Wet Blanket, almost always an extravagant prediction about the effect the artwork will have on the community in which it has been sited. The promises made can include anything from a lowering of the local crime rate to the attraction of Japanese micro-chip factories. If the work is large enough to have required the involvement of local artisans then ceremonial obeisance will also be made to the god of Job Creation ("Don't forget," said an assistant brickie, "it's given this area 34 new jobs just building it") but most often the Chief Booster's speech takes the form of vague assurances that a spirit of general well-being will emanate from the work, in much the same way as hygiene seeps from a flush-operated lavatory disinfectant. This was the route Lord Palumbo took - "It is one of those works which lift the spirit and raise expectations," he said. People would come from miles around to have their expectations raised, predicted one of the Chief Booster's civic attendants. The ceremony is then generally concluded by an announcement that the work will "put the town on the map", a declaration that always surprises a few literal-minded citizens, who had complacently assumed that cartographical recognition had been theirs for years.

So beloved have these rituals become that it is quite difficult to imagine an unveiling without its attendant kerfuffle. It would be like launching a ship without breaking a bottle of champagne, a needless affront to popular superstition. Indeed, you can imagine that the absence of scandal would probably provoke a scandal in itself - a local councillor might be quoted as deploring the absence of controversy: "What will the world think of Skelmersdale," he would say, "if we can't even muster a half-way decent row over this affair? I really feel thoroughly ashamed that this remarkable work has been greeted with such petty affability".

Artists, too, might begin to question the authenticity of their work if it failed to provoke any kind of reaction amongst the bureaucratic or conservative. Naturally, they hope to appeal to the broader constituency, to see the work adopted by local people as a much-loved asset and snapshot pilgrimage point. But it's so much more satisfying if that process can take place in the teeth of initial indignation - that is if the work can conspicuously demonstrate its powers of endurance and seduction.

If no one objects, not one budget-minded councillor or disappointed dabbler in oils (R.A.-rejected), then the awful possibility would arise that the work might not be art at all, just a civic amenity, as inert and uncontroversial as a children's slide or a floral clock. It would not be seen to possess that important element for any contemporary work - challengingness. It wouldn't - terrible thought - have "intervened" in the local "space". But the presence of strongly worded opposition instantly defuses that ghastly possibility. This is why these ceremonies matter and why the Arts Council itself, if the day ever comes when the traditions show signs of weakening, should make sure that Wet Blanket continues to enrich our cultural life - with public subsidy if that is what it takesn