In Conversation

MICHAEL BRACEWELL with Kathy Battista

The writer of choice for Richard Hamilton, Bridget Riley, Gilbert & George, and Damien Hirst, Michael Bracewell’s art is the written word.  The Space Between, published by Ridinghouse in London, is a reader that features a collection of Bracewell’s essays and art criticism from the past three decades. The author moves gracefully from one discipline to another, turning his attention to topics from British subcultures to highly esteemed artists. His deft use of language, while exuding a sense of British intellectual irony, is also indebted to an engagement with Romanticism in both art and literature. A playlist of Bracewell’s favorite tracks accompanies the compilation.

Kathy Battista (Rail): This collection of your writings unfolds through the lens of music, film, and art. You move so gracefully between these various disciplines. I have always thought of you as an art critic. Do you see yourself more as a cultural historian? Are these categories valid in the 21st century?

Michael Bracewell: The fact that I am not trained as either an art critic or a cultural historian gives me a certain amount of freedom. I have become increasingly interested in how one might write about art. Art writing as a genre ranges from the unreadable to the life changing, and covers virtually every literary form imaginable. I like the idea of writing as a “performance”—when the text is animated in different ways, calling for instance on the devices of fiction or screenplay or poetry. I like the idea of a text that can break out of discursive or critical writing and address the reader more intimately. One of my favorite writers is the British historian David Kynaston, whose writing pans and tracks through his subject as though it were a camera, recreating the past from its scraps and fragments and ruins. At times his prose approaches a kind of stream-of-consciousness—as does that of the literary critic Hugh Kenner, whose writing I also admire tremendously. I love and admire expertise and specialism, but I am also interested in making new alloys, stylistically and in terms of ideas. 

Rail: I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with an accompanying playlist. Can you say something about why you decided to include one and also how you selected the tracks?

Bracewell: I wanted the accompanying tracks to match the three sections of the book: “Modern,” “Postmodern,” and “Germany Is Your America.” In one sense it’s a musical journey from innocence to experience—or from exuberance to melancholy; by which one might also mean from youth to late middle age. I have grown up in conjunction to pop music as a modern form, emerging in the late 1950s. 
 Above all, they are all tracks that I love, in their very different moods. I think they connect American glamour and European intellectualism, which is quite a heady mix. I could easily have made an alternate list that was far more concerned with a specifically British doomy sound—the usual suspects, mostly from Manchester: Joy Division, Morrissey, the Fall. These bands have been so inspirational to recent generations of artists—as important in their way as the canon of art history.

 This selection of essays is concerned with the relationship between visual art and pop music and Mass Age culture. I have always loved the ways in which pop music has had the occasional fling with art, from the Beatles to the Pet Shop Boys. But they remain I think very separate concerns—primarily because pop music is a mass form, and art isn’t, it’s concerned with uniqueness. Even the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music, as groups with a pronounced and founding interest in the language and contexts of art, are ultimately committed to the conventions and demands of music—more Smokey Robinson than Marcel Duchamp.

Rail: I’m interested in the relationship between image and text in your book. For example, you used a photograph of Stuart Sutcliffe instead of an image of an artwork although you write about his time at art school. How did you select the images for these texts?

Bracewell: I was looking for images that could work as illustrations, reproduced to a particular scale, and would also be visually rich and thematically articulate. The portraits of Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr, at the very beginning of the book, happened to have a rather ceremonial feel about them—as well as being very much portraits of youth, illustrating essays that are both concerned with the condition of youth above all.

Rail: The book is divided into three sections. The final section, “Germany is your America,” is more autobiographical, for example your Brian Eno dream. Was there a catalyst for this shift in your writing?

Bracewell: I wanted the third and final section of the book to be like a monochrome panel in an otherwise figurative triptych. The other essays span the period from 1958 – 2008; and as I was born in 1958, they also cover the first 50 years of my life. The last piece is from the Damien Hirst Sotheby’s sale catalogue—that sale took place on the evening I had open-heart surgery, during which I technically died. So there is a feeling for me that everything beyond September 2008 is part of another life phase or afterlife—and I became interested in the notion of memoir. The dream about Brian Eno was particularly vivid and felt like a piece of cultural signage delivered from the sub-conscious.  

Rail: In the interview you talk about the 1980s in London and the boom in print media and magazine production. Would you say there is an inversion of this going on at present with digital publications? Are you still wed to print media?

Bracewell: Like most writers, I seem to find myself signing agreements for various forms of e-book projects—most recently the Faber 45s, who are publishing an extract of my book on the art school roots of Roxy Music. But my love is reserved for the printed page and the physical object. I think we like the convenience of downloads, but also require the glamour and substance of vinyl records and printed books.

Rail: I was fascinated by your description of punk as an “aggressive beast” in the eyes of the media, but that it was actually a “rather archaic and genteel sense of English comedy.” Can you say a little more about that duality? Do you see this as typical of British culture in general?

Bracewell: It’s the line of English wit that hands down from the early 18th century to the present. It plays games with gentility and politeness and understatement—in the final analysis it’s a form of camp at its most incisive.

Contributor

Kathy Battista