Tracey Emin once got incredibly drunk during a live TV interview after she lost the Turner Prize. She cursed the interviewer and swore at the audience then stumbled off the set. Live. That's my idea of good art on television.
Gentlefolk, start your debate
I went to London because a museum paid me to be on a panel. I have found panels to be the deadliest form of entertainment but if you pay me I will serve for the good of the community. The panel was actually a debate, ostensibly titled "The Role of Art on the Television." That this could even be a cause of debate just goes to show you that the Brits have art on television, and that a young curator, Lisa Le Fever, could enlist her employer, The Photographers Gallery, to produce this clambake demonstrates enlightenment and delusion. I was there because my cable access show, galleryBeat, was something to argue about.
Matthew Collings was not on the panel. He lives in London though, and is the face and personality of New Art on TV, with two series on Channel 4, This Is Modern Art, and Hello Culture! Since there are only about 15 channels to choose from, he is as famous as Charlie Rose and easier to take from my point of view. Art is a successful form of entertainment in the U.K., unlike our bloated entertainment celebritocracy. Artists in Britain are the bloated celebritocracy. Madonna sucks up to them.
My panel-mate and antagonist, John Wyver, is the owner of Illuminations Television. His award-winning production company makes cultural and art documentaries for television, produces feature films and season series. It's all very straight up and fly-right kind of PBS style of programming that demonstrates a reverence for art, though the artists themselves may not be reverent toward their colleagues, their field or their dealers, and in fact may be blowzy gasbags. There was also an artist on the panel, Nina Pope, and she has an end-of-TV-as-we-know-it production on the web named TV SwanSong. Goodbye TV, hello internet webcasts. Viva la revolucion.
The night before the panel, my friend Uscha Pohl had a party at her flat to rally support for the underdog American production, gBtv, and she got more people in her place than we would get at the panel. Lots of artists whose names I forget but they are vivacious. I remember Keiko Owada because her band is led by Turner Prize artist Martin Creed, and also includes Adam McEwan, whose gal pal is Cecily Brown, and I use their music on galleryBeat. Uscha's work again.
My friend Cindy took me out of the party when it was just cranking up. The Brits love to party. Pubs close at 11 p.m. People seem to agree that is reasonable. And from what I know, it's a hell of a lot safer. The composer and deejay Tot Taylor, who worked Nan Goldin's opening at Whitechapel, made me a scotch with one drip of water, which he called a mixed drink. I was getting really high so it's good I left when I did because I was still sloggy the day of the panel. I hear that's normal over there and even kind of disciplined.
The night of the panel Wyver was up first (and foremost). He showed clips from his latest documentary about the painter Julian Opie. Opie's work reminds me of Peter Max without the fake psychedelia but with that very graphic portrait style that might use two dots for eyes, leech shapes for eyebrows and nice flesh tones for the plum shaped faces. Opie did a CD cover for Blur when they were fighting Oasis.
What's amazing is that John's documentary is unbelievably sober and shows Opie, the actual person, looking (and sounding, if that was possible) much like his paintings. After John showed his well-produced clips he elaborated on the process, which is a philosophy that includes a ten-point credo that essentially states that our job as documentary filmmakers is to be true to the subject, objective and invisible. He's looking at me, and I already feel guilty because John's the main man of the British TV art empire and he's laid down principles.
Then it's my turn. Broke most of the credos within the first two minutes of my clips, which ran for 25 minutes. The galleryBeat reel starts with Walter Robinson and me critiquing a giant plastic barf puddle by Sue Williams at the 1993 Whitney Biennial, me knocking over a sculpture in a gallery, Julian Schnabel telling me galleryBeat is an exercise in masturbatory stupidity at the Gramercy Art Fair, galleryBeat covering various shows with verve, Cathy Lebowitz, Walter and me getting kicked out of the Dia Center, Walter going on a diatribe about freedom of the press, attitude queen Tracey Emin lounging seductively on a hotel bed, it just went on until the curator whispered to me, "how long will this go on?" The audience was chuckleheading. I had made some friends. I cut my clips off before the reel got to Sean Landers singing classic rock karaoke, a hot Larry Gagosian artist (who shall remain nameless) getting nude and photos of Gregory Crewdson's reel life Bud-guzzling blue-collar mannequins. I'll be back, I thought, heh heh heh.
