Bob Dylan at the National Portrait Gallery

The now routine phenomenon of paintings by celebrities shown in serious galleries defies belief. You’d think they’d be sniffy about this sort of populist stunt; and you’d be wrong. However bad the work is people swarm to see it, hexed by the name. Photos and paintings by pop stars and television personalities attract record crowds of worshipers. The best attendance at the 170-year-old Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, for example, is paintings by Rolf (“do you know what it is yet?”… “nope”) Harris.

Thus in straitened times are museum principles sacrificed in order to sell coffee and muffins. Celebrity daubing is the one area of museum policy where any semblance of honesty flies out the window. Critics and curators lose all sense of propriety and become blinking rabbits trapped in headlights. The thrill of brushing with fame is addictive. Just maybe if we heap on the praise with a bulldozer we’ll get the personal call. Perhaps we’ll become friends. What other reason could there be for this adolescent fawning over the incompetent and conceited?

So Sarah Howgate, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery appears on the television – a clip is on the BBC news website and will embarrass all concerned for as long as it remains in the archive – either talking gibberish or praising qualities in works brazenly lacking anything resembling accomplishment. Why? Because they are by Bob Dylan. Well Bob, you of all publicity avoiders should know better than to play ball with this demeaning exploitation of your fame. The person who persuaded you into this lapse of judgement and propriety is possibly the same one who talked you into the wince-inducing train crash of that Christmas song album four years ago. Here comes Santa ho ho ho, indeed.

When not rolling thunder from continent to continent or writing songs of genius (and no one comes near him as the greatest artist of my lifetime), Bob relaxes with a spot of drawing, don’t yer know, and in the last year has done a dozen imaginary pastel ‘portraits’ – one of which, captioned Ivan Steinbeck, is clearly based on his own face. All the same size, they are as crude as Wild West ‘Dead or Alive’ posters – though poor old ‘Red Flanagan’ already looks like a decomposing stiff. The works are so obviously those of an amateur that they might, if entered for an art contest in a scout hut, elicit praise and encouragement if only out of sympathy for the effort made. The only thing missing is the untidy grittiness of pastel, the textural scuffs and drawing-pin holes in the corners. These sheets look suspiciously perfect, as though made by a machine, and the pastel is applied more like make-up or lipstick – it’s horrible. Either Howgate was deliberately lying when she praised this rubbish or she doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about: neither is an advertisement for her career prospects. The probability is that she was lying having been, as they say in American films, hung out to dry by superiors.

Then along trots art critic Jonathan Jones of the Guardian, who blogs for England with instant opinions on everything. He told us that “Dylan draws well, with feeling and hard-won accuracy”. He doesn’t. He doesn’t draw any better than literally millions of others. GCSE teenagers have better portfolios of drawings than this. And as for ‘accuracy’? What does that mean in the context of the imagined? That he got the number of eyes and ears right? Why did Jones write this? It’s hard to explain.

Dylan draws with all the mistakes which are second nature to untutored dabblers, faults too many to enumerate. Typically at this level, errors are duplicated like incurable tics. No improvement occurs from one drawing to the next, nothing having been learned by self-criticism or devoted practice. And because Dylan isn’t in full expressive control of what he does, anything readable into these faces has to be accidental.

Apart from their status as curiosities no point is served exhibiting this stuff. They would not be shown anywhere, least of all the National Portrait Gallery, were they not by Bob Dylan. If a would-be artist showed Sarah Howgate a portfolio of scribbles like these he’d be on the pavement faster than Usain Bolt.

Bob, my dear hero, these are intriguing ephemera, but they are without art and best kept to yourself as a little secret between you and your family. And may I humbly suggest that next time you should know your song a little better before you start singing.

Bob Dylan is at the National Portrait Gallery until January 5th

David Lee

The Jackdaw September 2013