Today I got a message from the new managing editor at Modern Painters asking me to accept a 25 per cent cut in pay for my articles, on the grounds that a downturn in advertising revenue had caused the magazine’s budget to be reduced and so cuts were being made all round. My stuff is adored, I was told — for its irreverent tone — and it was hoped I could be relied upon to keep supplying it despite a diminution of income.
The event brought up the issue of the arbitrariness of money in relation to art, but also to everything. How much is anyone worth? When Modern Painters began in 1988 it was the brainchild of an art writer called Peter Fuller, a man loved by fogeys and philistines, and middle class people who kidded themselves they were into art, while the art world as such couldn’t bear him. I couldn’t bear him either, at least not what he wrote. It always seemed so off the mark. Today I like a lot of what he had to say (he died in a car crash in 1991) and continue to dislike the bits I disliked before. I dislike the arrogant ignorance about what actually goes on in contemporary art, people’s motivations, the issues and arguments. Not that I feel I have to blindly support this scene; the opposite in fact. But in my opinion if you want to be effectively against the grain you must be able to show that you know what the grain is.
The bits I like are, mainly, his raving on (positively) about Ruskin, who in those days I didn’t know anything about and didn’t care to learn anything about. Now of course I think Ruskin’s great and in fact I believe only an idiot wouldn’t think the same. As a personality, Peter (who I got to know fairly well) was great too. Very intelligent, funny, tortured, ambitious and confident. Without the torture he would be more like the preposterous twit he seemed, to art world trendies, to be. His tortured nature is hard to pin down. I only know the things he told me: he had an embarrassing father, for instance. He (Peter) was in analysis for twelve years, because of a gambling addiction, but of course the addiction in the first place was due to other troubles. He said he left the treatment in the end because he was kicked out, because the analyst just didn’t like him any more. The aggression you’re supposed to have towards the analyst after a certain stage as a sign of health was just too aggressive. I took this tale literally at the time. There must have been some issue of sorrow and pain behind it, but I never learned what it was. He often used to mention the analyst/writer Charles Rycroft, and when I eventually read Rycroft I found him very illuminating about what goes on in the psyche.
Once Peter came round to the Artscribe office to do some work on an interview — that was how we met; I interviewed him for Artscribe about four years before I was fired as the editor there — and he arrived when I was on the phone to the Chelsea Arts Club, who had called to plead with me to come and fetch my mother, who was having a nervous breakdown in their reception. I said I wouldn’t and they should call the police if she wouldn’t leave. Peter brought up breakdowns and parents with me, and I admitted I was in therapy and when he asked what kind and I said I didn’t know (Jungian I think), he said when you’re down a deep pit and someone’s throwing a rope to get you out, it probably doesn’t matter who they are. But he had been in a much classier Freudian analysis, and I think I even got the impression he’d had it for free, because he was so interesting, although I’m sure I must be projecting that, because of fears of not being interesting enough for my present therapist, who I certainly don’t get treated by for free, and who I’ve been seeing for fourteen years. (I saw the other one for four.)
In fact that’s one of the reasons I can’t accept Modern Painters‘ pay cut proposal: I’ve got to find a lot of money each month just for therapy bills. As to what any of us is worth, well I would have to ask the therapist to accept a pay cut, plus I’d have to ask Virgin TV to charge less, and Waitrose, and Amazon café at the bottom of my road, and the Renoir cinema, and the garage in Tufnell Park Road where I’m always having to get the car fixed, and in fact Modern Painters for their cover charge (I never get posted any issues free, I have to buy them at Borders, even though I’m in all of them). And I’m not sure I could do that, because of the air of madness that the exchange would surely have: “Hi Waitrose. I really like your free range organic chickens, as you know, but can I start having them for 25 per cent less, because of the world economic crisis?” And they’d say, well our chickens are worth what they’re worth; we can’t just say they’re worth less than that now.
