Artists are useful to society, David Hockney suggested to me last year, because they are natural intellectual rebels.
“That’s why you need lots of artists, and all kinds of artists,” he said over lunch at his house in Bridlington. “They don’t all have to be painters. Artists look at life from another angle. People who can see things at a slightly different angle, don’t we need that?”
That might not be true of all artists, though it’s certainly the case with Hockney. He is, as he says, “a bit of a propagandist.” Readers of the Guardian newspaper regularly find contributions from him on the letters page about such matters as the use of the camera obscura by old masters and the case for smoking. He recently ignited controversy with what sounded like a dig at Damien Hirst’s factory system of producing art.
A minor, humorous branch of Hockney’s work consists of what, for want of a better term, you may call “word art.” An example from a few years ago consisted of a placard, such as that held by a demonstrator at a protest, reading “Stop Bossiness Now!” Another, more recent, takes the form of an official notice of the kind that may be found on a cigarette packet: “Death Awaits You Even If You Do Not Smoke.” He had a T-shirt printed with the words, “I know I’m Right -- D Hockney,” which friends used to say was characteristic of him.
He’s a proponent of old-style Bohemia, a world in which, he approvingly remarks, people “smoked, drank and were merry.” He laments its disappearance, a casualty of the increasing cost and conformity of modern life.
“The thing about Bohemia was that everybody knew you had to have money to lubricate life, but you wouldn’t go chasing it,” Hockney said. “They rather looked down on that. That’s the Bohemia I knew in London, New York and LA, and it was a view of life I liked. I’m not sure it exists in that way anymore.”
The New Year was scarcely two days old when Hockney stirred an art-world storm with the seemingly unassuming words, “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally.” This claim appears on a poster for his coming exhibition, “A Bigger Picture,” at the Royal Academy in London, and was taken to be a dig at contemporary artists such as Hirst whose work is made by teams of assistants or “fabricators.”
Perhaps it was. Hockney is a great proponent of the handmade image. Teaching someone to draw, he argues in my book “A Bigger Message: Conversations With David Hockney,” is teaching them to look. When, in the 1970s, life drawing began to disappear from art schools in Britain, he argued it was vital.
His opponents sneered, “So it’s back to the life room is it, Hockney?” He replied, “No, forward to the life room!” His reason was that without the handmade image, the only view of the world we’d have is one that comes through the lens of a camera. (Photography, and its shortcomings, is another of his themes).
I doubt he meant that art always had to be handmade or that artists can’t have assistants. He has a team of helpers himself, though they don’t work on his actual pictures. And he will be exhibiting moving photo-collages made with nine high-definition cameras at the RA. What he’s saying is that the craft of making, and in particular the practice of drawing, remain at the core of visual art. That, in 2012, is a controversial statement.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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