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Pete Doherty plays at his new art exhibition, Pete Doherty on Blood, private view at the Cob Gallery, London, Feb. 25, 2012. (Martin Pope/Martin Pope)
Pete Doherty plays at his new art exhibition, Pete Doherty on Blood, private view at the Cob Gallery, London, Feb. 25, 2012. (Martin Pope/Martin Pope)

Russell Smith

Pete Doherty and blood art: Aren't they both drained of interest by now? Add to ...

Oh, not blood art again. Not Pete Doherty again. But yes, here they are, the two of them, again. Doherty is a celebrity often described as being a musician, although we know little about his music. Blood is a substance that has been used as paint since the earliest cave drawings. Now the two boring things conspire for media attention.

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Doherty is back with an exhibition, in a London gallery, of “paintings” (doodles, really), “diary entries” (illegible handwriting) and “memorabilia” (junk from his apartment). This is an old show: It was first exhibited in Paris in 2008. It was meant then as part of the promotion for an upcoming album ( Grace/Wastelands, a solo project, as I’m sure we all recall), but the fact that most of the paintings were spattered with the artist’s own blood raised the gall of the conservative British papers and they sputtered stuff about the most disgusting art show ever. Then the art and the artist and the album were forgotten again until Doherty got in trouble for being high in public somewhere else. Now the paintings and the possessions are on display at the Cob Gallery in Camden. It is more a glimpse into a celebrity’s closet than an art show, but the British press are duly reporting on the blood once again.

This guy is one of those Paris Hilton people, famous for being famous. No one on this side of the Atlantic has ever heard an actual piece of music written or sung by him – unless you count his slurred rendition of Deutschland Uber Alles that got him booed off the stage in Germany. We knew him first for dating supermodel Kate Moss, and for wearing a large hat. Then we knew him for his flamboyant heroin use. Because he uses a lot of syringes, he has always liked to throw blood around, especially in front of queasy reporters, and that got him really famous.

Why? Because unrepentant, wealthy drug addicts are always fascinating. Addiction is a common and widespread affliction, so seeing others succumb to it makes us feel better about our own paltry self-abuse – particularly when the celebrities start to appear in public looking very sweaty and thin. Then a horrified and excited media death watch begins (vide Winehouse).

That’s kind of interesting from an epidemiological and psychological point of view, but artistically, surely we must be bored to death with blood. Blood is a very stable form of pigment – chemically and metaphorically. Google “blood art” and you get a dozen blogs from tattooed guys who will make you an entire portrait of yourself in their own blood, you get feminist “menstrual art” blogs that show whole rooms painted in blood. And none of these is as interesting as the great blood works: Doherty has a long way to go with his syringes before he can come up with anything as impressive as Marc Quinn’s famous Self, a bust of himself made from 4.5 litres of his own blood. (The blood is frozen – it’s a head-shaped bloodsicle.) Quinn remakes this work every five years. He gives a lot to art.

Doherty is not even approaching the panache of really aggressive blood artists – such as the Canadian Istvan Kantor, who used to let his blood and smear it around in public performances. He has splashed his own blood at so many paintings he is barred from a number of great museums. That’s art with consequences.

See, it’s not Doherty’s juvenile narcissism that bores me, it’s his lack of true megalomania. If you really want to put your body into something as a reflection of your own martyrish suffering, look to an artist like Saddam Hussein: He had a whole Koran printed with his own blood. It took at least two years of bloodletting; Hussein claimed he donated 27 litres in total – putting Doherty’s puny syringes in the shade. Furthermore, Hussein’s act actually created a moral dilemma after his death: Most people want to destroy all the dictator’s ghoulish relics, but it’s forbidden to defile copies of the holy book, as the U.S. military was unpleasantly reminded last week.

Hussein’s feat – art with consequences, again – was to actually inscribe himself into the divine in a way that’s hard to undo. If Pete Doherty is not as good an artist as Saddam Hussein, then he’s really not very good.

 
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