The news that a London warehouse fire destroyed more than one hundred works of art belonging to Charles Saatchi promptly set chatterers to chattering, though rarely in an edifying way. One of the few sensible things written to date about the fire and its aftermath came from the pen of Eric Gibson, my colleague at The Wall Street Journal:
Among the works destroyed in the fire were Tracey Emin’s “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995,” a tent embroidered with the names of her lovers and other friends, and “Hell” by Jake and Dinos Chapman. The brothers had departed from their usual idiom–life-size statues of naked children with genitals where their noses should be–to create a sprawling installation of custom-made toy soldiers committing atrocities.
Art disasters normally have a visceral impact. Such incidents as the looting of the Baghdad Museum last year and the ravaging of Florence’s art treasures by floods in 1966 set the mind reeling at the thought of pieces of man’s cultural patrimony permanently lost or damaged.
This time, though, I was strangely unmoved. It’s not that I think incinerating art is a good thing. It’s just that the work of these artists–as of all contemporary artists–is too new and untested to have acquired the cultural heft that makes it seem an indispensable part of one’s existence. I regret the fire happened, but I can’t quite see it as a body blow to civilization.
Listen to the wailing that followed the conflagration, however, and you’d think the world had come to an end….
It’s assumed that because these YBA [Young British Artists] works are trendy and outlandishly expensive (Mr. Saatchi reportedly paid $72,000 for Ms. Emin’s tent and almost $1 million for “Hell”), they must be important. These critic-promoters give their pronouncements a veneer of respectability by specious comparisons between contemporary artists and the Old Masters.
All of which makes Monday’s disaster not so much a cultural catastrophe as a kind of bonfire of the vanities….
Read the whole thing here.
Gibson’s essay, and the disaster (so to speak) that inspired it (ditto), reminded me that at least one of the works of art that went up in smoke, “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With,” was included in Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibition that caused such a ruckus back in 1999. I reviewed that show for the Washington Post, and it occurred to me that what I said about it then might possibly be worth repeating now.
* * *
The cheery brunette dressed in the livery of the Brooklyn Museum of Art
looked at me as if I were the answer to her wildest dreams. “Would you like to
take the audio tour with David Bowie?” she chirped, headphones in hand. Just
above her head was a small yellow sign that read Warning: This exhibition
includes works of art that some viewers may find objectionable.
This is “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection,” the
biggest news in blockbuster shows since the National Gallery was overrun by
hordes of Vermeer lovers. You’ve probably read all about it–Damien Hirst’s
giant shark and bisected pig floating in formaldehyde-filled cases, Chris
Ofili’s elephant-dung-covered portrait of the Virgin Mary–and about how Rudolph
Giuliani, New York’s mayor and scold-in-chief, tried to stop it from opening by
withholding $7 million in annual funding from the museum, which promptly sued
the mayor and the city in order to get the money back. As of today, “Sensation”
is open for business, and business it will surely do, even at a cool $9.75 a
head, not counting audio tours or any of the various knickknacks for sale in the
gift shop, including stuffed sharks, lunch boxes and official “Sensation” toilet
“Official” is the right word for “Sensation,” and not just because David
Bowie likes it, either. Every imaginable Establishment type in New York is
backing the museum, not to mention the hundred-plus fancy folk–Annie Leibovitz,
Norman Mailer, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner and Tim Robbins among them–who signed a
full-page ad in yesterday’s New York Times announcing that they were “united in
support of the principle that freedom of expression must include the artistic
freedom to challenge and offend.”
No, you aren’t absolutely required to like “Sensation”–though failure to
appreciate the transgressive subtleties of such objets d’art as Tracey Emin’s
“Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995” or Mark Wallinger’s “Race Class Sex”
automatically renders you terminally unhip–but you’d damned well better voice
unequivocal agreement that the show must go on, Rudy or (preferably) no Rudy, if
you want to keep getting asked to the right cocktail parties.
