David Lister: Let artists tell their stories. But if only we could hear the other side

The Week in Arts

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I was never quite able to feel Louise Bourgeois's pain. Her death has deprived us of a great artist. Her sculptures were intriguing and often haunting, but the subject matter could be obsessive. Her 2007 Tate retrospective opened with a model of her parents' chateau, over which hung the blade of a guillotine. Inside was a tableau entitled The Destruction of the Father. Created in 1974 when Bourgeois was a widow in her sixties, it represents a family dinner table, at which the gloating patriarch is being devoured by his tyrannised children.

Over decades and decades her work returned to the same theme – her childhood, her relationship with her father, and most particularly her father's infidelity with her English tutor, who lived with them. Discovering this as a child would certainly have been traumatic for the young Louise, and critics and obituary writers have been quick to echo her feelings about it. One described her childhood as "abusive".

Well, there's abuse and abuse. I'm not convinced that parental infidelity constitutes abuse. Neither am I convinced that it deserves a vengeance maintained by the child not just into adulthood but into her nineties. I put this to a curator and Bourgeois expert at the Tate who replied that "artists tend to feel these things more deeply". That's true, no doubt; but it's also true that artists enjoy a privileged position in being able to portray their version of resented relatives to the world. Those resented relatives are rarely able to give their account.

Relatives, particularly parents, are a common subject for artists and writers, and we tend to believe what we see and read. We tend also to forget that those depictions are a personal view that may say as much psychologically about the artist as they do about the subject. The novelist Hanif Kureishi presented his father in his books in a comic and not always flattering way. And it's a portrayal that one would have taken on trust until Kureishi's sister Yasmin wrote in this paper that it was not a portrayal she recognised of her adored father.

She tells me that her brother no longer speaks to her. And I suspect that artists generally do not like to have their views of their parents challenged, or to countenance any suggestion that their portrayal of them is subjective rather than the unvarnished truth.

There are countless other examples of artists using their family as source material, and far fewer examples of family members, even when alive, being able to answer back. Yet, if only we could hear them, we would learn not just about them but more importantly about the artists that have made use of them. We might begin to realise that those artists have psychological motivations that perhaps even they are not aware of.

Artists repeat themselves, Louise Bourgeois once said, "because they have no access to a cure". But the objects of their work have no access at all, no access to public opinion, no access to posterity which will view them only as their artist offspring want them to be viewed. Sometimes I yearn to hear their side of the story.

I don't blame actors for objecting to 'luvvie'

David Suchet, currently starring in a West End revival of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, has attracted mockery for his declaration that the word "luvvies" has harmed his profession. Suchet said that "luvvie" is a derogatory word to describe an actor, and as a result the public had lost some respect for the acting profession. Since making that statement, he has been reminded in print that "luvvie" is a term of affection.

I rather agree with Suchet. A term of affection surely is that only if it is taken to be so by the recipient. And I know of no actors who actually enjoy being called a luvvie. Sir Trevor Nunn once said that calling an actor a luvvie was as offensive as calling a black man a "nigger". That is clearly an overblown comparison. But luvvie does imply pretentiousness and narcissism. The word has had a good run, and it would be nice if it could be quietly dropped. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Here's a man who knows his place

The historian Niall Ferguson's lament about the state of history teaching in schools was one of the highlights of the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. Members of the audience asking questions need thick skins, though, when Professor Ferguson is doing the answering. One questioner who wondered about the concentration on Britain's imperial past in history teaching was told, "Don't give me that 'apology for empire' crap."

I did, though, enjoy Professor Ferguson's self-deprecating allusion to his recent widely publicised marital problems with his wife, the former newspaper editor Sue Douglas, and his friendship with the Somali-born feminist writer Aayan Hirsi Ali. Discussing Henry VIII, he said: "His marital problems did at least lead to the Reformation. I wish my marital problems had been as useful." Now that's a historian's perspective all right.

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