Essay: Loved the paintings, Julian. And the glossy magazines

The artist's job is simply to make art. Not to explain it or publicise it - and certainly not to please big business.
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The Independent Culture
An odd thing happened the other weekend as I was standing in a gallery in south London. To stand in a gallery in south London is odd enough in itself, since there aren't many to be found. But the really odd thing was the behaviour of the visitors.

In theory, they'd come to see paintings by the American artist Julian Schnabel - eight works occupying a single, high-ceilinged room. In practice, after a perfunctory scan, most visitors clustered round an admin desk to one side, on which lay a display copy of the magazine Modern Painters containing an interview with Schnabel by David Bowie - an enthusiastic piece (I know, I too queued up to read it, I even bought a copy) with plentiful information about Schnabel's house, his "very beautiful wife", and his views on and methods of painting.

I wondered how Schnabel would react if he saw people opting to read about him rather than look at his canvases in depth. Since he presumably intends his show to be "uncompromised", would he feel betrayed and outraged? Or would he laugh and shrug and tell himself that, having read the interview, people might then turn back to his work and better appreciate it?

Many contemporary artists - writers and musicians, too - are familiar with the problem. On the one hand, there's the desire that their work be "uncompromised" - here it is, and if you don't get it, that's your problem. On the other hand, and much more commonly now than in the sod- you era of High Modernism, there's an awareness that audiences do inevitably look for help or explanation. People don't only want Art, they want Artspeak. Is it a sellout - a dumbing down - to provide it? Or a necessary part of getting the work across?

Sir Dennis Stevenson, a former chairman of the Tate and now chair of the music ensemble Sinfonia 21, recently weighed into this debate when he attacked "elitist and arrogant" classical music composers who fail to make the effort to explain: "At the Tate, the director Nicholas Serota got a lot of criticism for putting cards next to the works, explaining them. Now that is copied all over the world. But composers seem to think they have no need to explain ... Very few have taken the trouble to reach out." Stevenson also proposed that classical concerts start earlier and run shorter, so as to stop busy people like him falling asleep and having to have eat inconveniently late: "I don't like having my supper interfered with."

I've some sympathy with Stevenson's call for brevity. In their eagerness to give value for money, some organisers and performers fail to see that more can mean less. (A concert with two halves of 40 minutes each is perfectly adequate for most punters.) But it's hard to trust a man who, on this evidence, sees concerts as harmless pre-prandial entertainment. Not to bite the hand that feeds you may be prudent, but scheduling concerts to fit the attention spans of businessmen is biting off your own hand in order to feed the patron. Corporate sponsors almost always prefer old favourites - La Boheme rather than Nixon in China. And agreeing not to interfere with a patron's supper will soon enough mean interfering with the choice of music laid on for him. I can hear it now: "Suppertime, and the living is easy/ Divas singing and the Dow Jones is high." He who plays the piper mauls the tune.

But the deeper problem Stevenson raises is how far practitioners can and should "explain". The new is meant to shock: the idea that you can tame or diminish that shock is to misunderstand its nature. When a work is unveiled to the world, even its maker will be struggling to comprehend its implications. Moreover, if you work in a non-verbal medium, words may be beside the point. The articulacy of the artist lies in painting. Language isn't the musician's first language. In person, poets can be mute and stuttering - some such debilitation is often why they start writing poetry in the first place.

Until recently, art relied on sympathetic commentators and comrades to speak for it - the intelligent mediation of men like David Sylvester and Bryan Robertson, for example, have done much to make post-war British painting accessible. But increasingly the expectation is that cultural practitioners should be able to do this stuff themselves - be smooth performers to their own performances, MCs to their own ceremonies, DJs filling the silences between their own songs. The dangers of this were pointed out many years ago by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word, a debunking account of Abstract Expressionism which argued that American artists with a facility for verbal theorising far outnumbered those capable of skilful brushstrokes.

Suitably prompted, artists do sometimes give fascinating insights into their own work. And of course a briefing of some kind can be helpful - with new operas, for example, which are notoriously difficult to take in on a first hearing. I remember talking to the singer Ann Murray last year, shortly before Gavin Bryars's opera Dr Ox's Experiment (for which I wrote the libretto) was staged at the London Coliseum. Why, she suggested, didn't Gavin and I give a little talk in the foyer before each performance? We didn't do it. The practical difficulties (not to mention the courage it would have required) seemed insuperable. But we did take part in a study day at the ICA, and the 100 or so people there who went on to see Dr Ox that evening undoubtedly got more out of the performance as a result. And last month, on the opening night of a radically different production of Dr Ox in Dortmund, there was a foyer briefing or mini-lecture beforehand - not given by us, true, but exactly along the lines Ann Murray had proposed.

It's tempting to think that the reason so many middle-sized German towns run successful opera-houses (and on a midwinter Sunday night, for a contemporary opera by a foreign composer, the house in Dortmund was three-quarters full) is their concern with accessibility. But imaginative ticket schemes, affordable prices, the absence of the champagne-and- pearls set, the long history of an operatic tradition - these are all part of it too. Nor do I think that Gavin Bryars and I explaining ourselves in the foyer of the Coliseum would have affected Dr Ox's reception. The opera critics - a purist and conservative lot - were mostly unkind about it. But it played to nearly full houses. And if some of those leaving at the end looked mystified, they didn't seem angry about that. A little mesmerism in an art-work is to be desired. Secrets aren't always dirty. Not every mystery can be given away.

Though he risked being seen as a curmudegeon for it, Harold Pinter was surely right when he decided years ago that he wouldn't explain his plays - that their logic is internal, and any comment he might have to make on The Birthday Party, say, would be a distraction, since all that can be said it says itself, as a piece of theatre. Similarly, I'm not sorry that the fine Australian poet Peter Porter, who celebrated his 70th birthday last week, should resist appending footnotes to his poems to explain their sometimes daunting allusions. He is a an intellectually bracing poet, but that's part of the pleasure of reading him. If he began to self-annotate, would that win him any more readers, or make the money-men at Oxford University Press change their mind about abandoning the list to which he belongs? I doubt it.

As Pinter and Porter remind us, the last word lies with art itself. If artists choose to add their tenpenn'orth, fine. But it's their creating we should value them for, not their explicating.