Thursday, March 22, 2007

One Artist's Junk is Another Man's Treasure

An article in The Guardian this morning about an electrician who had the foresight to salvage all kinds of, well, junk from the studio of Francis Bacon caught my attention this morning because of a disparity it revealed. First the story, by Charlotte Higgins:

It is not surprising - only a little dispiriting - that a pile of junk Francis Bacon chucked out 30 years ago could earn the man who salvaged it from a skip half a million pounds. A certain Mac Robertson, an electrician working at Bacon's studio, had the foresight to save the clutter of damaged paintings, diaries and cheque stubs before they reached the municipal dump and now all these bits and pieces are up for auction.
Higgins goes on to note how silly it is that folks will spend good money to own, or even just look at, the detritus of someone just because that person was a famous artist:

The Lady of Shalott is never going to be illuminated by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's pipe. And yet I have dumbly looked upon the poet's pipe in a tiny, dusty museum on the Isle of Wight. Ulysses is not going to be cracked wide open because one has beheld a pair of James Joyce's spectacles. And yet that did not stop Sotheby's from auctioning them off a few years back, along with a medal he once won in a singing competition.
It's hard to argue with her reason, and yet, I too have been willing to part with cash to be closer to the artifacts of the life of someone I've been amazed by.

Still, the disparity mentioned above:

There are two classes of such ephemera. One includes letters, diaries, documents of historical and scholarly value. That is allowable; that is what libraries are for. The second category consists of junk.
Hang on there. If letters and diaries and other documents (presumably of a writer) are potentionally of historical and scholarly value, then why are not damaged paintings and diaries of a visual artist?

OK, so I realize there are two questions in there. First is whether the diary of a visual artist (something Higgins has mocked Robertson [and potential bidders] for valuing) is of historical and scholary value. In this instance, I'm sure Higgins is wrong. The diary of a visual artist is as equally important as that of a writer (sometime even more so).

The second question is more complex though: is damaged artwork valuable?

My first response to this wants to be "no." Artwork isn't even artwork (i.e., it's not complete or ready for viewers), until the artist says it is. If Bacon didn't want to present it to the world as finished, then essentially, it's not art yet.

And still, I see immediately that I've confused the matter. We're not talking about whether a damaged Bacon painting is worth anything as art, but rather whether it has historical or scholarly value. Whether it's as interesting and worthy of preserving as Tennyson's pipe or Joyce's spectacles. But that's a bad comparison. The damaged painting is more akin to a writers notes, something that Higgins allows belongs in a library, so why not preserve a damaged painting in a musuem? Bacon didn't shy away from destroying what he wanted no one else to ever see, so we have to assume this piece survived to serve some end.

I could go on ad nauseum, contradciting myself here, when essentially the central question Higgins was asking is why we place value in the things of someone famous that we'd throw away had they belonged to someone else? I guess my real reason for harping on this is to deflate, just a bit, the jaded rejection of the cult of personality that's so popular at the moment. I don't disagree that it is often taken to ludicrous extremes, but given that we'll line up for hours to view the belongings of some boy king who dies millenia ago, I'm not sure this practice isn't hardwired into us somehow. As a species, it's important to us to leave some record (what other species does that?) of our having been here. Perhaps, because it's impossible for there to be physical records of any significant depth of each individual human begin, buying into the cult of personality permits us to project something of ourselves onto certain popular figures and thereby ensure something of us, if only a ticket stub of an exhibition or concert, is connected to the historical importance we collectively assign to them, taking us forward into history with them. I don't know...I'm confusing myself now. Back to what you were doing.

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22 Comments:

Anonymous bnon said...

Hey, this case doesn't seem so complicated. It's lucky for us Mac Robertson took (stole?) this truly interesting stuff. What's the down side? The value of relics with no scholarly interest is a little trickier, but art is very much about feeling in general and in particular, feeling involved with the creator's consciousness. It can go to far, I suppose, but Bacon was a great artist, so what's the harm in idolizing him? The only ethical conundrum is Robertson's invasion of Bacon's privacy. But, the dude is in the history books now, and privacy is sort of a non-issue.

3/22/2007 10:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

"Feeling involved with the creator's consciousness." Well said.

