AN INTERVIEW WITH MATTHEW COLLINGS
"When Iím being extreme, Iím capable of thinking that frankly the whole art scene is made up of a bunch of idiots. And I have no desire to get millions of ordinary people to queue up to look at that stuff. Why should they? Itís got nothing much to do with them. To suddenly expect it to be popular is asking the impossible. There really is very little in it for a mass audience and I think this mass audience itís suddenly now got, knows that really. And theyíre not really interested; theyíre just along for the ride, for the nonsense. The mandarin people in charge of the Turner Prize, and the media people at Channel 4, and middle-class people who run the art columns on the broadsheets, all assume ordinary people must have this stuff explained to them -- but the motivations for doing that are completely bullshit."
Richard Marshall Interviews Matthew Collings
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3AM:Tell us about yourself.
MC: Iím 46 years old. Iíve been doing art criticism forÖ I donít know how long really -- over 20 years. I never intended to be a critic. Iím a would-be artist who has written books about art and done TV programmes about art, both of which are assumed to have a populist dimension. Iíve had this role of apologist for contemporary art, for Tracey Emin, etc, for about five years.
But the weird thing about it is that I either have never thought about it at all Ė making art popular -- or else Iíve positively hated the popularisation of contemporary art. When Iím being extreme, Iím capable of thinking that frankly the whole art scene is made up of a bunch of idiots. And I have no desire to get millions of ordinary people to queue up to look at that stuff. Why should they? Itís got nothing much to do with them. To suddenly expect it to be popular is asking the impossible. There really is very little in it for a mass audience and I think this mass audience itís suddenly now got, knows that really. And theyíre not really interested; theyíre just along for the ride, for the nonsense. The mandarin people in charge of the Turner Prize, and the media people at Channel 4, and middle-class people who run the art columns on the broadsheets, all assume ordinary people must have this stuff explained to them -- but the motivations for doing that are completely bullshit. Itís for commercial reasons, to get the ratings up.
You could have said 50 years ago that the equivalent people in charge of modern and contemporary art packaged it for the masses because they thought it was good for them, or it would save society, or it was against fascism, or something. But now they donít even pretend itís out of decent motivations. Itís just for commercial reasons. In any case, I donít care about any of that. But as I said, I only think those types of things when Iím being extreme.
The fact is, I am interested in what the grain is -- the grain of contemporary art. But I donít think that to be involved with that, you have to be involved in a zombie way. I think you can be involved in an intelligent way, and that might mean being sceptical. It might mean thinking against the grain. But thatís only because youíre thinking about the bigger picture. I mean, if I think of Sickert Ė his paintings are characterized by a little bit of light in a general gloom, and the light makes the whole thing. Now I would defend that, and say itís important and moving. But I donít think thatís the whole story of what art can be, itís just whatís going on in British art in the Edwardian period. I donít have to go around mindlessly worshipping that little patch of light.
The equivalent in our time is young British art, (the yBas), full of nihilism, satire, surrealism and decadence. That stuff can be pretty good, and I am sometimes interested in it. But again I would feel like I was suffocating if I thought that was all art could be. And because this art is so popular itís like thereís no air. Weíve got to hear all this mind-destroying stuff all the time about the very narrow issues and concerns of this art, and of the art of the recent past, like Warhol and Bruce Nauman, and so on, thatís supposed to have begun it all. So when Iím gooning on the TV in front of the Turner Prize, and ironically indicating a bit of disapproval, while seeming to be blindly following the agenda; and then in interviews like this actually being quite explicitly aggressive toward the contemporary scene; itís just to let in some air.
I donít really mean that I hate those artists or even those moronic zombie curators, with their ghastly pc homily ideas. I went to art school to be an artist. For one reason or another I fell into this journalistic world. But I thought I was just explaining stories about what I knew to be the codes of the art world. I didnít necessarily agree with the codes, I just felt I could describe them, because I knew them well. I never had the remotest interest in making this contemporary art scene that we now have, which as everybody knows is mostly just crap, accessible to an audience who has no real interest in it anyway.
