My Writing Space
The Last Refuge
Burial at Sea
SACRIFICIAL LAMB: PROTESTANT ARTISTS
Is beauty a matter of aesthetic taste (I know what I like) or sensory cognition sensation (I like what I know)? The art world prefers the aesthetic approach. Since there is no accounting for taste, the market can exploit it.
Look at people, not pictures. What do they see in each other? It’s easy enough when two members of the Tubby Club fall for one another. The Big Mac is an aphrodisiac, so they can salivate together. But in life it is rarely obvious. Confusion of the senses so often conjoins the incongruous that it is a mystery how two out of every three marriages are not just for the honeymoon.
Science has a name for it, chemotaxis, bodies drawn to one another by a chemical secretion. But since it is not seen as a problem for humans we only have its explanation for microbes, and that’s all cowboys and indians with the cavalry in between. So sensory cognition is as simple as going to a Western. You feel you have been there before.
Gilles Deleuze examined sensory cognition in Francis Bacon’s post-Soutine carcass canvases. Bacon’s art engages you in a complex of reflexes so confusing that you can’t just stand back and admire. You smile, weep, dry up with fear and lose yourself in a world you don’t want to be in, but it is all you’ve got. If Celan thought the poetry was in the pain, Francis Bacon highlighted the pain in painting.
If, on the other hand, you look at Bacon’s work from the perspective of aesthetic taste, you bow to its technical contortions but can’t bring yourself to kiss its hand. Your senses are blunted by being at one remove. You pay ethical service to the political implications of his subject matter (it makes one able to face a century that brutalised the beautiful) or the freedom from conventions in a self-trained artist, coyly suggesting the influence of Van Gogh (Bacon’s early work is pure Vincent and rather a matter of taste).
Peter de Bolla, a butcher’s son, curator of a Washington art gallery and Deleuze’s disciple, found Bacon’s Two Figures in the Grass released an involuntary memory of his first aesthetic experience when, as an infant, he plunged his hands in a bucket of lamb’s liver just taken out of cold storage. The chill was painful to the touch. But raw reality guested by his other senses - sight, smell and taste (when he put his finger in his mouth) - made him feel at home, until his mother slapped him on the wrist and scolded him (‘What would the sanitary inspector say’). The sensation remained with him, until puberty took over.
Rather than interpret art through aesthetic taste, you would do better to plunge your hands into a bucket of lamb’s liver. But it should not end there. Sensation is cognitive and therefore sequential. You should slap choice pieces on the skillet. Your recipe for foie d’agneau à l’ail from Larousse is likely to be less boring than meat and two veg. But in your careless rapture you allow the liver to brown (Francis Bacon’s favourite colour. He who venerated butchers’ shops saw himself on the altar of the chopping board and looking good enough to buy), and most of the meal will be left on the plate. Francis Bacon’s palate was discriminating. He threw most of his work into someone else’s garbage can (not trusting the art dealers not to go through his, and he believed that rarity value would raise the price). So your spoilt meal would be an appropriate enough tribute.
It is a pity Deleuze did not use Albert Giacometti as a control in his study of Francis Bacon. The two foremost twentieth century exponents of cognitive sensation. Bacon caught its beauty in the flesh and Giacometti its bone structure. As Siamese twins they would have created a holistic body of work, and had there been Francis and Albert we wouldn’t have to put up with Gilbert and George. Francis Bacon’s mind had its inbuilt poubelle. Like a good Protestant, he did not waste paint or canvas. Giacometti must have been a bad one. He remade his work so many times, abandoning it eventually, to start all over again. Degas also was an insatiable retoucher. His buyers feared his scrutiny. The painting was often withdrawn for repairs and never returned. But Giacometti went one further. He often changed what sophisticated sitters like David Sylvester or James Lord saw as perfection, and did it in front of their eyes. When the portrait was handed over, reluctantly, they couldn’t help feeling they were getting a reprise of a destroyed masterpiece.
But Francis would have had a problem with Albert’s clutter. Giacometti threw nothing out. His atelier was a skip for failed attempts at seeing and not seeing the ultimate skeleton in all of us. But Albert had the last laugh. When he died the market was flooded with abandoned pieces, and instead of lowering the market price with what could be considered reprises, the dealers and art critics worked together to make each new ‘failure’ the original that should have been, if the artist only knew. So an unfinished Giacometti was more prized and higher priced than one he chose to sell. Francis would have been gutted, Albert mortified.