Lesson Three

5 years, 6 months ago Yeadon's Art Lessons 1

The Back Story.

Today you need a back story.

In this directionless pluralist swamp, art is no longer defined by its chronological historical context but by the artists individual story, the personal narrative, that is, their ‘back story’, as the television talent contest the X Factor would have it. In the X Factor some family tragedy or some disabling injury will make the contestant more interesting, more credible, more worthy.  An artist’s biography has always helped our knowledge of the art. Ever since Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’, the biographical account  has been important and can add to our understanding of the work. We all like stories of Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, or Picasso’s women or Carravagio’s violence, great stuff. However today it is this biography, the back story that solely accounts for why the work looks like it does. An explanation of the work is no longer to be found in the history of forms and styles, not the development by schools, traditions, countries or isms, nor the historical or ideological context that these forms and styles or isms arose from, or a broad social and political context. The artist’s biography is the context. Our understanding of the work springs from the individuals personal narrative. History or tradition does not come into it, the artist’s back story is the art’s provenance.

Tom Norman pointed out that  “it was not the show, it was the tale that you told.”  Norman  was the show man  and  ‘barker’ with  Joseph  Merrick  the ‘Elephant Man – Half a Man,  Half an Elephant’.  Distinct from a biography Merrick’s back story was that his Mother was frightened by an elephant while pregnant.  Central to the history of the  grotesque  is the notion of transformation  as  seen  in carnival  and the anatomical  fantasy of  the ‘Indian Wonders’  where no dividing lines  are  drawn between  the  human animal and vegetable worlds. Such forms flowed freely one within the other. Joseph Merrick fits this description, transforming from man into elephant.  This image of  metamorphism was necessary if Merrick were to be a grotesque, if not he would have been simply seen as a man with an incomprehensible  disease and not a marvel, not this creature of mythology.

The back story is intended to create mythology, the greater the myth, the greater the art.

Such stories are  constructs  and do not have to be true, not even partly true. Artists are in between autobiography and fiction.

Did he really fall out of that aeroplane? Was she really raped? Is that Teddy Bear really God?

We probably do  wish to believe that Joseph Beuys did fall out of an aeroplane and survived, all that fat and felt stuff was central to our understanding and introduction to his work. Perhaps it does not matter wether it is true or not, maybe this uncertainty is also part of the myth. Paul Jackson Pollock’s back story is a clear construct and close to propaganda, the ‘cowboy painter’ who had never been on a horse and who’s alcoholism added a existential tortured soul to the myth. Along with drug taking and the early death of rock stars, alcoholism is romanticised, like the nineteenth century fashionable aesthetic disease consumption – tuberculosis, that claimed many from Watteau to Chopin, with Keates being consumed by tuberculosis at 26. It was good and fashionable to suffer  but not if you were a woman. For women, tuberculosis was the AIDS of the nineteenth century which dispensed with many a operatic heroine. There is nothing  heroic about disease, alcoholism  creates dysfunctional relationships, causes mental illness and bleeding internally is a particularly gruesome death. What is left out of Pollock’s biography is as significant as what is kept in. Pollock’s membership of the American Communist Party and that he worked at an experimental workshop with Siquerious, the Mexican Communist and Muralist are not part of Pollock’s legend and much of the narrative on ‘freedom of expression’ concerning Abstract Expressionism was constructed by the FBI. Similarly with Picasso we read much about Picasso’s relationships with women but not that he was a member of the French Communist Party. One might presume that his ideology of Marxism Leninism would help us understand the work, his attitudes to life, his philosophy, well, enable us to understand his paintings, more than who he took to bed. These official biographies seem to serve other masters and other needs.

With the case of Gilbert and George we have a good lesson in what is left out, the separation of public and private, how to construct a public image and create a myth and remain in control of that myth. In the 60s at St Martins School of Art, Gilbert and George or George and Gilbert, as was, rejected the left wing politics and paint splattered jeans of their contemporaries in favour of right wing politics and suits, looking more like bank clerks than art students. This reactionary image was different and got them noticed but the perverse and novel are not radical or progressive. George mourned that, “you’re not allowed to be Conservative in the art world, of course. Left equals good. Art equals Left. Pop stars and artists are meant to be so original. So how come everyone has the same opinion?…  Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different.”

