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But Is It Art?

The nominees for the 2008 Turner Prize for art have just been announced. Every year the prize courts controversy, with many traditional art lovers saying that the pieces aren’t art at all. Previous winners of the prize have included Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst, and the transvestite potter Grayston Perry. Interpretating art, then, seems to be a minefield: one person’s trash is another person’s masterpiece. With this in mind, today I bring you an excerpt from Cynthia Freeland’s 2002 book But Is It Art?

Interpretation: a case study

Although no one interpretation is ‘true’ in an absolute sense, some interpretations of art seem better than others. Let’s consider an artist whose work inspires interpretive disputes, the prominent Irish–English expressionist painter, Francis Bacon (1909–1992). Bacon painted people who look tortured and despairing. His figures are distorted, their mouths screaming—observers said Bacon made humans look like slabs of raw meat. One gets this initial impression just from looking at the paintings.

For example, consider Bacon’s monumental Triptych of 1973. In the centre panel a male figure sits on a toilet, while beneath him oozes a bat-shaped puddle of ominous blackness. The images look dark and disturbing; they almost reek of death. But here, as in other canvases, formal features counteract the visceral emotional impact. The triptych format itself recalls religious icons and altarpieces. Pain is offset by the almost static composition and use of deep, unusual colours. Reviewer Mary Abbe comments on these tensions in Bacon’s work:

“[F]or all their nastiness and brutality, there is something undeniably beautiful, even serene in these paintings. . . . Bacon . . . achieved a kind of lyricism that makes even his most horrific subjects compatible with the drawing rooms in which many of them hung. Backgrounds of boudoir pink, persimmon, lilac and aqua combine with the calligraphic grace of his fleshy figures in images of stylized elegance.”

Critics assemble interpretations using diverse approaches. Some people downplay emotion and pursuit of meaning and focus only on compositional beauty. The formalist critic David Sylvester, an early defender, emphasized Bacon’s use of abstraction in the face of many objections to the canvases’ harrowing contents. Especially when first exhibited, Bacon’s work (like Serrano’s Piss Christ) overwhelmed viewers; so it was necessary to point out how these paintings really did manifest form. Sylvester went too far, though, by de-emphasizing the visceral emotional qualities of Bacon’s work. Sylvester saw Bacon’s ‘screaming bloody mouths . . . simply as harmless studies in pink, white, and red’. I would call Sylvester’s early criticisms inadequate, then, as an interpretation of Bacon.

To correct Sylvester’s overly formalist approach, some critics go to the opposite extreme and provide a psychobiographical interpretation. Because Francis Bacon had a horrendous relationship with his father, who whipped and kicked him out as a child for his homosexuality, he is ripe for Freudian theorizing. Perhaps other aspects of Bacon’s life are reflected in his art. His horrific imagery may reflect his experiences in cleaning corpses out of bombed-out buildings in London during World War II. Bacon led an unusually wild life of heavy drinking, gambling, and constant S&M sexual escapades.

Bacon himself rejected readings of his work in terms of either his personal obsessions or the supposed angst of the twentieth century. He claimed his work was only about painting. He was obsessed with other painters, especially Velázquez, Picasso, and Van Gogh. Since Bacon recreated some of their famous works in his own distinctive style, it seems that his works are indeed about how to paint in a new and different era. Still, I don’t quite believe Bacon completely, nor would I rule out his biography altogether; it somehow provides background context for the raw urgency and harrowing content of the paintings.

Another critic, John Russell, helps us see that the blurred figures in Bacon’s works had sources in the animal movement studies done by photographer Eadweard Muybridge. The earlier artist’s time-lapse photos gave rise to Bacon’s images of running dogs and wrestling men. Russell explains that Bacon sought to blur the boundaries between representation and abstraction. In a sort of competition with abstract artists like Jackson Pollock, he used photography in a new way—almost as if denying the upstart medium’s challenge to painting as the medium of realistic depiction.

Critical disagreement about the meaning of Bacon’s work is typical of debates in the artworld. I do not think that such conflicts are insoluble. Critics help us see more in the artist’s work and understand it better. Interpretations are superior if they explain more aspects of the artist’s work. The best interpretations pay attention both to Bacon’s formal style and to his content. In interpreting Bacon, I would not ‘reduce’ his art to his biography, but some facts about his life seem to reveal things about how he painted people. For example, biographers explain that the image we have been considering, Triptych of 1973, was ‘about’ a particular death: it was both exorcism and commemoration of the suicide of Bacon’s former lover, George Dyer, who died in their hotel bathroom in Paris just before the opening of a major exhibit of Bacon’s paintings. Knowing this, one looks at the work differently—it still seems horrifying (perhaps more so), but is an even more impressive achievement of artistic transformation. But content is not everything, either. Bacon’s forms, compositions, and artistic sources are also relevant.

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