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The worst of Britart has manifested in London this week with a new show in the White Cube gallery by the Chapman Brothers called If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be. The Chapmans are essentially an advertising agency whose one client is themselves. Their new show title has a catchy superficiality as any good advertising slogan should, and an accompanying lack of intellectual depth, as all advertising slogans must, because their suggestiveness cannot be substantiated by the material that informs them.
In addition to the slogan, Jake and Dinos have an accompanying visual presentation, which consists of thirteen of Adolf Hitler’s topographical watercolours, carried out 1910-1913 in Vienna in his youthful enthusiasm to become an artist, before rejection in that career led him to become a butcher instead. These watercolours, of which Hitler estimated he had completed over a thousand, are unique historical artefacts. Their existence creates an awkward question as to how the mind that at one point sat quietly attending to aesthetic sensitivities could eventually reach such deranged extremes. To exhibit them should be not just controversial, but challenging, educative and a psychological and historical insight.
Unfortunately, the Chapmans, like others in their cadre of artists, lead a solipsistic existence, nowhere better exemplified than in their most noted exponent Damien Hirst’s perception of the 9/11 attacks as an artwork, for which the creators “kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing.” The only form of history which has any urgency is that concerning their own existence, whose importance is inflated beyond all proper proportion by an art world where spiralling prices are based on ephemera, because no one either has the perception to burst the bubble or the courage and power to do so.
History is just one of the casualties. This is regrettable, as, in the words of the Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The artefacts of the past are part of that memory and direct confrontation with them helps us to apprehend their original context. The Chapmans have managed to eviscerate any such engagement by carrying out what they consider to be “a staggering work of genius”. This consists of overpainting parts of Adolf’s watercolours with their own very crudely done rainbows, flowers, stars and similar motifs. This apparently makes the work no longer Hitler’s but the Chapman’s, who proclaim, “by mucking around with the past, we are making the future more apparent.” Exactly how that is achieved is not explained.
It is not likely to be: it sounds good and implies profundity. It doesn’t matter if it falls apart, when subject to even minimal analysis, for so does the show title with its speculation of Hitler as a different kind of person. We don’t have to speculate what would have happened if Hitler had been a different kind of person. We know already, because when he did the watercolours, he was a different kind of person and it didn’t work. But to call the exhibition If Hitler Had Been an Artist How Happy Would We Be would inconveniently remove any need for the Chapmans in the equation and fail to justify the nearly 600% profit margin on the work from the original purchase price of £115,000 to the current asking price of £685,000. Happily, though, we are reassured by Tim Marlow, a broadcaster, who moonlights as the gallery’s director of exhibitions (or vice versa), that there is no notion of “trying to exploit the Hitler thing.”
The Chapmans do not see the watercolours as able to bestow any insight: “All they indicate is that this person is not very good at art, they don’t indicate this person will become a terrible tyrant.” That is exactly their value – the reduction of the myth and the bringing into focus of someone, with whom we have more in common than we would like to think. It is only by accepting the element of identification that we can understand the process by which the psyche can go horribly off course and, through understanding, attempt to prevent that from occurring, which, as Conrad pointed out in The Heart of Darkness, it can do very easily to seemingly balanced individuals in the wrong circumstances. Notorious incidents in Vietnam and Iraq – to name just two obvious examples – show a distinct lack of prevention, proceeding from an equal lack of understanding. The Chapman’s adolescent pranks have not helped that process, but merely continued their egocentric distortion of reality. And that is a very dangerous thing.
CHARLES THOMSON is co-founder of The Stuckists