Francis Bacon beach towels and tea mugs are only the latest turn in the mass appeal of artists, according to Peter Aspden. But there’s a qualitative difference, he says, between one artist and another. Although many artists are fully expressing the ideas behind their work by creating product, the practice doesn’t fit all artists:
I’m not so sure about Bacon, though. His work was of a different order, and if we are to regard him as a masterly commentator on existential isolation and mortality, we are surely traducing his work by spreading it so thinly, on mugs, towels, silk scarves. We may live in a cheerfully ironic age, but there are limits. Bacon was trying to say something important about the human condition in his work. He struggled to say it, and we are captivated by the romance of that struggle. But the minute that the results appear on a kitchen tray, some of that subtle alchemical reaction between artist and spectator cannot help but be altered. We have lost something. The descent into kitsch is a one-way street and there is no turning back.
Turning high art into cheap products can be seen as an act of revenge by art on society. For most of history, great artists (with notable exceptions) have struggled to make money. The neglected genius is a cliché born of culture’s inability to reap its own rewards. But now art has turned the tables. In its inexorable spread into our kitchens and beach bags, it makes serious money for practitioners who have not necessarily risen above the ranks of the mediocre. It used to be too difficult for an artist to earn a living. Now, at a certain level of celebrity, it is too easy. It may be that the success of the art-related product tells us more about shopping than about art, and it may be good news. It seems we are desperate, even in our most trivial transactions, to associate ourselves with something profound. A tea towel featuring millennia-old motifs from the British Museum makes us feel there is a metaphysical resonance in our dish-drying. An umbrella whose underside is decorated with the vault of the Sistine Chapel makes us look to the heavens, in all senses.