On the other hand Iím glad to do a bit of thinking aloud about the aspects of the scene which I find to be good, like Sarah Lucas, or the Chapmans, or whoever. And the more sociological aspects -- I find it good to have a few thoughts about that side of things, too, and put the thoughts out into the public world. I try it out in an article, then maybe again in another one, slightly changed, or a book, or a programme. Itís all the same stream, things developing and changing in my mind.
But I now find myself to be this person who meets strangers in the street who say ĎI really liked your programmeí -- about art I actually might not have much interest in Ė and they say: ĎAnd it really opened my eyes to it!í Itís rather moving to be praised like that, or acknowledged, or whatever, but itís confusing. I donít revere the art world, or at least certainly not the contemporary art world. But I learned to think in an art context. Art school was my higher education. So all that is an explanation of what I do.
3AM: Your strong views are very clear in your last book Art Crazy Nation but perhaps werenít as clearly signaled in your earlier stuff, say Blimey!
MC: I canít totally remember that book actually. But Iíve never felt any different. I always knew what my relationship to art was, if not to audiences of my own work. Itís never changed. Blimey is a kind of amusing, semi-diaristic description in an Evelyn Waugh English surrealism kind of tone, mixed with a Jennings Goes to School tone. But itís never an apology for the yBas. I think people assume itís that without having read it. Itís a satirical description. For one thing, itís a critical book; thereís a definite pecking order, of artists who I take seriously and ones I take less seriously.
Also people read it and get it wrong, maybe. I donít know. Maybe it really is not what I think it is. But when I say in it about some figure or other, that Ďhe is a very good artistí, thatís about playing a kind of game. I assume that if I say something in the book at one point, which is a kind of key to the book, then people will remember it later. But apparently they often miss the connection. Actually one of those key things is specifically about missing connections: I think I say something like: ĎPeople come up to me and say ďThe Late ShowĒ is getting much better, because they were on it -- they donít see the connection!í
Itís not that Iím so complicated or so twisted. I write these books intuitively and they end up more or less how I wrote them in the first place; except the language gets more refined in the re-writing, and the ordering of the thoughts might change. But the fact is, how it comes out in the first place is jaded. Irony is a part of intelligent conversation, itís not a stylistic choice, like someone daft choosing to make installations; itís a sign that youíre probably saying something thoughtful. On the whole when Iím ironic, itís because I really do have a certain distance.
Of course I believe in art, in the sense of some kind of tradition and history which includes modernism and to some extent contemporary art; but I believe itís a slightly stupid age for art right now. Itís probably the worst age thereís ever been. Since art began it couldnít have been much worse than this. But I donít wish I lived fifty years ago, or in 1907 or 1870, or something. We are what we are, formed by our own time, of course. But ever since I started this critical enquiry, whatever it is, the theme has always been the same.
Why is art like this? Whose fault is it? Is it the audienceís? Is it the artistsí? Is it artís? Is it inevitable? There are no easy answers to those questions. So Iím always monitoring my thoughts about art; and often theyíre based on input from these sometimes surprisingly illiterate people, who often donít have much self-knowledge, these yBas. I fall asleep after one minute with them.
Theyíve never read a book, they drink all the time, and theyíre unbearable. They have a drink and they go mad and act like caricatures. You wouldnít believe it. Then another minute Iím more humble because, on the other hand, I think, ĎYes, that is art -- they are the top artistsí. So I donít think that Blimey is much different to this new one. I think the real different one is It Hurts! in that it wasnít very good. I donít know why. I think I wrote it too quickly. Or I wrote it off the back of a TV series. The momentum was there for half a book and then it went away again. And now when I read that one through, or bits of it, itís the one that gives me the most pain.
3AM: The one that brought you to the public eye was probably This Is Modern Art, based on the TV programmes you did.
MC: The first time I was relatively widely known was as a result of that series. Within the art world I was already known because of the ĎLate Showí, and because of Artscribe, which I edited for a few years. If you run an art magazine youíre a bit feared, or at least people often want to suck up to you. But you see I had a bit of a crisis earlier, when you asked me to tell you about myself, because I was sincerely trying to work out what I do, and what the use of it is. And I had a complete existential attack. What could I call myself? And anything I thought of, I found a bit worrying.
But anyway with This Is Modern Art I was recognized a bit, and that was when it became apparent to me that a lot of people saw me as a populariser of a difficult subject, which I really thought myself as being. Itís just that I was naÔve: I thought with that series, when it was offered to me, well, theyíre going to pay me -- not very much actually -- and I know about this stuff, so Iíll just explain it as clearly as possible. Iíll divide it into these categories Ė Jokes, Beauty, Shock, Nothingness, etc -- because those seemed to be the themes the general public acknowledged. And I thought that, weirdly, the general public was right: they are the main themes.
You could say if you were boring that the general themes are the body and race and gender and so on, but the real theme now is shock: everything falls out from that. Black humour and surreal not-really-disturbing jokes are part of shock. So I thought you could do a reasonable history of modern art and especially very contemporary art using these themes. And they were interesting ideas. Well, not fantastically interesting, actually, but I had enough interest in them to make them work as programmes.
But then when you start making a TV programme youíre working with loads of people so everything gets slightly distorted, and in the end itís not quite what you thought youíd started out with. Maybe some of it is better, because of the talent of the executive producers and the camera guy and the series-producer. But it probably wasnít in the end all totally accurate to how I actually feel about things. But then there it is on TV and suddenly youíre Mr Art.
What on earth are you going to do with all this? I canít imagine. Iím just rambling!
3AM: Keep it coming!
MC: I donít take seriously the current moment of contemporary art, as I say -- but a lot of the artists who are currently in the spotlight I do think are the genuinely good ones. I think the Chapman Brothers are fantastic, very good and intelligent and thoughtful and clever and funny Ė the things theyíre supposed to be, according to, say, the dim lights of ĎDazedíníConfusedí they actually are.
And I think the same about Sarah Lucas and to a slightly less extent Tracy Emin, and maybe a bit higher up but sometimes much further down, because heís a bit amazingly variable, Damien Hirst. But still itís a low moment, because thereís nothing in society anymore that asks for art to exist, except the market or the celebrity game, which are both trivial things. Or if they are important theyíre important in ways that are irrelevant to art.
Obviously itís economic values that rule now. Celebrity is a trivia side-product of them, in that itís a popular sign of success. Success has become our main cultural value. We know clearly what it is. Of course art can have aspects of anything but what makes it worth having is whatís soulful, serious and important. The last things you want it to be are sexy and celebrity-driven, or daft and amusing. And those are the only things people want art to be at the moment.
So in Art Crazy Nation, Iím trying to think about that problem and be realistic about it, and sometimes state it more starkly and openly than I did with Blimey, which was a book which had a more sustained ironic tone, or at least the irony was jollier.
3AM: So where would you like to be?
MC: I wouldnít like to be in the past because that would be mad. You have to be true to your own experiences. Experience shows me that art has a certain comedic character at the moment, and itís not a noble thing to be in. Itís a daft thing, more or less. But Iím in it just the same.
3AM: Several of your complaints about the trivial nature of the art world echo complaints made about the current state of literature. Steven Wellís Attack! Book project and the works of Stewart Home, for example, are examples of writers who are addressing this. Are you wanting to effect change or are you just a witness to this ironical art?
MC: Thatís a very good question. Letís see Ė I think I can only answer it by thinking about what good art writing is, for me. People are often shocked at how hopeless I am as a left-winger. Am I going to go on like this, groping blindly, subjectively in this darkness, making a few sort of amusing jokes along the way, or am I supposed to actually do something? The work Iíve been doing for the past five years or so has been mainly writing, and the writing has taken a kind of pleasure-seeking form, kind of indulgent. I might have a jaded attitude towards art but I truly like the writing, the craft of it, and I take it totally seriously.
But it has been, until this point, a weird kind of game of how to objectify this pleasurable thing, in terms of paragraphs and structure, and how to achieve a book-like structure. Thatís what all that experimenting is with little sub-headings in bold type: I mean, I think of that stuff as quite lyrical and poetic. Thatís why I found Julian Stallabrassís parody of it, or his designerís attempt to parody it, in Stallabrassís book High Art Lite, baffling. In that book, the headings actually tell you what will happen in the paragraph, to help the reader. Which is definitely not what mine usually do.
