in Opinion | 01 JAN 04
Featured in
Issue 80

The right to be silent

Elitism and accessibility

in Opinion | 01 JAN 04


(a conversation on Élitism and accessibility)

Who do you make your work for, he asked me. I have the right to know.
That humans have so many rights, does not make a silent painting wrong.
I don't do it for the people and I don't do it against the people.
If at all, I do it from the people and after the people.
I never use the word Élite. I don't gatecrash parties that I'm not invited to.
Everyone should not go everywhere. Making things easy doesn't make them better, but making things unnecessarily complicated that's evil too.
Being hard to get is all right, only if there's something to get.
Heaven has always been quite an exclusive place, only preserved for those that come from certain clubs, not classes though. Believers understood that to get to a high place, you had to suffer and answer riddles and expose spies and marry the wrong person, and speak in tongues, to not end up in a low place like hell. You had no right to get in. You had to plea, pray and get down on your knees to get access to that place. To cross that border.

But what do you think your work means, he said, you seem to use populist images and have élitist intentions.
There's what I mean and what you mean and what the work means; or rather as Mr Eco says, 'there are the rights of the text and the rights of the interpreters and the rights of the interpreters have been overstressed.' So between my (frequently irrelevant) intention and your (mostly veiled) intention, there's the intention of the artwork.
But if the artwork remains too silent, then I'll just have to refer you back to my previous statement from 1993.
They say you can't judge a book by its cover.
You can't judge a woman by her lover.
But paintings have to be judged by their covers and their lovers.


I don't want to see your source material, he said. It's of no consequence to me when I look at your painting. It is no excuse and not part of the material evidence of the final work. You can't judge a painting by the picture that inspired it.
It started with a black and white photograph in a Dutch newspaper of 14th March 1986. Céline was photographed in his bed; on his deathbed, 1st June 1961. The article reviewed some books written about his life. I love to read old newspapers.
There is a face cut off by a white sheet.
There is a face cut off by a white sheet, covering the nostrils and the mouth.
There's half a face like an egg, the top part of the egg showing.
There's a geometry of tragedy at work.
The sheet, like a Malevich rectangle, comes from the outside. The skull is bending, pulled down by gravity, while the lower eye, like a vertical cut through the face, mediates between the two parts.

Most people want you to tell them everything you can remember about the making of an artwork. I hate people telling me their dreams, he said.
Serrano made a photograph in a morgue, of a man with a sheet covering half of his face. I've never been in a morgue. My father died at home. We looked after him. I did not look at him after his death, or rather we did not exhibit him after he died, for a last public farewell. My mother slept that night in their bedroom while the corpse of my father was not removed yet. She said - while he was alive I was not afraid of him, why should I be now that he's dead? He took a long time to die. I was 12 years old. The doctor said his illness made his skin colour change very rapidly. Once, about 15 years later, I tried to make a painting of him. It was a lousy painting. I didn't know how to approach the matter. That was an instance of being deliberately vague. It was an indecisive work. It had nothing to do with ambiguity. It was just unclear.

One can't speak for the dead, he said.
The South African writer Antje Krog said that the philosopher Derrida came to Cape Town and said, concerning the truth and reconciliation trials, that one could not forgive the unforgivable and one could not forgive in the name of the dead. And Krog's African colleague said - I can, because I'm in contact with the dead, they speak to me and are with me. Thus why may I not speak for them?


I'm not moved, he said. It's too static.
It's so sad, I said. As if no one ever entered here. As if no one ever returned from there. As if it has never been used. As if all colour has gone from the inside, has been drained. This is not the origin of the world. This is the end of the world.

I'd like my paintings to be very bare.
To be as minimal as a figurative work could possibly be, without being dead. With the image forever resisting the physical limitations of its frame, its material conditions as a painted thing. The paleness of the skin with the black-nippled corners.

The playing at the edges gives it scale. Without the edges it would be nothing, he said.
If a painting needs a wall to object to, an image needs edges to belong to.
She brings no news. The only secret she hides, is that you don't love me anymore. But why should I burden you with that. Maybe it's better to look at her without trying to get to the First Cause. 'Cause then we're back to square one.
Is this what we call inaccessible?

There've been times when I invited you.
There've been times when I confronted you.
There've been times, but not this time.