The Art Rant | Reg Mombassa

People sometimes ask what is art, or what do artists do. Well, generally speaking, art is the concrete response of a human to the outer world and sometimes to their inner world, or perhaps an admixture of the two. When asked what an artist is, I offer up my nine descriptors: beggar, prostitute, liar, thief, nutcase, addict, wanker, parasite and minor deity.

The eight pejoratives are balanced by the one glowing superlative at the end of the list. I read somewhere that artists are the only true gods on Earth because they create beautiful things from nothing.


We are beggars because we beg for the crumbs from the rich man’s table or perhaps attempt to get our snouts into the public trough in terms of grants, scholarships and residencies, or juicy academic postings. We are bottom-feeders: large, bearded beret-wearing wine-guzzling prawns.


We are prostitutes because we sell our most private and personal thoughts, feelings and spiritual contemplations for money and/or
favourable attention.


We are liars because the things we make are not real, they are a clumsy approximation of the real world or of the thought processes of our interior lives.


We are thieves because we steal the ideas and methods of our artistic forebears.


We are nutcases because most artists suffer from some degree of mental illness: depression, delusions of grandeur, narcissistic personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, anal retention, etc.


We are addicts because we are addicted to the creative process. Making stuff up is highly enjoyable.


We are wankers because justifying and explaining art to those who don’t understand or appreciate it requires some degree of wankery in terms of the sophistry of the pretentious verbiage necessary to talk it up to a sceptical public.


We are parasites because we have attached our oleaginous snouts to the body politic in order to prosper magnificently.

Art is a somewhat frivolous and luxurious commodity when compared to medicine, education, emergency work, agricultural and industrial production, military service, etc. I’m referring to the fine art world of dealers, auction houses, wealthy collectors and professional artists in this respect because folk art, street art, community art and “outsider” art is quarantined to some extent from the descriptors of wanker and parasite.


The minor deity superlative has been previously explained. Every human is an artist to some extent in the way that we decorate and present ourselves and our dwellings, gardens and vehicles. In the modern world trained artists tend to be highly educated, briefcase-carrying bells and whistles professionals adept at the networking and aggressive self-promotion necessary to survive in a hostile and highly competitive environment. Modern artists are probably justified in possessing this expanded bag of tricks because apart from a relatively few big stars of the art world, most will receive little financial compensation or critical attention for their work.

In spite of this current reality I am still attracted to the somewhat naive idea of the artist as a demented buffoon lurking on the fringes of polite society; an outsider and an outlander lacking academic prowess and incapable of soldiery or doctoring or running a grocery store.

This is probably an archaic and romantically unrealistic concept as professional artists have always relied on the patronage of wealthy individuals or powerful institutions such as the church or the state. This may all appear somewhat gloomy and self-flagellating but being an artist is still a noble profession and is a vital component and by-product of being a human. It may at times be a grubby and dispiriting business, tainted by the ill winds of money, power and bullshit windbaggery, and subject to fleeting fashion trends and the shell-gaming rorts of one type or another that attach themselves to any financial enterprise.

I remain very grateful though to have got to be an artist of sorts and to have managed to survive and achieve some level of appreciation from the general public. It is also a splendid and rather marvellous achievement to be one of the true gods on Earth.


Reg Mombassa is represented by Watters Gallery, Sydney and Bowen Galleries, Wellington, New Zealand.

Courtesy the artist, Watters Gallery and Bowen Galleries.