Victoria Summerley: Town Life

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Have you ever wondered why artists tend to be rather subversive individuals? Think about it: ever since Michelangelo, who seems to have spent most of his life in a Sistine-sized sulk, artists have been thumbing their noses at authority. With some artists the source of their rebellious nature can be traced to traumatic personal events: Tracey Emin, for example, like Artemisia Gentileschi 400 years before her, was a victim of rape. Caravaggio, on the other hand, was as handy with a knife as he was with a paintbrush and when he wasn't in jail for murder, was pursued by the courts on charges that ranged from libel to assault.

Whistler managed to fall out with most of his patrons - and that's long before you get to the age of elephant dung and unmade beds. But if my son's GCSE art experience is anything to go by, we are currently training a generation of artists that will be just as keen on defying convention - particularly in the form of petty bureaucracy - as any that has gone before.

Take his GCSE sculpture coursework. This involved a series of trips to the tip to search for objets trouvés that could be recycled into a representation of a praying mantis. He needed a car aerial, circuit boards, something that could be made into eyes, an old telescopic umbrella for the legs.

The first trip went quite smoothly. We found what looked like the joystick from a games console that would do nicely for the head. However, when we returned to look for an item that could be turned into antennae, and a couple of circuit boards, we were accosted by one of the employees.

"I would remind you, madam," he said, "that all items in the computer section belong to a charity and are not to be removed by members of the public."

"Goodness, I'm terribly sorry," I said, laying down the computer keyboard I'd just picked up, "we were just looking for things we could recycle for my son's GCSE art coursework."

Mr Tip looked at me with a knowing gleam in his eye. "If you really need a computer, I could pretend that you took that one out of your car and changed your mind about dumping it," he said.

I drew myself up to my full 5ft 2in, noticing as I did so that our usual Sunday morning garb of scruffy black combats and filthy T-shirts made us look more like the Blues Brothers as dressed by Oxfam than respectable members of the community. "Actually, I don't NEED a computer," I said as politely as I could. "We have three computers at home already. This is for my son's art coursework."

"Looking for spare parts, eh?" said the knowing one with a grin. "Shall I also pretend I didn't see you take that light fitting out of the scrap metal skip?"

"No, you needn't pretend anything," I said crossly, "because I'm quite happy to put it back."

A respectable-looking man interrupted to say that he wanted to dump his computer, but having overheard our conversation, perhaps I would like the keyboard? I was profuse in my thanks, but he waved away my effusions, saying he knew what an expensive business teenagers could be. My son and I seethed all the way home.

However, this was a mere skirmish compared to the trouble we had with the photography assignment. The task was to take pictures of food on display in a supermarket. Nothing simpler, you would think, until my son took a digital camera into Sainsbury's only to be told that photography was absolutely forbidden.

I then tried the diplomatic approach and rang Marks and Spencer to ask permission. No, absolutely out of the question, said our local branch. It was the same at Tesco. Good grief, what have these people got to hide? Weapons of Mass Consumption? Bottles of heavy mineral water? Uranium-enriched sausages?

Finally, I tried Waitrose, the most upmarket of our local stores. Sure, no problem, they said. Come down whenever you want. Take as long as you like.

It's too early to tell if my son has Turner Prize-winning potential. But he's well on the way to becoming a creative individual with a healthy contempt for pompous officialdom who only shops at branches of the John Lewis Partnership. That's my boy!

Comments