We had already used over an hour and the artist Nina Pope still has her turn, and while her work is technically better-looking than John's or mine (or John or me, for that matter), her clips and discourse work like an electronic device for getting rid of humans and we are left with about 19 people in the audience. I was ready to go myself but we still had a debate to bang out for the surviving audience members. Real buttsore troopers, that lot. I was attacked for the corrupting personality-driven nature of my work and I fought back with the "hey, I don't even know HOW to make old school documentary programs" type of defense. Low and inside.
Some audience members pipe in that they think galleryBeat is more like their own experience in art. Three minutes in the gallery, ten minutes talking shit. I'm feeling strong. The opposition reloads with how galleryBeat is more about my personality than the art. I shoot back with a kind of "I got more from Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, and Sister Wendy than from Kenneth Clark" (John did a film on Kenneth Clark). Where did I think I was? Invoking Seinfeld? Stupid as that may have been, the Sister Wendy bit sort of capped things off, because the nun was the trump card. I think John hates her, but no one can argue that she's da man. Then the curator lowers the curtain.
There is no clear winner to the debate, but the contenders are clearly high-road vs. lower-road vs. the end-of-the-road road. John gets the respect nod and I get the laughs, Nina gets left field. And then we all get a free meal with the director of the museum at the Real Greek, and we all laugh and drink like fish.
We See Some Art
After we had recovered from the festivities of getting through the debate, Cindy and I went to see the sites, which was mostly the Tate museums old and new. That's more than enough art for one day.
The old Tate has the biggest batch of incredibly beautiful J.M.W. Turner paintings, as everyone knows, but I'd never been there to see them in person so I was reduced to a blubbering awestruck idiot. I got my first art show when I was 20 by knocking off Turner from a book of prints. The paintings live and breathe with blazing colors. The action of Turner's brush and the bold impasto reflect an impassioned musical speed. They are not exhausted and too knowing. Even at the end of his life and painting, Death is a living skeletal shadow staged in a physical pulse of sunlight. It's not often enough these days that I feel the power and redemption of great art, and if I have to get that boost from the Old School, one has to get it where one can, and with Mr. Turner, I do.
Then we went to the new Tate, which is a refurbished red brick power plant. I think it's a mix of Albert Speer meets Industrial Brit Ironic. A towering smokestack penis with deflated balls. (The architects are Swiss.) It's got floors of contemporary art but the main show is Andy Warhol so we don't have to see that because we've seen enough Warhol at home. The new Tate is gigantic but I just don't get it. Ye olde Tate rules.
The next day we plan to see every gallery we can in one day. We get a cab driver who will take us everywhere and wait at each gallery because this is a big unknowable city and we don't know it. Nobody does. Everyone carries a map book, the A to Z, because you can't know centuries of streets that likely had King Arthur scratching his crown over directions. We chose to go on the one day of the month that most of the galleries have openings so they are closed for installation. Amazingly they let us in to every one except Jay Jopling's White Cube2. And the gallery people were inviting and gracious even though they had never seen us before, with a video camera, at least in my case. Maybe it's partly that attitude that got London the biggest art market share in Europe in less than ten years.
Most of what we saw was unremarkable, art-wise. Like New York without all the high-tech video that infects Chelsea. Which is a major plus. There was an interesting show by a young artist, Nigel Cooke, at Modern Art. Meticulous dark landscape (a la Jack Goldstein) paintings with tiny human heads sticking out of the ground, like cabbages on a rubble-strewn lot. Co-owner Stuart Shave told us that they were severed heads but you couldn't tell so that might be a drawback for those who like blood. Modern Art is a good gallery in any case because it's still gritty in spite of its success.
Anthony Wilkinson Gallery had a good show, but Cindy didn't think much of it. Artist Christopher Bucklow had lithesome photogrammatic silhouette figures filled with bright bursts of quasi spiritual looking dots. Later I saw the same images in a New York Times fashion supplement ad. Forget what I said about spiritual. Again maybe I am judging from the good vibe of a gallery. For now, it all goes into the equation.
The other notable show was at Maureen Paley's Interim Art. Once again the gallerists let us in, though the gallery was in a state of installation chaos, painting walls, a beehive of art working. We didn't know who was showing, and no one told us, since everyone assumed we knew, I guess. The main gallery was loaded with color photos of fashionable young people, aerial landscapes, postcard-style pieces and wall-sized abstract monochrome drawings that were really photo emulsions, all hung salon-style.
