Magazine article The Spectator

'Face to Face: Interviews with Artists', by Richard Cork - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Face to Face: Interviews with Artists', by Richard Cork - Review

Article excerpt

Face to Face: Interviews with Artists Richard Cork

Tate Publishing, pp.256, £19.99, ISBN: 9781849763240

Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects Hans Ulrich Obrist

Allen Lane, pp.570, £22, ISBN: 9781846148279

Two ambitious volumes of interviews with artists have just been published. They are similar, but different. The first is by Richard Cork, a veteran with a Cambridge education who enjoyed a distinguished stint as art critic at the Times . He is nicely old school: chatty and avuncular. The second is by Hans Ulrich Obrist of London's Serpentine Gallery, ageing Swiss boy wonder of the art fair circuit with a head like a pink dome-nut. I have heard Obrist speak and could not detect any meaning in what he said, although he certainly said a lot. In classic Q&A template, Cork and Obrist tell us what it is to be an artist today.

Artists once served, in turn, the religions of God, of beauty, of sex and political or social subversion. In all of these categories very great masterpieces were realised. A dead Christ, a Venetian hooker, a Dutch townscape, a cathedral in a meadow, and a gas station, all became things of thrilling beauty. But at some point in the last 50 years, art ceased, on the whole, to be either beautiful or interesting. Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect who, black-clad in Prada, bestrides the 'art world', enjoys discussing EU administration in his interview with Obrist.

Who can say why artists are now so boring? Maybe in a global culture European painting and sculpture seem provincial. Certainly, Obrist's manic dealings with artists depend very much on the easy availability of international flights. Or perhaps when consumers receive aesthetic gratification from so many sources, 'fine' art becomes redundant. Today, art has long since left the studio or atelier and is out on the street, yet there are still 'artists', many of whom are forced up dead ends of performance and conceptualism. Accordingly, there's often more a sense of caution or fatigue than exhilaration in these interviews.

Each volume is overlong, underedited, turgid, witless and ugly. It amazes me that people who care about art can care so little for the look and feel of a book: neither is designed in a fresh or imaginative way. Cork's Face to Face looks like an old textbook of the sort which made you sob. Obrist's is a brick, but without the simple charm. Cork has portraits of his subjects, but Obrist has no pictures of any sort. As Tom Wolfe knew, we are now in the age of 'the painted word'. When artists need to explain themselves at baffling length, talking in very long paragraphs, as they do here, something is wrong with their art. Here you get the written picture and it's not a pretty one.

So what defines an artist today? The influential sociologist Howard Becker explained that artists are people who possess rare powers which they trade with the world in exchange for its tolerance of their quirky behaviour. He added: 'Work and makers stand in reciprocal relation to one another. If you do it, you must be an artist, so what you do must be art.' So that's self-fulfilling and not susceptible to any testing. Additionally, on the evidence offered here, artists are characterised by self-absorption, vanity and a casual, but colossal, disregard for the public. Mental health specialists know this as narcissistic personality disorder.

Cork was influenced by David Sylvester's epic interviews with Francis Bacon, who is also interviewed in his own book. …

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