|EDWARD LUCIE-SMITH: LEGENDARY ART CRITIC
At the age of 84, Edward Lucie-Smith is the world’s most legendary and prolific art critic http://www.edwardlucie-smith.info/. As of this writing, he has written and published more than 100 titles and penned countless essays and art reviews.
He has also just published a new poetry book called, “Surviving,” to help celebrate his recent birthday. I really wanted to chat with him because I know that very few people in the art world really have the guts to speak openly and candidly about art and the art world.
Equally importantly, the British author speaks from a place of love, respect and truth. He’s not using “transparency” as a snarky attempt to rip apart the art world. He’s speaking candidly because he wants the art world to be the best it can be.
This is a long interview and while it’s far from exhaustive, we do cover some significant ground. We chat about contemporary art, Lucie-Smith’s personal lineage, how money is hurting the art world, Brexit, Marina Abramovic, President Donald Trump, immigrants, various art movements, the practices and power of contemporary artists, why so-called "innovative art" is far from innovative ... plus how contemporary art is coming dangerously close to becoming a religion? What? We even chat about the sad state of art book publishing.
Here are a couple of pull-out quotes followed by our full-on chat with Edward Lucie-Smith …
“(The art world) … it's full of people who have a high opinion of themselves and who get agitated if you hint that you don't completely share their view of their own importance ...”
"... Basically we are in the epoch of ‘It's art because I say it's art.’ For that to work, art has to take on most of the functions that traditionally belong to religion. If you don't have believers, it doesn't function ... We're in a new age of faith. Someone tells you that it's art ..."
MICHAEL: Hello Edward! First of all, I'm certain that we could happily chat about art and art history forever, but I'll try to keep our conversation focused on contemporary art and the world today since "today" is all we really have. Let's get right to it, shall we?
Let's start on a personal note with you. How would you describe your own personal relationship with art and also, the art world? Are those relationships characterized more by love or contempt?
EDWARD: In many ways, it’s oblique. I got to “art” through a fascination, when I was a child, with archaeology. That’s odd in itself, since I was born in Jamaica and lived there until I was 13. There isn't much archaeology there.
MICHAEL: No, not that I’ve heard.
EDWARD: I still find ancient cultures fascinating. New discoveries are continually being made. In China, for example, there's the Late Bronze Age Sanxingdui culture (c. 1200 b/c. same age as Shang Dynasty), which wasn't known until the early 1980s. I still collect antiquities rather than contemporary art.
EDWARD: When Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes were new in Paris, just before World War I, the very young Jean Cocteau was dying to be part of their gang. He asked, “Serge, Serge - what do I have to do? What do I have to do?” Eventually Diaghilev lost it and turned on him and responded, “Jean - étonne-moi (Jean - astonish me!)!” Oh, and by the way, a cousin of mine, Anton Dolin - born Patrick Healey-Kaye - was one of the leading male dancers for the Ballets Russes in the 1920s.
MICHAEL: So we now know you’re not really “into” contemporary art. What’s your relationship with the art world?
EDWARD: Best described as somewhat wary. It's full of people who have a high opinion of themselves and who get agitated if you hint that you don't completely share their view of their own importance.
MICHAEL: I’m shocked.
EDWARD: Art world people like to fit you into some known, accepted structure of ideas and of social priorities. Where I'm concerned, they get worried because I don't fit comfortably into any of their categories. I sometimes get asked, plaintively, “What do you do? What do you *really* do?” I don't have answers to that. I don't even have answers if I ask that question of myself.
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!
EDWARD: I think, in the contemporary art world, the ground is continually moving under one's feet. Trying to stay in the same place (once you think you've arrived - if that's what you think) is a bad idea.
My metaphor is this … People build elaborate sandcastles and put nice little paper flags on the towers and clap their hands, having finished the job, and say, “Oh, it's all sorted.” But the castle they've built is right on the edge of the beach and soon enough, a big wave comes along and washes it all away. Then … a new generation of the self-righteous comes along and starts construction all over again.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. I think that’s how life works in general, unfortunately.
EDWARD: I've never really been part of institutional structures. I'm not a retired professor from some famous university. I've never held any kind of position in a museum or a big gallery. I do lecture occasionally, but those are one-offs. I don't write regularly for a newspaper or magazine, though I do currently provide a lot of stuff for the information web-site Artlyst. I do this unpaid. If they get fed up with me or I with them, it would be the work of a moment to break the connection.
