Can I just dig it, please?


Recently, a friend of a friend contacted me with an interesting question. She had been entirely baffled when my friend told her that I not only considered the painter Lucian Freud “culturally significant” (her words), but that I actually liked his art. In order to try and understand why an (apparently) otherwise normal human being would enjoy gazing at such things, my friend’s friend asked that I justify my predilections by explaining to her what “ideas” I found in the paintings that attracted me to them. My (slightly edited) reply to her forms the content of this post:

Before I get into my brief (Ha! – ed.) discussion of ideas in Lucian Freud, I’d like to say a few things about the way I view art in general. Our mutual friend will no doubt be happy to confirm that I tend not to answer certain questions directly, because I think they admit of no direct answers. These are the best kinds of questions in my opinion – questions that require thought, questions that require context. In thinking of a way to answer your question, I have specifically resisted looking at the interpretations of Lucian Freud that are no doubt abundantly available – those published by art critics or by the artist himself. It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that the opinions of those people (including that of the artist) are just as arbitrary as mine when it comes to a discussion of the appreciation of the art “on its own terms”.

For me, the most important property art (any art) possesses is its “aesthetic quality”. This can be taken at face value – if I like the look/sound/way it makes me feel, I like it. I have very strong reactions to art of all kinds at a level “below” the intellect. However, just because this reaction takes place on such a potentially diaphanous level, somewhere in my mysterious “aesthetic sense”, doesn’t mean that it can’t be analysed in considerable detail. Such analysis is certainly of interest to me, but it needs to be clear that it’s as much analysis of me (the appreciator), as it is analysis of the art (the appreciated). The best art, in my opinion, is (in the New Age jargon) “holistic”; it has properties that are (in the scientific jargon) “emergent” – more than the sum of their parts. This means that, even though these properties are produced by the form and content of the artwork, they cannot be reduced to that level, cannot be understood by separate analysis of form and content. That is because the form and the content are not separate properties – the form is the content, the content the form.

Quotes are fun:

“It may seem deconstructed, but that’s the structure.” – David Lynch

What exactly are “ideas” in art? I’m not trying to be difficult or evasive, this is a serious question. At what level of analysis do these ideas emerge? Let’s imagine for a moment we’re talking about music. One might ask what ideas I find in the performance of Hath-Arob that opens this concert by John Zorn’s Acoustic Masada ( I might say something like “it’s just so full of ideas, man!”, and that would certainly be true. Or maybe I could describe some of the ideas in technical terms – changes of tempo, rhythmic groupings, modes employed during solos etc. I could start talking nonsense about extra-musical ideas, saying something like “the violence in this music is the expression of souls in existential torment…”, but then I’d definitely be talking about my reaction and not about the art (“…music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all” – Igor Stravinsky). At which “idea level” does the art itself actually exist? Sartre says that art exists in the imagination – that our imagination literally brings into being the “aesthetic object”, which does not exist out there in the world of ideas (be they technical, metaphorical or whatever). So according to him any discussion of the ideas I find in a work of art would be a discussion of the ideas I find in my imagination and connect with the object (the piece of art) in front of me. I’d really be talking about myself, not about the artwork at all. Maybe our reactions really are the only thing we can talk about with any legitimacy when we talk about why we like a piece of art?

Sure, I could provide a list of ideas I find “worthwhile” in that performance of Hath-Arob…but that would really be an a posteriori attempt to explain to you (or to myself) the basic fact that I just dig it. Or rather, a certain “I” (a certain “me”), a certain virtual machine that runs on my wetware CPU (my brain), digs it. Yes, I have to be “in the mood”, for this sort of thing. But when I am, I am, when I am I love it, and no amount of explaining why I love it can do justice to the experiencing of it. In fact, this “why” wouldn’t even be a “why” in any meaningful sense. To attribute a “why” is to attribute a causal antecedent. Trying to describe why one enjoys a piece of art in terms of ideas fails to achieve this goal. Rather than establishing a causal antecedent, such a description is merely the act of smearing an interpretive gloss on an experience after the fact.

Anyway, you get the idea. Let’s talk about Lucian Freud. I’m still not quite ready to answer the question directly, but almost. Firstly, a little bit more about how I (unconsciously – as usual the analysis occurs after the fact) think about art. In my head, as I imagine is the case for almost everyone, artists group together automatically – I associate certain artists with one another. This makes it easier for us to both think about art and (crucially) to communicate about art. This is why we have “genres” and “movements” (whether they are defined by critics or by the artists themselves). “Isms”, like “Expressionism”, and the adjectives derived from them (as in “expressionist painters”), which morph back into nouns (as in “Expressionists”), are useful points of reference for discussing art. As long as we understand their role and its limitations, they are not dangerous. Genres are like criticism is like language in general – words are not things, they are symbols linked to concepts. Symbols are useful, we need them, but they must be decoded.

Incidentally, it’s our reliance on symbols for communication that gets us into to trouble when we’re discussing art. We assume art requires interpretation, like the symbols we’re using to discuss it. On the contrary, however, I contend that part of the immense value of art comes from the fact that it transcends interpretation. What a wonderful respite it is from interpretation to simply stand in front of a painting, to simply listen to a piece of music, and be awed by its holistic, irreducible, non-semantic qualities! Susan Sontag had a particularly eloquent way of putting this – “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

What I’m trying to be clear about is that when I say what I’m about to say: that I think of Freud as an artist amongst artists, as in a “group” with the “Expressionists” Kokoschka and Schiele, this is a harmless statement describing the automatic grouping process that goes on in my head when I think about Lucian Freud. Freud may not have considered himself an Expressionist as such (I think he liked “expressive realist”), but that doesn’t matter. So, some pictures:

Kokoschka, self-portrait.


Schiele, self-portrait.


Freud, self-portraits.



Not only do I think of these three as somehow “similar”, they are three of my favourite portrait painters. What “ideas” do they express? I’m not as militantly anti-interpretation as some (e.g., Lynch and Sontag), actually I do, like you, find it interesting (a bit like gazing at my navel), to interpret certain works of art……I just wanted to make sure it was clear that I don’t consider interpretation critical to appreciation.

It is almost certainly central to my grouping of these three artists together that their paintings express similar things to me. It’s no coincidence that they all painted many self-portraits, because what their portraiture expresses above all (to me) is vulnerability. Freud is clearly more literally representational than the other two, but there is an element of “hyper-realism” in all these paintings. No attempt is made by these painters to flatter. These are not like the over-exposed (or airbrushed) portraits we are constantly exposed to by the dominant portrait artists of today (professional photographers). Rather than smooth out the flaws of their subjects, these painters accentuate them. What do the paintings say? Perhaps they say something like “I am a human, a flesh monster, I am flawed and fragile, I eat and shit and I think about sex and death and decay and so do you.” The paintings are nothing if not honest. Maybe that’s why they are hard to like for some people. For me they are real, visceral, and enthralling.

Phew, that was tiring. Maybe instead of writing all that I should have just answered your question with a question of my own – “Can I just dig it, please?”