Two ambitious volumes of interviews with artists have just been published. They are similar, but different. The first is by Richard Cork, a veteran with a Cambridge education who enjoyed a distinguished stint as art critic at the Times. He is nicely old school: chatty and avuncular. The second is by Hans Ulrich Obrist of London’s Serpentine Gallery, ageing Swiss boy wonder of the art fair circuit with a head like a pink dome-nut. I have heard Obrist speak and could not detect any meaning in what he said, although he certainly said a lot. In classic Q&A template, Cork and Obrist tell us what it is to be an artist today.
Artists once served, in turn, the religions of God, of beauty, of sex and political or social subversion. In all of these categories very great masterpieces were realised. A dead Christ, a Venetian hooker, a Dutch townscape, a cathedral in a meadow, and a gas station, all became things of thrilling beauty. But at some point in the last 50 years, art ceased, on the whole, to be either beautiful or interesting. Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect who, black-clad in Prada, bestrides the ‘art world’, enjoys discussing EU administration in his interview with Obrist.
Who can say why artists are now so boring? Maybe in a global culture European painting and sculpture seem provincial. Certainly, Obrist’s manic dealings with artists depend very much on the easy availability of international flights. Or perhaps when consumers receive aesthetic gratification from so many sources, ‘fine’ art becomes redundant. Today, art has long since left the studio or atelier and is out on the street, yet there are still ‘artists’, many of whom are forced up dead ends of performance and conceptualism. Accordingly, there’s often more a sense of caution or fatigue than exhilaration in these interviews.
Each volume is overlong, underedited, turgid, witless and ugly. It amazes me that people who care about art can care so little for the look and feel of a book: neither is designed in a fresh or imaginative way. Cork’s Face to Face looks like an old textbook of the sort which made you sob. Obrist’s is a brick, but without the simple charm. Cork has portraits of his subjects, but Obrist has no pictures of any sort. As Tom Wolfe knew, we are now in the age of ‘the painted word’. When artists need to explain themselves at baffling length, talking in very long paragraphs, as they do here, something is wrong with their art. Here you get the written picture and it’s not a pretty one.
So what defines an artist today? The influential sociologist Howard Becker explained that artists are people who possess rare powers which they trade with the world in exchange for its tolerance of their quirky behaviour. He added: ‘Work and makers stand in reciprocal relation to one another. If you do it, you must be an artist, so what you do must be art.’ So that’s self-fulfilling and not susceptible to any testing. Additionally, on the evidence offered here, artists are characterised by self-absorption, vanity and a casual, but colossal, disregard for the public. Mental health specialists know this as narcissistic personality disorder.
Cork was influenced by David Sylvester’s epic interviews with Francis Bacon, who is also interviewed in his own book. Obrist also cites the famous Sylvester-Bacon sessions, published as The Brutality of Fact, but also claims Pierre Cabanne’s dialogues with Marcel Duchamp as a model. Cork interviews 18 artists including Grayson Perry, Cornelia Parker and Frank Auerbach. His is the more conservative selection. At brain-wearying length, Obrist interviews 19 subjects, including three architects and a choreographer as well as the ineffable Marina Abramovic, who has made a stage-struck career out of self-harm and high-concept nudity. His Parnassus includes several lesser-known names — Ernest Mancoba and Elaine Sturtevant, for example. Only David Hockney is common to each book.
Cork’s method is sympathetic and he has seen no need to make his questions either succinct or critical. Obrist, on the other hand, has ways of making you talk. In 2006 he inaugurated the Serpentine Interview Marathon in London and his book is, in part, an outcome of that harrowing experience. He is sycophantic, obsequious and prolix. A man pleased to announce his interest in early-morning discussion groups at Starbucks on his rather too detailed Wikipedia entry, Obrist would be my idea of a nightmare as a companion on a long flight, although his subjects respond well to his fawning attention.
There are interesting sources for books of this kind. Most obviously Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, a glorious mixture of creation myth, shameless gossip and fantasy. Therefore, huge fun. Then there was Horace Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting. In my own day, Robert L. Herbert’s Modern Artists on Art was a handy student crib. But best of all as insight into the artistic personality was Rudolf and Margot Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn, an analysis of the dark side of creativity. Unfortunately, neither Cork nor Obrist get anywhere near interesting critical, let alone psychological, revelations, preferring a sort of slavish peer-group chumminess.
In an oneiric state while dutifully completing my reviewer reading, I made up categories to amuse myself. Most Annoying: adoring references in Cork to Michael Craig-Martin’s 1974 ‘An Oak Tree’, in fact a glass of water on a glass shelf. Most Obfuscatory: ‘The actual subject matter of my pictures is not something I want to discuss with anybody’ — Howard Hodgkin to Cork. Most Aggrandising: ‘We are condemned to be collectively famous’ — Koolhaas to Obrist. And for Triviality there was a joint award. First, Richard Deacon to Cork: ‘Yes I enjoy dancing very much.’ Second, ‘The next way to shag them!’ — George (of Gilbert and George) answering a question from Obrist about what he might find in the expected Utopia.
I was left wondering how best to judge art. Elaine Sturtevant tells Obrist it is ‘entertainment’. If so, we have very clear criteria for judging it, although since each book is effectively unillustrated we cannot start here. In both Cork and Obrist there’s a shared laxness and pusillanimity that annoy. In a combined 826 pages, neither expresses a dangerous point of view. On reading these books, I longed for the critical certainties of the great Marxist critics John Berger and T.J. Clark. Marxists, I think, have more interesting things to say about religion, sex and subversion. And artists too.