MICHAEL: Such is life in the art writing world. Believe me, I know.
EDWARD: I have written a lot of books … maybe more than any other art writer now living. You have to remember that in many art books, texts are fairly short. It's the illustrations that count. I think if you looked online, you might find substantially more than 100 of my titles - I've lost track.
MICHAEL: Fantastic. You are indeed the most prolific art writer alive. You’ve certainly created a legacy.
EDWARD: Essentially, I'm not too bothered about what the self-appointed 'art world' may think about me - if it happens to think about me at all. I'm very interested in preserving my own independence.
The surest way of getting me to tell you to, “fuck off” is to say, ‘Oh, think about what people will say…’ OR … ‘If you do X, or embrace this position or that opinion ...’
I try not to do things, or put myself into situations, that will give other people leverage.
MICHAEL: Absolutely! I couldn’t agree more. I’m not sure that anyone on this earth can be completely independent, but you also don’t have to be wholly dependent.
Tell me about your family background. Where were you born? England?
EDWARD: I am a much more, old fashioned British Raj that I am actually British. My father's family have lived in the Caribbean since 1635 - first as planters in Barbados, then as lawyers in Demerara (now British Guyana), then as civil servants in Jamaica.
My great-grandfather arrived in Jamaica from Demerara to take up the position of Lord Chief Justice in 1863. He brought my grandfather, just grown up at that time, with him. That grandfather became head of the Jamaican postal system. My father, born in Jamaica in 1885, entered the civil service as well, and eventually became Assistant Colonial Secretary. Very unusual in those days for a member of the Colonial Civil Service to work in the colony where he had been born.
MICHAEL: And what about your mom?
EDWARD: My mother was descended from a 18th century chairman of the British East India Company - from the younger of his two sons, who was a member of Parliament and one of Wilberforce's closest allies in fighting for the abolition of the slave trade. In Victorian times, my mother's family, who were called Lushington, were closely linked to the Pre-Raphaelites. My connections on both sides were employed in the British civil service in India, survived the Indian Mutiny and all that.
MICHAEL: Jamaica definitely has a history of intermingling of races. No?
EDWARD: I had my DNA done around five years ago. I am white bread all the way through, but with a big slice of Finnish and Balto-Slavic blood (don't know where that comes from), plus some Jewish, which appears to come from Venezuela, via Curacao. One great grandfather was a sea-captain called Peynado, which is a Spanish Sephardi Jewish name.
MICHAEL: Hmm. What’s the origin of “Lucie?” Where does that part of your name come from?
EDWARD: The 'Lucie' bit of my surname is apparently London Dutch, but must originally have been Huguenot French. My mother and father met because of World War I. He took leave from his civil service job to fight after his younger brother, who had been killed in the conflict, was gassed in Flanders in the last big German push in the spring of 1918. Sent back to England, he became the ADC of an elderly home-front general, who was my mother's uncle. My mother was an orphan, dying for a way out of the situation she was in.
My dad resumed his job in the Jamaican civil service late in 1919, returned to Britain on leave in 1922. They settled the deal, and she came out to Jamaica and married him in 1923. I wasn't born until ten years later.
MICHAEL: So I guess no racial intermingling.
EDWARD: There's a kicker. Soon after returning to Jamaica in 1919, my dad made a mixed-race son, whom I didn't know about until two years ago.
MICHAEL: There we go!
EDWARD: That son was called by my father's unusual Christian name – Dudley - and by our even more unusual surname - Lucie-Smith. It goes back to the mid-18th century in Barbados. That son is long dead, but has descendants still living in Jamaica. I don't think my mother ever knew about all this. It's a very colonial story.
There are other Lucie-Smiths in Trinidad, descendants of a younger brother of the Jamaican Lord Chief Justice.
MICHAEL: Forget about art history Edward. I think we may have a movie script here. Ha! Ha!
EDWARD: I also have quite a good claim to be the most international of all English-language art critics. I have travelled all over South America, including Brazil. The only Spanish American republics I have never been to are Bolivia and Paraguay. I have also been to Mexico.
EDWARD: Also, in the Caribbean, to Cuba, Puerto Rico, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis. I am due to go to the Bahamas for the first time in April. Add many parts of the USA, including multiple visits to New Orleans and New Mexico and add Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
MICHAEL: Anywhere else?