Me, I don’t go to cocktail parties, and I also don’t much care for the odious
smugness displayed by the likes of Glenn Scott Wright, the London representative
for Ofili, painter of “The Holy Virgin Mary,” who claims that Giuliani’s
determination to shut the show down “is both totalitarian and fascist, a
reprisal of the Nazi regime’s censorship of the contemporary art of its time
which it labeled ‘degenerate art.’ ” I suppose it’s possible that Ofili has been
arrested by the New York branch of the Gestapo and shipped off to a prison camp
on Staten Island, but if so, nobody told me about it.
On the other hand, what do I know? I’m just a critic who went to the press
preview of “Sensation” on Thursday, and except for one work by Rachel Whiteread,
a prettily colored neo-minimalist installation called “Untitled (One-Hundred
Spaces),” I found it a great big bore. To be sure, most contemporary British art
is boring, and has been for as long as I can remember. (One of the very few
redeeming qualities of “Sensation” is that it makes Anglophiles look silly.)
British novels and plays are still about class war, British composers are still
trying to figure out minimalism, British choreographers are still into
angst–and British artists, as “Sensation” reveals at stupefying length, are
still trying, poor dears, to be outrageous.
I hasten to assure Jake and Dinos Chapman, for example, that fabricating a
fiberglass sculpture consisting of a crowd of naked women in sneakers with
penises where their noses ought to be, then calling it “Zygotic acceleration,
biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000),” isn’t going to
shock anybody in New York, except maybe Cardinal O’Connor. Nor can any amount of
fawning catalogue verbiage–“The revival of formal figurative sculpture ushered
in a quirky mix of children’s clothing-store innocence stunted by a sprouting
adult imagination”–conceal the fact that such art is strictly adolescent stuff,
Marcel Duchamp for dull 12-year-olds.
No doubt with this in mind, the anonymous author of the captions accompanying
the works in “Sensation” has couched them in the form of condescending little
catechisms all too clearly intended to raise the consciousnesses of their
benighted viewers. Thus Hirst’s “This little piggy went to market, this little
piggy stayed at home” is “explained” to the great unwashed public as follows:
“Does this work condemn eating animals? In referring to a childhood rhyme, does
its title hint at our loss of innocence when we kill animals? Or does Hirst
simply make a plain fact graphically clear?” Forget David Bowie: The museum
should have hired Mister Rogers to do the audio tour.
Note, by the way, that the aforementioned caption says nothing about the
artistic effect, such as it is, of Hirst’s split-pig assemblage. Artistic
effects are not what “Sensation” is about; rather, the show is about ideas,
meaning that you don’t have to like these works in order to “appreciate” them.
Once I’ve told you, for instance, that Marc Quinn’s “Self” is a refrigerated
Plexiglass box containing a bust of the artist sculpted in his own frozen blood,
you know everything there is to know about “Self” that matters. Actually seeing
it is superfluous. That’s the nice thing about conceptual art: Once described,
it need not be experienced.
You now owe me $9.75, but I won’t sue you for it, just as I devoutly wish
the mayor and the museum weren’t dragging each other into court. The only people
to emerge from this fracas unmutilated will be the lawyers, though the museum
has more at stake and may be likelier to lose, the First Amendment not yet
having been rewritten so as to stipulate that Congress shall make no law
abridging the absolute right of taxpayer-subsidized museums to spend public
monies in whatever way they see fit. It doesn’t take an art-hating Philistine to
figure out that this is a fight the Brooklyn Museum should never have picked in
the first place–least of all over so pitifully lame a show as “Sensation.”
* * *
It had been quite some time since I last looked at this piece, or thought about Sensation, but no sooner did I start to reread it than my memories of the show came flooding back, clear and specific–but not vivid, since the show itself wasn’t in any way vivid. Instead, I remember it as drab, almost penitential.
Even so, Sensation would play an important part in my art-going life. It was the first time that I’d gone to see a large-scale museum exhibition that had no aesthetic appeal whatsoever, and as such it made a deep and lasting impression on me. Though I wouldn’t start buying prints for another four years, seeing and writing about Sensation helped to clarify my sense of what I liked about art, albeit by negative example. It was, literally, an object lesson–and a valuable one. I’m just glad I didn’t have to pay for it.