When everyone's an artist in their own right, art becomes meaningless

Art is like sex, hence the universality of jealousy. We want to be the only lover going at it anywhere
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The Independent Online

"You're the Scrooge of the arts," the person whose judgement I value above all others told me over morning coffee.

"You're the Scrooge of the arts," the person whose judgement I value above all others told me over morning coffee.

We were in whatever that street is called, the one that leads from something-or-other bridge to the castle, the one that feels like a film set for a heaving medieval fayre or the Wild West at that moment in its evolution when the mountebanks and shysters move in, the street that's thronged with jugglers and tumblers and under-age actors trying to get you to come and watch them do The Winter's Tale in their underwear. Edinburgh, naturally. Where else would you expect to find the culturally au fait at this time of the year?

"I assume," I replied, though it was not like her to misplace a consonant, "that you mean I am the 'scourge' of the arts."

"No," she said firmly. "I mean the Scrooge."

Apparently I'd been Bah-humbugging! from the minute I'd arrived in Edinburgh, and Ebenezer Scrooge, that flinty-hearted derider of everyone else's idea of a good time, was who I reminded her of.

Pity. I quite fancied myself as scourge - "scourge and minister" as Hamlet with black irony describes himself - the implement of divine chastisement, the flagellator of vice and folly, the whip and lash of turpitude and fatuity. Scourge of the Arts - it has a ring, don't you think? They should appoint someone to the post, at a salary of half a yard of ale per annum and a laurel crown of sour grapes.

Scrooge of the Arts, though, is another matter entirely. No one loves a Scrooge. No one loves a scourge either, I grant you, but we glimpse a sort of nobility in him. Coriolanus might be the scourge of enemies and friends alike, yet still he has a tragedy named after him. Whereas Malvolio - that Scrooge in yellow stockings - gets a bit part in a comedy and is driven off the stage, half-mad, vowing a revenge that will never eventuate.

Either way, Scourge or Scrooge, you're not standing centre-stage when matters are resolved - only those who accept the limitations of our natures are allowed to be there when the curtain falls - but at least if you're the scourge, people see you as an opportunity gone begging. Not so if you're the Scrooge. Scrooges must reform and learn to love Christmas, or be the object of our contempt.

"What I think it's about," I said, trying to explain away my Bah-humbugging, "is that I don't enjoy being where everyone is an artist..."

"In which case," the Edinburgh waitress, about to re-fill our coffee, butted in, "you've come to the wrong place."

And I had. The irony of the Edinburgh Festival is that it's the place to come if you're an artist but also not the place to come if you're an artist, because an artist, by definition, needs people who aren't artists around him. In the end there are only two kinds of individuals - those who feel the need to perform, and those who feel the need to gawp. Suppliers and consumers. Writers and readers. The garrulous and the gullible.

I was in Edinburgh to talk at the Book Festival, to be gawped at, not to gawp. I took it as a slight therefore - only a slight slight, but a slight nonetheless - to be approached by performers and their pimps who thought I might want to gawp at them, who couldn't tell just by looking at me that gawping wasn't what I did. Artists sometimes feign generosity towards other artists' work, but in truth it is beyond them. Which is why artists' co-operatives and similar variations on the quilting bee invariably end in recrimination and disappointment. To make art is to empty the universe of all other artistry but your own. Not nice, but there you are.

In this regard art is like sex, hence the universality of jealousy: we want to be the only lover going at it anywhere. Because we are not insane - not totally insane - we make the odd exception for a Michelangelo here, a Cleopatra there. But not for jugglers or street magicians or half-wits who blow balloons in your face while you're passing, on your way to the ice-cold sanctuary of your own thoughts. Hazlitt marvelled at the Indian jugglers, but he also said that a great chess-player is not a great man because he leaves the world as he found it.

Jugglers only don't leave the world as they found it in the sense that they leave it worse. They leave meaninglessness behind and even nausea, for it sickens and empties the heart to think that someone should consider throwing things in the air and catching them again a) to be worth spitting blood for, and b) to be of the remotest interest to anybody else.

And if this is true of the juggler, how much truer is it of the unicyclist, the sword swallower, the person who spray-paints his body to resemble a statue and whose act - to the amazement of one cannot imagine whom - consists of standing stock still in the market place?

In the end, though, it is not this or that example of futile adroitness that's disheartening in Edinburgh, it's the the Fresher's Day ebullience - Polly Peachums from Cheltenham Ladies College dashing up to you in wan décolletage, boys with not yet broken voices from Tony Blair's old school declaiming Burns on pedestals, the Brechtians with personality, the ironic pipers, the transvestite ukelelists, the accosters, jostlers, jesters - six hundred thousand characters in search of an audience. And all the while the audience itself shrinking, shrinking. For we are every one of us stars and artists in our own right now, each armed with an A at A-Level - A's for All - dreaming of the stage, the film premiere, the big top, the Big Apple, Big Brother. No one to read a book because everybody's writing one.

And I, meant to be Prince Hamlet, scourge and minister, reduced to growing Scroogier by the hour.