Nigel Shafran Will Selfs’s office 2006
Nigel Shafran
Will Selfs’s office 2006
Photograph

In the Studio: Will Self tracks the ever-changing relationship between the literary and visual arts from John Keats to J.G. Ballard

It’s not so much that the views of the character reflect those of his creator, as that in tracing over the lineaments of Wilde’s acidulous aphorist, I discovered a kind of freeing-up of my literary perception of the visual arts. I may have been a little cruel about Wilde’s own pretensions to replicate in prose the aesthetic effects that he admired, but what he did achieve, whether attending a vernissage in his celebrated ‘cello’ tail coat, or glossing the lush inventories of J.K. Huysmans’s À rebours (Against Nature, 1884).

We fiction writers tend to see ourselves as standing apart from the activities of the common weal of art criticism. We are happy to accord with critic and poet William Empson, who said of art catalogue text specifically (although he might have been describing a whole swathe of critical writing on the visual arts): ‘[It is] a steady, iron-hard jet of absolute nonsense.’ I would go further – but then I always do – and assert that almost all contemporary art criticism, whether for newspapers, specialist publications or academia, which doesn’t confine itself to the purely factual – historical, biographical, cultural – beats up very quickly into turgid and onanistic arcana.

It’s true that many famous and renowned writers have flicked their wrists at art criticism, including Thomas De Quincey and Oscar Wilde. However, it’s moot whether they added anything to the field, and they certainly failed to generate anything with the impact of their thinking on questions on general aesthetics. De Quincey, of course, is best remembered for adducing Piranesi’s minatory etchings of I Carceri (The Prisons 1745) to the hypnagogia of his own opium reveries, and beyond that for his seminal essay Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.

Note, please, that this was not called Art as a Kind of Killing. J.G. Ballard took De Quincey’s trope and twisted it a full revolution further to come up with The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as Downhill Motor Race, thus neatly excising aesthetics from the parallel altogether. Ballard, who I’m happy to acknowledge as a powerful literary influence, has often described what he does in fictional terms as analogous to the work of Surrealist painters: a juxtaposition of irreconcilable opposites, the mashing together of the unconscious, the preconscious and any so-called commonsensical view of the world to create a form of hyper-reality. William Burroughs – whose own cut-up method was hijacked from the Dadaist Tristan Tzara – wrote in a preface to Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) that he viewed Ballard’s text as a literary concomitant of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Now, while this may be true at a theoretical level – both Ballard and Warhol are interested in the commodification of women’s bodies in the emergent mass media of the post-war period – the effect of reading Ballard is not in any meaningful sense to ‘see’ Pop Art, or even Surrealist dreamscapes.

On the contrary, like De Quincey, Ballard is, I would argue, concerned with widening the province of what can be considered as beautiful. For Vaughan, the protagonist of Ballard’s novel Crash 1973, the arcs described by ejaculated semen across the instrument panels of crashed cars have as much right to be perceived in an aesthetic sense as any more conventional gushing of pigment. It is not, therefore, merely accidental that three years prior to the novel’s publication, Ballard felt driven to mount an exhibition of car wrecks in a London art gallery. He completes the list of literary-visual aesthetic theoreticians by fully supplanting – rather than supervening – Thomas Aquinas’s formulation of the good and the beautiful with the tautology: ‘The beautiful is whatever can be considered as… beautiful.’

As to Wilde, his biographer Richard Ellmann said that he lived the first half of his life as a scapegrace, and the second as a scapegoat. This division roughly corresponded to the schism in Wilde’s own aesthetic from ‘art for art’s sake’ to ‘money for God’s sake’. If you think this harsh, it’s worth considering quite how empurpled Wilde’s word-pictures truly were: a glossy, thick impasto of recherché descriptive terms and foreign coinages, piled on and on, until his dropsical paragraphs began to resemble those Victorian withdrawing rooms, cluttered with bibelots and taxidermy, that he himself so professed to abhor. His art criticism now reads as a form of special pleading avant la lettre of his sexuality.

When Keats describes that dratted Grecian urn as ‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, Thou foster-child of silence and slow time’, he seems to me to be saying these things are mighty old, and they make him feel pretty callow, yet tells us nothing about the urn qua artwork. It remains a white, adamantine screen on to which he may project his musings.

