Never has a word with such positive intent had such inflammatory implications as “Nice” does in the context of the art world. There are other words that wield a disarming blow of mediocrity but Nice is the atom bomb of the bunch. It pours a boiling pot of scorn all over the artist’s work. But why is this? It is after all a compliment and a positive gesture.
Perhaps it’s because the word sits so firmly on the fence – with “dog shit” at one end of the scale and “resplendent” at the other. It’s like the central lane on the M1, where the majority dawdle, getting undertaken by caravans and overtaken by a speeding queue of BMWs. To be in that proverbial middle lane is the last thing an artist wants. An artist wants to provoke thought and reaction; to connect with others through an obscure but relatable impression of the world coloured by their own unique perspective. Their audience should be either infuriated or enamoured – for someone to be indifferent is the greatest diss.
When Nice comes out of a gob it’s aggressively meek. It’s also right there at the top of the vocabulary Rolodex, giving it more weight as a tool to dismiss. It implies that an artwork is so prosaic it doesn’t deserve a moment’s further thought to come up with a better adjective. You wouldn’t find Simon Schama describing Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath as “nice”.
I recently went to see a Paul McCarthy exhibition consisting of huge collage paintings of pornographic scenes; bald dudes getting their heads shat on, chicks eating poop and loads of other sexy stuff. A man stood next to me and said; “If this is what is considered art today then the world has actually gone INSANE!” For me this reaction is just as much a part of the show as the paintings themselves. They’ve created something – an atmosphere in the gallery if nothing else. But mediocrity creates nothing; nice creates nothing. That isn’t to say that art can’t be positive beautiful, and by no means am I advocating simple shock tactics. It’s just important for artists to aim for something more than nice. Because nice guys (and girls) finish last. Why? Because they’re sat in the middle lane with all the other turds.