Serious Modern Artists

I don’t normally repost every damn comment I write on some blog, but this is one discussion that I may come back to at some point in the future (if only as an example of what’s wrong with the world), so I might as well.

So, in the Guardian’s generally quite admirable “Comment is free” section, an artist called Tinkebell writes about the hatemail she got after an art project that involved killing her supposedly sick cat and turning it into a handbag. She then took the pages and pages of hatemail that she got, looked up the private information of the people who sent it, and turned it all into a book.

My response:

The major imperialist powers are fighting wars against small nations, our economic system is collapsing, countries are being sold to corporations by greedy politicians, democratic values are going out the window, the planet is suffering catastrophic climate change… and you turn a cat into a handbag and call yourself an artist? And then you mine other people’s data, not to defend yourself, but to turn into a book and make money with?

Oh, and your personal insults (she was fat! he was an amateur! they watch horror movies!) are at least as pathetic as the messages you are complaining about. In fact they are rather telling about how serious you are as an individual; unable to respond with reason, you resort to name-calling.

Publishing private data as you did, incidentally, is far worse than threatening someone – it is taking an active step towards making it possible for that person to be harmed. Publishing pictures of their houses? People have gone to prison for that sort of thing.

You said you wanted to “launch a discussion about hypocrisy” – well, you’ve managed to do so by being more hypocritical than all the people you criticize put together. I’m sure you tell yourself that everyone who disagrees with you is a violent, uneducated fool who cannot appreciate the high art you create. The truth is you’re simply a sad, untalented individual with delusions of grandeur, incapable of creating art that touches or transforms, instead resorting to the lowest of shock tactics to get some attention. You’re not alone in this, of course, since the advent of postmodernism has allowed a remarkable number of artistically incapable individuals to make a grab for fame by using its absurd tenets to justify their incompetent, grotesque and ultimately meaningless works as being radical, original, or thought-provoking, when in fact they are none of the above. You can try to disguise the crassness and shallowness of your work with airy claims about provoking discussion and breaking taboos, but the obvious fact remains that it is crass and shallow and intended only to get you attention.

I don’t want you to die, by the way, and this is not a death threat. I do want to fight you, though – in a metaphorical sense. I want to fight for a world in which self-important, passive-aggressive pseudo-artists like yourself don’t inspire anger, but laughter and ridicule, as they should. After all, what did you do? Did you paint the Sistine Chapel? Did you sculpt the Venus de Milo? Did you challenge the fundamentals of our society like a revolutionary, did you cast down hypocrisy with the fire of a prophet? No, you turned a cat into a handbag. You’re not an artist, you’re the parody of an artist from a Monty Python sketch.

(My username is my actual name, and I am a professional writer and game designer. My contempt for you is in no way anonymous. Of course you’d probably argue that games aren’t art and I’m not a professional because I haven’t killed any cats lately. Right before John Cleese would show up to announce it’s time for the next sketch.)

I have an urge to say more, to write pages and pages about the hypocrisy and false seriousness of all this, but I think I need to get back to work. Actual art requires dedication and hard work, not publicity stunts.


  1. James Patton

    I agree. There is something seriously wrong with art right now, where artists can pull weird stunts like preserve a cow in a vat or replicate their unmade bed and sell it for thousands.

    To be honest, I wonder if the problem is in the business model of the art world. I don’t know that much about it – so please, I’d love to be corrected on this – but as far as I gather, artworks are bought be wealthy collectors or by art museums, and then put on display.

    That’s fine, but the problem with this is that the art is bought by people who are fully versed in what seems to everyone else to be an absurd, meaningless system or way of seeing art, and which we can’t really understand. So 99% of the modern art people see is dictated to them as being “good” by 1% of experts, even though the experts’ criterion of what is “good” is radically different from what everyone else wants to see.

    This is a large part of why I think Kickstarter and similar opportunities are a good thing. Ten years ago, the only way to get a game made was to apply to a publisher – another wealthy “expert” who, more often than not, would have a very fixed idea of what the games market wanted (which was often wrong). Now, thanks to blogs and kickstarter, players can talk directly to game devs and can even fund their projects directly. I’m not sure Kickstarter is a panacea, and the post-Double-Fine Kickstarter boom is probably creating a bubble, but it’s got to be better than the alternative.

  2. Dr. Evil's Little Finger

    The first thing I thought was HOLY SHIT! On first sight at least, this definitely seems pretty fucked up. I have two dogs, and my brother has another one, I love the three of them, and I would never think of something like that.