I’d argue that this is what all fiction writers, whether of prose or poetry, get up to when we cite an artwork, describe it a little and then adapt it to our own ends. Trope, metaphor, simile, allegory – to write about a visual artwork is merely to remove the business of description to an ulterior level, one of shared reference. So, to say ‘she had a face like a Modigliani’ – something, I confess, I have done – is merely to save all the bother of saying that she had a long, oval face, with an ochre complexion and a freakishly elongated neck. I also assume a secondary level of cultural reference on the reader’s part. You understand that what I really mean is: ‘This woman looks like what you and I suspect Modigliani’s life models looked like.’ The only reason I don’t say this is because I’m lazy, and, further, you and I wouldn’t experience the little thrill of cultural exclusion that the reference engenders. There is a way of inverting this practice. Take this description of a sculpture from my first book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity 1991:

It is a large piece, depicting two shins cast in bronze. Each one some eight feet high and nine in circumference. There are no feet and no knees. No tendons are defined, there are no hairs picked out, or veins described. There is just the shape of the shins. It was typical of my father’s work. All his working life he had striven to find the portions of the body which, when removed from the whole, became abstract. With the shins I think he had reached his zenith.

The description, which is, of course, highly facetious, is of a Henry Moore that plopped down – like two costly bronze turds – on a perfectly good piece of grass, abutting Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath, a couple of years before I wrote the book. Not that I have a pronounced aversion to Moore, it’s just that in the context of public sculpture his work, and that of Anthony Caro and others, has a specifically municipal air of abstraction: the human form broken down to the point where it becomes curiously anodyne, depleted rather than pregnant. In the story, the location of the statue is explicit; so, once again, the description – no matter how erroneous, how satirical – becomes a reference for those who are in the know.

Fortunately there are writers who have strived to go a lot deeper than this. Proust perhaps stands as the novelist who made the most concerted effort to integrate an evolved visual aesthetic into his work. He approached the visual arts from several angles at once: as a paradigm for all art; as a socio-cultural phenomenon; and as an aspect of individual personality – the artist as hero of his times. Certainly, Proust’s painter Elstir in À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) is as capacious a figure as he is chimerical a creation.

Put together out of bits of Monet, Moreau, Turner and Whistler – to name but four – Elstir (a partial anagram of the last) both stands for all Impressionists and supersedes them, being much more than the sum of his parts. Proust, who was steeped in Ruskin to an unhealthy degree, uses Elstir to comment on the artistic inclinations of his own era. Thus he paints the cathedrals and cliffs of Monet, the racecourse subjects of Degas, the gods and centaurs of Gustave Moreau, the firework nocturnes of Whistler, the bathing girls of Renoir. In particular, he achieves with paint the metaphorical magic of the true poet; whereby, according to Proust, he renders that impression of what we have seen before we know what it is. His images are, therefore, trajected into our preconscious mind quite as much as they are torn from it.

This achievement of Elstir’s places him closest to Turner; or, at any rate, when his seascapes – which transpose sky, water and terra firma – are conjured up by the writer, it is Turner’s canvases that we mentally image. But beyond this, do we really find any credibility in Elstir’s art? I would argue not; in À la recherche, his daubs, no more than Vinteuil’s melodies, remain curiously absent and undefined, no matter how hard Proust labours to bring them before us, while the rose-pink, labial intensity of Odette’s boudoir, or the Second Empire riches of the Duchesse de Guermantes’s palace come triumphantly to view.

By the same token, Elstir’s persona, despite arrogating the hauteur of Whistler and the lofty modesty of Monet, remains altogether unbelievable – the type of an artist, rather than the artist himself – while Proust’s courtesans, hostesses, society doctors and boulevardiers come to life. I’m not sure that the author can be blamed for this. The fact is that artists in novels tend first and foremost to be the ‘character of the artist’, rather than people in their own right. It is not without accident that writers are drawn to produce fictionalised biographies of artists, or that if you ask most people to think of a book about an artist, they come up with The Agony and the Ecstasy or Lust for Life.

By writing a fictionalised account of an actual artist’s life, the novelist seeks to avoid the dreary predictability of the artist as rebel, bohemian, gifted madman or sacred monster. But mostly the writer seizes upon the visual artist as a character in lieu of writing about himself (because there is nothing more exquisitely tedious than writing about writing).

I’m certainly guilty of this crime. In my novel Great Apes, the protagonist, Simon Dykes, is nominally a painter, but really his psyche and his creative impulse are both thinly veiled versions of my own. In the opening scene, I attempt to render the painterly eye:

Simon Dykes, the artist, stood, rented glass in hand, and watched as a rowing eight emerged from the brown brick wall of one building, slid across a band of grey-green water, and then eased into the grey concrete of another building. Some people lose their sense of proportion, thought Simon, but what would it be like to lose your sense of perspective?