Extreme right wing politics has been fashionable in Britain, take our ‘play boy’ King, the so-called  Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson or the large number of aristocrats and politicians who wished for appeasement with Germany prior to the 2nd World War. If socialism has its avant garde then so does fascism, look at ‘Futurism’ or Wyndham Lewis and his book ‘Hitler’ which was presented to Adolf Hitler as ‘a man of peace’  and though the Nazis destroyed the Bauhaus they also developed a form of Modernism or there is in fiction the ideologically challenged and political fashion victim, Miss Jean Brodie and her love of El Duce and all that was Italian and modern. Gilbert and George are seldom asked about politics, what they do reveal is their Nationalism, their admiration for Margaret Thatcher, support of the Falklands conflict and enthusiasm for the Monarchy particularly Prince Charles, all of which is perfectly respectable, even quaint and wholesomely British. However, the right wing politics of Gilbert and George could be just a pose, like the suits, being perverse or doing the ‘wrong’ thing, are all good art strategies. Like Wyndham Lewis they might now recant their youthful extremism. We will never get to know the truth because they are always performing, always doing their act.

You might think as living sculptures that they cannot be on stage all the time but when the media is there, they are performing, that is, when ever you see them, they are performing, all we ever see is artifice. Their persona, their image is a construct and you never get to see them not performing even when interviewed by Melvin Bragg,  Bragg is in on it and he plays the game. We never get to see their private or reflective world  because they are always performing their rather stupid but nice English vicar act when being interviewed and saying nothing when they are supposed to be spilling the beans. Their interview ‘performance’ avoids saying anything but gives the appearance that they are explaining things. Of course they might have nothing to say in the first place. Melvin Bragg when interviewing Gilbert and George collaborates with the mythology. He does not ask George Passmore how his wife and  daughters are! Or, say – “What is it like being a Grandfather?” He would not be allowed and as Gilbert and George are in control of the questions this awkward situation would never arise.  Gilbert and George protect there real history as much as their constructed biography. Photographs and film of them and what you are allowed to ask them, is controlled and regulated. An interview billed as “Gilbert and George talking candidly about their work for the first time”, is in fact a Gilbert and George performance, they are performing all the time, all we see is their public and media image.

Obviously, George Passmore’s marriage of 1966 is not the issue, many gay men have been married and have children, sexuality can be complex. However, with Oscar Wilde, it was his homosexuality that was the dark secret not his marriage. With George Passmore it is the conventional heterosexual marriage that seems to be the problem and nineteenth century prejudice is turned on its head. Well he wants to be different and this is different. My point is that the true biography is overtaken by the back story, the myth. George’s marriage is covered up, his wife’s identity is ‘unknown’, because it does not fit the back story narrative. In July 2009 Gilbert and George revealed to the Sunday Telegraph that they have married each other after a relationship for 40 years at a civil ceremony in Bow in 2008 and so, the story is reinforced.

The back story does more than guarantee the authenticity and provenance of the art, it guarantees the authenticity of the artist or at least the appearance of authenticity. Authenticity here is more Cronkite than Hiedegger.  Modernism and Post-modernism are typified by the myths surrounding  self expression,  authenticity and authorship, essentially the myth of the individual.  Walter Cronkite, the American journalist saw the proper relationship when he cynically said  “Honesty if you can fake that you’ve got it made”. The things that resonate with the kind of authenticity we are looking for here are things like, street credibility, graffiti artist, not going to art school, or started painting in prison, something that says this individual is naturally creative. Creativity, though a problematic concept and not one I ever use,  is understood by art galleries and the media as having something to do with art and the making of things, so do not be afraid of using it even though it might be meaningless to you, most people think they know what creative means. The same can be also said of ‘self expression’, do not be afraid of using it. The back story is a celebration of the individual and places the individual at the center of the art over history or ideology, therefore it seeks to be authentic as it is anti intellectual and anti ideological. This is a lowering of everything that is high, a bringing down all that is intellectual in art history and art criticism.  A back story is simply a dumbing down, an expression of popular culture.

The back story is not a meaningful enquiry into the artist identity, but a construction of image and persona, more akin to to-days celebrity culture. Nor is the back story a serious or comprehensive biography.  It is a marketing device which can be written by the artist themselves and does not need a historian. The back story is part and parcel of the commodity and helps to identify the brand, it makes up the ‘whole package.’  This short biographical provenance is all is needed to account for the art. It enables the gallery, television presenter or journalist, who know nothing about art, or art history, to sound informed, to speak simply and briefly, seemingly with insight as to the nature of the artist and the art. For instance it is easier for some young television art and culture presenter (who should be presenting Blue Peter), to talk about Monet’s visual disorder, the cataracts and that  Monet’s ‘muddy’ vision accounts for why his paintings look like they do. Much easier than dealing with the history and the development of Impressionism or colour theory or Modernism and abstract painting. Cataracts are reason enough the paintings are as they are. The back story is a sound bite.