EDWARD: Add China (quite a number of times - Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong, Hangzhou etc.). Add Japan, South Korea , Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. Add Turkey, Greece, all of the former Yugoslavia, Iran, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Egypt, Lebanon, plus all of the Baltic States and a number of visits to St Petersburg (never Moscow). In addition, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and of course, all the 'usual' European countries with, recently, many visits to Trieste.
MICHAEL: That sounds like the life I want. Have these been art trips for you?
EDWARD: I don't generally go for big jamborees, like art fairs or biennales, but to talk to artists, one on one.
EDWARD: I am quite well known as a poet and have published several collections of poems and used to run a famous, dare I say it?, poetry group in London in the 1950s and 1960s.
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!
EDWARD: I just published a new little book of moments, entitled 'Surviving,' to celebrate my 84th birthday.
EDWARD: I am also known as a photographer, mostly of male nudes. I have had shows of my photos in a lot of different locations – St. Petersburg, Kuala Lumpur, Kingston, Jamaica. I didn't start to take photography seriously until I was in my 60s. Apologies for such a long letter, but I thought we'd better get all this out of the way. Perhaps you remember the old saying: 'It's a great life if you don't weaken.'
MICHAEL: Are you kidding? This is great. We’re documenting your life story to a certain extent right now.
EDWARD: The basic fact is that I simply do what I do, and don't identiFy exclusively with any one department of it.
MICHAEL: Edward, you mentioned the "self important" people in the contemporary art world. Do you think those people are doing more harm than good to art and to the art world?
EDWARD: Far too many people, in official or semi-official positions, usually non-practitioners, currently feel they have the right to issue orders and instructions; to tell artists which directions they need to take. They seem to be unaware that, in the age of the internet, effective communication is as much lateral, between peers and peer groups (people of the same age, doing similar things) as it is top down ('We're the guys put here to tell you what you should be doing.')
MICHAEL: Very interesting. As you well know Edward, some people say art critics themselves are puffed up, self-important people. What do you think about the actual criticism of art critics? Also, do you think we need art critics? What is their proper role in society today?
EDWARD: Of course art critics are useful, if they do a basic job:
1. Pointing out what they think is good.
2. Saying why they think it's good, in terms transparent enough for the audience they are addressing to understand.
EDWARD: What they are not entitled to do is to insist that what they say is always and invariably right. The way we look at art shifts in response to the context we see it in. Our response to a particular work is also governed by both social and technological shifts.
For technological impact, look at the way responses to those two very different artists Vermeer and Caravaggio has changed in response to the birth of photography. Both artists can be regarded as “proto-photographic.” Their way of seeing, and their very possible use of actual optical devices, make their paintings seem more ‘contemporary’ to us now than those produced by their contemporaries.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. They are among my all-time favorite artists and I find their work stunningly fresh and contemporary. I find it so interesting that so many artists are copying their techniques. They’re literally going to the past to find something contemporary.
EDWARD: Different cultures use different frameworks. We can never see a painting or a sculpture, however well preserved it is physically, in quite the same terms as it was seen in perhaps, the distant cultural situation that produced it. Time both adds and takes away. And not just physically - also psychologically. That's what one learns from looking at ancient art.
MICHAEL: Edward, so many people today don't feel they understand art because they feel it's only for the wealthy or highly-cultured ... and they certainly don't feel connected to the art world. What do you think can change this? Wouldn't the art world benefit if more people felt connected to it?
EDWARD: Museums such as Tate say that they are strenuously seeking to connect with a democratic ‘everyone,’ using all contemporary means of communication, but this is, in fact, strictly on their own terms. The reasons are partly practical and partly psychological.
1. Contemporary art is tightly tied to the existing financial system. Much of their funding does not come directly from government - i.e. notionally democratic sources, but from private benefactors.
2. Money adds romance to art. One of the reasons that people throng to shows of work by big-name contemporary artists is to look at the money. 'Oh my God - do you know that picture in the show recently made $150 million in a Christie's auction?’
3. While Britain is progressive in the sense that many major museums are free entry - a situation that doesn't exist quite so widely elsewhere - there is a division between what is offered free entry, and paid for exhibitions. The paid for shows are highly publicised and they are what a large proportion of visitors to museums come there to see. They are defined, these paying visitors, simply by the fact that they have the £15 or £20 available to get in. So, in fact, an economic divide operates even when the museum concerned preaches that there isn't one.
