NY critics go in for Francis Bacon bashing

22 June, 2009

With the arrival of the Francis Bacon retrospective at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, it seems the new fashion is to deride him, in an attempt to undermine and indeed eradicate his reputation. Chief suspects today are Jed Perl in the New Republic, and Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker (though you have to pay to read the whole article and find out how bitchy he really was, so I’ll be concentrating on Perl).

Typically for art critics, their devastating points are knowing allusions instead of anything concrete. They raise a veritable haystack of strawmen to knock down, and, as far as the actual paintings go, show themselves to have been rendered either blind or unfeeling by their occupation.

Perl says Bacon “owns” the “wrongheaded” tradition of the artist as romantic rebel, for the last half century. I’m not sure how he expects anyone with basic art knowledge to accept this, as (1), despite his insinuation that this was a special pursuit of Bacon’s, every artist aspires to this role, and (2) there are plenty of other, more famous artists eligible for the role, most notably Jackson Pollock (whom the US critics still don’t have the nerve to put down).

(“They are little more than rectangles of canvas inscribed with noirish graffiti.” I wonder how many canvases of literal graffiti have been praised by Perl over the years?)

“He zeroed in on those moments when Van Gogh and Picasso were pushing their glorious anarchic energy to the brink of incoherence [but] Bacon willfully ignored their ordering intelligence, preferring to sacrifice pictorial sensibility to literary sensationalism.” Schjeldahl made the same accusation of literary-ness, which made me nostalgic for Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, which pointed out the ubiquitous use of this slur by modernist critics, who do so without accounting for what this term means and why is is so awful. I suppose it’s a slightly more specific term than “pictorial sensibility”, which as far as I can tell means “the sense of being a picture”.

“The Bacon mystique is not grounded in his paintings so much as in a glamorous list of extenuating circumstances.” This was also one of Schjeldahl’s jibes, that Bacon’s celebrity accounts for his reputation as a painter. Well, however much you repeat it, it remains unprovable, and certainly untrue in my case. I’ve encountered my share of homosexual sleaze, and to be honest Bacon’s shabby adventures bore me. A Bohemian who drank and liked rough trade? That’s hardly headline-grabbing stuff, is it?

(I’ll just briefly note here that no intelligent person takes an artist’s catalogue notes seriously. The stuff about wanting to express directly through paint was what critics of the time wanted to hear, shallow creatures that they are.)

Next Perl accuses Bacon of pandering to “intellectuals and jet-setters”, and of being “carefully calculated”, and in the painting of the death of his lover, “he gives his work a tabloid frisson.” Gee, can you see what he’s subtly implying here? He’s a fake, a sell-out – he’s not Real (this accusation based on no observable facts).

Let’s dissect this sentence: “[He runs] signs and symbols through the shredder,” i.e. he’s casual and doesn’t take Art seriously, “producing puzzles and enigmas,” i.e. he’s deliberately vague in order to fake the sensation of meaning, “flotsam and jetsam floating in a chic void,” chic corresponding with the “jet-setters” of the previous paragraph to imply he’s merely in it for the money. I remind the reader again that no evidence is produced for these arty-sounding insinuations.

“Bacon’s version of the man-all-alone-in-an-unfriendly-world routine takes on a retro appeal. … “Oh, that again.” ” Now Perl has taken a different tack: even if you used to like Bacon, you surely couldn’t now – it’s just old hat, isn’t it? Yesterday’s rags. The fashions have moved on! (Yes, he is in fact saying “If you like Bacon, you will be unfashionable”, which I sadly suppose is an argument with much power to move.)

“This emotional dissonance fits right in with a postmodern taste for muddleheaded irony” – so what kind of dissonance would fit with genuine irony?
Bacon’s Pope paintings have “a howling 1950s look” (1950s? How dated).
“By the 1970s, Bacon’s surfaces are smoother, at times looking almost airbrushed.” Airbrushed 1970s? Certainly redolent of a tacky panelvan painting – touch√©!
“The stretches of flatly applied paint in tan, gray, pink, and orange suggest the streamlined chic of the 1970s, when furnishings and clothes were done up in Ultrasuede. These paintings are high- style bummers, bad dreams with fashionable upholstery.” 1970s, Ultrasuede, the dated word “bummer” – you can just see Bacon in purple velvet flares now, can’t you? How gauche he must have been! That Perl guy sure knows about art.

