Vol. 22 No. 8 · 13 April 2000

A New Twist in the Long Tradition of the Grotesque

Marina Warner

2443 words
High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s 
by Julian Stallabrass.
Verso, 342 pp., £22, December 1999, 1 85984 721 8
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This is Modern Art 
by Matthew Collings.
Weidenfeld, 270 pp., £20, June 1999, 0 297 84292 7
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The heavy in shirtsleeves on the door of the disused Strand tube station was working the phone to a reluctant client who had rented the premises for a rave that didn’t happen and now didn’t want to pay. The man’s job title was something like Manager of Decommissioned Underground Material and I had gone to see him with Michael Morris, one of the directors of Artangel, a company that puts on art events in different media in unusual places. He was trying to get permission to use the runnels and platforms for The Vertical Line, a performance piece devised by John Berger.

In Ways of Seeing, Berger presented on television for the first time an ideological analysis of art and aesthetics. One of the programmes juxtaposed pin-ups and centrefolds with Titians, in a powerful early assault on advertising. Thirty years later, Berger was still in compelling voice, a burly, gravelly oracle prowling in the dromos of the underground tunnels, as he took us down with him on an archaeological excavation of art, past the encaustic portraits on the mummies of Fayum, deeper down to the cave paintings of Chauvet. Art figured as a magical enactment: ‘Smell the bear!’ he commanded as he evoked in the darkness a prehistoric drawing. Then, describing the vitality of art made thousands of years ago, he marvelled: ‘In the beginning there was no fumbling.’

Julian Stallabrass, in his Verrine blast against Britart, combines the early Berger’s fierce critique of consumerist contamination with the later Berger’s sense of art’s high purpose: ‘It is often said of high art lite that it has a dark view of things,’ he writes, ‘and it does; the true depth of its cynicism, though, is not be found in its representation of suicides, or torture victims, or abused children, or in its multitude of corpses, but instead in all that it turns its back on, all that it leaves out when it comes to what art can be.’ As it pans the miasmic waters where the Chapman Brothers, Gavin Turk, Tracey Emin and of course Damien Hirst loom, High Art Lite finds the ark of art occupied, betrayed and shipwrecked. The principles that gave the avant-garde of the earlier part of the 20th century its energy and optimism have rebounded on themselves and collapsed: the use of popular material as an anti-élitist, anti-bourgeois strategy; the flouting of proprieties; the wilfully bad execution and recourse to deskilled methods; the spurning of the West End for Shoreditch and Hoxton – all the ‘alternative’ themes and media and sites and forms of attention have been emulsified into a phenomenon on which Tony Blair smiles.

Stallabrass follows the tracks of this social monster, which can be identified by what seems to be an infinitely elastic, numbing permissiveness, from mannikins of children with penises for noses and vulvae for mouths to used sanitary towels cast from an unmade bed. Stallabrass excoriates the artists’ nihilism, cynicism and tourist populism: he describes the ubiquity of urban decay, social ruination and personal degradation in their imagery as ‘urban pastoralism’, a late millennial equivalent of the rococo’s pleasure in swains and Bo-peeps frolicking in hayricks. ‘A pervasive and disabling irony becalms the work,’ he writes, ‘in a manner that is supposed, in conventional wisdom, to challenge the viewer but which in fact conveniently opens up demotic material to safe aesthetic delectation.’ How indeed should one enjoy, in Aristotle’s phrase, ‘the figures of the most despicable animals, or of human corpses’?

Catharsis is no longer the aim, but can it still be an effect of Mat Collishaw’s magnified bullet wound, or Hirst’s cloven-hoofed beasts? Stallabrass emphatically refuses this ancient validation, believing that the way Britart is presented – the Royal Academy the venue, Saatchi the patron – fatally puffs it into empty bubbles (the unbearable liteness of the book’s title). Britart is part of ‘a wider failure of a culture of opposition’: the artists’ deliberate assault on good taste, political correctness, and Enlightenment models of aesthetic value and social progress is just a matter of style, a form of quickfix entertainment which, as Gavin Turk warns, isn’t even ‘particularly entertaining’. Stallabrass concedes defeat, too: there is no place for the critic to triangulate the deadly shot that will burst this ballooning monster. ‘For theory,’ he writes despairingly, ‘the combination of a false but ineluctable authenticity from which the art is supposed to issue and the neutral, non-judgmental position that it adopts, is lethal.’ Interestingly, Stallabrass has found points of sensitivity and even resistance in the bodies of his victims: the space where a plate of Steve McQueen’s Bear should have appeared remains blank, with the super-title, ‘Permission to reproduce denied’. This happens in Richard Billingham’s case as well, although his pictures of his family escape Stallabrass’s everlasting fire.

Concurrently with last year’s Turner Prize show at the Tate, Ana Maria Pacheco, a Brazilian artist long resident in this country, showed the works resulting from her year’s residency at the National Gallery. Dark Night of the Soul is a monumental piece, consisting of 19 massive figures carved out of wood and arranged like a Latin American Stations of the Cross around the glaringly spotlit figure of a naked man bound and hooded for execution. The statues are larger than life-size, with eerie, enlarged, polished onyx eyes and small teeth (real ones). You could walk among the statues, become part of the scene, one of the witnesses, one of the voyeurs, and share in the figures’ perplexity and awe. Pacheco also showed richly coloured, buffed and waxed oil paintings on mythical themes: the temptation of St Anthony as a modern apocalypse, the tryst of Solomon and Sheba as a battle of wits from a spirited fairy tale. The show was popular, and the crowds were hushed. Brian Sewell praised it, against his first instincts, he admitted.

Stallabrass doesn’t mention Pacheco, or indeed many other artists who aren’t in the Tate inner circle, even by way of contrast to his lite targets, and although Dark Night of the Soul engages directly with contemporary issues, delivers a powerful sense of tragic humanity, and, above all, avoids irony, my sense is that Stallabrass still wouldn’t find it in himself to praise it. He’s very tough on Mark Wallinger, for example. Discussing Capital, Wallinger’s 1990 corporate portrait sequence of homeless people, Stallabrass decides that ‘despite his laudable intentions, there is something knowing and cold, almost mocking about these works.’ Permission to reproduce was denied in this case as well. He doesn’t mention Wallinger’s tiny, frail, pallid figure of Ecce Homo, which was put up on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Can any art made today fulfil what used to be accepted as its chief aims: to illuminate the human predicament, to reveal truths, to illustrate in a heightened manner contemporary existence, to question the status quo, to shed lacrimae rerum? If any art can do this, will it still be able to take its place in the ever-growing octopoid world of venues, private views and PRs? Stallabrass isn’t asking that Britart do anything unprecedented. He wants to keep all the right enemies (and not find himself finessed so that he’s lined up with Sewell – or the late Peter Fuller) and stay out on the left flank; his fury is rather Victorian – Ruskin’s rage against the immoralism of the Baroque.

Oddly enough, Matthew Collings – in the book of his Channel Four series – says many of the same things as Stallabrass; he even borrows the term ‘art lite’. But most of the time he seems to like the art and the artists, for the same reasons that Stallabrass detests them. He feels easy with numbness and dumbness and ‘shock, horror’; he doesn’t vituperate against vacuousness and lack of affect; he likes being made to feel ‘glidey’ and ‘nice’; he’s funny about the artists’ self-mythologising and bad behaviour, and irony for him is natural. The presiding angel would appear to be Gertrude Stein, in Alice B. Toklas mode, fauxnaive and paratactic, artless and kooky, the godmother of Adrian Mole. But his favourite art critic, as he admits in It Hurts, his book about the New York art scene, is Clement Greenberg, and he can suddenly throw out a shrewd, decisive insight in the master’s best manner. His claims on art’s behalf are modest and canny; ‘windiness’ is a favourite term of condemnation. The Chapman Brothers’s gruesome 3-D reworking of Goya’s Disasters of War prompts the comment: ‘Everything odd and inexplicable about Goya rushes to the foreground. And everything that was a timeless humane truth about the horror of atrocity seeps away.’

The book bears the marks of its origin as a TV series: potted biographies of the founding heroes (Jackson Pollock and Picasso) interpolated here and there, scenic shoots in studios far and wide, and a haphazard structure. It does well, though, to place the Sensation lot in a family tree, with Goya, Munch, Picasso, America, Modernism and Matisse. Collings has a vigorous curiosity about aesthetic value and in an interesting chapter called ‘Lovely, Lovely’ tries to get to grips with the question of beauty: ‘We know no artists will ever be nominated for the Turner Prize for their contribution to loveliness,’ he writes. ‘But the loveliness we find in a lot of art ... seems to be a property or quality that can never be wholly got rid of. However much we may stop mentioning it and try and shame it into leaving, it just keeps on hanging around.’

