Marlene Dumas

The Right to be Silent

A conversation on elitism and accessibility

‘For whom do you make your work’? he asked me. ‘I have the right to know’.

That humans have so many rights, does not make a silent painting wrong.
I don’t do it for the people and I don’t do it against the people.
If at all, I’ll do it from the people and after the people.
I never use the word ’elite’. I don’t gatecrash parties to which I’m not invited. Everyone should not go everywhere. Making things easy doesn’t make them better, but making things unnecessarily complicated, that’s evil too.
Being hard to get is all right, only if there’s something to get.
Heaven has always been quite an exclusive place, preserved only for those that come from certain clubs, not classes though. Believers understand that to get to a high place, you have to suffer and answer riddles and expose spies and marry the wrong person, and speak in tongues, so as not to end up in a low place like hell. You have no right to get in. You have to beg, pray and get down on your knees to get access to that place: to cross that border.

‘But what do you think your work means’? he said. ‘You seem to use populist images and have elitist intentions’.

There’s what I mean and what you mean and what the work means or rather as Mr. Eco says, ‘there are the rights of the text and the rights of the interpreters and the rights of the interpreters has been overstressed.’ So between my (frequently irrelevant) intention and your (mostly veiled) intention, there’s the intention of the artwork.
But if the artwork remains too silent, then I’ll just have to refer you back to my statement from 1993:
‘They say you can’t judge a book by its cover.
You can’t judge a woman by her lover.
But paintings have to be judged by their covers and their lovers’.

The Right to be Silent. Written for (together with The Death of the Author and Immaculate) and first published in Frieze, issue 80 – A special edition for the Frieze Art Fair, 2004, p.84-85; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.