the things art does

Yesterday my mum came down to London. I like it when that happens – we get to go to galleries and exhibitions all day and then eat nice food. I’ve got Tate membership and she’s got Royal Academy membership and an Art Card, so between us we get to see pretty much everything.

Yesterday we started at the National Portrait Gallery for the Glamour of the Gods exhibition. It’s essentially three or four rooms of black and white pictures of movie stars of the 20s-60s. The trouble for me was that, whereas these were film actors that my mum grew up knowing (many of them weren’t quite her generation, but they were icons all the same), I didn’t recognise half the people there.

I mean, there is always some fun in looking at a good picture of Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. And Buster Keaton’s extraordinary face, of course. And there is no doubt that Clara Bow and Marilyn Monroe were beautiful.*

But generally, looking at black and white pictures of a bunch of faces not doing very much had limited appeal for someone who hadn’t seen the films. In fact, I think this is ultimately why I don’t go to the National Portrait Gallery very much; portraits of people I don’t know, without action, can’t refer to very much for me. They don’t do much apart from exist as images that refer only to themselves. As a result they are little more than pure form; and there is limited interest in that to non-Kantians.

And as for making me do anything – well, it takes a really really exceptional portrait of a really really exceptional face to have any kind of perlocutionary force (I’m talking Mona Lisa/Pope Innocent X exceptional), and without that, what’s the point of an artwork? Heresy perhaps, and I’m deliberately overstating the point. But even so, I don’t think portraits generally tend to do a lot. Which is why the best use of photography is not portraits, but reportage and invention.

The next thing we went to, the exhibition of Hungarian photography at the Royal Academy, is packed with both.

In particular, I stared for ages at Capa’s photograph of the Falling Solder. This is it:

Obviously there’s some debate about whether it’s staged or not, whether the soldier died at all, whether it was actually Capa that got him killed, etc. The Mail, perhaps unsurprisingly, ran this ridiculous piece not long ago.

But what that debate misses is that none of that matters. Capa knew that literal truth isn’t as important as what the photograph does; he knew it was art, and it was art that represented the fact that anarchists and republicans were getting killed – killed nobly – in the Catalan foothills. It worked to recruit support for the Republican cause and to make the rest of the world aware that something was kicking off in Spain that would spread throughout Europe, ultimately throughout the world.

That picture isn’t a good portrait. It’s blurred and you can’t see the soldier’s face clearly. But the point is that as well as provoking admiration, that picture terrified and it warned. Good art is not just there to be pretty or to be an accurate depiction – good art does something. That picture – there is no denying it – did something.

We finished the day at the Courtauld Gallery, which I have, unbelievably, never been to but if you have never been YOU HAVE TO STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING RIGHT NOW AND GO THERE. Why had nobody ever told me before that it is pretty much the world’s most perfect little art collection?

I mean, the exhibition we were ostensibly there to see – the Toulouse-Lautrec pictures of Jane Avril – was not very interesting (maybe because the intended perlocutionary force of those pictures were just a little too crude: “go and see this woman do the cancan,” they say, and that may have worked at the time but for obvious reasons doesn’t work now). But it was worth it just to see the rest of the gallery.

At risk of getting the intentional fallacy chucked in my face, I do wonder, when I see a lot of art, how much intention (conscious or otherwise) there was from the artist that the work does things. And I wonder how subtle those intentions need to be before the work becomes really good.

With stand-up, there’s such a delicate balance – the work is intended to get laughs. But what other things must it do – while still getting laughs – in order to be the really great artform some of us aspire for it to become?

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*OH MY GOODNESS CLARA BOW WAS BEAUTIFUL LOOK AT HER FACE!

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back in edinburgh

So I’m in Edinburgh again. And it would be weird not to blog while I’m here.

Plus it’s 8am, and most of the comedians will have only just gone to bed. There is not a single flyerer in sight. So, blogging it is.

I just got off a night megabus, and I’ve got that woozy, early morning slightly surreal just-tried-to-get-a-night’s-sleep-on-a-bus-and-failed feeling that I usually reserve for arrivals in Paris. It’s not that dissimilar from standard Edinburgh sleep deprivation, but it’s annoying because, as a veteran of night coaches, I had a sleeping strategy this time.

I didn’t even try to get my own double seat – I’ve tried that before and it just means that any massive snoring bad-smelling weirdo can come and sit next to you and take up all the space with their massive snoring bad-smelling body. But this time I knew all the seats would be fully booked, so I chose to try and get in the middle of the queue. That way, I could get on when about half the seats were taken. That way I could quite legitimately pick my weirdo.

I picked well: not far from the front there was a small woman, about forty-ish, who did not obviously smell and was having a quiet telephone conversation in a sane-sounding US accent. I sat next to her, and she gave me a polite, not-mental smile. When the bus pulled out, she settled over to the far side of her seat, put a blanket over her head and went into a calm, snoreless sleep, leaving me to celebrate the success of operation pick-your-own-weirdo, and feel just a little bit smug at not feeling too cramped.

At which point, the dark-haired man in the seat in front of me violently jammed his seat so far back into the reclining position that it almost crushed my legs. Then he couldn’t get it to go forward again – he’d forced the seat way further back than it was designed to go, and now it wouldn’t budge. He shrugged, lay back and closed his eyes, and I spent the rest of the journey unable to move my legs, and with nothing but a headrest separating the dark-haired man’s head from my crotch.

So I didn’t get much sleep. Whenever I’ve taken night coaches to Paris before, I’ve got over this feeling by sitting in the nicest café I can find and getting a café au lait. But this time I’m in Edinburgh.

So I’m sitting in Starbucks on the Royal Mile, looking over the crossroads where I’ve flyered for shows I’ve done every year for the last few years. It’s the place where I always notice how it’s suddenly getting dark early in the evenings towards the end of the festival. And no other square in the world has rained on me quite so much.

In fact now I come to think of it, this is the Starbucks where I come to get out of the rain. I’ve sat in this Starbucks before (many times), and it occurs to me that I’ve never actually been happy in here. In fact, I’ve only ever sat in here and felt depressed.

Come to think of it, I don’t really have very many memories of sitting anywhere in Edinburgh in the daytime and really being happy. I’ve always been miserable and worried and tired, and usually either hungover or still drunk. The few occasions I can remember being in Edinburgh and being really happy have almost always been followed by sudden, crushing downs that were usually a direct result of whatever it was that made me happy in the first place.

Still. I’m here now. And I’m only here for three days, and I’m not doing a show.

So perhaps this year will be different.

And the first step towards that is to get out of this fucking Starbucks.