And that’s how I feel about my articles for Modern Painters. If they’d always been written for free that would be one thing, but over the years the fee has gone up to its present level bit by bit, and if it went down at all I’d be demoralised. The starting point in 1988 was about £50 I think. Or maybe £300, I can’t remember. What I do remember is after that first article I started helping Peter sub-edit the articles for each issue and the fee I got for that work was always £300. It was only four times a year though. I would turn up wherever it was, Cambridge I think, and he’d be sitting there with what used to be called galleys, lots of strips of paper with type on them, full of errors, which I’d correct — apostrophes, italics, keeping the house-style consistent and cutting out flab — and he’d have many bags of sweets he constantly dipped into and a lot of cigarettes and cigars he smoked, and all through the work he’d be very funny and entertaining. And in the meantime while these stints of sub-editing were going on I supplied him with a few more articles.
One was an interview with Jeff Koons, who I’d met before from filming; in fact I was the first person to put this artist on mainstream TV. It was a short BBC thing I filmed (while bunking off for a day from another film I was supposed to be the researcher on, about Tim Rollins & K.O.S.) in the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, where Koons’s ‘Banality’ show was on, after the show was down. The film was the British middle-class educated TV audience’s first experience of 1980s giddy distanced unhinged art irony cum genuine vacuity at maximum strength. In any case, for the print interview for Modern Painters I met JK in the Cupping Room café on Greene Street, in Soho. Amongst my own questions, which were spontaneous and based on what I thought he’d like to talk about, were a couple Peter had given me, about Prince Charles’ views on art, and Ruskin’s, and at one point Jeff leaned forward and asked in all seriousness, “Matthew, who is ‘Ruskin’?”
Another article I wrote for Peter was about the time I was invited to New York to be interviewed for the job of reviews editor for Artforum. There was nothing to the story really; the interview did really happen but more significantly from the point of view of methodology I invented a kind of divided self for the account of it, for a laugh; the real self, who confessed he didn’t know why he’d ever pretended to take a lot of things seriously, and the unreal self that turned up at places like Artforum for work. Already I was on my career suicide path. I felt there was something attitudinous about being in this outré publication (Modern Painters of course, not Artforum), so oblivious and unhip, and it showed or somehow helped me deal with my anger at the British art world for continuing to advertise in Artscribe after I’d been sacked. Why didn’t the gallery owners whose advertising payments kept Artscribe afloat go on strike and insist I was reinstated with a pay rise? Just because I hit the office manager? But then after I’d been in my new job at the BBC for long enough, and had begun to identify with media types, and feel good about myself again, I didn’t feel any need to keep doing that, whatever it was — parading outrageousness or outlandishness — and I drifted out of Peter’s orbit.
Then a while after his death the new editor asked me back, and I suppose the bug bit me again, because I thought, what the hell, and I started writing a regular column in the form of a diary. That was fifteen years ago. The style had its own momentum. Being rude, contemptuous, forgetful, these had their place, plus simply recording data. Quite serious thoughts, observations about meaning and history and their disconnectedness with what was going on around me, these had their place too, plus there was mere streaming. One issue the diary was 12,000 words in length. It was about a filming trip in Moscow and St Petersburg. Another one that was pretty long also was about going to Texas to make a film about Donald Judd just after he died. These were the epic years. Often I didn’t know what to say at the end. I’d just sign off informally. Soon I started throwing in playful exaggerations: talking to Lady Di at the Venice Biennale one year, for example. She really was there and I’d seen her, but of course she hadn’t really discussed with me Mona Hatoum’s film of the sights a tiny camera sees when it’s inserted into the artist’s vagina, or the bubbling noises on the sound track. But this giddy level of constant star meeting was by now everyday life for me. “May I say how honoured I am to meet you, John Cage, ” I’d say, at the Anthony d’Offay gallery, when we were filming Cage reading some acrostics in honour of Jasper Johns. “Ha ha give over!” the BBC director I was working with would say. And I couldn’t tell any more if I was honoured or not. At art school I got the message I’d better read everything by John Cage, so I bought M, Silence and A Year From Monday and read them all cover to cover. Or if not bought, shoplifted, which was my method in those days of getting educational material — how many catalogues the old Hayward Gallery, and the Nigel Greenwood Gallery and the Robert Self Gallery, and countless others whose names I forget and don’t care about anyway — how many catalogues they must have noticed were unaccounted for on stocktaking days and thought to themselves: “Oh who cares, it’s the 70s, art publishing is still too hokey for anyone to be worrying about accounts!” Cage’s books are garbage but how could I have known that at age 23 and so what anyway? l bought a record of him and some other guy, Milton Friedman or someone, no David someone, Tudor I guess, and I thought it was fantastic; I’d think the same if I had it today: the fact is Cage was very uneven.