    Then I got all “Ok, let’s try to analyze it…” and since I don’t have all the facts, I can’t really comment on what she did. There’s several things to think about.

    I can think of at least two questions to ask myself, which would be first and most important: is that totally fucked up?
    And on second place, just as chit chat: was that art?

    Is that totally fucked up? Depends… I don’t have all the facts, and its fuckedupness (yeah) depends mostly on the person commenting on it.

    On one hand, there’s the idea of sacrificing an animal. With people, I’m pretty clear on where I stand: if the person wants to end it, I mean, making a clear conscientious decision, he/she will end it, and if he/she can’t, but is clear on what he/she wants to do, I see nothing wrong with euthanasie. With animals, well, we share so much, but we still can’t actually talk to each other (I think); I haven’t been in this situation yet, but I understand a point comes when it’s clear that keeping the animal alive, in a state in which in nature it would probably die, it’s more of a torture than a gift, and putting them down would be “the right thing” or something.

    Then you have the whole fur is immoral thing, which I don’t agree on those terms; I actually think it’s better to take as much as possible advantage of the living creatures we are forced to kill for a living. That reasoning would make perfect sense, if we actually did have to kill these creatures. But in the world we live in, it’s all mechanized, industry has everything so under control that any attempt to argue that it is natural is immediately discredited. And I’ve read not-so-nice things about fur farms. Besides, I absolutely hate fashion.

    Now, what I guess is the big thing, about how she sacrificed her pet, I just really don’t know, man. Was that a cruel way to kill the cat? Is lethal injection better? I sincerily have no idea.

    Is that art?
    Oh, there’s so much shit out there they call art. And they still haven’t given me a nice definition of it. It’s a malleable, subjective concept (which one isn’t?). It’s like the games are art discussion… are they? Most say no. I say yes. I find it hard to call a movie art without calling a game art. I’m mainly interested in games, movies, books and music. Some paintings I find interesting, but I’m definitely not into paintings and sculpture. And “modern art”, man, I just don’t get it.

    Now, you ask me about the handbag, you can call it whatever does it for you… but I keep pointing my finger at things and calling them art. And that kitten-fur-handbag-thing, I would point my finger at.

    On other stuff, I’m really excited about the big Land of Dreams game coming up (soon!); at first, I had abandoned the idea of playing it, since we only had a national credit card that didn’t have any use on the internet. But our mobile connection provider made some kind of deal with a bank and started giving credit cards away to customers, and we now have an American Express. Isn’t that just great timing, or what?

  3. Is it art? Possibly. But being art doesn’t justify the potential cruelty behind it, or make it particularly valuable art. It aims to be shocking, but it’s little more than just crass. There’s no subtlety to it, no intelligence, and certainly nothing that would cause people to experience anything other than disgust, a mindless sort of anger or (even worse) smug self-satisfaction.

    You can’t get PayPal to work without a credit card? What about a regular bank account?

    If you can’t make it work anyway, either a) contact me so we can work something out or b) pirate it (assuming it’s successful enough to be pirated).

  4. Dr. Evil's Little Finger

    Fuck. I mistyped. I meant I WOULDN’T point my finger at. Ups! In short, maybe art, but not for me, maybe because that’s not the kind of stuff I’m interested in. I just find it plain weird.

    And I mean tha BEFORE I couldn’t use paypal, now I actually can use paypal, because I have this new international credit card, so no problem. I meant “yay!”. The Comendium will be getting some support also… I’m just waiting for the game to come out, so I’ll just do all the web purchasing (which I completely distrust) all at once. From you guys, the game, support the Comendium, and Life Support.

  5. James Patton

    Dr. Evil’s LF: Ah! That’s quite the typo! Yeah, I assumed you were going to say you *didn’t* think it was art, since you’d been pretty negative up to then. I was surprised when “would” came up. XD

    I guess it’s art for some people – certainly for the artist. One definition of art I heard recently is “Something that doesn’t exist for a functional purpose but for some other purpose.” I guess this is sort of art on that front – but it kind of falls down, since its purpose is ostensibly to make people think about the use of animals. (Or, if you’re more cynical, to get attention and make people squirm.)

