Learning, a 1996 artwork by Michael Craig-Martin. Photo: ©2015 MICHAEL CRAIG- MARTIN
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Art rarely floats free of biography - or autobiography, for that matter

Michael Prodger on new books from Julian Barnes and Michael Craig-Martin.

Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art
Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £16.99

On Being an Artist
Michael Craig-Martin
Art/Books, 304pp, £22.50

Gustave Flaubert once stated, “Explaining one artistic form by means of another is a monstrosity. You won’t find a single good painting in all the museums of the world which needs a commentary.” Flaubert is Julian Barnes’s abiding hero, whose words have the writ of law, but despite noting this stricture approvingly, Barnes has always ignored it.

Keeping an Eye Open is a book of monstrosities, a series of 17 essays on art and artists written by Barnes over the years and here collected for the first time. He was, he confesses, a slow starter because he believed: “By being solemn, [art] took the excitement out of life.” He discovered that this wasn’t the case when he spent a year in Paris between school and university and came across the symbolist paintings of Gustave Moreau. He first wrote properly about art in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (its disquisition on Théodore Géricault’s disaster painting Raft of the Medusa is included here) and he has been an occasional critic ever since. His chosen painters are largely 19th- and early-20th-century Frenchmen – the likes of Delacroix and Courbet and petits-maîtres such as Fantin-Latour and Bonnard (with Lucian Freud and Howard Hodgkin thrown in for good measure). His interest lies in the way that French art “made its way from Romanticism to realism and into modernism”.

The essays, as one would expect, are high-quality affairs – thoughtful, discursive, highly wrought and full of aperçus. In these qualities, they resemble the writings of Anita Brookner, whose Hotel du Lac pipped his Flaubert’s Parrot to the 1984 Booker Prize. Curiously, just as he ignored Flaubert’s instruction, Barnes ignores his own high-mindedness. He insists throughout on his belief that art is all about the paintings and not the painter (“as if you go to an exhibition in order to get to know the artists better, rather than to get to know the art better . . .”), but because he can’t escape being a writer (“Artists are what they are, what they can and must be”) he returns again and again to the “creeping anecdotalism” and biographical stories that he disparages.

So, for every insight (that everything in Bonnard’s paintings “seems to take place a few hours either side of lunchtime”, or that for Cézanne art “had a parallel existence to life rather than an imitative dependence on it”), there is an often fruity fact about the artist’s life. He relates dismissively – but he relates it nonetheless – that a newly discovered bit of 19th-century gossip suggests that Degas’s genitals were underwhelming (a “lack of amorous means”) and that this affected the way he painted women. He notes that Bonnard, who obsessively painted his wife, Marthe, in the bath, had an affair with a younger painter, Renée Monchaty, who committed suicide. He describes Courbet’s horrible death: alcohol caused him to swell to such an extent that he was “tapped” of 20 litres of liquid. And in a piece of autobiography, he confesses, “It would be a very disturbed schoolboy who successfully masturbated to a book of Freud nudes.” That “successfully” seems telling.

Throughout these essays, Barnes uses art as a way of getting to know not just his chosen artists better but himself, too. When discussing Delacroix, the most unromantic of Romantics, he describes how he “faced the world with an exquisite cold courtesy” and that the painter was a “self-defended man”. He quotes Félix Vallotton’s observation: “All my life I shall have been one who sees life through a window.” The subject of these sentences (and there are plenty more) could be Barnes himself. This strand in no way undermines the elegance of the essays or the quality of his observations – if only all art writing were as good as this – but, because of it, when he states that “Art tends, sooner or later, to float free of biography,” you want to respond that no, it doesn’t, and it rarely floats free of autobiography, either.

If Barnes is an aficionado, Michael Craig-Martin is a practitioner. He is a sculptor and painter who, as a tutor in the art department of Goldsmiths, was a guru to the Young British Artists. He is also the “co-ordinator” of this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. On Being an Artist is less a unified manifesto than a compilation of “fragmented notes” written over his long career, part autobiography and part pensées. His writing resembles his art: simple, direct and, it must be said, often dealing with the mundane.

There are few hints here to show why he has been such an influential teacher. He admires Duchamp and Warhol and thinks life drawing is a dubious skill (“I oppose the idea that [it] should underlie all art practice”). His marriage gets only one page, as does his subsequent coming out as gay, but then topics such as “controversy” and “taking risks” are allotted only five lines apiece. It is disappointing, though hardly surprising, that there is little here on his motivation, inspiration or what he wants his art to do – the very questions Barnes is so adept at suggesting answers for.

Craig-Martin describes his linear drawing style as being the equivalent of objects such as light bulbs that are “not designed”. It is a description that covers this only intermittently interesting book, too. 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution