The English are not, on the whole, interested in modern art or indeed art of any description. They can't tell a constructivist from an abstract expressionist and are content to remain in their ignorance. So it's surprising that for several weeks this fall an exhibition of modern British art at the Royal Academy of Art in London, called "Sensation," should have captured their attention and become the talking point of the day.
The exhibition embodied fully that quintessential characteristic of modern British culture: extreme vulgarity. Its celebration of this quality helped "Sensation" break all records for attendance at a modern art exhibition in London, with queues to get in stretching around the block, while a mile away, at the National Portrait Gallery, an exhibition of Sir Henry Raeburn's exquisite portraiture, elegant and psychologically profound, went almost unattended—a perfect symbolic enactment of our desire to jettison our past in favor of our brave and vacuous new present. Mr. Blair—he of the re-branding of Britain—must have been proud of us.
As the Marxists used to say in their days of respectability, it was no accident that the "Sensation" exhibition was a selection of works owned by the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, or that an advertising magnate should be by far the most openhanded patron of modern British art. In an interview in the Daily Telegraph, Mr. Saatchi said that, as an advertising man, he was drawn to immediate visual impacts, and he thought that his taste would appeal to a generation of young Britons who had been brought up on advertisements. Quite so: but what I took as a confession of deep shallowness (if I may be allowed an apparently paradoxical expression), he took to be a commendation. We all make God in our own image.
The exhibition attracted unprecedented controversy at home and wide publicity abroad. Television cameras from around the world whirred at the press preview. As for the British press, it divided into two camps, the exhilarated and the disgusted. The exhilarated camp—composed of the self-appointed guardians of freedom of expression and artistic license—exulted that at last Britain, so long a provincial backwater, was now the mainstream of artistic innovation. Young British artists were in the vanguard, bravely battling the forces of artistic reaction: though no one specified the precise destination of the artistic army whose advance they were supposedly leading. The disgusted press camp, by contrast, bemoaned this further, almost definitive, degradation of taste. There is no such thing as bad publicity, however; indeed, in an age of perversity, bad publicity isn't bad—it's the best. "Filthy," "disgusting," "pornographic," "sordid," "perverted," "vicious": no words could have been better calculated to attract the British to the Royal Academy.
Much of the original controversy surrounded a portrait of Myra Hindley. Should it have been shown in public or not?
The name Myra Hindley still stirs the deepest passions in Britain. In 1965 she received a life sentence for the murder of several small children, whom, in conjunction with her lover, Ian Brady, she tortured to death in pursuance of an absurd "pagan" ritual Brady dreamed up. They killed them in Manchester and buried them on the Yorkshire moors.
A tape recording they made while they tortured one of their young victims was played in court and seemed to usher in a new age of British brutishness. George Orwell had already lamented the decline of the English murder, of course, from its Victorian heyday of arsenic and strychnine, when it seemed to possess a certain Byzantine elegance; but this was something new, a fault line in the culture that had opened up to reveal an abyss. Here, for the first time, was multiple murder as self-expression, as self-indulgence, as recreation.
Ever since her conviction, Myra Hindley has divided British opinion into a small liberal camp, which calls regularly for her release, and a large conservative one, calling for her perpetual incarceration (unlike Hindley, Brady has never demanded release). The liberals say that she was young at the time of her offenses, being not yet 20, that she was in psychological thrall to her lover, that she has since repented her crimes, and that she constitutes no further danger to children. The conservatives say that everyone knows well before the age of 20 that torturing children to death is wrong; that Hindley committed her crimes over a period of two years, so that they sprang from no sudden rush of blood to the head; that by doing so she put herself beyond the pale of normal human society once and for all; and that her repentance was, and is, bogus, inasmuch as she failed for more than 20 years to admit that she knew anything about the disappearance of two other children from Manchester whose bodies were not found, but of whose murders she and Brady were certainly guilty.
The police mug shot taken at the time of her arrest has since become one of the most instantly recognizable photographic images in Britain. No newspaper in the country has not reproduced it countless times. She appears agelessly as a square-jawed, peroxided blonde, staring emotionlessly into the camera, the personification of heartless evil. It is this image that an artist called Marcus Harvey chose to magnify to the gigantic proportions of 13 feet by 10 (and Charles Saatchi chose to buy), the artist compounding the insult—in the eyes of the picture's detractors—by using the handprint of a small child in place of the dots by which the photograph is built up in newspaper reproductions of it.
The impact of the picture is enormous, especially on those who recognize Hindley instantaneously, as 99 percent of the British population does. Within the first few days of its exhibition, a spectator threw ink at it, after which it was removed, cleaned, and returned with a protective transparent sheet before it. (Naturally enough, the artistic fraternity took the attack as a tribute to the power of art: for no one attacks what is of no importance to him.) Outside the academy's entrance, by the statue of its great and civilized first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, mothers of murdered children, including some Myra Hindley murdered, implored the public not to enter. Members of MAMAA (Mothers Against Murder and Aggression), an organization the mothers founded, handed out a heartfelt photocopied plea from the mother of one of the missing children with whose murder neither Hindley nor Brady was ever charged, though they were almost certainly guilty of it.
"Myself and the parents of the other victims," it reads, "have had to live for over thirty years knowing that our children died a terrible death at the hands of that evil pair. Hindley is due to have her case heard at the [European] Court of Human Rights. What about our rights? There is no such thing as a normal life after your child has been murdered. We live a life sentence too but there is no appeal or reprieve for us, our suffering goes on and on and is only made worse every time something like this comes up. We are the forgotten victims. Hindley has never been charged with the murder of my Keith . . . . I would like to take out a private prosecution but I cannot afford it and cannot get Legal Aid. I still do not know where my son is and all I want is to have him home and give him a decent burial."
The raw sincerity of this appeal cries to heaven and is in marked contrast to the simpering prose of the academy's catalog and press releases, which talk, among other things, of the exhibiting artists' concern about the unjust British class system and of their deep sympathies for and with the working class. But the only members of the working class to visit, or to express an opinion of, the exhibition were precisely the Mothers Against Murder and Aggression, who called unequivocally for the destruction of the painting and the closure of the whole show. It goes without saying that the artists sympathized not with the actual working classes but with their own idea of the working classes, rather as Marie Antoinette wished to live not as a real shepherdess but as her romanticized conception of a shepherdess.
The member of MAMAA to whom I spoke said that Marcus Harvey would never have painted Myra Hindley had she not murdered her child and others. She objected strongly to the transformation of the murderer of her child into an icon to titillate the public for a moment or two, before it moved on to its next, equally momentary, preoccupation or amusement.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with painting a murderer, even one as depraved as Hindley. But there was undoubtedly something profoundly distasteful about the public display of the painting in this exhibition. The very title of the exhibition as a whole suggested titillation or voyeurism; and this is how the catalog describes the work of Marcus Harvey, two of whose other paintings, both of nude women, were also exhibited, one of them leeringly entitled, Dudley, Like What You See? Then Call Me: "Marcus Harvey makes disquieting, tension-filled paintings that simultaneously contain and exceed their salacious imagery. Through the superimposition of pornographic female nudes on to a wildly expressionistic ground, form and content resist and comply with each other uneasily." What is a working-class mother from Manchester, who has had her child expressionistically, salaciously, and pornographically murdered, supposed to make of this?
I asked the Royal Academy's chief of exhibitions, Norman Rosenthal. A man much reviled by some academicians (a few of whom resigned from the academy over the exhibition), he is clearly very good at his job. Somewhat grubby and unwashed, he has the charismatic capacity to antagonize at 100 yards; and when he speaks—hundreds of words to the minute—one feels one is listening to Mephistopheles.
"All art is moral," he said. "Anything that is immoral is not art."
There is no such thing, wrote Oscar Wilde, as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. Presumably, then, Mein Kampf would have been all right had it been better written.
"The picture raises interesting questions," continued Rosenthal.
"What interesting questions does it raise?" I asked. "Because it must be possible to formulate them in words."
"It raises a question, for instance, about the exploitation of children in our society," said Rosenthal.
"Some might say that the use of a child's palm to produce a picture of a child murderer, when the child could not possibly appreciate the significance of the use to which its palm was being put, was itself a form of exploitation," I replied.
"If so, it is very minor by comparison with what goes on in the rest of society."
"But why must we judge everything by the lowest possible standard?" I asked.
Rosenthal simply couldn't see what the mothers were objecting to. It seems that a life spent in the cultivation of the plastic arts can desiccate a man to the point where he has little sympathy with people whose existence is on a less rarefied plane.
The Hindley picture was far from the only work of art at the exhibition to arouse comment. Indeed, at the exhibition's entrance a notice proclaimed: "There are works of art on display . . . which some people may find distasteful. Parents should exercise their judgment in bringing their children to the exhibition. One gallery will not be open to those under the age of 18." The academy had, in fact, retained an eminent lawyer to advise on which works to withhold from the prurient gaze of youth—more from a fear of prosecution, doubtless, than from a fear of corrupting the young. In the event, a visit from the vice squad of London's Metropolitan Police passed off without mishap: the boys in blue found nothing to object to in the newly refurbished galleries and left without arresting anyone.
Indeed, the eminent lawyer's choice of works to set aside from the young was highly idiosyncratic. One entered the adults-only gallery through a screen arrangement like those in every adult bookshop in every seedy urban area of England. The principal proscribed work was a fiberglass sculpture of several conjoined girls, some with anuses for mouths and semierect penises for noses, all naked except for sneakers on their feet, entitled Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model. I could understand why the academy's lawyer had thought children should not see it.
But on the wall was also a totally innocuous—indeed, vacuous—painting of a young man recumbent in his room, listening to his Walkman. Try as I might, I could think of no reason (other than aesthetic) that children should be prevented from seeing it. The only explanation I could think of for this strange sequestration of both the pornographic and the innocuous was that the lawyer was trying to subvert the very idea of protecting children from pornography by making it appear ridiculous: which, in a sense, it was, since any child could have bought the catalog, with its no-obscenity-spared pictures of all the exhibits.
In any case, the part of the show open to children of all ages contained vastly more disturbing exhibits. But for the new art criticism, "disturbing" is an automatic term of approbation. "It has always been the job of artists to conquer territory that has been taboo," writes Norman Rosenthal in his grossly disingenuous essay, ambiguously entitled "The Blood Must Continue to Flow," which introduces the catalog. It would be difficult to formulate a less truthful, more willfully distorted summary of art history, of which a small part—and by no means the most glorious—is mistaken for the whole, that the unjustifiable may be justified.
"Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos," Rosenthal continues, in prescriptivist mood. He admits no other purpose of art: to break taboos is thus not a possible function of art but its only function. Small wonder, then, that if all art is the breaking of taboos, all breaking of taboos soon comes to be regarded as art.
Of course, he doesn't really mean what he says; but then, for intellectuals like him, words are not to express propositions or truth but to distinguish the writer socially from the common herd, too artistically unenlightened and unsophisticated to advocate the abandonment of all restraint and standards. It is unlikely, however, that even Rosenthal would find, say, a video of young hooligans raping his sister (to invoke Oscar Wilde again) to be merely the conquest of new territory and taboo. Thus, while he may not actually mean what he says, his promotion of this idea in the current exhibition will return to haunt not only him but the rest of society. For why should artists alone be permitted to break taboos? Why not the rest of us? A taboo exists only if it is a taboo for everyone: and what is broken symbolically in art will soon enough be broken in reality.
That civilized life cannot be lived without taboos—that some of them may indeed be justified, and that therefore taboo is not in itself an evil to be vanquished—is a thought too subtle for the aesthetes of nihilism. How ironic that a high official of the Royal Academy should have espoused this destructive doctrine, when the academy's first president, a greater and better man by far, wrote in his Seventh Discourse on Art: "A man who thinks he is guarding himself against prejudices [by which he means inherited moral standards and taboos] by resisting the authority of others, leaves open every avenue to singularity, vanity, self-conceit, obstinacy, and many other vices, all tending to warp the judgment." As Sir Joshua also pointed out—in urbane, witty, and civilized prose, of a kind impossible to imagine Norman Rosenthal writing—the intelligent and wise man examines his prejudices, not to reject them all because they are prejudices but to see which should be retained and which not.
I was less taken aback by the main exhibition than many because its atmosphere was oddly familiar to me. It transported me back to my days as a medical student: to the dissection room, the pathology museum, and the mortuary. For there were on display flayed corpses, sliced animals in formalin, a close-up photograph of a gunshot wound to the scalp, and even a work called Dead Dad, a scaled-down but hyperrealistic model in silicone and acrylic of a naked corpse. As the non-medical visitors to the exhibition walked around, I recalled my student days, when my non-medical-student friends would go through my pathology texts in fascinated horror, turning over the pages half in fear and half in hope of finding something worse overleaf.
I listened to the sculptor of Dead Dad give an interview to a European television station while he crouched by the shrunken corpse of his own creation, a huge technical advance over the headshrinkers of New Guinea. "Nothing in this exhibition offends my sensibility," he said, in a tone of evident self-satisfaction. What he omitted to mention, of course, was that modern sophistication demands a sensibility that nothing can offend or even surprise, that is ironclad against shock or moral objection. To be a man of artistic taste now requires that you have no standards at all to be violated: which, as Ortega y Gasset said, is the beginning of barbarism.
