Tate Magazine

Sins of the Fathers

Art and literature have been traditionally obsessed by the relationship between mothers and their children, but how prominently has the notion of fatherhood featured? Writer Andy Martin takes a paternal view of western culture.

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, as Philip Larkin put it with such monosyllabic bluntness, makes explicit a pervasive assumption of western art and literature. But the line needs a little fine-tuning. The mother (the occasional Medea apart) has come out rather on the credit side from our obsessive reworkings of the family romance; but the father, who takes most of the blame for everything, has been well and truly buried. While the Madonna and Child begat a multitude of radiant offspring , an exhibition didicated to the theme of Father and Son would struggle to fill a room. Art, so readily construed as patriarchal, is in fact broadly patricidal in tendency.

I should state an interest here: I am both son and father. But I counterbalance that reasonably confident affirmation with the sneaking suspicion that I am doomed to disappoint both my own father- “You’ll never go wrong with a good left foot” was his irrefutable wisdom – and my son (who, as I was leaving for a world chapionship boxing bout, said “I hope you win, dad”). The father-son line-up is always going to be a no-win team, dangling deep in the relegation zone, its season strewn with high ambition, failure, remorse, recriminations, walk-outs, sackings. “Why hast thou forsaken me?” cuts both ways. We live in a state of double denial.

The Father is the invisible man of art, a rule confirmed by occasional sightings: here, welcoming back that prodigal son or poised to sacrifice Isaac; there, a sprinkling of Lears and Goriots. or, in the twentieth century, Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic or sporting mythifications of paternity. The Father is, almost consensually,
one of the disappeared. And, it should be said, there are sound reasons for this rampant elusiveness. While his Son returns again and again in our churches and our imaginations, representation of God the Father, the Judaeo-Christian.

Tetragrammaton, has been subject to a strict taboo. The moodily interventionist figure of the Old Testament is reduced in the New to a detached synedoche of the original, and finally diminished to a resonant absence, a cloud, a rose (until William Blake’s neo-pagan resurrection of the Creator).Monotheism is tantamout to notheism: the great origin is, pictorially , a big zero. Perhaps there is more than a hint in all this – if we take the devine as a reflection of the diurnal – that the father, hunter-gatherer style, is largely away from home, pursuing prey of one sort or another (thus generating a far more prolific source of subject matter, which can be called pre-paternal). Post-seduction, the father effectively vanishes and the mother takes over. All art points by omission to the truancy of the roving, philandering figure who is, notoriously, the father. perhpas Augustus John best articulated this archetype when a friend asked him why he was so kind to children, and he replied: “I never know when one of them might be mine.”

The father remains the holy ghost of art. And there is one popular psuedo-theological explanation for his disappearance: namely that he is, in fact, everywhere, immortal and inescapable for all practical purposes. Even when – especially when – you cannot see Him, He can still see you. He is present in the very form and
texture of painting, in the structure of words. The unseen Father, or the serried ranks of his authoritarian surrogates (patron, king, Napolean), are still peering out from the shadows,keeping society inder strict survaillance.

All writing, all art, is infested with latent fatherdom. And at the same time is manifestly striving to throw off the terrible paternal burden and run free.

The American literary scholar Harrold Bloom (in The Anxiety of Influence) has been a powerful propagandist for this style of argument. On this view view, all poetry and by extension art in general is driven by the perpetual struggle with the father figure. Poets engage over the ages in a series of mortal combats with their progenitors; Woodsworth vs Milton, Milton vs Spenser. And really, on this Oedipally inclined assessments, fathers are asking for it: they are tyrants, laying down the law and liable to suffocate their young. It’s kill or be killed.

Max Ernst’s ‘Pieta or Revolution by Night’ (1923) is an ironic comment on the Madonna tradition. It offers an all-male Pieta. Ernst almost lets the father off as a harmless old duffer with the moustache and bowler hat (“the hat is the man” remarks Ernst), his son on his knee. But the continuum between wall and father suggest something far more sinister and cement-like. The painting harks back to a childhood incident in which Philippe Ernst painted the five-year-old Max as Jesus Christ. But, with Ernst mediating between psychoanalysis and the Surrealists, an evangelical Freudianism overlays the religious iconography: the title invokes the potency of dream while the painting itself is littered with Freudian overtones, from the tie around the father’s neck to the flaccid shower head floating above a “phallustrade” (Ernst’s word for his characteristic erotic staircase motif). The artist appears to be deliberately constructing some twisted Oedipal past for himself. But the highpoint of the picture is still the young man – far from dead, and gazing at his father – who alone of the three figures (aside from the sagging phallus) is coloured in anything other than brown. This is not a patriarchal world: it is distictly filiocentric.