4. Museums are forced to exercise censorship. Much supposedly ‘avant-garde’ art is - in the minds of both makers and consumers - avant-garde because it is openly erotic. This cannot be shown to under-age visitors. The solution is to include it in an exhibition, behind a pay-wall. That is, if you pay, you are offering proof that you are old enough to see this material.
5. Major museums tend to be in big cities. What they contain is therefore more accessible to people who live in those cities, or have the means to come and visit them easily.
There is still a visible culture gap between different parts of the same populations. Here in Britain, the failure of the new Walsall Museum to attract visitors, despite an admirably 'democratic' programme, seems to be due, in the most basic sense, to a gap of this kind.
The inhabitants of the industrial city of Walsall do not feel that the institution has anything to offer that corresponds with their own interests. In a democracy, if you are not interested, and feel no connection with what is being offered, nobody can force you to go.
The contemporary art world would indeed benefit if ‘more people feel connected to it,’ but you can't establish that connection through brute force.
Always remember that any artwork is an attempt to establish a connection between the one who made it and the one who - in the distant past, or immediately today, or notionally in the future - encounters it. The basic encounter is individual to individual and what the art work communicates will vary, if only ever so slightly, according to the mindset, psychology, previous experiences and cultural formation of the person who encounters it.
It would be nice (or maybe not nice at all) if we all reacted in the same way. The brute fact is that we don't. And in the end, it's the communication that counts, not just the physical encounter with something designated as ‘art.’
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Who would you say are your top THREE (dead and/or living), personal favorite artists and why? Keep in mind Edward, I tend to think that this can be a rather silly question, but in your case, it will give me an idea of what your personal taste might be. No?
EDWARD: I don't have favourite artists. Favourite artworks, yes … For your information, I'm not a millionaire or even what most people would define as rich.
MICHAEL: I can see that you’re a diplomat about naming artists. Fine. Ha! Ha! I have to ask you this … it seems to me that these days, contemporary art is always judged by the worst of it rather than the best. The media and the general public have a tendency to zero in on “bad” art and this stereotypes the way people view all contemporary art. I mean, no one likes poorly-executed art or anything that’s poorly executed, but nothing gets harsher criticism than contemporary art. Artists are very flawed human beings just like everyone else. Should we demoralize and humiliate an artist who at least wants to try to elevate dog poop into art? Is it always about shock value?
EDWARD: Ain't no such thing as ‘bad art’ in contemporary circumstances. In fact, we have no fixed framework of criteria. Hamlet says: ‘Look first upon this picture, then on this,’ but we've abandoned any sort of comparative method.
The criteria now tends to be: ‘This is ever so good, baby, because I *feel* it's good, and you'll hurt my feelings and make me cross if you don't take my word for it. Love me - love the art I tell you to love.’
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha! That’s true.
EDWARD: Or also … 'This (pile of fresh-made dog poop) is so far out, so outrageous that it's got to count as better art than anything you've been show previously.’
In fact, one of the major pieces of evidence for the absence of any critical structure has been the rise of so-called ‘Appropriation Art.’ That is (for example), a more or less exact replica of an Andy Warhol Elvis - itself based on a photo Andy didn't make - is wonderfully, brilliantly original because it has been made by “some guy” from BeloRussia.
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!
EDWARD: The comparative method, now often discarded as irrelevant by commentators on contemporary art, has however been increasingly embraced by people trying to detect fakes. In some recent high-level cases, including a recent case about a fake Frans Hals, it was the analysis of materials that uncovered the truth. It was the same thing with a fake Rothko, in the scandal that brought down the respected Knoedler Gallery.
In other words, it wasn't a case of an expert or experts saying, “I've looked at these paintings and I *know,* because I feel it in my bones they aren't genuine.”
It was a case of sampling materials and saying that there is proof, from fully-documented works, with an unbroken provenance, that materials were used in these paintings now just subjected to scientific analysis that do not appear in fully-established, original works made by the artists concerned.
Essentially the age of magic has passed, though some sections of the contemporary art world are desperate to revive it. Marina Abramovic ‘The Artist is Present’ anyone? How do you tell a fake Abramovic performance from a real one? If the great Marina sends in a double to the gallery because she's got a sore bum and can't sit that long today, it's still ‘genuine’ if she says so.