(In his next paragraph, he basically hammers home that Bacon had the same handful of pictorial elements he kept reusing. That this could be said of almost any artist is something he doesn’t bother to mention.)

Now Perl employs a lot of airy-fairy words to compare Bacon with Giacometti. Can you guess who comes off better? On every point of divergence, Giacometti is a saint to Bacon’s abject scrabbler. And get this: while Bacon’s technique is “coarse methodical belligerence”, Giacometti has “graphic precision”.

Further more, “Giacometti does not prejudge experience in the way that Bacon does. … Freedom is a possibility in Giacometti’s universe, and this can pose a daunting challenge, especially for museumgoers who expect to be told what to feel.” Museumgoers who presumably feel much safer and more secure with Bacon’s writhing raw meat nightmares than Giacometti’s stick figures. So Bacon is accused of being safe and mainstream, as opposed to Giacometti’s (entirely nebulous) freedom.

Perl’s next paragraph would take far to long to analyse thoroughly, except for its last sentence: “The organic nature of painting, the end-to-end logic that characterizes all painting, whether in Rembrandt or in Mondrian, is rejected in favor of a modernist re-staging of a fin-de-siecle freakshow.” Ignore the final phrase for a minute. What does the rest of this sentence actually mean? What is the “end-to-end logic that characterizes all painting”? Is “end-to-end logic” really synonymous with “organic nature”? If you know what words actually mean, you know the answer is “no”. This highfalutin language is meaningless, and the use of educated-seeming blather is a fundamental part of Perl’s critical technique. It hardly needs stating that the last part of the sentence is also ultimately without meaning, except as a generalised conjuration of negative association.

Finally, Perl reveals that he has expended all these words in the service of Real Art. “The actual matter of art–the artisanal concerns, the structural assumptions–are all too often seen as reactionary and academic, something for pedants and conservatives to bother about.” Well, I agree with this, actually, but I’m not sure how tearing down Bacon to raise Giacometti serves this purpose.
“Bacon … is the real academic–a pasticheur and parodist of avant-garde attitudes.” For the bewildered – no, that is not the definition of “academic”, in any of the shades of meaning that term possesses. But Perl is associating Bacon with the dry artifice of academe which modernist critics spent the 20th century repudiating (while all the time building the new consensus which all the art schools parroted).

What of Bacon’s painting in themselves? Can Perl regard them without regard for artistic fashion, association of celebrity, “literary associations” (yes, the quotes mean I think it’s a meaningless term), and the image he has generated for himself of Bacon as some sort of fame-chasing charlatan?

“The paintings, however, are so bloodless that all they can possibly do is send you back to the story itself. There is nothing in the paintings themselves to hold you there. In Bacon’s work, content trumps form every time. The emotion is as formulaic and pre-digested as in any Victorian picture of a dying child.”

So that’s a no, then.

For myself, I knew nothing of Francis Bacon’s reputation when I first encountered his paintings. They hit me directly, and made me feel that the painter must be in sympathy with my own sense of the world. Looking back, I can see there was a certain adolescent appeal in that bleak, existentialist horror. That appeal remains, I admit, but the totalness of his commitment to the vision still convinces. The background colours suggesting sickly bodily fluids; the wrenched bits of meat, vaguely human, placed just-so in the middle of the scene; the hopeless faces, the drab domestic furnishings, the space separating all the forms – no one else does it like this. No one else shows the horror of life in all its ill-fitting, gawky, heartless, empty reality.

And this is no mere rotting shark, this is a creation of the artist’s own hands and heart. But his brush technique doesn’t relate him to any of the respectable movements of his time, and his use of pop materials isn’t poppy enough for him to get out through that escape route. So of course he’s not acceptable. But how could any living soul not be moved by the mortal passion play he enacts before us?

If you don’t get it, that’s fair enough. You are probably far too healthy and well-adjusted for this to make any sense to you. Bacon really isn’t meant for people constructing an analysis of the development of painting through the 20th century. He doesn’t fit. His misfortune is that he’s painting to communicate, not to fulfill his obligation to “the tradition that values the artist above the art”, whether that tradition is antique or modern. That’s why everything he does is “wrong”. And now he is not alive to defend it with his personal charm, Bacon’s work is becoming the ultimate “outside art”.

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