The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt
Interview with Stewart Home
I met Stewart Home in front of the British Library at St. Pancras, London. While we were getting our coffee at the small cafe in the library plaza, Mr. Home suggested that it would also have made good sense to meet at the Courtauld Institute of Art. He knew that I had come to the Library in summer 2009 to read the manuscript of the Memoirs of Anthony Blunt, that were then undisclosed to the public. It surely would have made sense to meet at the institute – the place where Sir Anthony worked for a number years. I was even more thrilled, however, by the chance to flip through the writings of a prominent art historian who turned out to be a Soviet spy. Reading those pages, which were intended if not to justify or explain, then at least to articulate the personal motivation of an individual who came to admire a counter political system, revealed the proximity between art and politics. An hour later Stewart Home would mention he understood the excitement that I and some of my colleagues had had experienced through Anthony Blunt's figure. No wonder he understood: it was about migration between systems, bureaucracies, realities and fiction. As it turns out, the borders are not so closed after all. All one needs to do is get in.
What's on your mind, what are you working on at the moment?
On lots of different things. I’m doing some research into old music. And also the drug scene in the London art world of the 60s. I’m writing a novel based on the life of my mother. She was involved in the crossover between bohemian life, literature, art, drugs and stuff. She knew a lot of people and she's a good way to look into London in the 60s.
Through talking to a friend of my mother, who had drug smuggling connections, I learned about one guy called Francis Morland. When I was doing research for an essay I wrote on psychedelic art, I didn't know it had anything to do with the research I was doing on my mother. I ended up looking at a catalogue and there was her photograph amongst British artists in Paris in 1963. And amongst David Hockney, Derek Boshier, and people who were very famous in the UK art world was Francis Morland. Apparently, it was the same Morland that I had learned about from the people I talked to about drug smuggling. It's strange how things get connected. The scene was quite small, especially in the 60s and there were a lot of crossovers. You start looking for one thing and you find out that you're looking at something else you were interested in.
At the moment I'm looking at some 60s artists who were quite famous. This drug connection research is interesting because it might enable you to re-interpret their work. For instance, some of them were arrested for illegal possession of speed. I think that this could be a new way to look at their work.
This drug thing was quite big at that time...
Well, yes, with certain people. I mean it depends where, but... When I was a kid in the 70s there was a lot drugs around, a lot of speed. And that creates a different culture. Music culture; for instance: the punks had amphetamines. And then ecstasy. So if you understand the drugs, you get to understand the culture. Well, maybe not everything is explainable through drugs, but some things are.
OK, right, so maybe I if I took some drugs, I could become an artist or musician... No, but seriously – in a way it relates to what you said once, that in order to get into the art world, to become an artist, one just needs to know how this art world, this system functions...
Exactly. Which I had to work out myself because I didn't know a lot of artists when I was younger.
Why did you decide to go for it in the first place?
In the late 70s I was involved in the music scene, and this carried on through to the early 80s. There was this rare soul scene in London, which was very interesting. And there wasn't that big split between music styles. At the end of the 70s it started breaking up: this is anarcho punk, and this is Goth, this is street punk etc. It got a bit boring because all these styles became ghettoized into different scenes. I got bored with music and started to look around for something else to do. And I decided to go into the art world.
The art world in London at that time was much more exciting?
I didn't really understand the art world in London at that time to start with. So I had to work my way into it. But in the 80s it was much smaller than it is now, so you had to get to know people. It was looking at the history of the avant-garde that interested me, and then looking at how to make stuff yourself. I went into the underground, not an official art group, which had to do with any kind of neoism. But at the same time I was interested in Fluxus and the Situationist International. I came across it through the political, not the artistic world, but then I realized there was all these art connections. So I started to research that, and also Gustav Metzke's auto-destructive art, which was then experiencing a huge comeback. A lot of people, especially those who were my age, didn’t know much about that. They started thinking I knew a lot about these things, and would want to talk about it with me. If they were doing a show, they would ask if I wanted to do it with them. That's how I was able to get in. But I understood the art world as essentially a bureaucracy, where you had to fulfill certain criteria to be allowed into it. The content wasn't necessarily that important when it came to being accepted within that system. So I was trying to prove that my understanding was sound by going through none of the necessary steps toward becoming an artist. I started trying to get into the art world in 1982, and by 1986 I'd been reviewed in proper magazines and national papers.
Talk of art as a bureaucracy, a system, has become kind of a more mainstream subject now...
Yes, so I was right. I can now maybe think about something else. Art has changed; visual art has become more like popular culture. In London in the 80s the art scene wasn't as big as it is now. You would have shows reviewed in national press, but there was not this huge interest in artists as celebrities. Even people like David Hockney wouldn't have been considered in the same way as someone like Tracy Emin is now. And this school of Saatchi shows has just started – an X-factor of artists. If anyone still wants to take art seriously, they should make sure they stop doing it now. I think there are few people with illusions about the visual art world now.