In any case, with my writing work, there hasnít necessarily been any developing of a socially useful meta-theory. Surely I should be able to give an account of what we should be doing now, as a society, you might think. Which is what Clement Greenberg was so good at, in the thirties and forties. He thought art was in a certain way and he, as a committed Marxist, would have something to say about it, to further the situation along a bit. I suppose also thatís something Peter Fuller felt about he was doing; though in his last years, of course, not as a Marxist but as an evangelist for that weird kind of conservative thing he believed in.
But I come from a very different background to both of them. Peter was evangelical, and Iím not. Clem was high-minded and educated, and could speak several languages, and was a sophisticated philosopher, and Iím not any of those things. I can only write about art in a way that seems believable to myself by making it up as I go along as a kind of amusing thing, like a kind of art form which is primarily self-expressive. Youíd think by now Iíd have a few staggering theories that I could give you the privilege of hearing but I havenít.
When Greenberg was writing in the 30s, and up to when he did the essays that made him really important, he saw the problems of culture, and of cultureís position in society, from a Marxist point of view, as I say. But after that he became a decadent, cocktail-drinking swinger, and remained so for the next forty years. And I think I moved straight to that position. In the last decades of his life, he would point at some paintings of blobs and say ĎOh, that oneís good, that oneís good, that oneís good, that oneís bad, throw it out.í But he earned the right to be blasť because of being so rigorous before.
I mention him because I admire him and reread him a lot, even though Iím not like him. And Iím thinking about this problem of whether Iím supposed to actually do something about anything. I admire and re-read Donald Juddís critical essays. Judd wasnít a Marxist but just a formalist and a pleasure-seeker. Heíd value art if he felt he could say it was Ďinterestingí, which was basically code for pleasure. But in the late 50s and early 60s Judd was this very precise and terse and often a bit cruel reviewer of art exhibitions, as well as an artist. And when he occasionally wrote at length about, say, some stripes, it was incredible, really enlightening. Heíd say something simple was really complex, and youíd get what he meant. I really admire that.
Greenberg is elegant and Judd is curt, but I like the clarity of both of them. Itís a clarity that comes of being born into a well-off situation, having a bit of high education, and possessing a broad, large understanding of things. I believe all that does make their thoughts about art more resonant and important than anything you might read now in the Sunday papers. Those papers, how I hate them. How people learn about art now is in from the papers. Thatís the general tone: saying any old wank about Louise Bourgeois. No one cares if itís true or not. And there is no equivalent, today, of the Donald Judd or Clement Greenberg type of art writing. Iím not an equivalent, either. But I like their difference to the Sunday papers writing, and I want to be different to that, too.
3AM: What about David Sylvester?
MC: I donít think he was ever like Greenberg or Judd. I liked him as a good writer, in a way. But I think of him more as a performer, a great physical beauty and a charismatic guy. If he were in the room here with us, right now, weíd all be really impressed and thrilled, if a bit intimidated. Patrick Heron, the painter, was a very good art writer, very impressive. What made him slightly less good, sometimes Ė certainly not always since he really was a bit of a genius at writing -- than Clement Greenberg, who he violently hated, was that Patrick was very narrow. He was interested in the problems of yellow, or of wriggly brushstrokes. Greenberg might narrow down to that for half a sentence now and then, in an essay. And eventually he started making his pronouncements as if that was the only kind of thing that mattered.
But he started out with original and excellently expressed thoughts about Kafka, TS Eliot, Jewishness, fascism, society, and so on. It was amazing that he could convincingly, in a really impactful way, put the pursuit of nice colours and brush strokes into that kind of context. But unlike Greenberg, Heron never moved from an obsessive, detailed, microscopic consideration of the surfaces of paintings, and compositional harmonies and tensions, and so on. In terms of his actual art criticism, as opposed to his occasional polemix (which were always very dazzling and good as well, incidentally), that was pretty much the only thing he wrote about. Anyway, I don't see any equivalents of those figures now. And I don't say I'm one myself, by any means. But those are the ones I like. And to return to your question, do I want to change anything? Am I just going to record things or do something about it? I think thereís been a big mistake.
And that is that populism and art are not meant to go together; art is now surrounded by a sort of fake populism. So I think thatís the problem. Thatís the Ďití I think Iím doing something about. The way I do it is clown for a bit, then find an opening and then be clear, because at that point something makes sense to me. But I havenít yet made it to the stage where I can just take out the nonsense and go straight to the clear bits.