If we take a Bloomian angle on Ernst, the precursor with whom he is wrestling is plausibly less a mass of Madonnas than David. Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Oath of the Horatii’ (1784-1785) has the same tripartite division. dating from the dying days of the ancien regime, and harking back to a thrusting classicism, there is no question here that the Father is indeed running the show. On the left of the picture, the Horace sons are signing up to their grisly work of scything down the opposition, while the drooping, swooning women on the righthand side are already as good as dead. The Father in the centre is a quasi-Moses leading his people and power. The sons are aspiring fathers.

Norman Bryson (in Tradition and Desire) finds in David a tranquil assumption of authority, an affirmation of “the patriarch’s power”. Hanging in the Louvre, this painting haunts, I suspect, the thinking of many a twentieth-century critic. But at the end of the eighteenth century, on the brink of the Revolution, with neoclassicism about to be swept away by Romanticism, David’s painting appears as a last desperate shot in a battle the father cannot win. in truth, he is already looking a little wobbly and he is, after all, massively outnumbered by those sturdy sons of his.

And it is the sons who have appropriated our aesthetic theories. In France, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre has provided something of a model, by losing his father when very young (“my big break” as he explains in Les Mots) and ardently eschewing fatherhood in later years. Following Freud’s lead, the critic Roland Barthes invariably uses le Pere as an irresistible synonym for law, tyranny, fascism, rule-bound regimentation. The “author” is condemned to death on account of a far too paternalistic relationship to the work (whereas “writers”, on the other hand, are more pluralistic in their desires). There is a collective aversion here to the point of phobia. Henceforth, there is to be no more fathering of text or image. Semiotically conceived, the pure work of art is automatically “orphaned” at birth and all the better for it. Jean Genet, orphan, thief and homosexual, becomes the patron saint (“Saint Genet”, Sartre called him) of literature. Art history, in these terms, has been overwhelmingly the province of the bachelor. Bloom always sees poets as sons, with a disobedient relationship to tradition. Only youthful rebel types it seems, roughly on the model of Chatterton (Wordworth’s “marvellous boy”) or James Dean, dying young and making beautiful corpses, can create decent art.

There is an anti-Dadism in writing about art, just as there is within art, so that, as for example in the work of Camille Paglia, the whole of western art is seen, although male-dominated, to be driven largely by homosexual admiration of the beautiful boy – from youthful charioteers down to choristers – and a paralysing fear of the femme fatale. Again, the father is being slapped down “even to the death”, as Bloom says. This is a resolutely non-Darwinian concept. Freud picks on a celibate, gay, mother-fixated Leonardo as his archtype of the artist.

If creativity arise strictly out of sublimation then art and literature become a good way of cutting back on the proliferation of the species. Art may be erotic, but is also an immense contraceptive.

It should be said, however, that there is a strong Darwinian version of the thesis. On this view of things, far from being generated out of self-repression, art is nothing but a set of peacock feathers to be exhibited in a courtship ritual, a cave painting to be admired by potential partners. But there is a curious convergence here. Art is still understood as a young man’s game, a strategy of seduction. It is only ever a prelude to fatherhood. Either way, it seems that it is a case of fathers over here, serious artists and writers over there.

Amis, pere et fils, provide an oddly instructive allegory. Critical opinion and the two sets of memoirs have tended to sharpen the differences between them. Kingsley, the father, became – and to some extent he played along with the role – the extreme traditionalist lapsing into sexual fatigue and impotence (Jake and Stanley). Whereas Martin, the son,emerged as the thrusting young bachelor boy of contemporary letters, hailed as a Rastignac among writers. Far from being amis with his father, he too – like other Bloomian heroes – is engaged in the agonstic struggle to overthrow him. And yet it transpires that all along Amis the younger has been a secret father, with a tabloid-exposed daughter (even before attaining the far shore of public paternity), Martin comes out as another version of Kingsley. But he is a father who cleaves , fictionally, to bachelordom (“We are getting younger. We are,” as the narrator of Time’s Arrow remarks). Following Freud and Barthes and Bloom, we have tended to see literature exclusively in terms of sons overthrowing fathers. And yet there is a powerful converse tradition of fathers rewinding the tape and masquerading as sons.

