Shit Happens!

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

“Camp would have moved on to the Happy Hunting Ground of the old art movement. A new art movement would be in. It would be called Shit. Its test would be: is this object, happening, work, event or production more resonant than it was yesterday? Movies about the Strategic Air Command with Jimmy Stewart, Hubert Humphrey speeches, old Lawrence Welk records, photographs of Mayor Wagner, Senate testimony by Robert McNamara, interviews with J. Edgar Hoover-these would the artifacts of the new art movement-Camp was out and Shit was in.”

–Norman Mailer,
“A Speech at Berkeley on Vietnam Day” May 25, 1965

There hasn’t been a good row about art since Washington went berserk over ‘The West As America’ exhibition at the Smithsonian, back in l99l. But that was a fight about history, about political correctness. The comment books were chockfull of spirited exchanges about art and its truthfulness about America’s past. In other words, the uproar had content.

It’s harder to find much content thus far in the hullabaloo over the “Sensation” exhibit at the Brooklyn Art Museum, beyond a glorious week of political grandstanding by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Politicians are always at their most comical, worrying about art, while simultaneously asserting the primacy of private enterprise. “From what I’ve read, the exhibit besmirches religion,” said George W. Bush, campaigning in the company of Gov. George Pataki. “It denigrates someone’s religion. I don’t think we ought to be using public monies to denigrate religion.” Pataki wagged his head in agreement. “That’s right. When you use public money to denigrate someone’s religion, I think it’s wrong.”

So the governors of New York and Texas are in apparent agreement that privately funded besmirchments-including exhibits of the Virgin Mary resting on balls of elephant dung, with crotch shots from porn mags floating around her divine form-are fine. We’ve come a long way, perhaps not entirely in the right direction.

One of the CounterPunch editors saw the “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” exhibit art the Royal Academy in London, back in the fall of l997, and didn’t care for it at all. The Saatchi brothers, Charles and Maurice, headed an ad agency that had figured largely in Margaret Thatcher’s triumph in l979, and they later came a cropper when they tried to take over a big British bank.

Charles Saatchi had very profitably sold off a large earlier collection of better established artists and started buying up the work of young artists. In High Art Lite, an excellent book about to be published by Verso, (our own publisher) Julian Stallabrass quotes a sculptor, Richard Wentworth, describing the arrival of Saatchi at an art degree show: “You’re being an assessor at the Slade, in what is [sic] essentially examination conditions… and he’ll just appear. This little figure in the background. He’s gone shopping and he’s first in line… People perceive a proper collecting culture in this country and it’s not there. There’s Charles Saatchi, and there’s no one else.” Stallabrass adds dryly, “Naturally, in this situation, the power is all on one side: Saatchi’s usual practice is to buy very cheap and pay very late. Few are in any position to refuse his offers.”

And of course the young artists soon got an idea of the sort of stuff-epatisme-that Saatchi likes. Chris Ofili, painter of the dung-accoutered “Holy Virgin Mary” has written that “A lot of artists are producing what is known as Saatchi art. You know it’s Saatchi art because it’s one-off shockers. Something designed to attract his attention. And these artists are getting cynical. Some of them with works already in his collection produce half-hearted crap knowing he’ll take it off their hands. And he does.”

At the time it planned the “Sensation” exhibit, the Royal Academy was two million pounds in debt, and desperate to create profitable controversy, intimating that some of the young artists displayed in “Sensation” might be put up for membership in the Academy. The artists dutifully played their role, denouncing the Academy as “fat, stuffy, pompous” in the words of Damien Hirst, who specializes in bisected animal carcasses.

The art piece most hotly debated was not Ofili’s Virgin, but Marcus Harvey’s Myra, named for its subject, an awful murderess called Myra Hindley, imprisoned for life in l966 after being convicted along with her partner Ian Brady for the torture and killing of young children. There was something so nightmarishly depraved about the Brady-Hindley killings that their memory still makes many people, me included, shiver. Harvey bases his painting on a famous photo of Hindley, and to make a pattern of dots to mime the photo as used in newspapers, he used the cast of a child’s hand. After some pretty silly statements of purpose, and some apologias for Hindley as having been led astray by her guy, Harvey ventured the final foolishness, that Myra is the “Love Goddess, who, secretly, secretly in our heart of hearts, we all want to shag.” Delighted at the prospective uproar, the Academy actually invited relatives of Hindley’s victims to attend the exhibition.

There was a real row, not at all like the posturings of Giuliani over the use of public money. One artist, Peter Fisher, brought containers of Indian ink into the Academy and rubbed them into the painting, causing “Myra:” considerable damage. Another artist, Jacques Role, saw people mustering even more eagerly around “Myra”, rushed across Piccadilly to Fortnum & Mason, bought half a dozen eggs and pelted the painting with them until brought down by an off-duty cop. The tabloids hailed the two artists as having, as the Mirror put it, “struck a blow for every right-thinking person in Britain.” Paul Johnson denounced the cultural elite as “perverted, brutal, horribly modish and clever-cunning, degenerate, exhibitionist, high-voiced and limp-wristed, seeking to shock and degrade”. which only goes to show how much Giuliani has to learn, in terms of political rhetoric.

But as Stallabrass rightly remarks, the row over “Myra” in London was a real one, mostly about crime and its depiction, and about the relation of art to a peculiarly horrible reality. There’s nothing of this in the Brooklyn Art Museum row, which is a purely formal joust, helpful to Mayor Giuliani, and hopefully to the museum. For an American equivalent to the London hubbub we have to look at the commotion over commodity and history on a story we reported last month. At the Department of Energy’s gift shop at the Sandia labs in New Mexico, they’re selling Fat Man earrings. A Japanese anti-nuke group has protested. The gift shop director is impenitent, saying the earrings commemorate a turning point in history and that Fat Man, along with Little Boy, which killed at least 210,000 Japanese civilians, “ended the war and saved the lives of US soldiers.” That’s a real row too. The Brooklyn Art Museum should import the earrings to its shop, set them alongside the memorabilia of the Sensation exhibit, and see what happens. CP

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