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

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood