Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Very Matthew Collings
One of my favourite writers is the British art critic Matthew Collings. You can read a couple of his columns from Modern Painters magazine at www.bowieart.com. He happens to be published by David Bowie's art book company, 21. He's written two very good books about British and American art called Blimey! and It Hurts. Collings is a deceptively straightforward writer with a style half way between Andy Warhol and Voltaire's Candide.
It's quite strange that I should like him, because in a way he's just very English. You could say he's anti-intellectual because he's jettisoned all the flotsam of half-digested, once-trendy theory (the Japanese call it hi-hyou) that still clutters most art writing. You could even say that he's got that standard British-American pragmatic-empirical bias, which usually contains particles of anti-french and anti-german xenophobia, and is all about plain common sense, using your eyes, and cutting through bunkum.
How Very English!
Embarrassment is a big theme with him. He's always detailing some sort of gaffe he's made at an opening, like asking the curator of a group show how his own work is doing, when in fact curating the group show is his own work. Or telling you how he made a fool of himself in front of Charles Saatchi. And that's very English too.
He also doesn't much like sex in art, and recently attempted to demolish the reputations of both Marlene Dumas and Balthus, saying the old Swiss pervert's work was light porn for literary people. (So that's why I like it, then.)
But, although the tone is discreet and gentle, he ends up being incredibly indiscreet and aggressive, telling you how a newspaper editor asked him to make cuts and get to the point and implying that, for aficionados of Collings as for readers of Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, getting to the point isn't the point at all.
What makes him so readable, and so admirable, is his vulnerability. He really lays himself open in ways which are edgy and dangerous. In the art world, a world of surfaces and double bluff and meaningless profundities and narcissistic rivalries, a world as irrational as the stock market, with Charles Saatchi standing in for Alan Greenspan, ready to send values into turmoil with a sneeze, Collings comes on like Moliere's Misanthrope, the man who speaks the truth in the mannered salons of the elite, proclaims the nakedness of the emperor, and is ostracised.
The thing is, it's all inverted. In the British art world, the elite have shaved heads and talk with working class accents. Collings is an outsider because he has hair and consonants. Why doesn't he just shave them off, like everyone else? I suppose there must be some sort of lingering honesty, some sort of residual British decency at play.
Emperor Wearing Clothes Shock!
The funny thing is, Collings isn't proclaiming the nakedness of the emperor. He doesn't believe that at all. His Orwellian, down-to-earth tone might make you think he'd side with the no-nonsense school of reactionaries like Brian Sewell (modern British art establishment-hating Evening Standard critic with famously cut-glass vowels) and Julian Stallybrass (Oxford fogey, author of the recent demolition job on Young British Art called 'High Art Lite'). But in fact he seems to like most of what he talks about. You can confuse his positivity with a sarcastic Warholian pose ('Gee, it's all great!') until you come across a gung ho attack on some artist or gallery and realise he's wearing his heart on his sleeve.
When I came back from Paris at the beginning of 1997 I found myself moving on the fringes of the art scene rather than the music scene. I don't know if that's because of where London was at, or where I was at. If you weren't into Brit Pop and Laddism, the art scene was really the most exciting thing going on in London. People like Tracey Emin, Georgina Starr and Sarah Lucas were more like rock stars (Patti Smith-style unpredictable ranting madwomen rock stars) than idiots like Noel Gallagher. What's more, they were women, which was new and encouraging. It's true that didn't stop them from being infected by the mid-90s Laddism virus. In fact you could say that, like Thatcher, they tried to be harder than the boys. (All except Georgina, who was infected by the retro kitsch lounge virus, and was consequently horribly abused by people like The Guardian's art critic Adrian Searle, who headlined a review of one of her shows 'And Now For Something Completely Mindless'. As if dreamy cartoony kitsch whimsy were any less profound than Sarah Lucas recycling the violence and machismo of the tabloid press.)