Dykes continues to toy with this notion of perspective-free vision throughout the conversation with his dealer, George Levinson, that follows:

I’m not talking about a Cézanne-inspired viewing-of-the-world-anew, but a diminution. It’s perspective that provides the necessary third continuum for vision and maybe consciousness as well. Without it an individual might not be able to apprehend time. might have to relearn time in some way, or be left in a sliver of reality, imprisoned like a microbe in a microscope slide.

Interestingly – to me, at least – coming back to this passage after a decade’s absence, I see that I’ve recast Proust’s argument in Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, 1927) where he denies true artistic transcendence to Elstir and other visual artists, on the grounds that their works cannot convey the fourth dimension, the passage of time. What Proust made of Buster Keaton is unrecorded.

However, this was not my intention at the time: that was merely the rather more banal aim of using the artistic imagination as an aberrant portal through which to access alternative levels of reality. Dykes’s own paintings, quite as much as his eye, are doors of perception, which have been inspired by his chance viewing of John Martin’s apocalyptic The Great Day of His Wrath 1851–3 and The Plains of Heaven 1851–3 – both of which hang in Tate Britain. He himself goes on to produce a series of contemporary apocalyptic paintings: ‘In Martin’s canvases the body was violate, or inviolate, but always viable. In Simon’s the human bodies would be scarcely viable: the massed termites of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.’

These canvases are described thus:

They were all depictions of the safest and most urbanely dull of environments, but subject to a horrific destructive force which shook, stirred and ultimately shredded their human cargo. The interior of the Stock Exchange beneath a tidal wave; the booking hall of King’s Cross tube station on the November night in 1987, at the very instant the fireball erupted; the car deck of a ro-ro ferry as the green gush rolled in, and the red and blue cars were flushed out.

As you can appreciate, these are not descriptions of paintings as such, but tableaux mordantes, intended to showcase very literary ideas about contemporary society. For, despite the artistic milieu it is set in – among the ‘Young British Artists’ of ‘Swinging London’ in the mid-1990s – the novel is nothing to do with art at all, but instead a satire on anthropocentrism.

The YBAs were purveyors of what the critic Julian Stallabrass has characterised as ‘High Art Lite’, or, even more dismissively, ‘the Saatchi Gallery’. Their work surfed on the frothy wave of media ephemerality, just as much as they themselves embraced the cash and pitfalls of celebrity. Predictably, they were picked over by commentators, the more literary of whom reduced – or transliterated – what they did to a text-based phenomenon. I remember the writer and former Tory MP George Walden writing a piece for the New Statesman, in which he said that although much of the YBAs’ work had a certain cartoonish vigour and ability to épater, none of it was as witty as a single episode of The Simpsons. Coming from another angle, J.G. Ballard said to me – I think with the sculpture The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991 in mind – that the trouble with Damien Hirst’s work was that he was really a novelist who wrote peculiarly short books.

While both these remarks have a certain bite, they are recognisably of the ‘Modigliani face’ school of literary reductionism about visual art. It may be fair to treat a conceptual work in the medium best adapted to the exposition of concepts, prose, but it hardly succeeds in conveying the actual impression of works such as Hirst’s shark or Rachel Whiteread’s Ghost 1990, with its leaden and yet insubstantial evocation of lived lives, the absent and the abandoned.

While my novel Great Apes 1997 has an artist protagonist, Dorian 2002, my reworking of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, has an artwork at its centre. In updating Wilde’s classic – which really has attained the status of a modern myth, in that while many have not actually read it, they certainly believe that they know it – I transformed Basil Hallward’s portrait of the epicene antihero into a video installation entitled Cathode Narcissus, in line with translating the action of the novel from the 1880s to the 1980s. This gave me plenty of opportunities to take more swipes at artists whose reputations I consider over-inflated.

Take this rant against Warhol – truly the favoured artist of the aesthetically ignorant and the intellectually lazy – by Dorian Gray himself:

Jesus Baz, when I heard you going on about Andee five years ago in London, I thought there might be a certain cachet to him and his scene, but now I’ve seen them and they’re as dull as any gaggle of old faggots anywhere in the world. Bloody wizened old stick, with his acne scars and his white Rasta wigs and his tape recorder and his dumb Polaroid. Lisping on about this celebrity and that celebrity: ‘Gee, Dorian, don’t you think so-and-so is fantastic.’ Fan-fucking-tastic  when it’s some Z-list TV actor he’s salivating over.