MICHAEL: That’s certainly interesting. I totally enjoyed Marina’s show, but it was definitely not ‘traditional art’ as most people know it. I thought it was inventive and pushed contemporary art forward. On another note, where are you exactly? London? How are you feeling about Great Britain leaving the European Union? I'm a bit worried about the whole Brexit thing and the impact it'll have on the rest of the world. Is Britain going to be okay? Are you going to leave? You can come to America ... that's assuming we're still accepting even legal immigrants from anywhere!
EDWARD: I live in London. I have lived there since I arrived from Jamaica in 1946. When Jamaica became independent, I became a ‘British citizen by declaration’ and I have a British passport. I used to have duplicate passports, which was a help in going to places like Iran, but they won't (the British authorities) allow that any more.
I did think of going to live in the USA - this was in the 1960s - but couldn't because I would have gotten caught in the draft. It was the time of the war in Vietnam.
Brexit: Quite likely to be a disaster. There's some talk in today's evening paper about London becoming an independent city state, like Singapore. Too bad it won't happen. The Brexiteers are due for a melancholy lesson. Soon enough, they may be begging to be taken back in.
EDWARD: In the USA, the Trump thing has got to play out. It's a question of how long it will take. He's already less popular than any ‘newbie’ president on record. He clearly has a thin skin and very soon, he'll start throwing his toys out of the pram and trying to rule by decree.
His fly-over state supporters are going to feel betrayed as the struggle between big money and populist alt-right radicals intensifies, within the framework (if it has a viable framework at all) of a Trump administration.
There's a traditional Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ That's where we are today.
MICHAEL: That’s for sure.
EDWARD: Both the USA and Britain have got to accept the fact that they are, in their present form, the product of immigrant populations. Pilgrim Fathers anyone?
The bit of London where I live offers a whole spectrum of races. My big apartment block is full of young Chinese. There is, at the same time, a hold-over group of elderly Iranians, who date from the time when the Shah's regime fell in the 1970s. The barber shop I use to cut my hair, which is a few steps from my building, is run by a very nice guy who I think is Bangladeshi.
MICHAEL: Wow, that’s certainly international.
EDWARD: If I stand on the street corner that is dominated by my building and watch people crossing the road, they offer every possible race and racial mixture. It amuses me that this aspect of the city often seems to scare naive American visitors to London. In fact, London is now maybe more genuinely multi-racial than New York. What it reminds me of, increasingly, is Dubai, but with a bigger segment of people who are of African descent, though they usually don't come direct from Africa, but from Africa via the Caribbean. London now has a Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan. Very popular he is, too.
MICHAEL: What you’ve just described is my personal motto and brand, “Art for all People.” Very interesting. You know Edward, we’re seeing this intriguing yet troubling rise in nationalism. Nations are grabbing their silos and holding on tight. Everyone is becoming more brazen and ready for a fight. Assuming this renewed nationalism doesn’t get us into World War III, what do you think it’ll mean for art today?
EDWARD: All times in history are unique. There is an old saying that goes: 'History repeats itself - first as tragedy, then as farce.' Hopefully Trump belongs at the farce end of the historical spectrum, but you can safely say, I think, that America has never previously had a president quite like him.
What strikes me, very often, is the ambition of contemporary art and contemporary artists, to be one thing, while being in fact quite another. 'Appropriation Art' is a case in point. It claims to be absolutely innovative. But the form that innovation takes is to present the audience with images that are ‘originally-not original.’ The cry is: ‘It's so not-original that it's in your face transgressive and new.’ Swallow that, and you'll swallow anything. Purple is yellow. Day is night.
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!
EDWARD: There are historical parallels for this. Late 16th century Mannerist art in Italy was obsessed with a kind of ‘quotationism.’ It needed a Caravaggio to dynamite the situation. In 18th century China, the academic scholar-painters of the time were obsessed with doing ink paintings that were in the manner of and variations on, the work of earlier masters of the Song and Yuan Dynasties. Their audience felt good because they recognised the allusions. It reinforced their own sense of being elite. But their work lacks vitality now.
In a more nuanced sense, I'm struck by the way that contemporary artists, particularly from smaller countries (but not always), want to be accepted as universal figures, but on their own terms, without reference to the frames of reference and preconceptions in the wider audience they are trying to address.
