By Tim Haydon.
A triptych by the Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon was sold by Christie’s in New York for the record sum for any artwork at auction of £89 million this month.
Bacon’s three depictions of Freud seem sketchy indeed. Each shows him seated within a framework of lines that look like aids to drawing perspective. Freud’s foot escapes from this framework cage in some sort of symbolism. The artist breaking the boundaries of art?
Freud’s face is a distorted blob, as if, instead of Freud as a sitter, Bacon was in lurid fashion painting the Elephant Man. Actually, if one had not been told, one would have no idea who the sitter was. It could have been almost anyone – a stranger off the street. And here we have the key to this work. For who tells us that this is Freud? It is Francis Bacon, the artist.
What we have here then is not really a depiction of Lucian Freud. It is far more a representation of the inner life of Francis Bacon. We are expected not to apprehend Freud so much as the skewed workings of Bacon’s mind.
So is this a ‘great work of art’, worthy of the Everest of cash paid for it? Francis Outred, head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, Europe, certainly thinks so. He said that it is a ‘true masterpiece and one of the greatest paintings to come up for auction in a current generation.’
In his famed ‘Civilisation ‘ TV series, Lord Clarke mused over one of those terribly ugly, sinister, grinning carved African Masks in dark wood, comparing it to an ancient Greek statue of the God Apollo. Was the depiction of Apollo a greater work of art then the former, he wondered?
It was, he suggested, for quite apart from the artistic technical aspects, the African mask was about the fear, darkness, death and superstition of a malevolent spirit world. The Apollo, however, was about human confidence, life, light and the rational.
(Another critic said sniffily about Clarke’s remarks that ‘he wouldn’t get away that nowadays’, presumably referring to the current relativism of Cultural Marxism which allocates equal value to works of art, however vile, from any ‘culture’. Clarke’s remarks have been excised from currently available versions of ‘Civilisation’ in a classic example of politically correct oppression of opinion.)
We can approach the Bacon oeuvre in a rather similar spirit as did Clarke to the African mask. This slight and repellently self-indulgent piece is not great art as compared to the masterpieces our civilisation has produced. It is instead a great example of degenerate art; a true representation of the decline of the West.
A vigorous culture is a fully integrated system. Every part of it relates to the rest. Its science, religion, truth and morality, entertainment, politics, economics and, of course its people, relate one to another. Developments in one affect the rest. And its art reflects all of this – reflects the state of the culture and so of the society. In such a culture, art serves to elevate and educate, to exalt the good and so point towards truth and meaning.
A culture which can produce an artist like Bacon is a culture in the throes of final disintegration, which his art will further. For Bacon is the very essence not of integration but of its rejection. It is art which sees nothing but incoherent nothingness. The universe is meaningless and so the people in it must be portrayed satirically in violent caricature, because they are simply monsters in all this meaninglessness – even a friend as Freud was of Bacon…
The grotesques which Bacon paints serve to fascinate and to entertain. His representations are at the end of the line in a story of ever more desperate attempts to excite and to shock. And to earn money, for modern art is above all a commercial enterprise.
One might think that with Bacon we have come pretty much to the bottom of the pits in Western art, Western culture and Western society. For what could be more humanly degrading than his work? But then we remember Tracey Emin’s unmade bed and the pickled sharks. Jeff Koons’ sculpture ‘Balloon Dog (Orange)’ – one of a series of five stainless steel sculptures in varying colours – fetched £36.7m at the same auction as Bacon’s. This was a record for a work by a living artist. It looks exactly like a dog- a child made out of balloons.
On this basis, it seems that there is some way to go before the sump is reached and revulsion turns our truly sick society to another path.