A student has pinned a notice to a tree: the notice reads: ‘Polite art’. The work consists of one white square piece of paper – added to which are the words ‘polite art’- a pin and (perhaps) the tree. The tree, which may or not feature in the work, is a Norwegian maple.
I liked the work. I imagine that the student must be a student of art. The piece of paper – the art work – was placed next to the University for the Creative Arts. I saw the ‘Polite art’ from the pavement. It was there to be seen and read.
What does it mean?
It seems directed at the viewer – and suggests that there might be a way of categorising art as either ‘polite’ or ‘impolite’. Is the tree the subject? Are trees polite? (We’d have to try and go further and define these terms; for example, ‘polite’ could mean art that, in broad terms, pleases because it meshes with the conventional idea of ‘respectability’.)
But beyond this it’s perfectly possible to imagine that this work of art challenges the viewer as she or he stands (or passes by) on the pavement. Is he or she, as viewer, ‘polite’ or ‘impolite’? Or more: is the work of art reaching beyond and questioning the value of politeness in english culture today?
Well, if it’s possible to think of the work in this latter way then the artist has an important point to make: In a town like Farnham at least, the old norms and standards have fallen away. It’s becoming more and more ghastly – both to look at, and to witness the social behaviour on display.
Two examples will suffice:
First, once upon a time there was a certain respect for the highway code. Now, in the main street of Farnham any sense of such a code is in sharp decline: A large 4 X 4 vehicle piloted by a woman in her 30s decides to do a three-point turn. She allows the bonnet of her vehicle to intrude onto the still busy pavement. She looks at us with a “f*ck you” expression. We have to get out of her way. She’s a bully and she doesn’t care.
Second, close to the semi-charming Oxfam store for books and records I suddenly hear a loud noise – a kind of baying; it sounds like a pack of football supporters. What is going on? I hesitate to approach the store. But there’s a loud throbbing sound of music that accompanies the baying. I look up and notice that some sort of club is now situated above the Oxfam shop; a body-mind-sensation place has materialised. I won’t use its actual name – so let’s call it ‘Exhale.’ It’s an intrusive phenomenon. It disturbs. The strange thing is that it seems to be simply grafted on to the town – a pulsing pleasure dome – a sign of our times: history is junked.
The examples could go on and on. It’s all very curious. I imagine that the relentless decline of Farnham, Surrey is connected with de-regulation: we seem, in England, to have brought a culture into being where there’s a de-regulation of the self – not of all selves but sufficient of them to make things unpleasant. The de-regulation also refers to the atrophy of some of the great virtues such as ‘politeness.’
That’s why the student may have been making a very significant point with his or her work, ‘Polite art’.
Footnote: The photograph below shows a hand-made small poster attached to the railings of a school in Farnham. It asks parents and dog-walkers to clear up the mess left behind by their dogs. Once upon a time there wouldn’t have been the need for someone to make and display such a poster. It’s another sign of the ghastliness that has befallen the town of Farnham in Surrey.