    My problem with it is that she could have written a pamphlet or a blog post about the use of animals and made the same point. What’s more, she wouldn’t have had to kill her cat (which is controversial at best and immoral at worst), which would have meant that the message was taken more seriously. Instead she tried to say something but it was drowned out by all the people reacting to it. Had she done something less controversial her message would have got a lot more traction, which suggests to me that she is either 1) clueless or 2) she really is doing this for the controversy.

    Oh, one more thing. Art is not more important than life. I think the artist assumed it was, but most people think that art is only a part of life. If a human being wants their corpse to be used in an artwork (like the awesome, AWESOME people who donate their skulls to Shakespeare companies for Hamlet), that’s all well and good. But an animal can’t do that, and it seems quite a liberty taking its skin. There’s a difference between killing an animal because it’s in pain and using its skin to make “art”; and the difference is not the same as the difference between euthanising a human who wants to die and using somebody’s skull when they’ve asked you to.

  6. Sam Posner

    I think that you haven’t made an argument as to how the cat-bag is unintelligent or proven that Tinkebell merely intended to shock. Additionally, do you really want to argue that all art should be about global issues like imperialism, climate change, etc? That, along with your personal insults toward Tinkebell, surprised me.

  7. I think that you haven’t made an argument as to how the cat-bag is unintelligent or proven that Tinkebell merely intended to shock.

    It’s a bag. Made out of a cat – who was apparently not even sick, but ‘depressed’. After she kills it, she presents herself as kitschily and airily as possible, publishes texts with names like How To Kill Your Cat – and in fact this is her entire schtick, repeated with a variety of animals. What is this other than trolling? What does the catbag show us that is so very profound and intelligent? That we treat some animals differently? What an amazing revelation, we’ve only known that for about ten thousand years. Does the catbag contribute meaningfully to a discourse? Is it complex or subtle? No, it’s a catbag. There’s nothing intelligent there, except the shallow intelligence of the troll who wants attention and the modern artist who has no talent except self-presentation.

    Additionally, do you really want to argue that all art should be about global issues like imperialism, climate change, etc?

    That’s not what I said. I said art needs to be connected to reality, to be aware of the world we live in. In these catastrophic times, to make handbags out of cats and claim you’re doing something important and radical is ludicrous. This is pretty much on the level of PETA. Or lower. And it represents everything that is wrong with modern art, everything that will make people of the future (if there is one) look back and wonder – how could they have been so ignorant? How could they have been so self-centered, so decadent and corrupt, as to be celebrating this nonsense when their world was teetering on the brink of destruction? This nonsense which doesn’t even aim to entertain, to lighten our burdens for a moment, but only to call attention to itself.

    That, along with your personal insults toward Tinkebell, surprised me.

    All of my insults are based on what she does. They’re not arbitrary, they are accurate descriptions. And they are more than a little deserved. I’m not going to mince words when it comes to vile, destructive artists like her, and I will make no apologies for that.

  8. Michelle

    I was having a similar discussion with a friend of mine. At school she used to break in to the art block because she loved art so much- she passionately wanted to learn to paint and draw and sculpt and decided to go to university to learn all of those skills better. When she got there, she found that none of the lecturers encouraged the use of any traditional or digital art materials at all. They wanted this kind of pretentious, phony, attention-grabbing shit. After spending a while trying to get them to teach her an actual skill, she gave in, went and bought a load of chicken and chicken bones from a butcher, glued them to a piece of plywood and spray painted the whole thing in rainbow colours. Her lecturers raved and marvelled and loved it. She’s a driving instructor now, and a good one, but it’s a shame… she was a really good artist.

    I reckon they should split Art into two distinct categories. Formally you could call the first traditional technical-based art or something, and the latter existential philosophical investigatory art or something. Informally, it would be skill-based art versus attention-based art hiding behind lofty ideals.

    To be fair, the catbag still wouldn’t fit into either category. She killed her cat because it was ‘depressed’? Hello, do you know anything about cats? If your cat seemed glum it was almost definitely because it hated YOU rather than itself or the world or some other nonsense.

  9. Did she actually turn a living cat into a handbag? That’s kind of disturbing… I do not like animal cruelty on any level, I can’t even stand hunting games.

    Aside from that, I thought this was kind of mean. I mean yeah what they did was spiteful, I don’t agree with that, but I don’t agree with denouncing shock as a mechanism for making people think either. And imagine how this makes someone feel who does use these techniques, but doesn’t kill animals or publish books to spite people.

