‘‘I’m not trying to draw badly. I’m just trying to draw without any consideration of craft,’’ says David Shrigley, whose “unsteady freehand” drawings were recently featured in The New York Times Magazine. I could hear Tom Wolfe whisper in my ear, “That’s the sound of a man who wants you to think he’s unconscious of his own brilliance.”
Shrigley’s doodles don’t aim at aesthetics. Instead, as Jonah Weiner observes, “The overall effect is like discovering the sketchbook of a boy who taught himself to draw while locked in a basement.” Brilliance.
But in another sense, Shrigley’s work does aim to produce a chortle. Like the turtle who can’t pass the soap because he’s not a typewriter, a man in one of Shrigley’s doodles is killed for wearing shorts. Chortle.
But before you roll your eyes at “what passes as art these days,” consider the following.
David Shrigley is no art slack. He graduated from Glasgow School of Art, has written the libretto for an opera, published dozens of books, and has released a spoken-word CD. Not to mention that he more commonly makes a living off his photographs and sculptures.
My father once knew an artist whose paintings sold between $75,000 and $150,000 a piece. The galleries couldn’t keep his pieces on the wall. Toward the end of his life, the caliber of his art dropped substantially, but the prices stayed the same—-in fact, his rising age seem to heighten the need to grab a piece. The running joke was that his name-value replaced the art-value, and the old man spent more time on his signature than his craft. Behind every painting was the message: Fooled you!
One wonders if this is the mischievous plot behind Shrigley’s art. Doodling about “death, weird sex, and cruelty” changes refrigerator art to avant-garde, and every time someone says, “Mmm . . . stunning,” at his Hayward Gallery exhibition in London, Shrigley snorts a little of his champagne back into his glass.
But I think there is something deeper going on.
John Updike once mused that modern art, like “pornography” or “literary fiction,” is hard to define, though we all feel we know what it means. We have a sense that Shrigley’s doodles should be categorized as Modern Art, but we may not be able to articulate why a 6-year-old’s doodles from Sunday School can’t be, also.
Let me help apply language to what we feel. A 6-year-old can’t produce the irony a trained artist can. A 6-year-old can only produce art that shows her inexperience. Her art shows a desire for creativity, despite her immature sense of composition. Shrigley’s art depends on a sophisticated understanding of composition and human form. It’s a subtle message: I could create good art, but I won’t.
But the side that Shrigley doesn’t seem to notice—-or doesn’t care to notice—-is that the very nature of his work is second rate. In other words, his deliberate “bad” art depends on the fact that “good” art exists.
At this point Christians may get a bit uncomfortable about saying anything further. We don’t want to christianize the problem. Bad art is bad art and that’s all there is to it. But I want to take the risk and offer some theological reflection.
Creativity and art are byproducts of men and women being created in the image of God. Andy Crouch has said that the imago dei is expressed in the fact that men and women have the power to create in a way that no other creature does. For sure, we don’t have the power to create ex nihlio, but like God who created the world without becoming less of himself, Crouch argues, we can “create culture” analogously.
He gives the example of a musician giving music lessons. A musician who gives music lessons doesn’t become less of a musician by helping another become more of a musician. Instead, he creates something in another person without losing something of himself.
Art is a byproduct of this reality. The ability to reflect on reality and express how you make sense of it depends upon the creative power of the imago dei. To express reality better, or at least in more ways than one, artists develop “technique.” For example, Leonardo da Vinci used a sfumato technique in his famous painting “The Mona Lisa.” Sfumato is a technique that resists the use of clear lines or borders. Da Vinci was expressing how we see reality and the nature of it.
In other words, art is never simply for art’s sake. It is a symbol pointing to something greater than itself. But for Shrigley, his technique resists technique altogether, depreciating any greater meaning. As he puts it, “I’m just trying to draw without any consideration of craft.”
But this won’t work, and Shrigley knows it. Philosophers will tell you that no one who takes a pass on thinking philosophically can be exempted from making philosophical decisions; it just makes that person a bad philosopher.
Shrigley doesn’t just make aesthetically irritating images. His work comes from menacing motives. This is his underlying message: I could do some good art here, but I won’t, and you’ll like it. Shrigley’s art depends on the fact that better art exists. The institution he mocks is the ground on which he stands. Worse, though his doodles are conditioned upon the imago dei, he refuses to acknowledge it. In the end, his work tells us, “Read Romans 1.”