I asked the sculptor whether Dead Dad was his own father, and of course it was. He clearly regarded the sculpture as a work of filial piety, but it was precisely his sincerity in doing so that appalled me. If he had said that he had made his sculpture to exact revenge upon his father, who had led him a terrible life in his childhood, and who had abused him physically and sexually when he was six years old, his motives in producing it would at least have been clear. When respect, hatred, love, loathing, and contempt can call forth the same artistic product, then our sensibility, our power of discrimination, has been eroded out of existence. When filial piety displays a father's unclothed corpse, down to the last pubic hair, to the idle gaze of hundreds of thousands of strangers, then honoring one's father and one's mother becomes indistinguishable from dishonoring them.
A flippantly intellectualized coarseness is the hallmark of the exhibition, as it is of most modern British culture. The titles of many of the exhibits display this. Damien Hirst—he of the sliced cows and pigs, the bottled sheep and sharks—is a painter as well as a bottler of dead animals. He titles one of his two paintings in the exhibition beautiful, kiss my fucking ass painting. A canvas by Gary Hume bears the title Begging for It, where It, of course, can mean only one thing. Sarah Lucas calls her exhibit Sod You Gits. A painting by Chris Ofili, an artist of Nigerian extraction born in England, is entitled Spaceshit. According to the brief account of his life in the catalog, "It was in Zimbabwe that Ofili experienced what some might call `a moment of clarity'—struck by the limits of his paintings, and in an effort to ground them physically in a cultural as well as natural landscape, he hit upon the idea of sticking elephant shit on them." This was evidently a commercial success. "Soon after, in 1993, Ofili held two 'Shit Sales,' one in Berlin and the other in . . . London, exhibiting several balls of elephant shit in the context of the market." The notes prepared by the academy for schoolteachers who bring their pupils to the exhibition suggest that the teacher discuss with the pupils how a conservator might react to deterioration in the dung of Ofili's pictures, though an answer is suggested by the information that, where he once used only free-range elephant excrement from the African bush, comparatively difficult of access, he now uses the cultivated variety from the London Zoo.
A work by Peter Davies called Text Painting consists of 61/2 by 7 feet of childish multi-colored lettering (not joined up), from whose unutterably contemptible text the following is but a selection: "Art I like is . . . Bruce Nash and all that aggressive white male stuff, Mike Kolley he does everything so trashy but we love it . . . Picasso he just did whatever the fuck he wanted . . . Lily Van der Stoker Mutha Fucka . . . Antony Caro now he really is one mean badass M.F. S.O.B., Velasquez he's Versace for art lovers . . . Matisse he had no problem with some fucker telling him his work looked decorative . . . Charles Ray like a fucking spoilt brat with his giant dolls + trucks . . ." etc. etc., ad nauseam.
Trash, violence, and Versace: a fair summary of the aesthetic of the exhibition.
The coarseness runs through not just the titles or even the subject matter of the exhibits but through every aspect of the show. Even the photographs of the artists in the catalog depict them as members of the underclass. Damien Hirst, for example, takes care to present himself as indistinguishable in appearance from the average British football hooligan. Sheer financial necessity cannot explain this, since many of the artists are by now extremely rich. They appear dirty and disheveled because they want to, because it appears to them virtuous to do so.
The artists are said to evince an interest in, indeed a fascination with, punk and grunge—the deliberate adoption of ugliness and bad taste that characterizes British popular culture. There is nothing wrong with an artistic interest in demotic coarseness and the underside of common life, of course: this is, after all, the land of Hogarth and Rowlandson. But those great artists remained aloof from the phenomena they were depicting and criticized them even as they laughed at them. They combined social commentary with humor and aesthetic grace. They had both an aesthetic and a moral standpoint (without which satire is impossible) and would have deplored the deep aesthetic and moral nihilism of the current exhibition. They would have been puzzled and appalled by the automatic equation of morality with narrow-mindedness and bigotry, so evident in Norman Rosenthal's essay. And when Hogarth and Rowlandson depicted the ugly, as they did frequently, they did so by comparison with an implicit standard of beauty, embodied in the very elegance of their execution.
The artists of "Sensation," however, have not so much expressed an interest in punk and grunge as surrendered to them. With Milton's Satan, they have exclaimed, "Evil, be thou my good"; and they have added, "Ugliness, be thou my beauty."