  10. You don’t like the idea of people using shock to communicate something? People did this a lot in the late 19th/early 20th century because it got people to stop and pay attention.

  11. As I said, I don’t mind it as a method. But this isn’t method, it’s purpose – the “meaning” is to generate attention and therefore cash, not to make people think.

    Beyond that, shock isn’t always the same thing. It can be clever, it can be crude. This is crude.

  12. James Patton

    Michelle: I kind of agree. I’m not really sure how one would instigate such a classification, though – most artistic classifications arise out of artists doing their own thing, which differs from the norm, so it gets its own classification. If your (very unfortunate) friend of the rainbow chicken bones couldn’t even get taught how to paint *in an art course* then I don’t see much hope of that…

    But I do think it’s important that people recognise the *validity* of art which does not require artists to do really absurd things which express some inner meaning but which seem really blunt and unskilled to everyone else. If I wanted to, I could stick two stones together, spraypaint it red and call it “human nature”. But I could not paint anything Van Gogh did. There’s something in that. The idea of the artist as a seer or shaman, who makes you see things differently and gives you different experiences from your everyday life – that seems to be challenged by this postmodernist artistic temperament. Presumably some would argue that this is just what art *is* in the 21st century, but I can’t help feeling there are lots of people who don’t *want* art to be like that, and there is lots of art (albeit of other forms, like videogames and novels) which are not like that, and they’re fine.

    I don’t *mind* all this really weird art. Ok, it’s weird, but I can live with that. Some of it might even be thought-provoking. What I mind is that every other kind of art is sidelined. It just makes no sense.

  13. Sam Posner

    The artist is touching on a legitimate issue (animal cruelty on the part of the food and fashion industries) and did so in an extremely effective way. Yes, it’s a bag. Made out of a cat. Who are we, who eat the meat of cows fed through holes in their stomaches and of chickens stored in darkness by the thousands, to be disturbed? The catbag is disgusting, yes, but that’s the point. It made me think, anyway.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t more effective ways of making the same point, but this isn’t deserving of so much virulence. The catbag itself is not particularly interesting, really – as you said, animal cruelty has been done to death – but Tinkebell’s exploitation of new media is intriguing.

  14. Michelle

    I’m disgusted because she thought killing a cat to make a point was an okay thing to do. Yes, millions of animals are suffering, why did she need to hurt another to make a point?

    It’s not okay that millions of animals suffer for the sake of food, but it IS okay if one suffers for the sake of art!

    I am aware of the cruelty with which we treat many animals. Most people are. Yes, it’s good to have a reminder every so often to get things done. But making another animal suffer? THAT’S the hypocrisy here. The injuring and killing of any animal for the sake of ‘art’ is fundamentally disgusting, regardless of how effective or intriguing it is.

    I am against battery farms, inhumane animals testing, cruel treatment of animals bred for food purposes, and people who think killing healthy pets just to make a point is okay. She is as guilty of animal cruelty as anyone in the industries she is trying to denounce.

  15. Michelle

    @James Patton;

    Sorry, missed your comment! I agree, it would be extremely hard to implement. But I agree with everything you’ve said, it’s why I think things would be a lot simpler if it were possible to create new categories… I don’t mind all the weird art, and yes, as you say, some of it might actually work in getting people thinking. But it shouldn’t even be close to the same category as genuine, skilled artwork. Even a boring old portrait with no higher meaning and no subtext that is very skillfully painted just can’t worth any less than some easily-made but ‘meaningful’ modern piece.

    I think there’s room for both, as long as people differentiate between them and stop calling unmade beds ‘art’ as though it were the Sistine Chapel ceiling… call it the physical embodiment of existential thought, I don’t care, but don’t pretend it’s the same thing as a beautiful painting, drawing… even novel or game.

    Though a catbag isn’t art. It’s just… pathetic. Yeah, it made me think- made me think people are even more hopeless than I’d previously imagined. It’s a dead cat. Murdered by its owner. That is in itself hypocritical whilst claiming to evoke hypcrisy in others. It’s not clever, it’s just sad.

  16. Nac

    “I want to fight for a world in which self-important, passive-aggressive pseudo-artists like yourself don’t inspire anger, but laughter and ridicule, as they should.”
    You are giving importance and showing anger at this “pseudo-artist”; Doing exactly what he wants you to do. World changes need less fighting, you are creating more of what you dislike by giving interest to this, despite the fact that is negative interest.
    Sorry for my english.

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