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Francis Bacon is a scream. He will always be a scream. Just think of the roar from that fleshy maw under the umbrella in “Painting” from 1946. Bacon didn’t just paint screams. There are “religious” triptychs, portraits, angry animals, and the ongoing presence of raw meat. But Bacon would not be Bacon without the screams. How you feel about the screams is, I think, the essence of how you’ll feel about every Bacon work.

And the man — whose most influential paintings now date back more than half a century — can still stir things up. The current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective,” has inspired the full gamut of critical response. People are falling over themselves just to disagree. Jerry Saltz, of New York Magazine, likes the early work and the screaming but thinks Bacon became a parody of himself over time. Saltz writes, “But in the end, he seems less a modern painter than the last of a breed of Romantics — one who, in his final interview, plaintively stated, ‘I painted to be loved’.”

Roberta Smith over at The New York Times takes the opposite view. Smith dismisses the early work, focusing on the greater emotional complexity of the later paintings. “[T]he Met’s exhibition disputes the notion that Bacon’s art declined, indicating that it often improved as his colors brightened, his paint handling gained muscularity,” she writes. “It was equally important that he began to focus on people he knew and cared about, giving them faces that seem simultaneously masked, gouged out of wet clay and recognizably individual.”

At The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl gives Bacon grudging respect for being a major artist of the 20th century, but admits that he can’t stand the work on any personal level. “Francis Bacon has long been my least favorite great painter of the 20th century. My notes from a visit to the new Bacon retrospective, which is very handsomely installed at the Metropolitan Museum, seethe with indignation, which I will now try to get over.”

I focus here on the critical disparity and unease for one simple reason: It shows the deep distrust of Bacon among those who think and write about art. This distrust, I pose, can be traced back to the scream. Critics tend not to believe in the scream. They think they’re being manipulated and they don’t like it. Nobody likes to be a sucker, critics least of all. The more the critics witness the public’s adoration of Bacon’s work, the more they smell a rat.

Arthur Danto, writing on Bacon for The Nation back in 1990, summed up the feelings with his typical intellectual incisiveness.

So … these depicted screams seem to entitle us to some inference that they at least express an attitude of despair or outrage or condemnation, and that in the medium of extreme gesture the artist is registering a moral view toward the conditions that account for scream upon scream upon scream. How profoundly disillusioning it is then to read the artist saying, in a famous interview he gave to David Sylvester for The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, “I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.” … It is like a rack maker who listens to the screams of the racked only as evidence that he has done a fine job…. We are accordingly victims ourselves, manipulated in our moral being by an art that has no such being. It is for this reason that I hate Bacon’s art.

There is nothing worse, in Danto’s eyes, than a scream that means nothing. It amounts to the destruction of the moral realm in the name of aesthetics. The key scream painting in Bacon’s oeuvre is probably “Study after Velazquez” (1950). Bacon takes Velazquez’ famous “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1650), in which the Pope is a study in cynicism and power and transforms it into one of his blurred, terrifying, screaming heads. The impulse is always to explain this, and other screams through personal history or politics. Bacon was reacting to the horror of his times. Bacon was reacting to the horror of his family life and his later relationships (with their sometimes violent and destructive characteristics). Bacon was reacting to the repressive atmosphere in England regarding his homosexuality. Danto, I think, is correct in rejecting this kind of reductionism. So was Bacon. When asked about his interest in Velasquez’ famous Pope painting, Bacon replied, “I think it’s the magnificent color of it.” He also stated flatly that, “I have never tried to be horrific.” Danto can never forgive Bacon for this sleight of hand.

But Danto, and by extension many other critics, miss a key distinction when they focus on the meaninglessness of the screams. Bacon retreated to the language of pure painting and aestheticism in order to resist the specific meanings often attributed to his works. None of his paintings were explicitly about the wars and genocides of the 20th century. His Pope paintings are not a criticism of the Catholic Church. His more abstract screams are not an expression of Existentialist philosophy.

In fact, Bacon constantly decontextualized his screams (and other portrayals of violence and terror) in order to cut the causal links and to make the screams more general. He was interested in the form and structure of a scream. He wanted to figure out what makes a scream a scream. Painting the scream onto Pope Innocent X heightens that sense of disjunction. It doesn’t make sense that the Pope is screaming. But that makes the scream all the more pure, all the more screamy in its screaminess.

In the aforementioned interview with David Sylvester, Sylvester asks Bacon about the prevalence of violence in his work. Bacon responds with a disturbing account of the ways that, since a small child, he had been constantly surrounded by violence and war. He ends by observing, rather laconically, “So I could say, perhaps, I have been accustomed to always living through forms of violence.” The way he calls it “forms of violence” jumps out at me. The artist in Bacon responded to the specific experience of violence by stepping back and exploring the forms of violence as such. In its structure, this is not unlike many of the abstract painters who were his contemporaries. They stepped back from specific acts of representation in order to study the form of visual perception itself.

It is still possible to accuse Bacon of being blithe and cynical in exploring the forms of violence on one hand while tweaking our ingrained emotional response to images of violence and terror on the other. He is having his cake and eating it, too. That’s the essence of Danto’s critique. Bacon hits us with these incredibly powerful and moving images and then claims, la di da, that he was only interested in the color orange all along.

But why shouldn’t artists get to explore the forms of violence just as they explore all other forms? With all due respect to Edvard Munch, I can’t think of another artist who so perfectly expressed the Platonic purity of the scream, the scream as scream. There are plenty of artists who exploit our specific attraction to beautiful bodies or landscapes in order to explore more general aesthetic questions about shape, or color, or beauty itself.

Something about Bacon’s exploitation of horror arouses an indignation not usually expressed in these other cases. Perhaps we resent that Bacon makes us take pleasure in our more troubling emotions, in our fascination with violence. I don’t know if Peter Schjeldahl “seethes with indignation” because he deplores the amorality of Bacon’s imagery of violence or because he deplores the pleasure he finds himself taking in such amoral imagery of violence. It could be a mixture of both.

I always take very seriously the way that teenagers look at Bacon. They see the purity of that scream and they respond to it immediately. They know that it is right, that Bacon got that scream absolutely right because he formalized the subject matter and not because it points to any outside meaning. They stand before those paintings in an open display of their own essential desire, revulsion, lust, anger, fear. There it is. Scream. • 5 June 2009