The day jazz died can be pinpointed with great accuracy: It was the day Charlie Parker put his alto sax to his lips and started sounding like Woody Woodpecker on speed.
With the beboppers, jazz became clannish, undanceable, and incomprehensible, something reserved for their fellow cultists. The pianist Bud Powell was often so strung out on heroin that they had to blink a flashlight in his eyes to tell him when to stop his frenzied hammering. Understandably, people tuned out in droves, and jazz, up till then a vigorous music form which had helped sustain morale in World War II, died a well-deserved death.
With painting, and over a much longer period, the same signs of dissolution are observable. Artists have engaged in a determined pursuit of the sensational, the garish, the morally and politically offensive--the latter nowhere better illustrated than when the Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum portrayed Andreas Baader (of the Baader Meinhof terrorist gang) as Christ being murdered in his cell by government jailers. For the past century practitioners have been involved in endless, barren debate about the nature of "art" itself, a debate that has been going on since Marcel Duchamp's famous exhibition of a urinal in Paris in 1917, signifying that anything you put into a museum can be viewed as art. It is the context that decides.
But rather than die out like jazz, modern art has triumphed, and nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in auction prices: Earlier this year Damien Hirst collected £111 million for pickled animals, old cigarette butts, and empty pill glasses. Last year, Andy Warhol's Green Car Crash brought in $71.7 million, and recently Francis Bacon has been going through the roof: Two of his triptychs--one featuring his dead lover George Dyer cavorting on the beach with a black umbrella, the other a veritable abattoir of entrails and hot reeking blood--brought in £26 million and $86 million respectively, while the ruler of Qatar shelled out £26 million for one of his screaming popes.
When faced with art's equivalent of bebop's furious noise, why do our eyes tolerate what our ears refuse? Most people will admit (privately, if you catch them sufficiently late in the evening) that they might not necessarily want to hang this stuff on their own walls; but to risk ridicule or be dismissed as hopelessly philistine by publicly dissenting from the experts is something very few are willing to do. Safer to parrot what we learned in art class: Ugly is beautiful.
The case of Francis Bacon (1909-1992) provides an instructive example of how a sordid little life is invested with huge significance. As portrayed in his close friend Daniel Farson's biography (The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon), Bacon was certainly a rum one. Having been tossed out by his wealthy Irish family for dressing up in his mother's underwear, he set up shop as an artist in London, where Soho's seedy gay bars became his universe. But instead of sailors he went for types like the Kray brothers, London's famed gangster duo, dangerous men in suits. And when he came into money, like many like-minded artists and writers he descended on Tangier, where male prostitution was rife.
Bacon was a sadomasochist. When the British consul in Tangier once bumped into a badly bruised Bacon, the consul complained to the local head of police, who politely interrupted: "Pardon me, but the artist loves it." At parties George Dyer, a petty thief, would pull off his belt: "Are you ready for a thrashin' yet, Francis?"
According to Farson, the decor in Bacon's chaotic South Kensington studio consisted of two photos of Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler--"representing the apotheosis of the hard men he admired"--along with Velasquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X, a Christ on Via Dolorosa, a hippopotamus, and a man, and an ape. Bacon also derived inspiration from a medical textbook on diseases of the mouth (amply illustrated, of course) and a whole library on skin diseases.
His fascination with violence and disease was reflected in his favorite motifs of screaming popes encased in glass cages, copulating male bodies, savagely abbreviated torsos, paralytic children, nudes with their faces distorted into snarls, George Dyer sitting on a toilet or throwing up, a crucifix with a Nazi armband, nightmarish renderings of his various lovers.
Bacon would try out the blurry effects for his distorted portraits by smearing his make-up and studying the effects in the mirror. Aeschylus' line "the reek of human blood is laughter to my heart" was one of his favorite quotations. Bacon was also big on traffic accidents: "If you see someone lying on the pavement in the sunlight," he said, "with the blood streaming from him, that is in itself--the color of the blood against the pavement--very invigorating . . . exhilarating."
Long before his death Bacon was hailed as Britain's greatest modern painter, the master of despair. Farson quotes the art historian John Richardson: "By holding a mirror up to our degenerate times Bacon proves himself to be one of the most moral artists of the day. Far from titillating us, he castigates us." Farson is honest enough also to include an opposing view from the critic Richard Dorment: "It is a cliché to say that Francis Bacon's lifelong theme has been despair. There is something here more deliberate, more chosen, and more willed than despair. Something vicious, and purely evil."
That sounds about right. As Paul Johnson has asked, why should we admire sentiments and urges in an artist which we would find abhorrent in anyone else? Great art can certainly shock--Goya's drawings from the Peninsular War, Rubens's crucifixions--but those artists shocked with a purpose. For an artist to limit his definition of art to its ability to provoke is absurdly restrictive. Art can serve to uplift, make us reflect, laugh, fortify us against misfortune, even just be beautiful. To the argument that, after two world wars and Auschwitz, beauty is dead or pointless, it can just as easily be argued that beauty is needed more than ever.
The demand for newness is equally crippling. It is nonsense to argue that there is nothing more for art to do, everything having been done: Writers still write after Shakespeare and Tolstoy. Most insulting is the critical insistence that the artist must be sociopathic to have something to offer. Rubens was a diplomat and Leonardo could do whatever he put his mind to; the problem today is that, since no demands are made on craftsmanship, anybody can call himself an artist.
A gigantic industry has grown up around this doctrine. Cathedrals have been built to house contemporary art, academic careers have been made to explain it, huge sums have been invested in it. You can hardly expect a rich collector like the Briton Charles Saatchi, who has supported artists who put genitals on children's faces and used elephant dung for a portrait of the Virgin Mary, and whose most recent acquisition is a portrait of Himmler in a lemon green uniform, to admit that he has made a dreadful mistake for which he is profoundly sorry.
So if dissenting views are to be heard, they must come from outside. But few conservatives seem willing to engage in the fight, perhaps because they find contemporary art so profoundly demoralizing. Of course, you can choose to treat the art scene as delicious comedy, putting on show the delusions of silly, self-important people. But isn't art too important for that? Ceding the field to savages, and cutting ourselves off from a key strength of Western culture, seems cavalier.
Henrik Bering is a writer and critic.