Cindy said it reminded her of Wolfgang Tillmans, and then he walked into the room. They chatted and I had the camera on so I asked him some questions but the big question was, "What happened to your nose?" That I did not ask but he did have a big scab on the side of it. It looked like he'd been in a fight. I don't know him so some things go unasked. It was a great experience and he was kind of friendly. The big abstractions were quite memorable, very striking.
The last show we went to was New York artist Mike Smith at Hales Gallery in South London, so far away we could have flown there cheaper. It was a really fine, clever multi-dimensional installation about a self-help guru-type guy that takes over a broken down artists colony, QuinQuag. Jerry Saltz wrote about the show when it was in New York. Once again, a very cool gallery closer to more adventurous curating than most, with a cafe to boot.
After that we had dinner at St. John's, an art-crowd restaurant that served British cuisine. People told us Thursdays was "cow and pig guts". We combed the menu and it certainly was. Cindy ordered the fish (big mistake), so if you go to John's, which I recommend, be brave and go with the guts. Jay Jopling was having an after-opening dinner party across the room, but we stayed low in our corner because we knew some of the people in the group but we were too pooped to give a shout.
The next and last day was all meetings topped with an interview with Matthew Collings. I'd read Matt's first two books, Blimey!, and It Hurts. Blimey! is one of those books I can peruse often and with great pleasure because it is so clearly representative of artists and of my own experience with the art world. It's funny, informative, snarky and has a lot of pictures. He literally documented the first major movement, the Young British Artists, as it was happening, not unlike Clement Greenberg informing Abstract Expressionism. His latest book, Art Crazy Nation, is like Blimey! in that it's humorous, and different in that it's a scathing broadside against the structures and people that use art as their meal ticket.
Matt is punctual, affable, and meets me at the hotel we're encamped. It was a very good way to end my first trip to London. Everyone I had the good fortune to engage made me feel comfortable. The best part of it was a lack of video art.
The following is an interview conducted by me of Matthew Collings at the Metropolitan Hotel in London on Mar. 8, 2002. It is a transcribed video recording , and as such, Collings' words, non-linear phrasing, and cadence are true to form. The only things omitted were all the laughs we had.
One Very Critical Critic
Q: Vital statistics?
A: My name is Matthew Collings and I've got a cold and that's why I'm talking a bit strangely. I'm 46 and I was born in London in 1955. I don't really know how much I weigh, and I'm an art writer.
Q: How long have you been in the art business?
A: I went to art school in the early '70s. And I started writing about art in the late '70s. So it's over 20 years I've been a sort of art professional journalist type.
Q: Were you an artist?
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I did painting. I never studied anything else. My formal education ended when I was very young, about 13, and I was in a home for maladjusted teenagers for the rest of the time I would have spent in that education area. So the rest of the time I had any contact with anything like school was art school when I was 19 which was 1974, and I was four years doing painting. While I was at art school, which was a provincial, little, pathetic, non-illustrious school in London, life-drawing really, I learned to look out for art magazines and I would religiously study Artforum. It was all about cruciformality and flatness and the edge. I didn't understand a word of it really, but I knew there was something out there, more of the moment, or maybe it was glamorous in a way even though now it seems very gray and it was better than drawing the life model.
Q: So you were only a teenager?
A: Late teens, early 20s. And I learned to think in the structure of absurd, pretentious almost meaningless, pseudo-medieval devil scholastic language that those ridiculous guys wrote in the early '70s.
Q: Did you have a favorite academic?
A: Not really, they all seem the same to me now.
Q: So you're still painting?
A: I've always had a studio and there's never been very long that I haven't shown, actually. I've never shown in an impressive way. I've always been in group shows with people I went to art school with. People know me for writing and TV, not as an artist.
Q: What's your favorite color?
A: I couldn't possibly have a favorite, because I like the relationship of colors.
Q: Who's your favorite person to look at?
A: At the moment, or all the time? I tend to really like Russell Crowe. Heh heh heh heh heh. He's a great guy because he's this "warrior poet." The other day he wanted to read a poem at some awards speech and the camera cut away from him in the middle of his reading, I mean he's become incredibly fierce, so he found the boss of the film company and beat him up.
