A week ago I was travelling to the University of Sussex to give a conference paper on Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist when I got a message I didn’t understand from Mark Blacklock, author of I’m Jack (which I haven’t read), talking about ekphrasis and artists’ jokes. I replied with one of those odd, polite Twitter queries that have you worrying that someone, either you or them, is going to end up looking silly in (sort of) public. He replied:
I’m thinking here of Randall’s shit smear paintings and Damo goofing off about that idea in Sex and Violence
Me: ah – but (shit!) does Hirst preempt me, the bastard – where in Sex & Violence? (I have it but haven’t read it – too scared to)
Mark: I’ll dig it out when I get home – I had assumed an ingenious ekphrastic extrapolation – even better if it’s coincidental!
Hi Jonathan: so the line is p.327. discussing his film Hanging Around. Burn asks: “So how autobiographical is it? ‘It’s only autobiographical,’ he says, ‘in the way that wiping your bottom is a self-portrait.'” As I say, I assumed this was a seed of an idea. Coincidence only makes it better.
If this means nothing to you, then Mark was talking about my novel, Randall, or The Painted Grape, which is a sort of alternative history of the YBAs. The titular artist takes the lead, Hirst-like role, and has his first success with a series of large, colourful Warhol-esque screenprints based on his and his friends’ shit-smeared toilet paper squares – works he styles as ‘portraits’, and which then grows into a cultural phenomenon: everyone wants a Randall…
Nevertheless Randall insisted that everyone – all the great and good and rich and famous that queued up to ‘have a Randall done’ – produce a ‘holograph’, as he called it, in situ, in the studio. You wanted a Randall portrait, you had to sit for it.
Now, in writing this book, I took great pride in the idea that I had ‘invented’ all the artworks myself – it was part of my sell to myself of the novel that, Randall aside, this wasn’t a roman a clef. So it was a shock to realise that Damien Hirst had, in fact, pre-empted me. Or was it more than this? Had I stolen from him?
The quote comes from Sex & Violence, Death & Silence, the posthumous collection of Gordon Burn’s writing on art. It’s on my shelf. I bought it, but didn’t read it, a few years ago, and most definitely long after I came up with the idea of Randall’s Sunshines paintings.
I had read Burn’s book of interviews with Hirst, On The Way to Work, and it’s not in there; I have just now reread the 1996 interview to be sure. I didn’t read Sex & Violence because I was scared – scared that I might find stuff so good I’d want to rip it off; scared I’d find stuff I’d already invented, or thought I’d invented; scared of the amount of stuff Burn knew about all this art, all these artists, when I actually knew very little, and was relying on the quality of my imaginative invention to stand for the quantity of work and opinion the YBAs produced.
I was scared, basically, of Burn’s insight and facility as a writer. I knew that, if he’d written a novel about the YBAs, he’d have made mine look like a piece of flimsy trash. I’d read Alma Cogan, which was a huge, deep, early influence on Randall in terms of its approach to celebrity, art, using real people in fiction. I’d read Fullalove, which, now that I write this, I realise is probably going to end up being an influence on the novel I’m writing now, which is about pop and rock music, just as Randall is about art.
But all of this influence comes without Burn’s compulsion for darkness – if not his fascination then his constant movement towards evil. I don’t have his Ripper book and, though I own it, I haven’t opened his book on the Wests, and never will. I don’t like badness, darkness, evil. It scares me and gives me the horrors. Which is why Alma Cogan and Fullallove worked so powerfully on me. Because I turn the pages in the newspaper when I come to that stuff. And he incorporated it magisterially in his, of all things, novels.
But I’m not really talking about Gordon Burn, I’m talking about Damien Hirst, and his line, in a feature/interview published in 1996:
‘It’s only autobiographical,’ he says, ‘in the way that wiping your bottom is a self-portrait.’
The book doesn’t record where the piece comes from, but an online search reveals that it was published in The Independent, which I certainly could have read, back in the day, and that this was a shortened version of a catalogue essay for Spellbound: Art and Film, an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, which I definitely did see, though I didn’t buy the catalogue, and god knows if that quote, about the dire Hirst short film Hanging Around, was up on the wall on an information panel. In any case, I had no interest in Hirst at that point, either as artist or as possible subject. I was more interested in Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho – which turns up, of course, in DeLillo’s Point Omega.
Either way, I could have read the Hirst quote, or have had it enter my consciousness in some other way.
I remember coming up with the idea, thinking it (or recalling it?), standing in the toilet, looking at the shit stain on a piece of toilet paper and thinking what a beautiful shape it made. I remember letting a piece dry, and then scanning it and playing around on Photoshop to see if I could make it look like I thought it should.
I remember being genuinely annoyed when I read Serge Gainsbourg’s (dire) novella Evguénie Sokolov, with its artist hero who farts as he draws, so the line goes all squiggly (that ended up, somehow, I suppose, in Randall’s son Josh’s wobbly camerawork), and eventually prints made with blood from his poor arse. That was the thing I was worried about – that people would think I was plagiarising or ripping it off. And I thought of putting in a reference to it, but didn’t. Ditto Gilbert and George’s Naked Shit Paintings. Though I did keep in a reference to Piero Manzoni.
None of this proves anything – and some would say the worry over originality and influence is spurious. I’m not sure I agree, in this instance. I thought I was making an original intervention in the cultural history of London in the 1990s. So, this we do know: Damien Hirst thought it first. I thought it second, possibly independently, possibly only thinking so, and I can hold my dignity as dear as I like, but Hirst, whom I was – in part – satirising in my novel, beat me to it. And can there be any surprise in this? The interviews in On The Way to Work are full of amazing lines. Hirst had an amazing facility for self-expression, but also he was lucky to find a listener like Gordon Burn, when plenty of people would have written him off as a self-obsessed motormouth. Which he was (is), but he was (is?) something more too.