contemporary art, curating, fan art

Jeremy Deller, The Uses of Literacy (1997)

March 9, 2012

You may not think much of this picture and I should point out quickly it is not by the artist Jeremy Deller. It is by an anonymous young person and fan of therein mentioned band.

But the onetime inclusion of this work and many like it, in a show given over in its entirety to art by fans of the Manic Street Preachers, is a really wonderful thing.

The Uses of Literacy (1997) demonstrated the ways in which a rock group has served as an “alternative educational resource” for those who consumed their music and press appearances.

It is hard to take lyrics as seriously as the syllabus for A level English, but perhaps we should. Which of us has not been led from an album sleeve into a bookshop?

But this was, to be fair, a more common phenomenon in the 80s, when NME journalists regularly dropped references to Kafka, Camus, Dostoyevsky, et al.

By the time the Manics broke through in the 90s, intellectual pop music was as defunct as the Soviet Union. And it has never really made a comeback.

Yet fandom, as expressed by a show like The Uses of Literacy, can be expression of more than idolatrous desire. Here it was also once a commitment to bettering oneself.

And besides, idolatry never did that much harm. One can quite easily see the history of art as a catalogue of fandom: Jesus-worship, Mary-worship, nude model-worship, etc.

Deller himself is clearly a big music fan. His oft mentioned lack of artistic training means that in some ways he makes work as a fan, rather than an artist.

This gives his new show at the Hayward an impulsive simplicity, like that in the picture above. “I am a simple man, making simple art for simple people,” he said in a recent BBC documentary.

If simple art can sometimes be naive art, as this picture shows, then it is also an innocent form of engagement with the world. Bad technique is even a sign of good intentions.

And only an innocent would tow the remains of a Baghdad car bomb across the United States, as Deller has done for his project It Is What It Is. Who else would have got away with it?

For that reason I’ll happily go on record as a Jeremy Deller fan. I defy anyone who’s ever had a record collection to see his new show at the Hayward and not be converted.

Jeremy Deller: Joy in People is at Hayward Gallery until May 13. See gallery website for more details.

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