Berlinde De Bruyckere, an artist known for her disturbing humanoid sculptures, announced last week that she wanted some outside assistance organizing her exhibition for the Belgian pavilion at this summer’s Venice Biennale—but instead of tapping a professional curator, she’s chosen a writer to help her mount the show. And not just any writer. She’s tapped J.M. Coetzee: the South African-turned-Australian author of such austere, even pitiless novels as Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace, the man who no-showed the Booker Prize ceremony both times he won and who, upon winning his inevitable Nobel, gave just a few interviews.
Given that the Venice Biennale has metastasized in recent years into an all-out plutocratic orgy featuring Louboutin-shod scenesters pushing and shoving to get onto Roman Abramovich’s yacht, “J.M. Coetzee, curator” sounds at first like a joke from some art world Onion—as unbelievable as Thomas Pynchon appearing on “Oprah” or Joan Didion doing a Reddit AMA. Coetzee may or may not be the greatest living writer in the English language, but he’s certainly the gravest. And while sending Coetzee to Venice may result in a fish-out-of-water surprise hit, I wouldn’t bet on it. He’s a writer whose whole career has been devoted to the virtues of seriousness, but in the funhouse of contemporary art, seriousness doesn’t look like a moral imperative. It looks like a stylistic tic, and I wonder if he realizes that.1
Coetzee, to be fair, has never been quite as reclusive as his uncompromising mien and even more uncompromising fiction suggests. At 72 he still gets around. He was in Poland last year for the premiere of an opera based on his novel Slow Man, for which he wrote the libretto.2 He gave a controversial commencement speech at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand a few months ago. Last autumn, in Albany, he unusually allowed a journalist to follow him on a bicycle ride, though he took no questions and, when the reporter got a flat, Coetzee left him in the dust and then declined a follow-up interview.
And I suppose that if Coetzee wants to join the art world, Berlinde De Bruyckere makes a good companion.3 Her sculptures concern themselves with some of the same themes as Coetzee’s novels: the body in extreme states, the relevance or irrelevance of Western cultural history, and, especially, the relationship between humans and animals. In her art, sun-starved leathery bodies, sometimes men’s and sometimes horses’, writhe in pain or terror inside antiseptic vitrines, or hang in lifeless suspension from hooks or off the sides of tables or plinths. In some cases the waxen forms are recognizable as partial bodies; in others, fragments are scrambled and grafted together into unsettling hybrid arrangements. Heads never appear, though unlike in Théodore Géricault’s paintings of broken or severed body parts, De Bruyckere’s figures don’t look incomplete. It’s as if they never had heads, or brains for that matter. They’re just dumb flesh, like the dogs at the veterinary clinic that Disgrace’s protagonist helps euthanize and throws in the incinerator.
But these are just thematic parallels, and I’m not sure if they go any deeper than the surface. Although De Bruyckere’s art can be harsh, it abstains from moral judgment. Coetzee’s novels certainly don’t. He’s not an easy moralist—his books are full of autoimmune responses, with every judgment modulated by a counterargument or a metafictional ploy—but a moralist all the same, one who believes that literature and art can affect human behavior, for good or ill. In Diary of a Bad Year, the barely veiled character John C says that “any serious novelist” must aspire to the standards of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: “by their example one becomes a better artist; and by better I do not mean more skillful but ethically better.” And in Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee’s titular alter ego rails at the decidedly not fictional novelist Paul West, whom she accuses of deceiving readers into empathy with totalitarianism. “We can put ourselves in peril by what we write, or so I believe,” the fictional Costello (perhaps also the real Coetzee) tells West. “For if what we write has the power to make us better people then surely it has the power to make us worse.” How deeply Coetzee believes in the literary authority Costello defends can never be clear; that’s the slippery game he plays. But in Coetzee’s vision, the artist (in any medium) is playing for big, big stakes: he is fighting an ethical battle, and can endanger his immortal soul if he gets it wrong.
That is not a vision shared by too many writers nowadays. But it’s a thing unknown in the art world, where to claim that some creative endeavor can bring us closer to goodness or truth can only be seen as a ridiculous anachronism. Art is many things today—an image stream, a financial commodity, a social category—but it sure isn’t a means, as Joyce put it, to forge in the smithy of your soul the uncreated conscience of your race.4 I don’t think that De Bruyckere’s sculpture has the intelligence or authority of Coetzee’s novels. But I also don’t believe that a Coetzeean work of art, if such a thing existed, would occupy the same stratospheric position that his novels do in literary culture. Art today is just too broad a category, and in the service of too many goals, to allow for the kind of universal exclusionary judgment that has made Coetzee into such an icon. Without that apparatus, the seriousness that Coetzee exhibits in his novels, and presumably calls for in art, looks only like one particular style, a question of taste rather than morality.
More than his alleged reclusion, it’s the aesthetic divide between Coetzee and the mainstream of contemporary art that makes his participation in Venice such a head-scratching affair. Good luck to him, I guess, but I hope he knows what he’s in for. I suspect he’ll find much of the art on view decadent or irrelevant, just as he views much literature as failing to reach the heights of his Russian exemplars. But art’s pluralistic moment, unlike literature’s, has gone hand in hand with an unprecedented financial boom. And while Coetzee may find it a profitable enterprise to defend art’s highest calling from the silence of one’s study, with a Nobel diploma hanging above the desk, it’ll be quite a different experience to throw himself into the mess of the Giardini, to be elbowed aside by jetlagged art tourists or ignored on the way to a boozy lunch on the Grand Canal.
Jason Farago is a writer and art critic based in New York.
If the art world has a favorite novelist of recent years it can only be the late W.G. Sebald, who included images in his novels and who made a career of placing fragmentary material in impressionistic concatenation. Sebald has been the guiding star of several art exhibitions, such as Tate Modern’s Rings of Saturn; I doubt anyone is organizing a Disgrace exhibition.
Coetzeeophiles may recall, here, the opera that David Lurie, the protagonist of Disgrace, is trying to write: a chamber piece about the loves of Lord Byron. Lurie never finishes the work.
And Coetzee speaks Dutch, as you can hear in this lecture. Although he was raised in an English-speaking household, he learned Afrikaans at a young age (“Afrikaans is like a ghostly envelope that accompanies him everywhere, that he is free to slip into, becoming at once another person, simpler, gayer, lighter in his tread,” he wrote in his fictionalized autobiography Boyhood) and has published a volume of his translations of Dutch poetry.
That line, uttered by an ecstatic Stephen Dedalus, comes at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses, for its part, was rewritten by none other than…the fictional Elizabeth Costello, whose claim to literary greatness is The House on Eccles Street, a reinterpretation of Joyce’s novel from the point of view of Molly Bloom.