3AM: Is that because of the material youíre having to talk about rather than your own lack of ability? I mean, one of the things that is strong about your books is that they do make it clear what the codes are and what weíre to do with the art weíre presented with. Even though youíre annoyed that youíve been seen as a populariser of contemporary art there is this very clear expository dimension to your work. Like, youíd look at the Dan Flavin and say, look, this is a way of taking this stuff.
MC: Well, with that Dan Flavin thing and with a couple of other artists in This is Modern Art, Iím just letting you know what Iíve learned about them and what is there to think about. And that might include a bit of mystery where, ok, they are really only neon tubes, and it doesnít take a lot of manual skill, but there are a number of possibilities: you can look at it like this or like that. These are the codes, take it or leave it, it sounds absurd, I know, but there you are.
So in that sense you could say Iím doing a job there of demystification. Even though Iím allowing mystery Iím also, as well as Iím able, within the medium of TV, taking a bit of the wrong mystery away. I know about the subject and I know that to a certain extent at least, it is explainable. But itís not always possible to be that clear and actually I donít always seek to be clear in that way. I feel I must do something else sometimes. Iím not quite sure why. I suppose itís because it feels stifling not to, as I said earlier.
3AM: Do you ever think about doing something different writing a novel or something?
MC: It always occurs to me to write a real book. But Iíve got an agent and publishers. And every time I say I want to write a book they never say, hereís the money now, get on with it. They always ask me to write the first ten pages or so, and I can never be bothered. So the offer has never been concrete enough for me to do it.
3AM: So if we get back to what youíve described as your own confusion, having to sort out what is happening and your own role in it, what might we look forward to in the art world? Is this just a bad blip?
MC: No. Itís going to get worse. Itís possible to feel jaded about it now but itís only just begun. I look at the scene thatís going on at Millbank at the moment, where the new Saatchi museum is shortly going to open, with a big new Hirst-fest, and Tate Modern is already there. And the Chelsea Arts Schoolís moving down there -- which means thereíll be a whole load of subsidiary things opening down there.
And theyíll all be geared to a Saatchi mentality and a Tate Modern mentality, and those mentalities are awfully empty, except with a little bit of pious, PC fake religious values sprinkled in, in the case of Tate Modern. And thatís going to get huge. Itíll start in a yearís time, when the Saatchi thing opens and in two or three years itíll be the new mindset for aspiring people. So what weíve so far seen will be as nothing Ė what weíve seen is a very rough sketch of whatís to come. Itís going to be streamlined, fake, goo, pseudo-art thatíll lie on the land for years and years. Thatís my vision of it. I think the only hope for anything creative or genuinely expressive, is that there has to be some sort of cultural underground. Because if something is only in the spotlight or striving to be in it, then inevitably itíll be hollow.
Art is special, where you strive to get something of quality, something amazing, weird, difficult. At least, it seems weird and difficult until youíve done a bit of work on it. Then you get more at home with it. Itís still difficult but the difference is that itís worth it, that initial sense of difficulty is what itís all about. Whereas with anything thatís a popular medium, like rock music, say, itís designed to be instantly accessible, to not have difficulty. You can find difficulty in it, like finding some difficult bits of obscure rock, but the rock form isnít fundamentally about that.
So thereís got to be some way for artists to get out of that plastic goo mind-set, and make their own cultural world. Which will be quite a difficult thing to do, because nothing can survive that isnít popular, now. But also by definition, to be genuinely cultural and not just a private obsession, itís got to be capable of at least a relatively broad appreciation. I canít think of an historical situation where all this has happened Ė itís a new problem. Art has had a wide public aspect before, of course, but the wide public world had some gravity and dignity. Itís as almost as if weíve now got to admit that what art was, it can no longer be. In ten years time weíll probably admit that it no longer exists, that we really have broken away from any need for it.
We really are too depraved and idiotic as a society now for art. Actually that was my joke theme for that last Turner Prize programme, straightforwardly declaring difficulty out and Madonna and celebrities in. But in the future that will be reality not a joke. Maybe weíll all get more interested in the past. Rather than just nostalgia, weíll develop a serious fascination with real museums, and weíll treat Tate Modern as a branch of entertainment, which it essentially is.