Two examples from recent experience:
1. A Hungarian artist, with strong support in his own country, insistent on being presented to the wider Anglophone audience in terms of the French structuralist philosophy of the 1990s. Structuralism became, fairly briefly, a big deal in Central Europe after Communism fell. It has little or no influence now in the broader contemporary art world, where the lingua franca is English, not French.
2. An American artist, resident in New Mexico, and somewhat influenced by Surrealism, who found a publisher for a book about his work - the University of Mississippi Press (a good academic publisher). The editorial team at the press, however, were insistent that North American Surrealism be presented on equal terms, with its European and Latin American (Lam and Matta) equivalents. This is total bollocks. There were never any major American-born Surrealists of the first or even the second generation. Yes, Max Ernst roosted in the USA for a while, driven there by World War II, but he didn't stay.
In both cases, the project to do a book ran into the sand. I was a key figure. I lost patience with being asked to write nonsense - a kind of nonsense that would be easily detected by the wider audience the artists concerned wanted to reach. I was much better established with that big Anglophone audience that they were. Kaput. I wouldn't play. Neither book has happened.
MICHAEL: Edward, when all is said and done, it seems to me that artists are ultimately the most powerful entities in the art world because they own and control the means of production. They create the product that fuels the art world: Art. What do you think about this?
EDWARD: 'Means of Production?'
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!
EDWARD: With a lot of avowedly avant-garde art today, the production process is pretty cloudy. Sitting still on a chair in an art gallery, as the focus of an event billed as ‘The Artist Is Present?’ Other kinds of performance art - some of it events that you are forbidden to record - they're just an exchange of whispers between participants and unless you're close by or get accosted, you don't hear what is being said. Bells tinkling on twigs at an outside location, which has been designated as a place where something called ‘art’ takes place?
Basically we are in the epoch of ‘It's art because I say it's art.’ For that to work, art has to take on most of the functions that traditionally belong to religion. If you don't have believers, it doesn't function.
What I'm saying is that we're in a new age of faith. Someone tells you that it's art. You believe them or you don't. Or you encounter it - the things, the person, the event - and a switch clicks in your head, helped perhaps by a supportive context, and you think to yourself: ‘I'm in a space designated for art, and - oh, yeah! - there's a woman over there seated by herself in a chair and nothing else to look at, so, sure enough she's living, breathing art.
MICHAEL: And so, where is the power in the art world?
EDWARD: I don't think the managers have all that much control. They're swept along like rest. They facilitate, no more.
In a basic way, and it's perhaps especially apparent here in Britain because of residual Puritanism, one problem is the fact that the official managers - the arts bureaucracy - hate the smell of money. This is quite apart from the fact that the money in the commercial part of the contemporary art sphere is now terrifyingly huge.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. It’s stunning.
EDWARD: The sums paid at auction for stellar works are well beyond the budget of even the grandest museums. So the bureaucratic managers increasingly look for ways in which art can retain its avant-garde credentials, but resist the lure of cash. Hence performance, hence installations made out of bits of junk, hence (to a certain extent) video.
Going for stuff like that keeps them pure, but also means they can ‘keep control’ of their budgets. Doesn't matter that a great deal of what they promote is physically ephemeral, gone like a puff of smoke. If you weren't there last Tuesday evening, you've missed it forever. If you heard about it in time, and made it, you're now certified as one of the elite.
MICHAEL: Very interesting.
EDWARD: You can tell other people what they missed. It's like the old Herbert Farjeon revue song from the 1920s, mocking those who went on and on about seeing Nijinsky dance Petrushka in Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, just before World War I:
‘We know you like the ballet, but of course we liked it first... tum-ti-tum .... but you should have been there when Bolonsky danced Belushka in October 1910.’
By the way, did you see that Gilbert & George have just been elected Royal Academicians?
A practical difficulty here is that this mind-set ignores the traditional function of museums, which is to preserve the best in art for posterity. The past and the future count as much as the present.
Another difficulty - see above - is that it increasingly tends to turn galleries of contemporary art into today's substitutes for gothic cathedrals. We go to them for the vibe - the music, the candlelight, the swirls of smoke from incense - but not so much now actually to look at art. Oh, Mother Tate, carry me in your arms out of my self - give me ephemeral dreams and visions. As for art in the old sense, bugger that!