Chris Ofili, who won the Turner Prize in 1998, is included in this chapter with his sequinned, beaded, dotted, varnished, lustrous, rainbow-coloured paeans in paint to numinous beings – Captain Shit and the Virgin Mary and various other Ebony or Hello! heroes and heroines. The difference between Stallabrass’s approach and Collings’s couldn’t be plainer: in High Art Lite Ofili gets three colour pics and a thorough discussion of the arguments used to defend/praise him, concluding with a resonant dismissal of his work (‘Indeed, it is utterly of a piece with high art lite in its refusal to do anything other than present a dilemma’). In This Is Modern Art, Ofili is treated to three colour pics and a four-page discussion marked by the ropey syntax and meandering musings that Stallabrass finds so infuriating about the Britart running dogs: ‘Is it identity politics that drives him?’ Collings asks: ‘It would be exhausting now to remember what they are and write it all down.’ For Stallabrass, Ofili has failed the cause of Stephen Lawrence because he feeds the ‘largely white and certainly largely privileged gallery-going audience with standard prejudices about blacks, delivered in a manner that is so over-the-top as to be absurd’. These ironies were exultantly lost on the schoolkids I saw in the Ofili room at the Turner Prize show at the Tate, who identified for me every one of the tiny black faces in the stars spangling the background of one of the Captain Shit and the All Stars pictures. For Collings, acting the idiot aesthete again, ‘the look of Ofili’s paintings is always beautiful.’

What can art do now? and What should art do now? are distinct questions, but they both go to the heart of the problem facing the visual arts in the age of global iconomania, in the multimedia blizzard of signs and non-signs. In New York, Mayor Giuliani snatched at an opportunity for crowd pleasing when he denounced Ofili’s The Holy Mother Mary, but the episode showed that scandal can still erupt around the images lambasted by Stallabrass as meaninglessly, lethally equivocal.

Collings ends with a promise that art still holds out ‘hope, marvels, beauty, a route to transcendent meanings, a few laughs’. Stallabrass, too, if scathingly, proposes laughter as a possible response to contemporary art, and the productions of Emin and Hirst, like horror film gore and monster comics, often elicit a grim, gallows humour – shrinking, wincing, giggling and smirking. It’s a new twist in the long tradition of the grotesque and Collings is right to draw attention to the pleasure-in-pain, in which relish and disgust are coiled together, stirred by Goya’s fantastic nightmares: ‘We feel there ought to be a dividing line somewhere – between art and sadism. Someone should tell us what it is. Did Goya have a dividing line in his head? Were there any boundary lines in there at all?’

The tendency to monstrous imagery wavers; it doesn’t keep up a constant pressure – unlike, perhaps, the desire for beauty. It would appear to be at high tide today, however, sucking into its undertow an interest in detritus, effluvia, leavings – industrial, military and carnal – as well as a delight in childishness (polymorphous perversity): these characteristics can be swept up into the larger family of deformations, malformations and formlessness. In his original and fascinating overview of aesthetic change in The World of Sculpture* James Hall attributes the shift to messy, ramshackle mixed media constructions and the taste for haptic variety to the influence of Maria Montessori and her belief that touch is the primary cognitive sense. The sandpit, mud, lollipop sticks, goo, plasticine, oozing clay and, later, petri dishes and test tubes: playing with such stuff, Hall argues, has clearly influenced the materialisations of contemporary art, so much of it three-dimensional, inherently transient and labile, and playful. Homo ludens has supplanted homo faber.

Giving basic epistemological processes visibility and status corresponds to the old, paradoxical role of jesting – both these critics represent their subjects as jesters or fools – which was to speak the unspeakable, but with an accompanying impulse towards self-protection. These images may be apotropaic, like grinning death’s heads at the entrances to cities, Medusa heads on temple porticos, snarling griffons on tombs, shelah-na-gigs on castle walls – they are ferocious, grisly, barbarously comic effigies erected to ward off worse terrors. The quips of Shakespeare’s fools aren’t very funny: they’re often rude and nasty, at once riddling and in your face – rough charms uttered to banish care, to lift dullness, whistling in the dark. The fooling function of art doesn’t help us to evaluate its aesthetic quality, but Stallabrass’s jeremiad reveals that art’s politics have to do not with the work, but with the way it is received. (He might like some of these artists more if Saatchi liked them less.) Meanwhile, Collings, with almost spacey, dopey voluptuousness, takes pleasure in not offering a verdict grounded in an aesthetic system of values.

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