3AM: Itís a very high art view of art youíve got. High Romantic, anti-bourgeois, Baudelaire and all that. Someone like Stewart Home might say that itís a function of the ruling class and the society, capitalism, but on the other hand what might be bad for art might be good for society. You know, it might be a function of democracy.
MC: The end of what you said is right because these are all the results of democracy. But Stewart, hmmmÖI think heís genuinely interested in what it might be to be avant-garde. I was saying earlier that there isnít an historical period that you can go to for advice.
In terms of avant-gardism Ė well, avant-gardism doesnít work now, because the avant-garde we have is an official one and therefore a pseudo one. You canít be against the system if you are the system. You canít be ahead of the system if you only exist because of the system, to serve it, that is Ė the system is Ďavantí of you.
So, for example, we canít have an Apollinairian idea of Cubism, something marvelous and connected to poetry, science, progress, ethics, everything: a fantastic thing in the air that some avant-gardists have absorbed by osmosis, and these artists are somehow ahead of the system. Thereís nothing in the air now except irony. And thatís something that everyone is in tune with, not just artists. They had that notion of progress, which included democracy. We have progress but not an ideal of it. If anything we have a fear of it as much as an ideal. And also our versions of progress and democracy are that we have a system where many of us can afford car radios now, and we more or less accept theyíll be nicked all the time.
My last series had a lot of chat in it about Romanticism, but in a nutshell it simply said that culturally we are not Romantics but we pay lip service to Romanticism. We still say we admire individualism, intensity, deep feelings, and people who are special and above the herd. But we are ambivalent about this because essentially we know we arenít Romantics. When art is good now it's because it expresses that ambivalence vividly. And when itís rather grotesque and distorting and hideous, itís when it thinks it can be Rembrandt, kind of Rembrandt for executives.
Thatís what the problem with Lucian Freud is. The artist having a lot of pseudo deep feelings, when we know perfectly well he doesnít, because none of us do. So I like art to be good and have some aesthetic loveliness about it, and there isnít much of that about, and I can see why. But I donít deplore that there isnít much around, and curse everyone. Well, I do, but I donít then say the answer is that weíve got to do a fake Rembrandt. I mean, that Queen painting must be the ugliest painting Iíve seen in my life. How could anyone take that seriously?
3AM: Adrian Searle liked it.
MC: I think he felt pressured. I think he feels Iíve got the job of being the fool, so he must define himself by being the serious one.
3AM: How difficult is it to work against that goony stereotype?
MC: I kind of accept it. Iím only able to write in a certain way. I can only go in a chip-choppy way, paragraph by paragraph, a bit here and a bit there.
3AM: But you have a definite style now.
MC: To me all the books are very different with one, I wrote it very quickly, I never looked up, and I almost canít bear to look at it now because itís so giddy. Although, actually, there are some excellent bits in it which often get quoted, and I find myself almost admiring whoever wrote thatÖI mean myself. And then another one is It Hurts, which isnít quite right in a different way. Blimey was the first one and I do think itís good, although very shoddy in its typos and wrong captions and so on, just like all the others. With the last book the cover keeps falling off.
You can imagine what that feels like, for an author. On the whole, when they work, I think itís because of humorous understatement. I worry sometimes about the idea that Iím a complete goofball Ė I think it said something like that in the review in ĎArt Monthlyí of ĎArt Crazy Nationí. But if itís so thereís nothing I can do about it. If someone said hereís a hundred thousand pounds, and they put me on a desert island, and they said here are the hula-hula girls, plus all the cocktails you want: and now write how you really, deep-down want to write.
Well, I still wouldnít be able to come out with the literary ideal that I admire, which is a bit of Ford Madox Ford, Evelyn Waugh, Clement Greenberg, Donald Judd, Edward Wilsonís journals, bits of David Hockneyís first autobiography, bit of Rimbaud, and so on. Plus the lyrics on all Bob Dylanís records. And the Doors, and the four classic Stones albums.
Actually I think I have occasionally matched the fantastic inspired genius of putting that line ĎÖIíll be in my room, with a needle and a spoonÖí in the context of a country song. But the rest is all completely beyond me. I just couldnít do it. Itís not in me. I think the serious points are sometimes expressed OK. But thereís probably an awful lot of blubber.