MICHAEL: You've written tons of art books. I've only written three so far. We all know that the publishing industry - and especially art book publishing - is not doing well for numerous reasons. What do you make of all of this?
EDWARD: Publishing is in the most complicated situation it has been in since Gutenberg started to produce printed books in the Mid-15th century. This applies even more strikingly to illustrated art books than to other forms of print.
The great age of the illustrated art book was from, say, the Mid-1950s until the emergence of the internet in the Mid-1990s, a comparatively short span of forty years, during which it was possible to produce full-colour, art books in big editions and find a worldwide market for them. I'm fortunate in that much of my career as an art book author was spent due this heyday.
MICHAEL: Lucky you!
EDWARD: I've been published in large editions, in multiple languages, and the price-points made my more successful efforts available to pretty well anybody who might have been interested.
Now things have changed. For basic information, it's quicker to go online, and very often the user doesn't have to pay. But information from the web somehow doesn't possess the kind of authority that people still give to the printed page. The very grandest, most authoritative web-site somehow can't challenge a book, which is a tangible object, not a presence on screen.
So a complex process of stratification now exists:
1. There are art books that are web-only. You go to your computer and download.
2. There are hybrid art books - basically digital, but you can have a printed, bound (usually paper-bound) copy if you want. This is sometimes described a 'print on demand.’
MICHAEL: That describes my books.
3. There are printed books that are supported by and are memorials to some kind of event - typically they are catalogues of major art exhibitions. Museums have emerged as major art book publishers, with a built in advantage over outfits, even long-established outfits, that work independently. The long-established art book publishers without a direct museum connection now seem to be struggling to survive, often doing books that are, in fact, only marginally about art. A nice cook-book, illustrated with traditional still life paintings, anyone? Or one about graphic art? Or about visual strategies in advertising? Or simply about print layout and design? How-to-do-it books, rather than real art books.
4. There are mid-range books - typically, where contemporary art is concerned, solo monographs for artists on their way up. These are not intended to cover their costs directly. Instead, they serve as calling cards, and as proofs that this particular artist already has some kind of public. Typically they are subsidised, either by the artist himself or herself or by an interested patron. And quite a lot of copies are given away rather than sold. If such a book enables an artist to raise his price level, a short edition can repay its cost pretty quickly, in terms of more sales at a better price.
5. Last but not least, there are the ‘prestige books,’ often of gigantic size (some so big that the item is sold with its own book-stand). These are meant to be admired, rather than read. In fact, too much turning over of pages will diminish the book's value. They are the equivalents of the huge gospel books sometimes made for medieval cathedrals.
6. However, a more practical sub-sector of this very grand top-end of art book publishing is represented by high-priced (sometimes in the thousands of pounds), often multi-volume catalogues raisonnés, intended to record the complete production of some ‘major’ artist. The price, in this sphere, is irrelevant, when the catalogue serves as a tangible guarantee both of actual authenticity - no, it's not a fake - and also of consequent financial worth. If you are going to pay £1 million for a painting, you don't mind paying £2500 or so for the catalogue in which it appears.
MICHAEL: There you have it. Finally Edward, at the age of 84, how are you feeling these days? What more do you want to do? What would you say is the most important lesson you've learned in life and what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want the message of your life to be?
EDWARD: Sorry - I don't do messages.
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!
EDWARD: I'm quite pleased to have got this far. I had two first cousins - one on my father's side, one on my mother's - who both lived on into their 90s. So I may have OK genetics. My father died of lung cancer at 58, but he had been gassed in World War I, and then was a heavy smoker. He was a very active athlete - a top class polo player, well into his 50s. I've never been athletic. Travel is my major form of exercise.
The most important lesson, maybe, is not to get type-cast. People are always trying to impose definable roles on anyone who achieves the least degree of prominence in the arts. I don't want a tin can of that kind tied to my tail.
I don't owe it to anyone to provide an easy definition of what I am, who I am and what I do. And - as I may have said earlier in this exchange … I don't have institutional connections. There's no leverage. If you don't like what I do or say, then you have to lump it.
MICHAEL: Edward, this has been great. Your contributions to the art world are massive and I wish you many more years of life, joy and productivity.
Edward Lucie-Smith’s latest book is titled, “Surviving.” You can also visit his website at http://www.edwardlucie-smith.info/.
Art Dealers Talk