THE BELIEVER: What’s your definition of “bad” or “unsuccessful”?
CHRIS MARTIN: Well, that’s a wonderful question, because as an artist it’s very interesting sometimes to say, I’ll try to make a bad one. And often the kind of energy around the bad one is actually great. And the real assumption behind this is the idea that artists know what they’re doing. Or that we have great taste. We have great, discerning judgment about what’s a good one and what’s a bad one. And this whole, horrible juggernaut of graduate schools and art schools in America is predicated on the idea that everyone gets together and they put up the work and they try to develop critical thinking. “This wasn’t so good because the purple doesn’t pop, and this linear quality is better,” and so young artists are trained to make it better and better. But I think that doesn’t lead to better paintings. The idea is that we know what’s a better one or what’s a worse one. And I’m not sure that we always know what the good ones are and what the bad ones are. I have photographs of paintings that I did in the ’80s and I destroyed them. And then I repainted them in the ’90s and I destroyed them. And a lot of times the ones that I painted in the ’80s were fine. I should have just left those.
But, again, the planet is flaming, we got serious problems. And so the question becomes: what are we doing about it as painters? We’re off here trying to make “good paintings”? Who cares what’s a good painting? How about a painting that’s disturbing, raw, or we don’t even know what it is? That’s probably more helpful to all of us than these very well-made abstract paintings.
All the children of America, up to age seven or eight or nine or ten—they’re really great artists. So here we’ve got this amazing work that very few people pay any attention to, and it’s not valued by the culture. In fact, one of the great dismissive lines by popular culture on painting is “My kid can do that.” And of course the truth is their kid could do that, but could they do that? Their kid’s a genius! They’re the ones stuck in some uptight vision of they can’t do it. And so one sees examples of paintings that we don’t understand, a wild energy or freedom. We see it all the time, looking at paintings that you find on the sidewalk, half-finished paintings, thrown-out paintings. You could buy paintings online made by elephants these days. And elephants are pretty good painters. So if an elephant can make a good painting, then who needs an MFA from Yale? I mean, maybe we should start accepting elephants into graduate school.