Thursday, July 31, 2008

"Stupid is the new clever"

What is stupid? the most powerful man on the planet is derided as an uninquisitive idiot, many of the most intelligent people I have known have lived in or close to what could be described as poverty. Our measures of clever and stupid are often subverted by cultural constructs such as wealth, education and profession, as a society we become more and more obsessed with fame and blur that distinction with achievement. Life and lifestyle become inseparable, we hide our intellect from others for fear of being seen as too clever and therefore ‘too serious’, we allow our accents to slide into estuarine to hide any indication of privilege and adopt the phrasings of psychologists to describe the most mundane and insignificant aspects of our lives. We beat ourselves up for our lack of academic knowledge and then big ourselves up for keeping it real, we goof around at work so that our workmates wont feel threatened by our success and then work later than the boss to show that we deserve that promotion. We spend way too much on that flash suit and then wear our trousers off our backsides at weekends, we pound the treadmill at the gym to keep our figures trim and then blow it all with liver fattening binge drinking. We buy Derrida and Sartre for our bookshelves and never read them and sneak glances at hello magazine. Our local indie cinema closes because we never visited it whilst we sit at home pissing ourselves laughing at a bunch of teenagers twatting about on mopeds in a playground on You Tube.

What is clever? A rambling and incoherent alcoholic is jokingly referred to as a street philosopher and yet in a stream of drunken anger, sadness and rebellion I have heard the most profound and incisive social comment. As a child I remember putting my parents on the spot by asking a question they would rather I hadn’t only to be fobbed off by a slightly angry comment of ‘don’t be clever!’. We fight for recognition of our abilities and intellect only to be told that we should be quiet and just work hard. We arm ourselves with a hard won set of qualifications only to throw it away for a job that doesn’t tax our abilities but pays well. We see our achievements hijacked and exploited by others and opportunities lost to those whose efforts serve their self- promotion and very little else. Often those whose abilities we respect most are forgotten as fashion sweeps their achievements away in the quest for progress. Our heroes were artists, musicians, sportsmen and actors but were also great thinkers, orators and activists, now we see on our television screens and in our newspapers an endless list of celebrities and wannabees who mistake being a personality with having a personality.

Rich and poor, high and low, inside and outside, stupid and clever, we need the one to understand the other, human beings need to understand the polar opposites of all concepts to place our own lives somewhere in between. Those boundaries delineate the journey of our lives, our identity is placed in the context of the identities of others around us and as such we exist in a society with constantly shifting parameters of behaviour and culture.

Depictions of modern life reflect this shift away from a respect of intellect and talent, we feel the need to divert our attentions from the big issues. Better to grab a 5 minute read of the gossip columns on our daily commute than ponder the latest policy statement announcing a further removal of our civil liberties, better to waste our Sunday mornings with salacious stories of the sex lives of minor celebrities than the working life of the blister fingered eight year old seamstress who made the shirt on our back for a pittance and why not have a moan about that light switch flicking artist who has sprinted back into our consciousness with his latest artwork, surely he is pulling the wool over our eyes, better to ponder that than why tracksuit wearing heavies seemed such a presence running alongside the torch bearers for the latest Olympics. It’s troubling and depression inducing to think about the big issues, to ponder and wonder at life’s inequalities is clever and clever is serious, serious is dull and dull is not cool, cool is trendy, childlike and playful, playful is frivolous and trivial, trivial is stupid. Lets be cool, lets be stupid and play.

Scattered all around the room is every toy the child ever owned, a huge mini scale model, a town of primary coloured plastic creates itself from the imagination, drawings scatter like the plans of a deranged mad architect, and the mad architect will not be stopped in his plans until the town is created. A town of amusement, leisure and a place for all to indulge their own imagination takes shape.

Do you remember the child who took every piece of mechanical equipment apart and by a process of trial and error pieced it back together? Dad hit the roof and Mum said “he’s only playing”. The radio that lay in pieces on the floor seemed so far from ever working again and with Dad’s red, sweating, rage filled face imprinted on the child’s memory he thought he would be hated forever. But that rage turned to pride when a day later the radio sat once more intact, reassembled by nimble child fingers. In later years this child becomes the engineer, little pieces of mechanical masterpieces are constructed together to create the vehicles that take us on our travels.