Then as the years went by my relaxed style was pummelled by successive waves of editors and sub-editors as Modern Painters kept changing its identity (leading to its present informed, up to date state), and I began to internalise the punishment or law or maybe just the pummelling, so that for the last couple of years, or maybe only a few months, who knows, I’ve been writing quite tight little thoughtful pieces, almost like real articles. I’ll go somewhere, see something, have a thought about it, research everybody involved, check all my facts, write several drafts, hone and torture the material, until something multilayered but at the same time seemingly casual is there on the screen, and send it off.
Jitish Kallat, ‘Horrorificabilitudinitatibus’, 2009
Acrylic and glitter on canvas, bronze, 350 x 780 cm
Jitish Kallat, ‘Traumanama’, 2009
work on paper, 134.6 x 94 cm
Mat Collishaw, ‘Insecticide 24′, 2008
C-type photographic print, 6×6 ft
Polly Morgan, installation view of ‘Carrion Call’ (2009)
Bill Viola, ‘Small Saints’, 2008
Colour High-Definition video polyptych on six OLED flat panels mounted on shelf
15 inch Screen
For example, it might have been something like the “Mythologies” show at Haunch of Venison, which I saw earlier this evening. Those guys! How much are they worth! It must be loads. They’ve got to be kidding with their quote from Borges about the animals the Emperor isn’t thinking of. But of course they’re not. They’ve got to seem to be serious for their buyers who presumably love to be faced with such clichés. The show has a modern ethnographic cum wunderkammer vibe, apparently just to acknowledge the venue because it’s the former Museum of Mankind space, in Burlington House, where for decades fetish sculptures from exotic lands used to stand around. A painting in “Mythologies” by Jitish Kallat had muted colour I liked, plus some rendered drips and some real drips that I also liked. Mat Collishaw had some photos of butterflies that were good, although it looked as though he might have mashed them up or something, or got their corpses and mashed them. In any case they were visually arresting for a moment. An art writer tried to get me to be impressed by some Bill Violas but I just wasn’t going to do it.
I wasn’t into “Mythologies” to tell the truth. It all looked too precious. But I wasn’t angry about it. Indifferent more like. I thought there was a feeling of voodoo and religion and rather laid-on funky modern spirituality that was frivolous more than anything else. Global feelings of spookiness, greetings across ethnic and religious boundaries, looming Spanish Catholic atmospheres and looming Indian Hindu ones, shadow-plays with the shadows all looking a bit childish but everyone having to pretend something important is going on. I loved the champagne, the sight of the wealthy, the conversations with other art world professionals, the networking and minor rows. To return to Viola, who’s one of the older artists in the show, included along with Christian Boltanski, Tony Cragg and Sophie Calle at one age level, and Collishaw and Damien Hirst at another, to add a confident art market atmosphere to the work of relatively untried newcomers, there’s something unacceptable about straining to make a metaphor for serious art of the distant past being emotionally moving, by having actors physically “moving,” writhing and grimacing in slow motion; I don’t see how anyone can tolerate the obvious kitsch in that. What he’s good at is sound I think, slowed-down sound, which he makes kind of majestic, although if you’ve been in an edit suite you’ll know that effect isn’t very difficult to achieve. If you look Viola up on Youtube you can see some of his early stuff and it’s much better, because it’s imaginative. It’s a variation on filmic creepiness, not a big production schmaltz-fest or quick fix for an audience that wants to have a lovely feeling that “art” is somewhere in the vicinity but is in too much of a hurry to find out what art has been or what currents run through it. Predella — it means little pictures underneath a big one, in Renaissance art. Viola appropriates this visual structure, and does something a bit pseudo-deep with it, but the effect for me is like lugubrious ads for banks or insurance companies. This should surely lead to another thought about value, but it’s been a long day, so that’s it for this week: Hare Krishna amigos!
Until 26 April
Haunch of Venison
Images from ‘Mythologies’ courtesy Haunch of Venison