You see, painting has now become, or all art has now become completely a game, by which man distracts himself. What is fascinating actually is, that it’s going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to become any good at all.
Muscles bulging in explosive sexuality moving rapidly in a visceral demand for attention. A scene splattered with egotistical delight, a poetic engine of exposure mimicking intercourse in grand voyeuristic display. All this excitement is staged in the arena of egalitarianism — pure democracy.
My above description could be assigned to many of Francis Bacon’s paintings and episodes of Dancing with the Stars. How, you might say, could the masterworks of Bacon be reasonably compared to a trashy, philistine example of lowbrow entertainment? It is no secret to those who know me that I love watching Dancing with the Stars much to their shock and dissolution. I have sung the praises of this pop culture invention of the Brits since I watched my first episode a couple of years ago. Perhaps for the entirety of that time I myself, have been at a loss to why I am so compelled by the show; that is until this past week.
When I first saw Francis Bacon’s paintings it was at the Hirshhorn Museum in late ’89. The work was transformative. It has had the singular biggest impact on me as a painter. Bacon’s sense of color, line and expression was like nothing I’d ever seen in painting before and nothing since. Lurid shapes, screaming mouths against backdrops of blood and semen. Raw emotion crashing against canvas in paint. All of those sensibilities are the most egalitarian in societies. Every human being understands physicality, sexuality and raw color. Bacon’s paintings are nothing short of brazen spectacle. His choice of gilded frames with glass only exaggerates this. The blood reds, splashes of off-whites and optic oranges create a cinematic energy that thrusts the banal perfidy of humanity at us as if holding a mirror to our secret desires. The physicality of his painting technique mimics dancing. It is controlled chaos.
Dancing is a ritualistic composition of our societal longings. It’s a framework to express desire in a way that otherwise remains hidden. In Dancing with the Stars, dance is the catalyst for repressed sexuality, pop entertainment, democracy and the grand myth of the second chance on life. Professional ballroom dancers are paired with B-List actors, singers and athletes, who themselves act as paragons for the viewer. To my mind there is no other more perfect expression of American television. There is the extravaganza of game show with the decoration of an awards ceremony. The host and hostess (Samantha Harris & Tom Bergeron) are perfectly stereotypical. Bergeron, the middle-aged, salt and pepper haired man is the exemplar of American WASP personae, effete, intelligent and slightly sarcastic couched in a middle class ideal. Harris the the beauty queen cum tv host, all breasts, teeth and hair shining like a dressage horse at competition. Bergeron is the father figure to Harris’ Virgin Mary. Then there are the professional dancers. Exotic and quixotic displays of their gender. Male chests are bared and female hind quarters are barely restrained. They are temptation, flirtation and power. Finally, there are the contestants. The dime store rap star, the long running daytime soap opera actress and the once olympic athlete now circus performer. All this conspires to form the ideal 21st Century pageant. It is the arena in ancient Rome, the bullrings of Spain and the court of Louis XIV all rolled into one. It is bordering on the reenactment of The Rapture as replicated by a high school drama class.
With Bacon’s work, we are repulsed by the conspicuous displays of lust, violence and physical bravado. Bacon touches upon all the same themes as Dancing with the Stars’, sex, war and religion. There are the disintegrating popes, the dark portraits of introversion and the bed wrestling sex of homoerotica. The motion is Muybridge’s naked strobed men. Red lips scream in ecstasy and pain. Bacon paints the hidden corners of our darkest desires, poignantly, unrepentantly and directly. In Bacon’s case the ritual is performed without us, but its descendant forms are bared rawly for all to bear witness. Francis Bacon knew we were all hungry, cold, lonely animals who are still very much connected to our baser selves. Despite the elaborate environment we have constructed we are still afraid. So behold the pageant called Dancing with the Stars the closest approximation Americans can afford themselves to animal rapture. Americans lack the meditative qualities necessary to access painting, but they compensate by way of television exhibition. Like our behavior we prefer the persistent and ceaseless momentum of motion-based mediums — cinema, television and computers. Paintings’ deconstruction of reality in two-dimensional abstraction is outside the reach of our short attention span citizenry. It is necessary to construct elaborate facades of celebrity for our abattoir. Our Puritan roots, expelled from England, have a death’s grip on our collective consciousness preventing us from directly confronting our deepest yearnings. Abstract Expressionism and Jazz emerged as the dominant high art forms of America precisely as a reaction to our shared avoidance. Bacon’s work is far more terrifying to us than the New York School painters because it reaches beyond deconstruction and goes directly to the persistence of fear above all else. Bacon knew the only path to true freedom, absolute ecstasy was to confront your fears head on and ritualistically dismantle them.
Dancing in Dancing with the Stars acts as a metaphor for American democracy. The ritual is replaced by display, and the art is replaced by the self destructing core of celebrity. Experts are pawns for our amusement rather than servants for a greater society. The veil of equality is pulled aside to reveal an insatiable appetite for celebrity and popularity as if democracy were always equivalent to voting for the next prom queen. Flesh is not meat, as with Bacon, it is salaciousness. Dancing with the Stars mimics the blood of the bull arena or the sex of the bacchanalian Roman bath, the dance of the seven veils, the vibrations of early Quakers, passively and without need of real commitment. It is our conversation with our darkest desire. Where Bacon saw hope in confronting our fears through his fierce screaming mouths and wrestling man-flesh, we choose the liturgy of game show dancing. Alexis de Toqueville said; “The whole life of an American is passed like a game of chance, a revolutionary crisis, or a battle.” Dancing with the Stars is the exact expression of American eschatology.
On soft gray mornings widows cry
The wise men share a joke;
I run to grasp divining signs
To satisfy the hoax.
The yellow jester does not play
But gentle pulls the strings
And smiles as the puppets dance
In the court of the crimson king.
—King Crimson, from The Court of the Crimson King
on the left: Figure in Movement, 1976, oil on canvas, 198 x 147.5 cm – Francis Bacon. on the right: a scene from the U.S. version of Dancing with the Stars.