Though I mull this question often--especially when I start reading new books whose covers I find attractive--this question came into sharper focus when I learned the iconic album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club was released by The Beatles forty years ago today. Though I was far too young to understand its significance then, I am always deeply moved every time I hear one of its tracks played out of the blue on radio now. That it is still relevant and moving today is a sign of true art in my estimation.
I wonder if the same will be said forty years hence of another Brit's work. The artist Damien Hirst will exhibit his latest and most expensive piece at a gallery in London early this month. Renowned, admired or ridiculed for his steel and glass tanks containing a 'pickled' shark, sliced cows, whole sheep and sides of hogs, he has now cast a skull of platinum and encased it with 8,500 diamonds in collaboration with a Bond Street jeweler, which will sell for fifty million pounds to an art collector. The artist states the piece represents his 'to hell with death'--what better way to depict it than taking the ultimate symbol of death and covering in in something that represents absolute luxury, decadence and desire.
Already speculation is mounting as to whether the American financier Steve Cohen who bought Mr. Hirst's shark for millions (a shark that is now so deteriorated another replacement had to be pickled and installed) will now pony up for the skull. Or will it be new Russian money or a rich Arab, perhaps?
Some speculate that Hirst is taking the mickey, that by creating this piece from such expensive raw materials he is really deriding all the nouveau riche art patrons who fork out huge sums for his and other similar works.
Is a shark pickled in formaldehyde that rots and has to be replaced art? Or is it just a shark suspended in formaldehyde? Is the art the original shark or is it the replacement shark?
I don't have the answer. What I can honestly say is the following: if I had fifty million dollars I would neither buy a jewel encrusted skull nor a Jackson Pollack.
Turning my musings to the book world, I find I am confronted with the same dilemma when I begin a new book, most often fiction. Sometimes I will eagerly begin to read a work from a much celebrated writer, a writer who's feted and puffed in the review sections of newspapers, a writer who's won prizes, and a few pages in I slam it shut and set it aside in disgust. At first, I used to blame myself when I could not enjoy such a work. After all, he or she was critically acclaimed so who am I to judge that it's illiterate, plotless, whiney? (the latter relating to nonfiction).
Now I just say it's shite and move on.
Some might say that I'm a writer and thus jealous because these writers have received tons of exposure, sold millions of books, and their opinions are swallowed whole when they render them in public. But it's definitely not that. I love good writing. And shite is shite, whether it comes from an unpublished or much ballyhooed author.