So get writing your back story, remember it does not have to be true but total fiction is difficult, an extreme back story would be to work under a pseudonym, here the artist would be a total construct and fictional, however some autobiographical element is suggested as a starting point. Keep it simple and short, remembering what you leave out is as important as what you put in, so if you were into graffiti as a teenager, do not then mention that you later went on to the Royal College of Art. Also, do not be afraid of contradicting yourself, artist always contradict themselves and will help the narrative to ring true. Real life stories are complicated and full of contradictions.

A troubled childhood is always useful, as is a dysfunctional family but keep it amusing nothing too serious or tragic here. You could go for something that is wrong with you but this needs to be fairly disabling but not unpleasant. You could be ‘face blind’ and paint portraits, not being able to recognize individuals – prosopagnosia is a good one. However dyslexia is just not good enough. Cross-dressing is okay but probably a bit too common place, like homosexuality it is worth a mention but not really unusual enough these days. But something eccentric that can explain the work or why you do what you do, is always good. Middle class is as good as working class, as is race or immigration status, like male or female they are more descriptive than significant in their own right, but it depends on what the work is like. Knowing the gender or ethnicity of the artist could transform the work.

Your personal story does not have to be extreme or sensational, surprisingly, ‘nerdy in suburbia’ is good. Odd is good but not too odd. Religion can be useful, that is, how you were brought up, your current belief system or ideology should not be in your back story, beliefs, philosophy and ideas are too complex for the back story, but a simple mention of ‘catholic guilt’ would be good for instance. Street credibility is important, being an adolescent graffiti artist is excellent back story material as is “never went to art school”, but doodling on school exercise books would not quite make it and “cannot draw” is too honest and should be left out.

The back story is a way of introducing the popular culture to your art, so skate boarding is good, as are childhood interests and hobbies such as horror comics, air-fix models, miniature railways, any solitary childhood pastime that creates a world of one’s own you should go for. Drinking as a pastime should not be celebrated. My mother used to say that I had my brains in my fingers though this does imply I was a bit stupid. So ‘brains in fingers’ would not be a good one for a conceptual artist or an artist who relies on assistants to make the work, you need to make sure that the story helps the art. Being known for your intelligence is a difficult one to pull off, like being well read you actually have to be it and you will be easily found out if you have not read enough books or are something of a simpleton. Much easier is to do the opposite and feign stupidity, they like their artists a bit dumb in this country.  Being stupid or naive is part of the authentic package. So, stupid and naive are good. However if you are intelligent and can talk clearly about your art then this can be put forward as something unusual, remember odd is good, like – “unusually for an artist he/she is very articulate and knowledgeable about their work.” However you should not be too clear about the relationship with art and life, that is, your art and your back story. Enigma is important, mystification is important and like art, your back story does not have to make sense. An old painter once told me that the reason Gainsborough was a better painter than Reynolds was because Gainsborough played the Viol de Gamba. This is good back story thinking. So don’t be too literal or obvious, be obscure. A good start would be – lives with parents, did not go to art school and met Andy Warhol who touched him up.

Have fun writing.

One Response

  1. Good start to a day, this: yes, the word ‘creative’ is to be declared extra-mural for artists, it now refers to anyone having a boring meeting, deciding on the paint colour for the downstairs lav, or a condensed version of CERN culled from a science magazine and used as a metaphor of crop rotation, or as we sometimes say, bullshit.
    I think that you should have had a second career as a standup comedian (but not in working-men’s clubs , although they are now less violent towards the intellectual , enjoying transvestite potters, even) Being a college lecturer almost counts.
    A backstory is hell to write, all writers of novels are urged to have one, making them sound like someone else entirely: anyone who ‘makes’ something to eat is now a Creative (noun not adjective, note) and because everyone now wants to be unusual, not just a singer but Lady GaGa, this means that you have to work really hard to be different. Power to Anon, perhaps. All your points are good, John: Warrior Onwards!

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