My husband’s godson Theo (3) is a painter of genius. Thank-you notes come daubed in cubist rainbows, with titles (e.g. ‘Bacchus, drunk’) added by dad. We’d like to nurture Theo’s talent, but I’m worried we’ll ruin his fun. A recent study found children paint happily until told it is for a certificate, then instantly their enthusiasm plummets. Perhaps this is why traditionally we like artists starving in garrets. If they’re glum, we can believe their work is serious.

What is art? The question is slightly pointless. If something provokes you to ask it, and was designed to, it must be. Art’s job is to be contemplated, be it a busker’s performance, Marcel Duchamp’s upside-down urinal, or Piero Manzoni’s canned turds.

What people mean by this question is ‘Is it any good?’ It can be hard to tell, as I found at the ICA, working on perplexing events like the Naked Poetry Festival. The greatest talent, Steve McQueen, revealed to me how much an artist’s task is to convince us of his value. Wisely, he refused to supply publicity videos: no, his films were ‘installations’ (worth thousands). He understood that we rate art by its price. If Charles Saatchi coughs up £5,000 for a pipe, you know you’re not dreaming: it is Art.

Charles Darwin speculated that all futile delights – art, music, jokes – evolved from sexual competition. Whether or not ancient cave painters did it to impress lovers, you can be sure they wanted to depict their horses well. Once cash entered the equation, artists needed a new skill: to grab attention. Michelangelo was discovered after burying a sculpture and selling it to a cardinal as an antique. (The cardinal realised, laughed, and summoned him to Rome.) Art developed in social competition between artists and patrons, showing off. A patron sent one message – ‘My Madonna and Child has more gold leaf than yours’ – while the artist sent another, ‘Look at what I can do’.

Now ads, TV and colour are everywhere, visual competition is intense, and beauty, cheap. So art has a new task. It need not be gorgeous, but must do more than distract: it must seize imagination. Hence anti-social art has risen to the top. The Chapman Brothers are no Michelangelos, yet they are great. Because they make us ask, ‘Is it art?’


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