Absorbed in a nostalgia fuelled, childlike playfulness we can be cool. Did you have a dressing up box? fashion can be our dressing up box, we can create our identity, clothed in our latest tribal wear we can insinuate ourselves into society, claim our rightful place, walking through the streets in the most unusual excesses of fashion. Passers-by snigger but despite the sideways looks and laughing we know that somewhere we belong. Aping the latest look of our favoured hero we join our fellow tribe members, inside the tribe we are accepted, accepted by the tribe we have safety in numbers, no need to worry about being excluded, hidden inside the tribe no-one notices your insecurities.

Ever been bullied? Of course you have, too thin, too fat, glasses, funny voice, bit thick, ugly, too short, too tall, cheap clothes the list is endless and you can pick one or more from the list to give the reasons why. So how to deter the bullies? It’s the classic isn’t it, make them laugh, divert their attention by creating an identity that they warm too, if they like you they wont hurt you. Surrounded by your newly pacified enemies you are part of a community, your identity as the joker or clown protects you. You chatter and joke your teachers into frustration with your stupid antics, however the same inventive use of language amazes when seen in its written form, the pain in the arse class clown becomes the gifted poet with the incisive view and the teacher shakes their head at the contradiction.

Time passes and the child is becoming an adult, how to get people to take notice, make your mark on the world. Through fashion and slang an identity is created, who you are and what you do project your identity to the outside world, you could start a band, be a musician, a designer or engineer, an artist or architect, perhaps an actor, actress or comedian, writer or poet, it might never happen but those dreams of what your future could hold all stem from childhood play. The seemingly futile and frivolous activities of childhood that appeared to have no purpose but to just engage the childhood mind may become the basis of an inquiring and perceptive adult engaged not only in the minds inner thoughts and ideas but the realisation of those thoughts and ideas in the outside world. The seemingly self-absorbed actions replicated in adulthood may be the investigations into the concepts and ideas that surround us.

An act of stupidity can become an investigation into cleverness, an activity badly executed may be a plan, sketch or proposal to achieve great things. Sat in a pub a stupid construction of beer mats may become a rudimentary sketch for a cleverly conceived architectural masterpiece, an absent-minded doodle on a piece of paper during a telephone call becomes the work of a skilled and talented draughtsman. A rambling and humorous anecdote told for comedic value may use the same skilful verbal dexterity to create agreement and concession amongst those of differing viewpoints. The fashions we wear and slang we use may appear stupidly contrived but cleverly integrate ourselves into a community fearful of outsiders.

We negotiate points between those polar opposites of clever and stupid to inquire and investigate, ease and appease, plan and construct. The current British prime minister is lauded by those who know him as one of the most intelligent men in British politics, however, it is that cleverness which separates him from appealing directly to the electorate. Separated by what the general public perceives as a lack of understanding from issues that affect their everyday lives this clever man continues to alienate those whose vote he wishes to attract, more importantly his stated aims to improve the lives of the British people seem contradicted by policies which appear at best badly thought out and at worst to target individual groups. The lowest earners are now expected to have an increased tax burden, costs of services and goods are allowed to soar despite many being employed on decreasing wages in real terms, policies and laws enacted in the name of national security continue despite widespread mistrust and fear of intrusion. We see the once clever use of the political machine by a skilful and intelligent politician reduced to a shambling mess stupidly bouncing from one crisis to another. Perhaps the arrogance of cleverness has finally found that clever can so easily be used in a stupid way.

The comedian Mark Thomas continues to question those at home and around the world about their abuses of our society and environment, his targeting of the establishment often takes the form of playful, absurd and stupid actions but it within this stupidity and absurdity that we see stupidity in the actions and ideas of our supposed leaders and ‘betters’. Thomas’ stupid acts have highlighted legal inconsistencies, breaches of environmental regulations and standards and fraud and corruption in many places and forms. Highlighting the lack of rigorous thought in the application of laws governing lawful protest meant that Thomas legally applied to wear a poppy and carry a banner demanding support for the poppy appeal, stupid isn’t it? Without permission he could have been in contravention of the law and liable for arrest, the stupid and seemingly irrelevant act highlights the stupidity and danger of a badly thought out law, something which limits our right to legitimate protest. The law is something we assume to be in our interest and rigorously thought out and clever, this particular law was enacted to cleverly control protests and their impact, however its effects create protest through the use of acts of stupidity.
It is clear that the stupid use of cleverness abounds in modern life, it affects our earning potential and careers, our environment and health and our safety, security and freedom. But at the required times and places the clever use of the seemingly stupid can provide a playful, frivolous but incisive insight into society, the problems we face, and the solutions we may require.

This is the full text of an esssay written for the exhibition "Irregular Pulse" curated by James Ford at Ferreira Projects, 31/07/08-16/08/08.

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