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Friday, 15 September, 2000, 19:12 GMT 20:12 UK
David Hockney: Transatlantic critic
David Hockney

By Bob Chaundy of the BBC's News Profiles Unit

Accusing the UK Government of "dumbing down" seems to be flavour of the month.

The writers V.S. Naipaul and Doris Lessing have had their say.

Now, Bradford-born but California-domiciled artist David Hockney has launched his own salvo.

In an interview for October's Tatler magazine, he says "the government are a bunch of philistines, even more so than the last lot. At least Edward Heath conducted choirs".

Hockney in the sixties
His was one of the faces of the sixties
And it is not just its policies towards the arts that have upset the 63-year-old Mr. Hockney. So too have curbs on cigarette advertising, restrictions on the movement of football hooligans, foxhunting and, for good measure, drugs.

"They won't even debate the decriminalisation of marijuana and they go on about criminalising foxhunting... absolutely bonkers," he said.

He also had a go at Tony Blair for not wearing a morning suit to the Queen Mother's 100th birthday service - this from the man who arrived at Leeds University in June wearing a pair of red corduroy slippers to receive an honorary degree.

"Every time he comes over here he shoots his mouth off", observes David Lee, editor of the visual arts newsletter, The Jackdaw.

"He has watched young artists like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin making their reputations by getting into newspapers, and he has learnt that good visibility is good for business".

Hockney in the '80s
Never backward in coming forward
But there has been a pattern of single-issue campaigning in David Hockney's life. It began in the 1950s when, angry at Britain's policy in Cyprus, he became a conscientious objector and spent his National Service as a hospital orderly.

His campaigning zeal was inherited from his father. Kenneth Hockney believed in international socialism and corresponded regularly with Stalin.

When David received his first cheque for a painting, he sent some money to his parents. His father bought a consignment of Soviet watches and gave them to friends.

David Hockney had, by then, left Bradford to study at London's Royal College of Art. Although his year was described as "the worst for thirty years", he revelled in his new-found freedom.

Even his homosexuality, a taboo subject at the time, gave him few problems. He met Quentin Crisp, an RCA model. "He was the first person I'd met who said he was gay, and he seemed a very balanced person to me."

I've never claimed to be a respectable person

David Hockney
His figurative drawings and paintings established his reputation as someone who bridged high art and pop art. His blond, bespectacled, youthful appearance made him one of the faces of the sixties.

He attacked the then Director of the Tate Gallery, Sir Norman Reid, for not including figurative art in the Tate collection.

"Hockney was never afraid of being outspoken", says Richard Cork, art critic of The Times. "As he grew more popular he realised he had clout. People listened to him."

David Hockney has now spent most of his life in California - he moved there because it seemed "more sexy", as his memorable paintings of swimming pools would soon attest.

He loves the light and space he finds in that part of the world, echoed so vividly in his recent works on the Grand Canyon. It was a project ideally suited to his claustrophobia.

Posing before one of his Grand Canyon paintings, 1999
Posing before one of his Grand Canyon paintings, 1999
He lives mostly in silence because of an inherited condition that left him largely deaf. He has two dachshunds for company.

Even in California, the infringement of his personal liberties, such as curbs on public smoking, upset him.

David Hockney has kept his Bradford connections, and spent nearly every Christmas visiting his mother until she died recently aged 99.

He still visits his sister in Bridlington and painted many Yorkshire landscapes for a friend, Jonathan Silver, who died in 1997. His legacy is the Salts Mill gallery in Saltaire devoted to Hockney's work.

But would he ever consider returning to England? Ah yes... the quarantine laws.

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