Wilde said of the malcontent Henry Wotton, who devours the very core of the narrative: ‘He is as the world sees me, while Basil Hallward is as I truly am, and Dorian Gray is what I would like to be.’ I always found this laughable, for of course – in line with what I have said above – Basil Hallward, the artist creation of a resolutely literary mind, is a vapid cipher of a character, while Dorian Gray, equally vapid, is also a pretty-boy psychopath to boot. Wilde was being unfair to both himself and Henry Wotton, who is – as well as being very much Wilde-like – an entirely successful portrayal of a savage and dandyish aesthete.

Here’s my version of Henry Wotton expatiating on art: ‘I myself have only one virtue – I hate every little thing and all big ideas. I loathe the so-called ‘art’ of the twentieth century with a particularly rare and hearty passion. Would that all that paint, canvas, plaster, stone and bronze could be balled up and tossed into that fraud Duchamp’s pissoir.’

It’s not so much that the views of the character reflect those of his creator, as that in tracing over the lineaments of Wilde’s acidulous aphorist, I discovered a kind of freeing-up of my literary perception of the visual arts. I may have been a little cruel about Wilde’s own pretensions to replicate in prose the aesthetic effects that he admired, but what he did achieve, whether attending a vernissage in his celebrated ‘cello’ tail coat, or glossing the lush inventories of J.K. Huysmans’s À reboursthe ‘immoral book’ which was at the heart of his libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry – was to portray the aesthete himself in such a way that through this characterisation he made the visual arts apprehensible for his readers.

It was thus the aesthete, rather than the artist, the consumer rather than the producer, who turned out to be the key figure when it came to writing with any conviction about the visual arts. To tie up this baggy bundle still further: can it be purely accidental that one particular aesthete was quite so influential on such a number of important writers? Robert, comte de Montesquiou-Fezensac, was not only the real-life inspiration for des Esseintes, the decadent aristo of À rebours, who resolves to live an entirely artificial life (and, therefore, by inter-textual insemination, the Wotton of Dorian Gray), he was also the basis for Proust’s Baron de Charlus in À la recherche. Montesquiou was a painter and writer himself, but his attraction as a hook upon which to hang fictional representations was, in part, his outrageous enthusiasm for and championing of other, more significant artists. Huysmans-Proust-Wilde, er… Self. An honourable enough lineage.

Lest this seem too recherché, too recondite, too elitist, I would go further, and argue that as the aesthete was to the late nineteenth-century writer, so the ordinary man’s perception of the visual arts is to the twentieth. Joyce, as ever, stands at the crossroads of futurity. In Ulysses 1922, Leopold Bloom may be obsessed with the marble statues of the Greek goddesses in the Irish National Gallery for motives as much prurient as aesthetic, but the fact remains that he is obsessed by them. A pudendum is as good a way into a thing as any other.

In my own new novel, The Book of Dave 2006, I take this democratisation of the aesthetic a few steps further. My protagonist, a London cabbie called Dave Rudman, is a collector of statues: the entire city is his private gallery, its monumental works are his bibelots. Here he is in an aesthetic encounter with a fare:

Dave drove in silence and snatched occasional glances in the rearview at the fare slumped in the corner of the back seat.Quite unexpectedly the fare spoke: ‘D’you mind going that way?’ She waved her hand towards Edinburgh Gate.
‘I want I want to see the statue.’
‘The one under Bowater House? The Epstein – Pan chasing the Family of Man?’
‘Er, yeah,’ the fare acknowledged, ‘that’s the one, but I thought he was the Devil.’
‘I love this statue,’ Dave remarked, because they were by it, shuddering through the arch, past the oil-dark goat legs of Pan. Michelle looked up at his fig-leaf scrotum. He was pursuing the primordial couple with their kids and pets. Their hard faces were flattened against the future, the whole bronze gaggle pelting full tilt from the swamp of Belgravia towards the greying greenery of the Park.

So what begins with name-checking an artwork in order to create cultural complicity ends, I hope, with something altogether richer and more satisfying: an integration of reader and viewer, the text as a portal through which a public artwork can be re-framed. I’m not saying that this is the only possible way of writing the visual arts into fiction, but for me, now, it seems a lot better than a Modigliani face.