Portrait of the artist as a silent man

Observations on Hay-on-Wye

The mud, the marquees, the crowds: Hay-on-Wye's literary festival is getting more like Glastonbury every year. But one important distinction remains. The stars who hold the stage at Glastonbury are born performers. The stars at Hay are not. Their arts - writing, painting, philosophy - are practised in solitude, and reaching out to a crowd can be a bit of a struggle. Zadie Smith blushingly told her packed Hay theatre that she "doesn't really do" spontaneous public speaking; Sarah Waters did little more than read aloud from her new book, holding it up in front of her like a shield.

But it was the eminent painter Sir Howard Hodgkin for whom one felt most sympathy. His struggle with public speaking took place in front of an audience of about 800 in the grand Eos Marquee, where he was advertised as being "in conversation" with the historian Simon Schama.

Here, Schama rattles off an introduction (Turner Prize, 1985; forthcoming major retrospective at Tate Britain), and Hodgkin enters, smiling and serene. Schama reminds him that they met at Oxford. Hodgkin tolerates this suggestion in silence. Schama asks him if his trip to India informs his use of bright oranges and reds. Hodgkin looks dubious. He went there because everyone spoke English. Silence. Schama jumps skittishly to another topic. The painting Memoirs, say. It depicts a man in anguish, does it not, remembering a beautiful woman? Hodgkin baulks. It depicts a beautiful woman remembering a man.

Silence falls. The interview now descends into outright antagonism. As Schama chatters, Hodgkin's affinity for silence grows. Schama tries end-of-the-pier jollity (making jokes about the wet Hay weather, the usefulness of the bottle of red wine the two have before them, the whole situation: "The less you talk, the more I panic!") while Hodgkin becomes ever more gnomic. "Where does the creative process start for you?" demands Schama. "Can you tell me that?" "No," says Hodgkin. "I don't think I can."

An anorak-wearing couple near the front walk out ostentatiously. The whole audience, in fact, polarises. Those for Schama laugh mockingly when Hodgkin fails to deliver. Those for Hodgkin titter when Schama asks shallow questions. "What's the smallest painting you've ever made?" Bruce Chatwin once said Hodgkin's smile could "captivate or freeze": here, it turns Schama effortlessly to ice.

A chummy rapport between interviewer and interviewee is widely considered useful at festival events, but the tension here is electrifying. It is also edifying, somehow: the mystical quality of Hodgkin's work is confirmed by his unwillingness to produce glib soundbites. Instead, insights into his vision come in flashes. When Hodgkin looks into the hall and describes its "atmospheric pressure", I see the marquee as one of his paintings, the audience monochromatic blobs, the walls red and orange slashes.

And perhaps, after all, we should never have expected a cosy Q&A session. As Hodgkin tells us, finally: "The isolation of the artist is limitless. They're not normal human beings, I'm afraid. Maybe that's why they behave so badly."

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, False dawn for democracy