Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #46: How Are You Feeling? by David Shrigley

One of the easiest mistakes to make in criticism is a category error: looking at a work as if it were something it isn't. Treat a paranormal romance as an urban fantasy, or a cozy as a hardboiled mystery, and you'll hear about it instantly. But those errors can also be more subtle: is complaining about the utter passivity of everyone on Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go purely based on misreading that book through genre SF eyes? Does it make more sense to treat John Crowley as a literary writer who uses SFF motifs, or a SFF writer who aspires to literature?

Sometimes, the error is invited by the work itself -- either on purpose as a trap for the unwary reader, or as a sneaky way of claiming to be something and then using the work to fight against that genre definition. British artist David Shrigley's new book How Are You Feeling? takes exactly this tactic: its back cover, in the style of Shrigley's interior, claims that it's a self-help book.

You may find help or comfort in How Are You Feeling?, but that's not Shrigley's point. Shrigley is an Artist -- with a capital A, in the modern self-promotional, media-friendly style -- and so all of his emanations are first and foremost Art. Art may help you, it may show you things about yourself or illuminate dark corners of your psyche, it may crystallize a thought you've almost had a thousand times. But what it's there to do is Be Art -- whether you understand it or not, whether it connects with your life or not, whether it seems worthwhile at all to you or not.

How Are You Feeling? is not a self-help book; it's not even a parody of a self-help book, which is what it most resembles. It's an art installation in book form, showcasing Shrigley's deliberately crude drawings and writings -- full of cross-outs and interpolated words, as if he was scribbling so quickly he couldn't take the time to do it cleanly and clearly. So it is a catalog of psychological problems -- as seen by Shrigley, through the lens of his Art. It runs through potential issues and problems a modern person might have, with a tone that hovers somewhere near self-help without ever quite becoming helpful.

For some people, this book will be profound and deep -- they'll believe that Shrigley really understands the human mind, has powerful insights, and has given them a framework to go forward with. For others, this will be a silly, self-indulgent exercise in banality and crudity: badly conceived, quickly dashed off, containing the bare minimum of thought and the maximum of attitude.

I wouldn't dream of coming down on one side or the other of that divide: either way, a reader isn't really engaging with How Are You Feeling? as Art, as a commentary on the thing it is pretending to be. But whether you think that commentary is profound or banal may well mirror that first, surface impression. And I'll have to leave each of you to decide where How Are You Feeling? falls, on both of those levels: Art is personal and visceral and immediate, and must be experienced rather than explained.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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