If writing’s art, what should we deliver?

It’s over a decade since I paid a stupid amount of money to attend a lecture given by Malcolm McLaren – yes, that Malcolm McLaren. It was touted as a ‘cyber lecture’ in which he was going to reveal the philosophy of his approach to art. And after he’d dribbled on about nothing for about four hours, he did.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...
Never mind the bollocks, here’s my typewriter.

It was really simple. Deliver paying customers nothing. Emptiness. As an art statement, you understand. He insisted it had apparently underpinned his direction of the ‘Sex Pistols’ back in the seventies. Kind of clever in a rather anarchic-in-the-UK sort of way.

Alas, as McLaren continued to blather on in verbal circles about what always turned out to be – well, nothing, I realised he’d managed to export that particular art statement to New Zealand. The fact that he was sustaining it for so long made clear that his particular brand of ‘nothing’ was, indeed, very cleverly thought out.

But time was getting towards midnight and, as he showed no signs of flagging in his delivery of empty, I felt I should respond in kind by rising to my feet and engaging in a conceptual ‘nothing march’ to the nearest exit. It wasn’t easy, because a fair number of others in the audience had decided this was also going to be the way they expressed their art. McLaren suddenly realised what was happening. ‘Wait, wait,’ he began calling from the stage. ‘I’ve got more to say’.

Actually, he hadn’t, and the stage manager evidently also thought so because he shortly had the lecture shut down so the stage crew could all go home.

Conceptually, I could see what McLaren was getting at by punking art, just as he had punked music. And art is in the eye of the beholder. But I still felt vaguely ripped off. And that, to me, raises some obvious questions about writing, which is a form of art.

The onus is on writers to produce material that takes their readers on an emotional journey – which isn’t going to be the personal emotional journey the writer has creating the stuff. The emotional experience a reader has may not even be what the author intended to create in the recipient. But it’s still valid. It’s one of the reasons why writing, by any measure, classifies as art – because it invokes that abstract multi-dimensionality of emotion on so many levels, in both creator and recipient.

The nature of that journey is, very much, up to the writer. That’s how the art of writing is personalised; it’s how it’s given its individual character. The issue is being able to deliver something – an expression of writing as art – that achieves a result, both for the artist (writer) and for the recipient.

I believe, on my own experience, that McLaren chose ‘empty’ as his art expression. That certainly isn’t mine. And there’s no room for pretension or snobbery – not if the artist wants to be genuine. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


6 thoughts on “If writing’s art, what should we deliver?

  1. Love this post! I’m thinking McLaren “chose ’empty'” because he has nothing to give – classic narcissist. I know that sounds harsh, but his pattern of taking credit for other people’s ‘somethings’ is irrefutable. Plus, what he’s said in the past about his former partner fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has been downright rude. I have no respect for a man who rides on another person’s coattails – either literally, figuratively, or in McLaren’s case… both!

    ps: “…because it invokes that abstract multi-dimensionality of emotion on so many levels, in both creator and recipient.” This wonderful line says it all!

    1. Definitely a narcissist. Apparently the ‘Sex Pistols’ ended up hating him. I had a sneaking admiration for the way he mashed waltz time with four-on-the-floor rock beats – to me, polyrhythm is the highest form of music and that was a particularly blatant way of doing it. But of course, the execution of that relied on someone who knew what they were doing musically…

      Glad you ‘got’ that line – it’s SO difficult to express ‘art’, as a human concept, in words and I really wrestled with the phrasing!

  2. Ooh rah. Tell it like it is. Who was that “pop” artist who produced a straight black canvas and became famous for it? I can’t remember, but I do remember being annoyed. How do people pull this con game off? Producing true art no matter what the medium is bloody difficult and often painful. When someone takes the easy route and tells us “if you can’t see the emperor’s clothes then surely you’re stupid,” well I just get offended at a farce like that.

    1. I can’t remember who that was either. My brother in law is the navy’s official artist and one of the best in the business here. I kept telling him to make modern art by taking mouthfuls of paint and spitting it at the canvas and adding a stupid price tag. He totally wouldn’t! And quite right too. Nor could I persuade him to help make me into a famous artist by doing the same after borrowing his paints. He knew only too well there are amoeba on Saturn with better ability than me as artists…

  3. But, then, if McLaren’s truly empty and gives nothing then why are the Sex Pistols something that people still listen to?

    That’s not to say he can’t have nothing to say to you (or to other people in the audience), but, I have trouble supposing something is empty even if I don’t get it.

    1. I gather they fell out with him – and very severely. They weren’t as empty as McLaren wanted, I suspect. Or possibly they had a different ’empty’ to McLaren’s ’empty’. Or maybe they were empty but others who heard it thought they weren’t, owing to having a different concept of ’empty’…. Technically, McLaren wasn’t actually totally empty during the lecture, either, there was a period of about 28 seconds in the middle of it where he described the way Sid Vicious broke the toilets in the EMI head office and flooded them, thus killing their chances of a record contract. That was quite interesting. But I can’t quite forgive him for the attempt…

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