‘Have you ever injected pure cocaine into your knob while getting it sucked by an experienced whore?’ he asked me during the course of our interviews. ‘Well you should.’
It was only natural, after I had finished reading his book, that I felt an immediate need to collaborate with Sebastian, and I knew that the sincerest form of collaboration between an artist like Sebastian and me would be the interview. For starters, nothing is throwaway with Sebastian Horsley—every word, every sentence, is deliberate and considered. And because he is such a kindred spirit, I hoped that talking to him about his book, his life, and his art might result in something unique and challenging. Our correspondence happened in the weeks running up to Sebastian’s arrival in America to promote the spring 2008, U.S. publication of Dandy in the Underworld. Of the book, it is at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking, but it is always narrated with the kind of pitch-black with that is only honed during a lifetime basking in the hellish glow of brimstone. My aim was to probe the hidden depths of the man responsible for a book so capable of rattling the reader to his or her core. It is a book that makes demands of its reader and ultimately leaves one transformed.
In Britain, where the likes of David Beckham or empty-headed ‘Big Brother’ winners are choking up the shelves with dreary autobiographies, Sebastian’s book has somehow managed to elicit some of the most vicious reviews I have ever read. Most of the book’s negative reviews seem to confuse the work and the man, and take umbrage with the very idea of someone like Sebastian rather than with the work that he has done. QX Magazine declared, “He has less talent than a used condom,” while the Evening Standard was a little more circumspect: “He is a prat… a wanker.” In light of this critical response, it seems conceivable that Sebastian may have had himself crucified to beat someone else from doing it to him first.
At this suggestion, Sebastian concurs, “Yes, perhaps it was tactical. You can’t throw a lion to the lions. You can’t crucify a man who has crucified himself.”
I asked Sebastian what he made of this extreme reaction from some critics.
“Wilde said: ‘When the critics are divided the artist is at one.’ And of course, he was right. For a man to be great, opinion must be divided on that score. It is vital that the artist pisses off the right people. If you make the right people hate you, then that will make those that like you, love you much more intensely. You can calculate the worth of any man by the numbers and quality of his enemies, and the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it. Besides, not even Jesus was loved by everyone. When my enemies stop hissing, I shall know I’m slipping. Besides, a hundred hisses outweigh a thousand kissed. The former comes more directly from the heart.”
For a man whose paintings have received (by his own admission) a sometimes frosty reception, Sebastian still manages to command a huge amount of public attention and interest. There is no middle ground—people write about him either with a great amount of passion or barely disguised hatred. I had to know if Sebastian might find a more conventional kind of ‘fame’ preferable.
“Celebrity is another trap. I used to be a universe, but now I’m only a star.” He continues, “I want to be a black hole. Celebrity is a comedown, which is the curious thing, not that I’ve got it. But the problem is that it is a trap, another form of prison. How can you talk about the concept of freedom on the one hand while you willingly give it up with the other? If you are somebody who wants to break through things and find new meanings for yourself, how can you struggle through all these different layers of disapproval, hostility, and convention only to arrive at another form of convention? Personally, I’d rather be an anonymous star than a famous nonentity. Fame is a vapour, an illusion. The only earthly certainty is oblivion.”
“It is always a problem for artists. The radical artist goes into the ring to slug it out with bourgeois society, and finds he is punching a tar baby, which, unperturbed by his blows, sticks to him and envelops him with its blandishments of success and fame. Once you join the club, some of the fire goes out of you. Art is by nature dissident. The artist, like the whore, should be fit for the highest and lowest society—but never join either.”
First posted: Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008.