Everyone's kind of shocked that he's not better behaved, like Ewan McGregor. Russell is good and Ewan is boring, I mean I'm his side for all this enfant terrible sort of stuff. And he might be cast as Ted Hughes in the biopic of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Q: Meg Ryan says she wants to play Sylvia Plath.
A: Oh Meg Ryan, hmmm, or Melanie Griffith would be fantastic. . . .
Q: Do You have a personal philosophy?
A: I can't say that I do, really. It's funny you should ask. I could give a very long answer. . . . Well, the short one is no.
Q: Okay. Have you got a credo?
A: The short answer is no. But I have got a long answer. In terms of the creeds and philosophies of contemporary art, I think you've got to reject them. And recently I have come to realize I must systematically do that. It doesn't mean that I totally ignore them or don't think about them; I do think about them, but you've got to start off from a position of rejecting them because you don't want to be stuck in a position everyone in the art world is in, maybe at a certain age, maybe not at an advanced age, using theory and philosophy and ideas to intimidate people that don't really know what those ideas are or haven't read an ordinary book. What can they do with a theory book?. So I have a very clear and distinct credo and philosophy in relation to that problem. Apart from that problem, I'm just an easy-going, liberal, middle-aged guy.
Q: Moment of humiliation and moment of triumph?
A: I haven't any moments of triumph but nearly all my moments are of humiliation! all my moments in the art world are of utter pain and humiliation. My writing is all about my feelings of humiliation.
Q: Have you been mistreated or abused?
A: Yeah, constantly abused. I find the whole art world existence one of being mistreated and insulted in some way. And I think why on earth would I let myself in for that, why, how can people be like that.
Q: So you really are an artist.
A: Yeah heh! that probably is what defines an artist. An extra-sensitive paranoiac. That's a common point of view, and not one that's expressed very often.
Q: Do you think you have become more of a target now that you've become more of a recognizable personality?
A: No strangely, no. A target in some ways but not necessarily for attacks. People are always coming up to me saying I saw your program, I read your article, they are friendly but even that I find a bit difficult because I don't know what they mean, I don't want to help anybody about art, I just want to describe things that I know or that I feel I'm familiar with and I want to describe the oddity of it.
And then people say that oh, I've really opened their eyes to art and I don't want to do that to anybody, no, but over the years my self-irony has become less jolly and more sort of twisted, I think bitter, still amusing I think, but weirdly so. People suck up to me even more and I'm not quite sure if it's their masochism or if it's simply that they don't really read what I say anyway as long as I write about them then they'll get some publicity and that's OK.
Q: Is the British Art scene going wrong? Going right?
A: Well that's a relative matter, you know, there has been no success like the British Art success, there's been nothing more successful. There's been no movement that lasted so long. Soon it will have lasted as long as the Egyptian pyramids movement. Nothing in modern art lasted 12 years, and it shows no sign of abating, this kind of goo mentality and stupidity that set in and took off very quickly and if you think of it in terms of popular success or popular acclaim or popular notice, people paying attention to it.
The Tate Modern is the most popular sign of this success, this sort of empty trivial silly place, five million people went there in one year, I don't know what they want and I don't think they know what they want. But it's definitely a successful thing.
Q: You've been very critical about it in your latest book.
A: There's nothing about art that says it gets better when it's more popular or when it's more accessible, and there is nothing about it that says the reverse. Popularity just doesn't come into the picture, you know art is either good and important and soulful and thoughtful and moving or wonderful, or not. In terms of Young British Art and the popularity of art in Britain at the moment, the interest is not in whether the art is important or soulful or whatever, but whether it is successful. The interest is purely about success.
Q: How do you think that happened?
A: Well, I'm not necessarily saying anything very clever or original when I point to the factors that are involved. I think lots of people have noticed them. Towards the end of Thatcherism in this country there was a sudden availability of international travel to young artists who hadn't had it before. There was some relative sophistication in the art schools, a sort of high-level understanding of international contemporary art that hadn't been taught before.
There was the presence of the Saatchi Gallery, where young artists could see very swanky contemporary art shows and see what contemporary art actually looked like. They had a lot of punky attitude. "We don't care." Which is something that you didn't quite have in New York at that time because people did care, because they could have a career whereas over here you couldn't.