Anyone who has read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man wil recall the infantile opening paragraph: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…” I suspect that most will forget that this is not a spirited attempt to represent a child’s-eye view of (or discourse about) the world. This is, in fact, the father speaking, addressing his son, and pretending to be a child (although one might, to be strictly accurate, add that it is the son pretending to be father pretending to be the son). Whereas the son has all the cool, grown up lines: “O,the wild rose blossoms/On little green place.” Romanticism, passing through Rousseau’s tree-hugging “negative education” and Wordsworth’s neo-Platonic theory of the “Visionary gleam”, elevates youth to the condition of the sublime (even if Rousseau was capable of dumping his own kids while writing Emile). Blake invests a newborn with a voice in ‘Infant Joy’: “I have no name/I am but two days old”. The child exists in a state of pure semiosis, while the parent is the mediator of the cultural code (the how-to manual). Modernism and Post-modernism are only modulations of this Nietzschean theme of revolt against genealogy. Jorge Luis Borges summarised this line best when he argued that “all writers create their own precursors”. Sons are, in some sense, fathers. But fathers also strive to become sons.

Paul Klee, though sympathetic to Ernst, kept his distance from Freud, exploring the possibilties of a presexualised juvenile style. His concern for externality – flowers, snails, camels, fish, cats – can be seen as a reaction against the obsession with the psyche. “Do not laugh, reader !” he wrote in 1912, “Children also have artistic ability, and there is wisdom in their having it! The more helpless they are, the more instructive are the examples they furnish us.” Klee and Kandinsky both asserted that children have an access to the truth unavailable to the trained artist (they also compared them, favourably, with lunatics newly escaped from the asylum). Otto Dix, without the convenience of a video camera, actually sketched his son Ursus while he was being born and subsequently used the drawing to produce two paintings of the new born child in 1927. His son frequently reappears in Dix’s art over the next few years. “All art is a memory of our dark origins,” Klee wrote, and there is a sense in Dix’s work that it is precisely the role of his children to drag the rather rigid, chiselled, vertical father back into the tangled undergrowth of the woods.

From Huckleberry Finn to Tadzio in Death in Venice, the youthful gaze has been held up as a kind of salvation. One contemporary artist who has systematically tested out this theory is Issam Kourbaj. In ‘is/am’ he inverted the classic relationship of transmission, a project itself transmitted on BBC Radio 3 every morning for a week last October and subsequently exhibited in Cambridge. Kourbaj, a Druze born in Syria (where he had to make all his own toys), looks like the young Cat Stevens. To his son’s eye, however, he has red hair, green ears, eyes like Catherine wheels, a crinkly-chip smile and bits of blue fungi sticking out of his head. And it is that wildly eccentric vision of the world that the grown-up Kourbaj appropriated, brazenly plagiarising the early works of his three year-old son Mourad. The son is the master, the father the apprentice. “the best teachers are those who do not intend to teach,” Kourbaj said,spurning all those years of training in Damascus, St. Petersburg and London. “Mourad is as primitive as a caveman. He is not confined by the rectangular.”

Both using recycled book covers as canvases, Kourbaj the elder extrapolated Kourbaj the younger’s prefigurative efforts to produce radiant blobs and swirls and squiggles that look like some mad particle physicist grappling with the irreducible elements of the universe. But he also bridges abstraction and realism with an experimental ontology of orange cats (with gaping jaws), a doomed bird, impossible machinery and upside-down trees. He messes around with his son’s toys (in return the real boy is granted his wish to spray paint all over the walls). Perhaps Damien Hirst’s giant simulacrum of a child’s model, ‘Hymn’, is an XXL version of the same game.

The point is that the father wants nothing so much as to be the son. Fathers naturally abhor parental responsibility and maturity. And the fact is that grown-ups are better at being children than children are. One is not born a child, one becomes a child. Childhood is something that is acquired, learned. The father had projected himself through art as the son – the father-murdering son. Marcel Proust, if he shied away “TATE” Magazine