Where was I going with that? Oh yes, Matthew Collings. I used to see him hanging out, rather awkwardly, on the fringes of the same openings and parties that I was at. You kind of got the feeling that he was a bit ostracised. I mean, he was hip enough to know where to be. At the Chisenhale for a Tim Noble and Sue Webster opening, for example. Eating at the Viet Hoa on Shoreditch High Street. (Ah, Viet Hoa, how I miss your tilapia fish!) At Soho House for a screening of a documentary about Tracey Emin or down in Peckham at the South London Gallery. But he was always 'that man from the telly' (he had a series, a bit gimmicky and pomo, but genuine and questioning too, called This Is Modern Art shown on Channel 4 in 1999).
Inconsistency Is A Virtue!
Being Britain, it was a lot to do with class. Collings was a bit bourgeois and articulate in a world where everyone was posing as a hoodlum or a lout, and being drunk and inarticulate because that's what YBAs were supposed to be. That's what turned Saatchi on. A bit of punk, a bit of rough. (After all, some would say it was punk and Saatchi that brought Thatcher to power. So Gavin Turk dressed up as Sid Vicious brought back some pleasant memories.)
For these and lots of other reasons, a man who spoke neither the sub-Lacanian drivel taught at art schools or the glottal Ladspeak of YBA stood out like a sore thumb. Collings seemed always to be leaving the opening early, intrigued, cogitating, not at all drunk, a bit embarrassed. He seemed to be keen to dine privately with friends. Perhaps he was a bit worried he'd bump into someone he'd slagged. That's the hallmark of a good man: someone with the intellectual honesty to slag people he knows he's going to run into hundreds of times, but still thin-skinned enough to be hurt when they snub him. That's really the key to Collings -- a bit of an outsider, yet omnipresent. Brutally honest, yet admirably open. Inconsistent (a virtue!), independent and undefended.
He's a good writer for those reasons, but also because his voice, once you get the feel for it, is so distinctive. It's hard not to parody his prose once you lock onto it. He's forever catching himself in a small act of intellectual dishonesty, like saying 'You might think...' then asking 'but who are you anyway?' It's tricksy and self-consciously postmodern writing that can be a bit embarrassing on television (which is so unself-consciously postmodern that it seems a bit redundant, a bit superfluous when someone writes for it in a self-consciously pomo way) but really compelling on the page, mainly because of Collings' honesty. Like all good writers, he can easily be parodied, and on TV he sometimes seemed to be doing a good job of it himself.
Paul Morley! Bang!
Is Collings a critic who nurtures a cult of the personality? Of course he is. I wouldn't be writing about him if he didn't. In the grey, authoritarian world of art criticism where people can be so stern, impersonal and severe, that's no bad thing. Trying to be impersonal and consistent about something as shaky and subjective as art makes no sense. The best alternative to that is developing a personality cult. Collings is one of the few critics to have pulled it off.
John Peel aside (he's a distinctive voice, but he's a DJ, not a critic -- he doesn't walk in that dangerous zone where you can be both loveable and wrong), I can't think of a rock critic in Britain who's done that since Paul Morley, who totally dominated the NME from about 1978 to 1983, when he left to form ZTT Records with Trevor Horn.
Morley had a bluff Mancunian honesty, but also a curiosity about form, and a passion for pop music which was both arty and commercial (he didn't see any contradiction there). I remember a piece in which, having dismissed the early records of New Order, he suddenly decided 'Everything's Gone Green' was brilliant, and chided himself for lack of concentration.
His personality cult became overbearing, though, when he tried to elevate people no-one else was interested in to the status of national fetishes. He would say things like 'Paul Haig is the fifth boy', and we were supposed to understand that Morley had added Haig to a personal pantheon of untouchable greats which included Davy Henderson, Jim Kerr (Jim Kerr!), Edwyn Collins and Billy McKenzie. And that was enough. No further justification required. Haig is 'the fifth boy'. Or he'd tell us that the new thing was 'bright shiny yellow pop', and that the people who did it best were Haircut 100. And we'd read this and almost buy it, because it was Morley. Lots of people must have hated him. They probably loathe his memory at today's NME. Since their chances of having a writer like that now are, I'd say, precisely zero, they shouldn't really fret. Once every ten years or so a personality cult critic emerges and wreaks merry havoc with our values, and things are fun for a while. But the system always crushes them in the end, and power returns to the company men.