They are not alone in this, of course. Surrender on all fronts is the order of the day. Recently the Midland Bank announced that it was withdrawing its $1.6 million subsidy of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, because it was an elitist institution; instead, to prove that it was a democratic, caring bank, it would use the money to fund a pop music festival, which most of its customers would find "sexier." The cultural surrender of the better to the worse goes further and deeper. Recently, too, The Lancet, one of the world's two most important medical journals, carried a brief interview with Professor Sir Raymond Hoffenberg, former president of the Royal College of Physicians (in existence since the reign of Henry VIII). He was asked for his favorite word—itself a fatuous question, worthy of a women's-magazine interview with a soap-opera starlet—and he replied, "arsehole." Would any president of that august institution proudly have used such a word in public until the last few years?
What accounts for this extraordinary, and very rapid, coarsening of British culture, of which the "Sensation" exhibition is such a striking instance?
The coarsening is international, alas: Damien Hirst is celebrated wherever people have tens of thousands to spend on sliced and bottled animals. The same meretriciousness, the same overvaluation of the same Sensationalism, rules everywhere. The romantic conceit that originality is an artistic virtue in itself is everywhere accepted uncritically: which is why an artist called Marc Quinn, a Cambridge graduate, can be praised for withdrawing eight pints of his own blood over several months, freezing and storing it, and then using it to sculpt a permanently refrigerated self-portrait. It is good and worthwhile because no one has ever done such a thing before. When Damien Hirst was taxed with the fact that anybody could bottle a sheep in formalin, he replied, "But no one did it before, did they?" And if originality necessitates coarseness, then so be it.
The authentic man, in the romantic conception, is he who has cut himself free of all convention, who acknowledges no restriction on the free exercise of his will. This applies as much to morals as to aesthetics: and artistic genius becomes synonymous with waywardness. But a being as dependent on his cultural inheritance as man cannot escape convention so easily: and the desire to do so has itself become a cliche. Thus, for all its crudity and coarseness, "Sensation" is deeply conventional, but it obeys a wicked and socially destructive convention.
The crudity of which I complain results from the poisonous combination of an ideologically inspired (and therefore insincere) admiration for all that is demotic, on the one hand, and intellectual snobbery, on the other. In a democratic age, vox populi, vox dei: the multitude can do no wrong; and to suggest that there is or ought to be cultural activity from which large numbers of people might be excluded by virtue of their lack of mental cultivation is deemed elitist and, by definition, reprehensible. Coarseness is the tribute that intellectuals pay, if not to the proletariat exactly, then to their own schematic, inaccurate, and condescending idea of the proletariat. Intellectuals prove the purity of their political sentiment by the foulness of their productions.
As for snobbery, the intellectual raises himself above ordinary folk—who still cling quixotically to standards, prejudices, and taboos—by his thorough rejection of them. Unlike others, he is not a prisoner of his upbringing and cultural inheritance; and thus he proves the freedom of his spirit by the amorality of his conceptions.
Not surprisingly, artists in this mental atmosphere feel obliged to dwell only upon the visually revolting: for how else, in a world of violence, injustice, and squalor, does one prove one's democratic bona fides than by dwelling on the violent, the unjust, and the squalid? Any return to the conventionally beautiful would be an elitist evasion, and therefore:
Come let us mock at the great
That had such burdens on the mind
And toiled so hard and late
To leave some monument behind,
Nor thought of the levelling wind.
Among those great, of course, was Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, friend and confidante of Edmund Burke, of Oliver Goldsmith, of Edward Gibbon, of David Garrick, of James Boswell (who dedicated his Life of Johnson to him), and of Doctor Johnson himself, who said of Reynolds that he was "the man with whom if you should quarrel, you should find the most difficulty how to abuse." What would he have made of these young artists who, inter alia, have abused the Royal Academy itself in the coarsest and most vulgar language, these young barbarians who think that art, like the sexual intercourse of Larkin's famous poem, began in 1963? In the first Discourse (and with what relief one turns to his elegant way of expressing himself without the aid of a single expletive, as one takes a shower after immersion in dirt) Reynolds wrote: "But young men have not only this frivolous ambition of being thought masters of execution, inciting them on the one hand, but also their natural sloth tempting them on the other. They are terrified at the prospect before them, of the toil required to attain exactness. The impetuosity of youth is disgusted at the slow approaches of a regular siege, and desires, from mere impatience of labour, to take the citadel by storm. They wish to find some shorter path to excellence, and hope to obtain the reward of eminence by other means, than those which the indispensable rules of art have prescribed."
Yes; but what kind of culture is it that confers the reward of eminence on those who use self-advertisement and vulgarity, mere Sensation, as their means to obtain it?