Death of An Artist

The plan for this issue was to write something on regional museums, something light and fun and full of appreciation for the unique historical collections of places like the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston and the Art Gallery of Ballarat. But that’ll have to wait for another time because Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen by Eric Jensen has just come out and it seems to be everywhere today. I had three phone calls about it before 10am  wanting to know if I’d read it, and what did I think. Now I can’t get thoughts of Cullen from my mind.

Through mutual friends and former partners of Cullen, I’d known for more than a year that Jensen was writing a memoir of his friendship with Cullen and the final chaotic years of the artist’s life. I’d known Adam since art school in the early 1980s and had maintained a friendship for more than 30 years, writing on his work for magazines and the occasional catalogue essay, at one stage embarking on an ill-fated attempt to curate a show of his work. Every time someone mentioned Jensen’s book I was overcome with feelings of dread and anger. Now it’s here.

On Saturday The Good Weekend excerpted a big chunk of the book. If there was ever a more bitterly ironic mismatch between the title of Fairfax’s accursed colour supplement and the content therein, then this was it. The rendition of Cullen’s life in those years detailed in the extract was painfully familiar – a litany of lies and fantasies formed from drug addiction and alcohol abuse, the art now largely forgotten in an endless series of self-justifications and pitiful attempts to reach out to anyone who would just spend some time with him. Jensen was there to witness and chronicle, and then to write his book. My feelings of dread and anger were prompted by the fear that the book would be a whitewash, a celebration of the bad boy cliché. This is far worse – it’s a reminder of why so many of his friends left him to his fate, the self-destruction and self-mythologising too painful to be around.

Last week as part of some research for a talk I was giving on writing for broadcast, I was looking back at The Art Life – the three-part TV series I’d written and presented for ABC1 in 2007 – and there in the first episode was an interview I’d done with Cullen about living in suburbia and how that experience could be translated into art. Preceding the interview was a discussion of the work and life – and early death – of Howard Arkley. I’d had some misgivings about including the biographical aspects of Arkley’s life in a discussion of his art but since they were so intimately connected it would have been disingenuous not to talk about it. But looking at the show, with both Arkley and Cullen now dead and gone, the connections between the two seemed even more obvious than in 2007. They were suburban boys who had fallen in love with the romance of the idea of the individualistic artist, the lonely seer whose existential pain needed the medication of morphine or vodka. They were not the first to go to the dark side, and probably not the last.

Knowledge of the biographies of the artists who made the works hanging in a gallery is not necessary to appreciate the work. Certainly, information about an artist’s motivations and ideas adds something to that understanding, but it seems that an art object evolves from being an object that speaks to the life of an individual to eventually taking on a life of its own. Like the works in those regional galleries that I will sometime eventually write about, the work of Cullen and Arkley and many others who went before their time remain in the here and now. There’s no real past or future in art, only present.

But how long will it take for the popular life stories of artists such as Vincent van Gogh or Jackson Pollock to become irrelevant to the experience of their work? Maybe that moment has already arrived, maybe it never was, but the insistence that understanding art is an understanding of the emotional and intellectual reasoning of the artist is a denial of the life of an object. It’s hard to think of art in those times since we are so steeped in the cult of the maker, but beyond biography lies a much tougher consideration of how things exist in the world, and what culture can make of them.

The obsession with biography in an appreciation of art is understandable; it’s how people relate to one another, through empathy for the lives of others and a fascination with how their experience is translated into art. Yet the cliché of the romantic individual is also an appealing role model for the disaffected, particularly when the talent of an artist becomes indistinguishable from their lifestyle choices. What should be a cautionary tale becomes an advertisement for contemporary bohemia.

I wrote about Cullen’s art because I believed in it – and I still do. The best of his work stands as some of the most compelling art of the last 30 years. But if Cullen’s work is to have any lasting meaning then it has to be separated from the tragedy of his death, otherwise it’s not much more than the leftovers of a life, like my grandfather’s suits I wore to art school in the 80s or the furniture from his house I dragged around for years –sentimental keepsakes of the dear departed. As Cullen once wrote on a canvas, “Good morning Australia, you’re all going to die”. But what he didn’t mention is that not everyone goes at the same time. Things are always left behind and that is where we can find something of value, in even the most tragic good weekend.

Death of an Artist, Art Guide, September 2014.

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