Culture Trips

So bad it’s good: do all great artists need a vice? | Culture

In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all

Many great artists have at least one major vice that gets them out of the everyday and into a more intense imaginary place. For Francis Bacon it was alcohol, which he was apparently able to drink in limitless quantities. For Titian it was sex: an eyewitness account of the Renaissance painter at work says he routinely slept with the women who posed for him. And Tracey Emin’s bed is scattered with evidence of her bad habits in the 1990s: used condoms, drained bottles and joints, although she says those belonged to a boyfriend. But do all great artists need a vice?

Of course, it can sound mature and serious, not to mention responsible, to claim otherwise. Biographers and art historians like to downplay the wilder tales about artistic life. Caravaggio was regarded by contemporaries as actively gay at a time when “sodomy” was both a mortal sin and a capital crime, but many today insist his sensuous paintings of young men and fruit are sexless allegories of sin or Christ. To me, they are come-ons. Caravaggio’s desires scythe through his art.

The fashion for playing down the place of sex, drugs and drink in art rests in a suspicion of “the Romantic myth of the artist”, a cliche about artistic natures that supposedly started in the 1800s. In the Romantic age, the creative personality was given a new, almost religious status. Art was seen as ecstatic and visionary, a great adventure enhanced by stimulants such as Coleridge’s opium or Byron’s love affairs.

This Romantic vision of the inspired artist can obviously shrink into a cheap glamorising of self-indulgence. I once went on a trip to Tenerife with a bunch of reprobates whose supposed art event ended at a drug dealer’s house. No great art came of this. A recent documentary about the Romantics had Pete Doherty commenting on them as though being a badly behaved pop star is the same as writing Jerusalem.

You need the talent first. Yet for all the tragedy the equation of art and addiction has caused – from Jackson Pollock’s fatal drink-driving to Van Gogh’s absinthe abuse and many more ruined lives – it is true that really powerful, insightful art often has a fundamentally intoxicated quality. The Romantics were not the first to see this. Ancient Greek and Roman authors wrote of the “fury” of the poet, the “daemon” of creativity. In the Renaissance this idea fed a new cult of artists’ bad behaviour. The 15th-century painter Fra Filippo Lippi was said to be a sex addict despite living as a friar; his greatest works portray his lover who ran away with him from her convent. Cosimo de’ Medici is said to have helped Donatello get back together with a boyfriend when, again, it was a capital crime. The sculptor’s passion electrifies his male nude David.

Of course, he may have created this bronze as a substitute for love. Art turns wild experiences into something you can put on a plinth or in a frame. It is both in and beyond the moment. No artist today acknowledges art’s dangerous drunkenness more powerfully than Emin. Yet she no longer does many of the things she did when she made My Bed. Instead she paints from her memories of those days. The intoxication is the art itself.

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