Humans have the capacity to learn from others, and gain from interactions. It's a blessing and a curse. We try to learn from others but we can only get so far. Whether we gain or learn anything from these scraps is arguable, but it's only human to try.

Bacon had a pretty unique insight into the human condition. I don't know about the value of check stubs to anyone but the most committed biographer, but his throwaways must be fascinating glimpses of his own artistic struggles, the same ones every creative person goes through.

Tho on the other hand I can see how check stubs might actually humanize the person, and make him appear more accessible than some unknown celebrity, especially if it has a writing sample on it. Certainly better than a baseball card...

3/22/2007 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger John Morris said...

I dont think it's a non issue that Bacon wanted these things thrown out. The fact that he's dead does not change that.

Hopefully in the case of the painting, some tag will be by it saying that he had chosen to destroy the work.

3/22/2007 10:45:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

I think it's interesting to see what artists reject as part of their creative process. The British Museum has an original manuscript page from Ulysses. It's all marked up in red by Joyce himself. If you look closely, you see that every single word has been crossed out and replaced.

3/22/2007 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

1. Note to self, tear to shreads before discarding unwanted paintings and drawings.
2nd. Anything in the trash can is fair game!

3/22/2007 11:12:00 AM  
Blogger Cassandra said...

I would be outraged if anyone stole rejects from my trash can, and then made them public. I know some people who do this. They stake out the dumpsters and trash cans behind well-known artists' studios. This is why I shred everything before throwing it away.

3/22/2007 11:33:00 AM  
Anonymous bnon said...

Hey, John Morris. I agree that it's wrong to steal and invade anyone's privacy. But wouldn't we be glad if someone perserved (by stealing, even) Plato's check stubs or grocery lists?

Mark and Cassandra: I think I'm going to get a dumpster, fill it with discarded work, park it in front of my studio with a big banner, sit back, and wait for the art world feeding frenzy—I should have such problems.

3/22/2007 11:53:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Higgins goes on to note how silly it is that folks will spend good money to own, or even just look at, the detritus of someone just because that person was a famous artist...

It's all just souvenir collecting, kind of like, well, most art collecting. Would you rather have a great painting by an unknown artist, or a scribble on a napkin by a famous one? If you pick the scribble you're probably a collector.

3/22/2007 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

I have to admit to being happy that a lot of things are saved.

3/22/2007 02:12:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If you pick the scribble you're probably a collector

I think it's the opposite. If you take the great painting by the unknown artist, you're a Collector, if you take the scribble, you're a poseur.

3/22/2007 02:14:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

If you take the great painting by the unknown artist, you're a Collector, if you take the scribble, you're a poseur.

EW, I'm happy to hear you say that. I hope you get to deal with more Collectors than Poseurs.

3/22/2007 02:21:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

As a former librarian, I must confess that I find the archives of even non-famous people to be consumingly fascinating, and in need of preservation. It is about the energy imparted to ordinary objects by use.

(Which may also be why I hate Jeff Koons so much. 'Newness,' indeed.)

I take care of potential privacy problems by ensuring that I am the only person in the world who can read my handwriting. If some graduate student in a future generation cares enough to learn to decipher my diaries, they have earned the right to share my rather boring and pedestrian private thoughts.

3/22/2007 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous joy said...

okay, I'll go ahead and be devil's advocate re: artists and their intentions: sometimes it takes an outsider to rescue something the artist discarded as "junk"; and of course, sometimes it takes an outsider to edit out that which the artist would keep. Artists can truly suck at self-editing.

3/22/2007 03:52:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

For me it's the flipside: the ephemera of supposedly unremarkable people can be very precious.

Perhaps artworks such as those of Cornell and collected, enshrined natural objects as seen in Asia have added to the accessibility of such things.

I occasionally find old diaries in antique shops. It puzzles me that someone's family would release such things for purchase like old shoes. I've taken to gathering these myself, and giving them the treatment they deserved by sheer dint of being probably the only meaningful documents of the authors' lives.

Even though for the most part these lives seem entirely unremarkable, they are indisputably authentic. The diaries blur the distinctions between us.

3/22/2007 04:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Edward:
>>>Artwork isn't even artwork >>>(i.e., it's not complete or ready >>>>for viewers), until the artist >>>>says it is.


