Gordon Burn was a writer not an art critic. He wrote four well-received novels , one of them called Alma Cogen for which he received the Whitbread First Novel Prize and also authored as many non-fiction titles, amongst them Happy like Murderers which is a factual account of the life and crimes of two serial killers. One would imagine then that literature, not art would be Burn’s forte but for the fact that Burn was admired by the Young British Artists of his time and they sought his company and his reviews of their work. Burn’s economical prose, his empathetic insight into the lives of the artists and his proclivity to be critical without being judgmental lent him credibility and authenticity. His book Sex and Violence, Death and Silence -Encounters with Recent Art- is a collection of articles that he wrote over a span of 35 years. It is a wholesome fusion of observed reportage and opinion, personal association and critical detachment sprinkled copiously with dashes of humour and an unflappable view towards the erroneous activities of the artists, many of whom were his friends. In the foreword that consists of an interview between David Peace and Damien Hirst, Peace asks Hirst if he knew what propelled Burn’s into the art word and art writing and he says :
“No, not really, But I always thought Gordon was really an artist in his own right. I think anything done well is art. And Gordon took it very seriously. He dragged it out of himself almost like fucking carving it out of marble. Really hammered it around. And it had a form. But I suppose economy is the best word. It just has this wonderful economy, his writing. And then there’s the cheekiness, the humour. He has a dig at you as well…”
In fact, Burn does tell us how he was propelled into the art world. He says “I was late getting on the bandwagon. Feeling disengaged from the London art world of the late eighties and more interested in what was happening in fiction – I was writing a novel –I didn’t see it coming”. Then, he says, “the phone rang with a commission that was an invitation to parachute into an interesting and previously unsuspected world”, by which he means the opportunity to write about the Young British Artists.
What makes the book truly riveting is the engagement between Burn and the artists —the open ended conversations, the milling about and random conversations about production, collectors and the art business world. The two groups of artists whom Burn’s talks to and writes about, were the YBA or Young British Artists (the brat pack of the art scene in the late 80’s) and the Royal College Pop artists, consisting of Hockney and his contemporaries. He talks of their wildness and their excesses but says “ The remarkable thing as I discovered over time is that they were always at work. No matter how apparently blitzed or blasted, nothing was lost on them. Wozzed or wasted, they were always in the studio. “When they’re pissed” as the London dealer Sadie Coles told me, “that’s when they’re often talking about ideas”’
Burn gives us the kind of insights that no other art critic could have given us because the quotes are often off the wall, casual and conversational and yet astute. He quotes David Hockney as saying “I like life. I love life and I like the world. And when people tell you these are bad times, I point out, well, they’re the only times we’ve got. There’s not a lot of time. And, frankly no matter how bad it is, there’s also beauty there. Beauty’s a word we don’t hear much in the art world any more. They’re not concerned about it. But I am, and I want to try and deal with it in my work”
In an encounter with Gilbert and George, Burn recounts a conversation with them verbatim, spoken in short staccato sentences, one completing the other’s idea and we realize that Burn does this very deliberately to show us a textual version of their art. The way they speak in fact turns out to be exactly the way they work and live and at a very visual level the two complete each other purposefully. An excerpt:
George: We’re more and more and more interested in meaning. That’s our biggest interest, really. As opposed to form.
Gilbert: Even the colours are always used symbolic.
George: We were more involved with form in earlier times, to a certain extent. Now the form is less dominant.
Gilbert: Everybody just mentions how powerful our shows are. Visually. They are frightened. It’s true. All over.
George: It’s important that they feel affected, that it means something to them…
The chapter or ‘encounter’ with Andy Warhol is represented differently from the other artists. He mentions his meeting with him in a hotel room but there seems to be too much chaos and too little answering of questions. So the chapter ends up as a montage of quotes from dozens of acquaintance and writers; Richard Hamilton, Robert Hughes, Bianca Jagger and even Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran. The portrayal of Warhol is achieved successfully with eclecticism and eccentricity being the key feature of Warhol’s existence.
Burn’s extends his investigation into Damien Hirst more than any other artist in the book as they shared a long standing friendship and it was Hirst who made the cover for Burn’s book Happy like Murderers. (He tells how it came about). But Burn doesn’t tackle Hirst with any hint of a kid glove and tells it like it was with accounts of the drugs and drinking and social adventures. Hirst is such a huge persona that his casual words are insights and that’s what Burn wants us to see through the veil of weirdness. Burn quotes Hirst:
“The way I got involved with the art world…you get people to think one thing, and then you come around from another direction. I mean you do it in an art work. I think that’s what all artists do. They draw you into some sort of belief system and then –bang! –they hit you with something else. The one-two.”
The book is a fascinating account of the lives of artists who came from nothing and went places that nobody could imagine existed in the art world.