3AM: Michael Bracewell, talking to me about your books and your programmes, thinks theyíre very serious.
MC: I take that as a compliment. I know I canít be convincingly earnest, though. If someone can then thatís good, but I find in general itís not a happening thing at the moment. Patrick Heron is a good example of someone who can get round that. You could never call him exactly earnest, because he has this shrill kind of enthusiasm, which you used to be able to hear in his talking voice, but is there also in his writing. But he could be serious while appearing to be light, which is what Iím getting at, what Iíd like to be myself. He was writing in the forties and early fifties, and if youíre interested in this narrow subject of aesthetic, abstract painting, well, he is the master: he is lucid, elegant and beautiful about the mechanics of a painting. But I donít have the vocabulary and perception and focus to do that.
My TV programmes have been serious in intent. They all have different contexts in which they were made -- different material conditions Ė but there are general things that unite them all, similar restrictions. TV by its nature is a team thing. So those aspects of a tone of voice, individual integrity, and so on, theyíre the first things that come under attack, basically because no one knows your real wavelength, or wants to get bogged down with thinking about it. They want a presenter because itís a Ďvoiceí, which is a TV-plus, in terms of the documentary genre, but everyone wants to control the voice and change it a bit. Theyíre a bit horrified by the real voice.
And when youíre writing a book, although thereís editorial comment and guidance, to some extent, itís nothing like the distorting pressures of TV work. So a lot of my tone of voice, and so on, and the compressions of meanings, when I do those TV commentaries, and the pieces-to-camera, are approximations of myself. Iím trying to compress it, to get it to fit. But the question is, is the Ďseriousí intent, either with the books or the programmes, to say that art is good and everyone should get involved in it -- because thatís not at all my intention.
I think art is a difficult thing that people should only get involved in who want to, and if they do they will immediately see itís something worth doing some work on. I donít have to say ĎDo some work you lazy gits!í I can say ĎThis is what I thinkí, and they can respond if they want. That was my experience of learning. I donít see why I should now do something I personally would certainly not have liked anyone doing to me, which is coming over all earnest. Where I sometimes experience difficulty, is with art that takes difficulty and profundity in its stride.
In the last two series Iíve done Goya and Delacroix, and Friedrich, and in those cases I donít really have much to offer that isnít already out there in history books or art books, or in the clichťd imaginations of middle-class people. So then I have to be quite careful, and I do slightly rely on people in TV, my colleagues, to notice when Iím becoming falsely earnest, or waffling. With contemporary art they often want me to waffle more, whereas my inclination is to be blunt because I think I do see what is good about what it is that, say, the Chapmans do, and I can do justice to it in a few words.
3AM: You are an artist yourself.
MC: Yes. I went to art school in the mid-seventies and Iíve never stopped leading the life of a painter, except that I canít do it all the time now, sometimes for months I canít do it. Iíve been writing and doing TV. I like that of course but I regret that I canít do everything.
Patrick Heron had to give up writing in order to paint. He was a gifted abstract painter and a good art writer, and he had to give up writing because doing it meant he wasnít taken seriously as a painter. But maybe also he gave up writing in order to make himself more serious as a painter -- itís not just a question of the world taking you more seriously. Itís difficult to do serious painting and write as well. At least, thatís my excuse, my reason why I havenít advanced as a painter.
3AM: So do you see yourself more as a writer than as a painter?
MC: Iím paid for writing and thatís my position in society. But I want to do more painting. Iím going to find out in the next twenty-five years if itís possible to do both. I hope it is. I suspect it isnít and Iíll accept it if thatís the case. Iíll keep on painting but
no one will give me a good review or buy my paintings. It might be for the right reasons that they donít. Because in my writing I can see how to make that craft thing work and I can see where itís going, and what the thoughts are. I donít have that equivalent sense with painting.
Iím still in relative darkness, because I havenít put in the hours. Thereís not been the continuity, the struggle, and the feedback from people, which Iíve had with writing. I certainly wouldnít say that my relative failure as a painter has anything to do with what I was saying earlier about this being a bad moment for art Ė I canít blame that! Itís my own dilly-dallying.
Richard Marshall is a talented writer and acts as an editor for 3am.