We had this discussion a thousand times. If there is a public (or a good curator) for a piece of junk, than it (can) becomes Art. The fact that an artist refused the item to be art becomes an anecdote. There is no sacred seal about this.

I predict that what some artist wish to call art today will be defined as junk by public later on, simply because there will be too much mediocre art. For the moment we pause and respect the artists, but that is temporarely. Art is not ecologically viable.


But a piece of junk by Bacon of today might remain a classic in the future.


Someone mentioned that it's not fair to not respect thrash. Personally I think when you fall on a diary that is really embarassing, and that should have remained thrash, than maybe you should just destroy it. But with works of art, many artists are bad judges of themselves. I think someone can really serve an artist by saving bits that they thought was thrash. That happens intermittently in the music world.


Besides, with Bacon, it is justifiable with his art pedigree to present his thrash.

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

3/22/2007 04:45:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

Trash left on the curve is not private property. There is no theft here.

I agree with several writers above who are glad the Bacon trash was saved. To have the rejected painting near the accepted paintings gives the viewer a look into his process. For most artists the process is more interesting and important than the product. I'd compare it to notes a writer makes but never uses.

Still, having memorabilia connects the present with the past. Each time a new person looks at the artifact, a story is shared and time seems more personal.

3/22/2007 05:39:00 PM  
Anonymous ABS said...

Ah, it's been a while...
Lisa just the thought, the crossing out of each word replaced by another, produces goose-bumps. Because that is how it works. The layers,
the placing of the hands over, the pulling back of
pencil marks, paint, inks and ideas--until there is no idea, just this vertical and horizontal construction.
We can position our palms over that, and while pulling them slowly apart, notice at the opening a center. We can read from this center, left, right, simultaneously, that's how things are written.

It's interesting that a lot of really good artists current at the moment scrounge for leftovers, or pick up pardons of a society, a society largely only interested in the big fat real.
Artists as Poseurs is a good idea for a curated show. I think I'll take it!

Or, thinking is Pulling the Palms Back better?

3/22/2007 09:23:00 PM  
Anonymous golden snot picker said...

it's kind of like having a pen that was used to sign the declaration of independance, or one of the early drafts that got wadded up and thrown in the corner... or a prop/costume from one of your favorite movies. something of historic and sentimental value.

can't remember exactly, but i think it was a young rauschenberg that visited an older hero artist and stole some stuff from the trashcan when the older artist wasn't looking. maybe de kooning (i'm not talking about the erased piece), it was something stolen from the trash.

3/23/2007 02:25:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

We had this discussion a thousand times. If there is a public (or a good curator) for a piece of junk, than it (can) becomes Art.

Says who?

3/23/2007 08:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the whole thing despicable. And I think some of these comments are straying from the reality here. Artists are "bad judges of themselves?" Are dumpster divers better judges then? or even critics and curators? Hardly. We're talking Bacon here, one of the best artists of last century and someone far more knowledgable about art than a dumpster, diving electrician. And if this was really motivated by historical interests, then donate it to his foundation or estate. Don't put it up for auction where it's potentially scattered to various private owners, like Blake's folio recently was. This guy is looking to make a buck and violated Bacon's trust in him. Rant, rant, rant...

3/23/2007 02:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

>>>>Says who?



Says you, Says me, Says the intelligentsia, Says the curator, Says anyone able to Convince.


This already happened. I'm sure I've seen a Picasso that was supposed to be junk.

I can't remember precise cases but I know I've met similar situations.


If you take the recent Richard Prince thread for example:
everyone laughs at Richard Prince. If it looks good in the catalog,
everyone thinks it is art. At least does the curator, and I support them, and so should you.

Yes ! Together, WE can make a change ! Together, WE can make
an old Richard Prince crapboard turn into Art !! AGAIN !! Yes !! Yes !!! And his art shall go onn, and onnn.... la la la. (ok, my silly hour I guess)


>>>This guy is looking to make a >>>>buck

Obviously. But why wait so long?


I'm still interested in Bacon's thrash, though. I assume that portrait above is trash. I luv thrash. What piece by Bacon exactly was not?


Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

3/23/2007 06:49:00 PM  
Anonymous martin said...

didn't henry darger, in the hospital and knowing he would never go home again, instruct his landlord to throw out everything in his apartment?

3/27/2007 12:54:00 AM  

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