11 Aug, 2010

Artists’ catalogues need gossip

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Official records of exhibitions and achievements whitewash the real details of artists’ lives – the blood and tears that bring their work to life

The world of art would be a lot healthier if catalogues of artists’ works acknowledged the human status of their subjects. In art history, it is dreary to read about great painters as if they were somehow spared the trials of flesh-and-blood life, as if art takes place in a museum rather than among real, flawed people. A bit of gossip goes a long way towards humanising the old masters. But this is also true of art today. In fact, the strange evacuation of real life from the story of art starts with living artists, and the way that galleries and curators choose to edit their lives for public consumption.

I recently read a catalogue in which a very sad fact about an artist’s life emerged, in passing, in an interview with the artist. I wanted to know more, so I looked at the biographical summary at the back. It was the usual stuff – born, such and such a place, 19-whatever; went to art school blah blah. When I got to the year of the tragedy, the catalogue just listed his exhibitions for that year, as if these were more “real” than a major episode in his life.

This is typical. There is a bizarre impersonality to these Augustan tomes that see a show at the Grand Palais as more significant than a lover’s death. By the time an artist’s life is over, the archive has all too often been blanded-out by these curious documents. Artists, it seems, have two lives, one in which they bleed, and another of exhibitions and other trivia that is recognised in official publications.

Martin Creed’s new book, a catalogue of all his works to date, can be enjoyed as a subversion of this genre. At first sight it is the most reticent and authoritative of catalogues, but if you follow the numerical sequence of his works you actually learn a lot about his life and his feelings. A relationship and its breakup is described among these “works”. Art and life come together, instead of being kept pompously separate. I wish museums, collections and galleries would take a leaf from this book.

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