Alexei Sayle: The World According To Me

'Perhaps it was this uneasy feeling that made me react so hysterically to the next question: Modern art: good or bad?'
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The Independent Online

If you've been following this column over the past three weeks you'll have noticed that each one is linked to the last. On reflection it occurs to me that certain major themes and preoccupations have emerged. In writing about how I would like to pretend to be a soldier in the British Army, or an Arabic professor in Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, or work in my imaginary sandwich bar, or how I believe more or less every single newspaper columnist I read, what I'm really writing about is the mutability of my own and everybody else's nature.

Those in power like to assign fixed roles to people: "Terrorist", "Freedom Fighter", "Fanatic", "Fat Ex-Comedian Whose Prose Fiction Can't Even Be Longlisted Yet Again For The Booker Prize Even Though His Books Are Brilliant." Whereas in truth I believe that everybody, if they are at all like me, can be one thing one minute and a completely different thing the next. Yet politicians and their ilk vehemently deny any ambiguity in any situation because to admit that people are not fixed is to admit that those who you regard as your enemy may have thoughts and feelings that are entirely legitimate.

I suppose I've also been concerned with identity because over the past weeks I have not entirely "been myself". When you fill in for somebody else in a newspaper column, as I've been doing for Tracey Emin, you don't just commit yourself to writing words in the space they've vacated, you also have to take on a commitment to fill in the rest of their life as well.

It's been fairly easy for me feeding her cat Docket and living in Shoreditch and going to parties in Venice with Vivienne Westwood, but I've had a bit more trouble producing three major installation pieces for the Venice Biennale. (It's easier when I fill in for Howard Jacobson on a Saturday in The Independent, then I only have to reminisce ambiguously about my Jewish childhood playing table tennis in 1950s Manchester.)

Now, in theory, I should have been able to produce the artwork for Tracey because I did go to art school for five years - two years foundation at Southport Art College, then three years studying painting at Chelsea School of Art - so I've got the qualifications. The problem is that I'm pretty certain modern art is no good. I didn't used to believe that but I had a crisis while answering one of those celebrity questionnaires that they have in upmarket newspapers, a chore that you only let yourself in for when you have something to publicise.

When faced with these things I always try far too hard to be witty. One of the questions was "Which of your possessions would you be unable to live without?", to which I answered, "My kidney dialysis machine." The next was "How would you describe yourself in a lonely hearts' column?" and my answer was "Professional woman, mid-thirties, interested in being taken to all-you-can- eat buffets in the West Midlands area." The next was, "Do you believe people can achieve anything if they set their minds to it?" to which I answered, "No, you can't even get somebody to take you to an all-you-can-eat buffet in the West Midlands area no matter how hard you try." So far, so mildly amusing, but with the following question I started to get a bit nervous because it was, "Have you ever stolen anything?"

I suddenly began to get the fearful and persistent feeling that this wasn't some dumb ass celebrity questionnaire after all but was instead one of those elaborate police sting operations, like when they tell all these criminals who've skipped bail or who have hundreds of outstanding parking fines that they've won a speedboat in some sort of competition. The letter they're sent tells these bad guys that all they need to do to get their speedboat is to come down in person to collect it but when they turn up at the address they've been given they're nabbed by the police and sent to jail and I don't think they even get to keep the speedboat.

Perhaps it was because I couldn't get rid of the uneasy feeling that this whole thing, maybe the whole newspaper only existed in order to get me to admit that I'd stolen a copy of The Beano from Flemings newsagents on Oakfield Road in 1959 that I reacted so hysterically to the next question which was "Modern art: good or bad?"

I suddenly thought to myself "My God it's bad! I thought it was good but it's bad! The whole business is controlled by a few vapid critics and wealthy collectors only interested in self- indulgence. The ideas of most modern artists are incoherent and the execution of their work is ugly and incompetent! The stars of the movement have been subverted by the establishment so they challenge nothing!"

So in the end the works I submitted to the Venice Biennale were traditional in style. Portraits of contemporary scenes which although modern were painted very much in the manner of Velazquez so that the shape, substance and texture of things was explored with a dispassionate yet honest realism and the composition as a whole had a coherence and monumentality not seen since the late works of Caravaggio. They weren't interested.

Tracey Emin is away

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