Another factor was the availability of industrial spaces, because in this country with the end of industry and the rise of the information age there were industrial spaces where you could put on shows. This all happened at the end of the '80s with a few artists and that became Young British Art.
Now there are loads of post-YBAs, post-post-YBAs, post-post-post-YBAs. But it's all more or less those kings, the first ones and then a few others that came after. Funny enough, no one's quite ever been able to repeat the first thing. The first thing was mildly interesting, there was some creativity there.
But the really profound change has not been in art but in the audience. Nobody would ever expect that this sort of provincial backwoods place, England, would now find itself at the top in terms of art. There are some ironies, in that we are at the top but in a different way as it was a hundred years ago.
Q: What do you think is OK?
A: Well, anything that's creative and amusing. The Chapman Brothers, for instance, are very intelligent artists. They know what the good taboo subjects are they know what has electricity in pop culture and what has electricity in the world of theory. And they apply their intelligence and their joie de vivre -- albeit a kind of black joie de vivre -- and their artistic talent and flair and they come up with a lot of children with penises sticking out of their faces. They look fantastic!
There is an esthetic there. It's not like the esthetic of de Kooning or the esthetic of Rodin. The esthetic comes from it being right. It's profound because it has to do with the writings of George Bataille, I don't take that seriously but it's in there somewhere. And it might be responding to a unique set of circumstances which is the "now moment". . . .
Q: Do you have any thoughts about where British art might be going?
A: No, only getting worse. . . . because it will get more smooth and infantile. . . . Like this Saatchi Museum that is going to be starting up near Tate Britain, between Tate Britain and Tate Modern. And the Chelsea Art School is going to be down there, too. That means lots of little galleries will start up. That means even more publicity and the middleclass broadsheets, and the Sunday supplements, and more TV attention, and all that kind of thing. Very hollow, vacuous, and repetitive. The same nonsense spoken again and again.
All that is about to build up massively, and that has an effect on what goes on in the art schools, and what goes on in people's expectations of art. So the hype side of this thing is very treacly and idiotic and so I see an even bigger rise of that stuff. I'm not sure what the antidote to that is but I certainly predict that that this treacle will lie on the land for many years to come yet.
Q: Well, as the proponent of a very particular movement of art you've become a senior critic of the art scene. Do you think now that there is a danger becoming the kind of old cranky critic mode who complains of how it was better before and now it's worse, you know how it goes?
A: No, I'll tell you why. Because it wasn't better before. My books or my TV programs tend to be about what is the accepted mainstream of art and then I do a job of chronicling and describing and making a narrative out of the situation and that narrative has a certain quality to it. It's humorous and the humor contains satire and in the satire the value judgments are being made. You know I'm not blasting off against people a lot but I think when you look at those books you can see that there is a critical mind at work.
But just simply note there are sorts of things that I do in my descriptions, which is, that I tend to gather photographs of the artists and not of the artwork cause I don't care about the artworks or if I do then I put them in, but on the whole I don't care about them. And I tend to talk about behavior and fashion and language and look at a situation through those factors. I tend not to talk about the ideas of the work or I allow the ideas to blend into those other things as if they are all of equal importance or as if they are all equally trivial.
The book I just wrote is a kind of sequel to the earliest book I wrote. The earliest book I wrote is called Blimey! and the sequel is something like the Post Blimey Art World. The first book is a satirical description of an art scene, what has become the mainstream, and it looks at the mythology of that art and it is humorous and amusing about that mythology.
Q: It's very funny. It's the funniest book ever written about art, the real art scene.
A: Thank you. But it's spoken by a sort of made-up character who is willing to talk normally about the sort of thing that is considered to be rather mysterious. He's talking in a normal way and that is more or less the humor of the book. Humorous understatement is what that book is based on.
The recent book is more free in being contentious sometimes in being a bit sort of nasty sometimes but I would say that its not essentially any different and all of my books have a sort of distance from the subject and so I haven't gone from acceptance to cranky negating.
I've always felt rather isolated, to some extent in the crowd and wanting the love of my fellow apes but at the same time wanting to sit on my own little rock picking my own fleas and looking out on the others and that's what those books have been about. So I reject the stereotype of going from a champion of wacky youthful art into a graybeard telling them all off.