No Thoughts on Art
On the tenth anniversary of his passing, ONE Magazine presents the first published peek at his final manuscript The Dusty Answers. If, according to The Naked Civil Servant, ‘an exhibitionist has no friends,’ then what happens to the exhibitions?
The definition of literature is that which is memorable for the way it is written. So, the definition of art, which usually means visual art, must be that which represents something and is memorable for the way which it represents it, not for the thing itself. And I presume that holds good, but I don’t understand modern art. This is the Age of Minimalization. And before minimalism was fashionable, I was taken to a gallery where there were minimal pictures and I said to the owner, ‘What is minimalism?’ And he said, ‘Very little work for a lot of money.’ And that’s true!
When people said to me, ‘What have you got against pictures?’ I couldn’t help saying, ‘What have you got against the wall?’ I don’t need pictures. I have no pictures in my room, except the weird poster which someone put up behind me in order to photograph me, which I do not take down because I don’t mind whether it’s there or not. But I’m told that if you have a room with no pictures, people walk to the window and look out of it. So, people don’t like to be enclosed without a looking out.
But I have no thoughts on art. And I was glad that Mr Warhol put an end to all that rubbish about art. He said, ‘If you can get it in a frame and hang it on the wall, it’s art.’ So, art is the circumstance that creates the work of art. To get your picture into an art gallery or a museum is to validate its quality as art. And I’m skeptical of people with an artistic temperament. It’s all the phony unworldliness of art. When a group of people are standing before a huge canvas, half of which is bare and half of which is painted navy blue, and they have thoughts about it, this to my mind is rubbish.
And I suppose you can teach art appreciation. You can teach, especially young people, who don’t really look at pictures or who look at pictures for their narrative content only, that the picture has something else. And you could speak of various extraordinary things like perspective and color coordination and light and shade and all that. You can get them to like the picture. Possibly.
I couldn’t be persuaded to like a picture. I would have to like it or not. But I suppose that I am more stubborn than most people and that other people could see something in a picture when it was pointed out to them that they would not have seen, especially in a gallery where there are heaps of pictures and you can’t look at them. And you get very tired. But I don’t think art appreciation is a really worthwhile profession. I think you might as well be an art master and teach people to draw as that.
Artists are now, of course, charlatans. Who couldn’t resist selling your canvas for thousands of dollars, which had only taken you an hour to do? So, you have to forgive them. But it is the fault of the public, not the fault of the artist, that they have been taken in that way. The public sort of demands it. The public doesn’t want to be caught ‘not knowing’. It’s very difficult to stand in front of a canvas that’s in a gallery in a place of prominence and priced at two thousand pounds and say, ‘What is it?’ or anything like that. But in my opinion what makes a great artist is an unscrupulous agent. Where would Mr Bacon be without Mr Sylvester?* And when I have challenged the appreciation of art, I make people impatient. This I don’t intend to do, or even to make fun of art. But it seems to me all nonsense.
When I was in England, I was a commercial artist. And because I was a commercial artist, I met various businessmen. And when they watched me drawing, they said, ‘I did a lot of sketching when I was in India.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yes.’ And I knew they were trying to square themselves with me. That is to say, what they really meant was, ‘Though I seem to you to be a businessman, I have more unworldly thoughts and reactions than you imagine. I am really an artist at heart. I do not only have a black book full of the names of chorus girls, I aspire to more spiritual things.’ But this is nonsense.
Art is no more spiritual than anything else. You do it for money. And if you didn’t do it for money, you wouldn’t try to sell your pictures. And almost everyone tries to sell his pictures. Only Mr Gauguin made no effort to sell his pictures. He did paint a picture for somebody in exchange for his food, I think, or rent or something, which is an endeavor to sell your paintings. But most painters were, of course, rich.
There was a man who painted the Captain Anadromiki and had dealers trying to buy his pictures and he said, ‘Show them to the tradesman entrance!’, meaning that he despised them. Nevertheless, he sold his paintings. So, if you’re poor, you want to sell your paintings. If you’re rich, you don’t care whether you sell your paintings. It’s as simple as that. But if Mr. Bacon’s paintings had been done half the size and had been properly painted, would there have been any fuss about him? You see, he didn’t prime the canvas. And it was a feature of his paintings, and that makes laziness a feature of your painting.
