Once upon a time, there was a film star and a painter who wanted to change places. The painter wanted to be a star, so make-believe, so multifaceted, but still approachable. And the star wanted to be a painter, deep, authentic, blissfully independent and wise enough to know that there’s something bigger than mortality. The painter thought the star was sweet but naïve.
The painter told the star that one painting was not necessarily art, that today it’s all about exhibitions and an exhibition is more than just a collection of paintings. Paintings don’t speak for themselves any more. They acquire meaning from their context, the labels attached to them and the touch of the exhibition curator.
The painter told the star that curators have taken over the art world and that amateurs have superseded photographers, especially when it’s about the here and now. They no longer want to produce photographs that look like paintings, but to capture the revolution digitally as fast as they can. To speed up the Spring. Get the news out as soon as it happens. But the more powerful and influential a medium, the greater is its potential for distortion and lies. A painting of something does not prove that it actually happened (a photo still can). It would never be accepted as evidence in a court of law because by its very nature it cannot be a true representation of reality.
That’s the root of the nagging, eternal problem of subject-matter. Oh, how terrible! Everything must be shown, but not everything can be shown. If God does not exist, he cannot be portrayed. But if he does exist, he may not be portrayed. Art is incomprehensible? Life is incomprehensible. There’s a constant clash between the senses, between nonsense, senselessness and sensuality. That’s why a good work of art is essentially elusive. It is not out of arrogance that artists don’t want to ‘explain’ their work (as for me, just ask and I’ll go on forever). Silence is sometimes the better answer.
‘What about sexuality?’ the film star asked. In painting even the Nude isn’t what it used to be, not with the kind of relationship that artists and models have today. Not that Hollywood has ever known how to deal with it. They’re especially wary when it comes to male nudity, as if there would be no more war if we got a glimpse of a man’s sex. To say nothing of the Egyptians who in 2010 called for a ban on the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights. Every culture imposes its own censorship. No wonder art and culture are two different concepts. Art delivers us from the constraints of our culture. It is almost as hard to find an erotic work of art in a pornographic society as it is in a fundamentalist culture.
The painter was getting into the swing of it. The film star’s attention began to wander. The painter said, ‘There is so much more that people don’t talk about. It’s also important to have the right name. How far would Malcolm Little have got, if he hadn’t changed his name?’ ‘Malcom who?’ asked the film star. ‘Malcolm X’, the painter replied.
But are we talking about fame now or colour? Painting is colour conscious, but racism implies taking a political stand, and we want to avoid that, don’t we? When a black art student suggested putting a self-portrait on his invitation card, his teacher asked, ‘Can’t you find something more neutral?’ So rather than spoil the atmosphere by pursuing the matter of taste and colour, they turned the conversation to the demise of painting. The assassin comes in different guises. Now it’s the market, they say. But their talk was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a dark figure dressed all in black, who said that painting could not die because it belonged to the realm of the non-dead. Painting is too ancient, too primitive and too pleasurable to disappear. Its patron is Count Dracula, whose reflection doesn’t appear in a mirror, nor his image in a photograph. He stayed only briefly and flew off before daybreak.
I am not here to defend painting. That is done by every painting that stands the test of time and by every new generation of artists. In our image laden culture, painting has grown accustomed to not being the star of the show, but takes its place in a far larger constellation of visual brilliance and garbage. To those who argue that art is elitist, I would say that every game has its own rules. Take football, if you must. To begin with, anyone at all can play. But not everyone turns out to be an Ibrahim Afellay. Every discipline has its particular challenges. I know that people get frustrated because art keeps striving to change its rules or expand its horizon. That is precisely what makes it difficult and special, and what makes it different from a hobby. If we can learn anything from art, it is that we cannot claim to stand for freedom of expression if we cannot tolerate differences, however disturbing they may be.
A Gothic Story. The Final Tale. An edited compilation of previously published texts A Gothic Story and A Final Tale. A Gothic Story was originally published in Marlene Dumas: Negotiating small Truths, (cat.) Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin, 1999. A Final Tale was originally published in (cat.) Koninklijke Prijs voor de Schilderkunst | Royal Award for Painting, 2011, p 41; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014 [under 2010 instead of 2011].