Edited by Alex Kurtagić
The following is excerpted from Jonathan Bowden’s Skin, a book he wrote in the early 1990s. The text has been lightly edited, mainly for punctuation, spelling, and capitalization.
Francis Bacon’s work . . . is an attempt to find an image that will explain the 20th century to itself. His support for the Right, on the other hand, is an attempt to further the artistic process. Basically, if the Right guarantees inequality, as it does, then the distinctiveness of the artistic personality is preserved. The fragility of the artistic ego is safeguarded by the social inequality that the Right safeguards. In short, the Right guarantees the importance of an artist, his inherent superiority, by virtue of the fact that it upholds order. As a consequence, the artist always prefers hierarchical inequality to humanitarian anarchy—as Louis-Ferdinand Céline once put it.
Bacon’s pictures, in turn, are an attempt to free meaning from reality, and return it to reality. He does not wish to tell a story; indeed, he is fundamentally antinarratological. Bacon wishes to mark the canvas, and conduct an image on the basis of the avoidance of that mark.
Hence, we see the importance of chance in Bacon’s work, and the way in which he privileges chance in the artistic process. In other words, his paintings are despondent, and they are executed in a spirit of abandoned futility. Bacon has to try hard to lose his will in order to execute a picture. In short, the pictures are an exercise in morbidity. They are an attempt to lose one’s will, to go on willing an absence of will; a chance happening, a contingent moment, an inadvertence. These things are so difficult to execute that they only begin when one loses one’s will to begin. In actual fact, from the marks of pain, the daubings on the canvas, Bacon constructs an anti-logarithm of identity. He wishes, in a fastidious fashion, to explore the plasticity of the human scream in oils, acrylic, turpentine, and brush-strokes. In a sense, Bacon is a type of Right-wing situationist; he wishes to construct his own ‘situation’ out of contingency. He regards reality as a meaningless current of energy—a facile movement of forms. We might go further and say that he believes in the purposeless energy that gives life meaning. In other words, he is a nihilist—whatever that means, since nihilism is not a position; it is an ante-dated position, a position that approaches the possibility of itself (to wax Heideggerian for a moment). As a result, nihilism is an a prioriposition; it is the true romanticisation of itself. More accurately, it is the recall of what it might be in relation to what it has avoided.
[. . .]
The work of Francis Bacon and Samuel Beckett . . . tends in the direction of an anarchistic Right-wing nihilism. It tends to posit a reality it cannot fulfil—although it tries to fulfil it. When Bacon throws paint on the canvas he is being ‘immoral’; or, a the very best, he is being ‘amoral’. He is admitting that life is contingent and meaningless; it is the meaning we give to an absence of meaning. Life, in short, is a throw of the dice with an uncertain outcome and an uncertain delivery. It is the impossibility of achieving the possibility of the object, even at one remove. It is an attempt to admit chaos, the indeterminacy of existence, into pictorial representation—although as yet it has not succeeded in draining art of its chaos or depicting chaos as a new form of art.