So, it’s sort of an affectation. A man called Rumni painted a portrait and he used to copy other people’s paintings. One day he put two together and they fell down. And when he took them apart they were both wet. And they both looked extraordinary and someone said, ‘Don’t touch them! Exhibit them!’ So, in a way, art is irrelevant.
You see, I say that the four greatest artists of our time were Augustus John, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and David Hockney. Once I went to the Royal College of Art in London for a man, Mr Chopping, and when I told the students this, he was very shocked. But they are the people who are more famous than their paintings. That’s what painting is for: To bring you and your idea of how the world looks to the world. Why do you write books except to say, ‘This is what I think.’ Why do you do anything, except to tell the world what you think. Artists are involved with the world. They do not paint only for themselves. They may say they paint only for themselves, but almost all artists are engaged with public opinion and they hate it because it never agrees with them and it never praises them.
But, of course, my art is negligible. It’s only famous now because it has some relevance to now. It’s about now. And I only paint what I’m told to paint. And I only write what I’m told to write. You see, I am the slave of the world. I’ve never written a book I wasn’t told to write, except this one, The Dusty Answers. This is the only one. And if it fails, it fails because of that. Because no one said, ‘Sounds interesting. Do it.’ This will be the most adventurous undertaking, but I do not write eternal things.
And I haven’t been painted as much as I have been photographed. Well, when I was a model, of course, I was in any number of portrait classes. Less than life classes but any number of them, and I noticed that the paintings were all tame, compared to me. They all had been lessened in some way, but they were like me. But I have been painted by Mr Kataj, or actually drawn in colored chalks by Mr Kataj, and that painting was exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum. But that’s the only famous painter who has endeavored to paint me.
There is a portrait of me in the National Portrait Gallery, which a woman painted when she was about seventeen and she made the authorities pay 400 pounds for it! And if it isn’t a great painting, it’s a great deal that she brought off. And, I don’t mind, of course, that I should be there. More so, it’s absurd that I should be there where Lord Byron and all those people who are part of English history are on display. But still, it will wear off in time. I shall be put in the basement, piled up on the floor against the wall with all the other paintings which came to nothing.
Sargent said, ‘A portrait is a likeness with something wrong about the mouth.’ And what portrait painters do is they enlarge the eyes, they remove any blemishes they can see, but they don’t actually beautify the person’s face. They simply make it more significant. And you have to make people look tall. That is to say, you have to put their head higher on the canvas. And you have to light them dramatically so that they look significant. But I don’t think you impose your style of painting.
A Sargent portrait is a Sargent portrait. A Rembrandt portrait is a Rembrandt portrait. And they are not like one another. So, they have imposed their own view of life on the sitter. And it is very noticeable that standards of beauty have changed, because all paintings painted in a certain century look alike. In pre-Victorian paintings, all the women had what we would now call ‘fat arms’ so that their elbows didn’t show and so their shoulders were not boney, and so that their bosoms were full, and their necks were smooth. That was really the important thing. No one was painted to look skinny. So, they had the style of the times impressed upon their own style.
The only art movement I ever believed in was Surrealism and that was really, of course, a literary movement and about the hostility of inanimate objects. And that, I really believed in. It was the magic. I think the greatest surrealist was Chirico. Chirico painted an endless mock classical landscape, either at dawn or at dusk, and the shadows of the buildings fell across the open spaces. Also, there was always the shadow of a man whom you couldn’t see because he was behind the building, but his shadow was cast across the open space. And that represented a kind of terror which has no name. I like surrealism. It’s really frightening but also beautiful.
As you know, there are those who love to scorn by saying, ‘I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.’ And what is meant is, ‘I don’t know anything about art, but I like what I know.’ And I think that’s true. They like what they know, and everything would remain the same if it were left up to them to choose. Most people like things to be the way they know them to be. But, really, I have no thoughts on art.
*A Francis Bacon restrospective will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of New York City 20 May–16August 2009; www.metmuseum.org
Extracted text by Quentin Crisp (1908–1999) from his final book, The Dusty Answers (forthcoming, edited by Phillip Ward)
copyrighted © 2009 by Phillip Ward. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Courtesy of The Quentin Crisp Archives www.crisperanto.org