All Down The Length And Breadth Of Albion, Not A Rock Critic To Be Found
The rock press would never allow it, but it would be interesting to see what Collings would do as a rock critic. He probably likes My Bloody Valentine. I think he's a secret shoegazer. I have no idea what he would say about the new Eminem record, which is very clever and very commercial, and so un-PC it makes the Chapman Brothers look tasteful. What would he say about Phoenix, the totally sincere, totally postmodern French band who sound like Supertramp, if they'd been born after Daft Punk, Mellow and Air? Would he like the skittery baroque anything-goes electronic jazz of Max Tundra? He'd probably recognise it, because Max Tundra is the closest the music scene gets to YBA. People like Tundra, Plaid, Broadcast, Boards Of Canada, Plone, Aphex Twin, and Squarepusher are drawn from the same ranks of art students as the YBAs. (Sometimes I think Warp is a gallery, not a label.) They're seen and heard in Hoxton. They're creatively whacky and out there, and they don't have 'real people' audiences the way boring old singsongy bands like Travis do. They appeal to other artists. They experiment, they brainstorm, they influence. Thank God for them! They make life worth living.
Where was I going with that? Oh yes, Matthew Collings. He used to be on The Late Show in the early 90s, talking about Jeff Koons. He had long hair and a sheepskin coat, and if you see clips of it now it's as ludicrous and faraway-looking as Damon Albarn's dad presenting the 60s Late Show, wearing a buttoned-up suit and talking about Andy Warhol. He looks like a goony middle class English hipster, the kind taught -- in a country where it's totally uncool to be either of those things -- to hate themselves and cultivate a sort of apologetic smokescreen of self-deprecating irony. But watch out! When they go to a place like New York, those people come out as the joyous hedonists they are. When they're amongst their own, abroad, the English irony disappears and you realise that they love life, sex, art, people. Painting just makes them cream, and suddenly you and they can't understand why everyone else isn't as fascinated by the whole game as we are, not just the smearing of paint, but the social charade, the constant displacement of fraudulence by honesty and honesty by fraudulence, the pas de deux danced by money around creativity and creativity around money. Isn't it all so fascinating? Why isn't everybody writing this way about the art world? Why is it so hard to sell good writing to the British papers? Why does everyone take refuge behind grey theory, or focus on the glitz?
My Gaffe At Passerby
Actually, I didn't plan to write an essay about Matthew Collings. I planned to do a diary piece about a gaffe I made last night at Passerby. I was talking to Steve Lafreniere, the Index magazine journalist, who was DJing at this trendy gallery bar in the Meatpacking district. I was flabbergasted when he suddenly dropped the needle onto a live version of 'Live Forever' by Oasis.
Putting two and two together I said 'Why are you playing that, Elizabeth isn't here?' The only reason any sane New Yorker would play Oasis these days would be to please the painter Elizabeth Peyton, who's famous for painting them, and whose fame seems to be outlasting theirs. (Does she ever worry about that, I wonder? I mean, is there a world where Oasis are considered naffo but Peyton, who paints them, is considered supercool? Well, why not.)
Steve pointed behind me, and there, kneeling on the flashing tiles of the disco floor, was Elizabeth Peyton. Whoops! 'I chose it,' she said, 'because I'm playing love songs'. We had a brief argument about whether 'Live Forever' was a love song to a person or a narcissistic pimp to posterity, then Elizabeth said would I mind, but she needed a bit more space to rummage for records, and I took the hint and went back to my table of Japanese girls.
Somehow, though, when I thought about it later, it was quintessential Collings. So I wrote about him instead.