The Fine Line Between Artist and Critic.

If you find yourself in Amsterdam at some point before April and need a break from the freezing wind or gliding bicycles, be sure to visit the Stedelijk museum. A three minute walk from the much celebrated Rijksmuseum, De Stedelijk is the curious setting which houses the late American artist Mike Kelley’s retrospective exhibition. Contained within the price of a general museum admissions ticket (around 7 Euros) is access to several rooms and galleries, pertaining Kelley’s life lived through art.

Mike Kelley’s exhibition presents an audio and visual experience accessible to many with his unique and bizarre take on America and its values, culture, ideology, ‘constructions in all their messy contradictions’ and crude representations of pop. Nothing is covered up from Kelley’s inspective eye, his dark and drastic sense of humour. An artist who freely interplayed with a vast manner of forms, the legacy of Kelley on show here features both the age-old practice of nude drawing and modern sculpture and light projection, as well as television constructions broadcasting a loop of unsettling YouTube clips – itself interspersed with minimalist dots and clinical beeps. It seems Kelley was a master of portraying 20th Century popular culture in art. Who else would burst the mythic bubble surrounding the question of supressed memory in his work (‘People tend to think about these works in a very generic way as, somehow, being about childhood. That was not my intent’[1]) but Kelley himself? Critics have made comparisons to the 1960’s avant-garde, but if Mike Kelley was the Frank Zappa of the art world, then their similarities end where deep emotion and personal anguish within it are concerned; for the serious decorum of authenticity, that of the oblique creator – is present throughout the show.

Sadly, following a bout of depression, Kelley committed suicide in January 2012 at the particular age of 57. This has enhanced his status as a troubled figure (as it undoubtedly will), but the work Kelley left us was always slightly alarming and at least interesting (I didn’t know about the nature of his tragic demise at the time of visiting). Whilst security will have to hear the sounds of feminine shrieks and indefinable circular clangs on a daily basis for the next couple of months, it is slightly irking to know that this distinctive collection will never be added to, enhanced or shown in a new capacity. When cruising around the gallery in De Stedelijk, I noticed some of the pieces on parade consisted solely of words on a page, affirming any suspicion that writing can be a form of art too. Where, though, is the line drawn -so to speak – between literature, or simply empty words, and art itself?

Words and the practice of using them can only ever be conservative in that one is restricted by the ‘box’ of the words meaning and the limitations of actual speech. Art by its nature rejects this limitation so where words fail, art can often suffice – permeating those depths of the soul that letters can never reach. But I’m convinced these magisteria can and do overlap, as I’m sure is Kelley; the written piece may not simply be just a craft. Who, that takes an interest in the practice, has failed to be affected by a high calibre essay or a timeless work of fiction in the same way that they are by music or painting? Kelley himself trod the fine line between the two positions, and between the role of spectator and partaker.

As I was backtracking through Kelley’s life in words I came upon an interesting quote in an interview from the Guardian page about critics: “Artist and critic are dependent on each other but have fundamentally different social positions and world views. As the story goes, the artist is uneducated but has a kind of innate gift for visual expression, which the educated and socialised critic must decode for the general population.”[2]

Kelley himself attained the unique position of being both artist and critic, releasing a book of art criticism called ‘Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism’ with John Welchman in 2003. What’s more, he could remove himself further from the positions to gain perspective on the whole ordeal itself (hence the above quote); Kelley undermines his own words through his actions. Historically, the two positions are not a separate as is made out. The poet and writer John Betjeman divided his life’s work into both occupations: a profound lover of the English countryside and Anglican churches, you would never be sure if he was to write a verse of accolade for the country in its days of old, or a structured critique, albeit full of adoration. It also portrays a strange effect to the observer.

In his general idiolect Betjeman sort of spoke in the manner of the poet, an odd halfway position between general conversation and metaphorical interjection; videos of him speaking show him gazing up in slow candour, almost as though he were picking the words from some noble encyclopaedia in the sky. In an interview conducted by Betjeman on Down Cemetery Road[3] (1964), Philip Larkin makes the confession that “really one agrees with them that what one writes is based so much on the kind of person one is”. Larkin too was a critic, particularly of early jazz records and modernist literature and his polemical prose is collected in the fine publication ‘Required Writing’, though he asserts that he didn’t very much enjoy this hack job.

Is this split of roles, this cognitive dissonance at all praise worthy? It is certain that one is not required to be detached from the world of creativity to be able to assess it themselves. It can produce some odd or even negative results; apparently Martin Amis’ ‘Koba The Dread’ which deals with Stalinism fails boorishly where the writer neglects his familiar output of fiction. If the writer is painting with words then Kelley’s own words must be wrong.  The counter-examples show that even if the results are disingenuous or quirky (or brilliant), the two worlds do collide and often produce a lovely light in return.

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