Friday 3 April 2009

Maggots feeding on the body of art

Reflections on modern art, morality and the state of contemporary culture

An entry for the 2003 Turner Prize was a sculpture depicting bodies being picked at by maggots. Entitled ‘Sex’, it was by Jake and Dinos Chapman who were the bookmakers’ favourites and grabbed headlines as the most shocking nominees. Maggots feeding off a body is a fitting picture of contemporary artists. Contemporary art has developed from great artistic traditions, yet often destroys the common values embodied within them. The resultant separation of form and content undermines traditional art without managing to create new meanings.

Contemporary art is not really art at all. Today’s art is commodified and used to make money for the elites who buy and sell it. Art is a financial asset. Sotheby’s contemporary art auction in July last year raised more than $1 billion, which shows how the world’s super-rich are investing in art in spite of gloomy economic predictions. Sotheby’s evening contemporary art sale raised 95 million pounds, the highest total for a summer contemporary auction held in Europe and just below the overall regional record set in February. Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for Head of George Dyer’, the artist’s lover, fetched $27.4 million, including commission; Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Untitled (Pecho/Oreja)’, owned by Irish rock band U2, sold for $10.1 million. Senior executives are confident the art market will sustain soaring values in spite of falling stocks and house prices with rising oil costs. Jussi Pylkkanen, President of Christie’s Europe, said the success of auctions held around the world in recent months ‘demonstrated the continued strength, depth and breadth of the global art market’.

Contemporary art is a movement of an elite that finances its interests through grants and sponsorship from global corporations. It is exhibited by commercial art galleries, private collectors, corporations, publicly funded arts organisations, contemporary art museums or by the artists themselves who are supported by grants, awards and prizes as well as by selling work. There are interlocking and exclusive relationships between publicly funded contemporary art organisations and corporations. A select few dealers represent the artists featured in major publicly funded contemporary art museums, whilst individual collectors are highly influential - Charles Saatchi has dominated the market in British contemporary art for twenty years.

Historically, there were qualities that denoted an idea of civilisation that gave meaning to culture: confidence and a sense of belief in one’s own people that generated a sense of permanence. This was reflected by the arts elite of the day. A major collector at the beginnings of our civilisation was King Athelstan. Among his gifts to Chester-le-Street was a tenth-century West Saxon codex, containing Bede’s eighth-century prose and verse Lives of the sixth-century St Cuthbert, with a frontispiece illustrating the king presenting the book to St Cuthbert. There were episcopal and royal records in this book, including a list of popes, alongside the Cuthbert material. Athelstan stands out among the relic-collectors of late Saxon England as a great relic-collector of his time. Several churches’ traditions attributed their own collections to his religious largesse.

There was a self-belief in our society’s values and a desire to receive them from our ancestors and transmit them to our descendants. These values came from a sense of continuity: that we have endured and will continue to do so; but now it seems this process is being jettisoned for a vague future that is being artificially constructed by cultural elites. To combat this, artists would need not only great talent but also independence of mind and the courage to stand alone and rebel; not just go along with fashion for personal gain.

Promoting cultural diversity is the Arts Council’s main goal. Here their ideology of conforming to fashion is expressed in customary Doublespeak: it aims to encourage an environment where the arts reflect the full range and diversity of society. The Council wants everyone to have access to excellent arts activity. To make this happen, it is focussing on race and ethnicity, disability and social inclusion. More than 10 per cent of regularly funded organisations are run by ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’ (BME) organisations that take a lead role in supporting BME artists. By 2007/2008, 25 per cent of the London’s regularly funded organisations will be Black and Minority Ethnic arts organisations. In what sense are these ‘inclusive’?  However, ventures representative of our culture, like the English Music Festival, are discriminated against on the grounds they are ‘exclusive’.

But there is a tension between the traditional culture that elites benefit from themselves, and that they want to give to society. The current chairman of Arts Council England is Sir Christopher John Frayling (born 25 December 1946) an educationalist and writer, known for his study of popular culture. He read history at Churchill College, Cambridge and gained a PhD in the study of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He taught history at the University of Bath and in 1979 was appointed Professor of Cultural History at London’s post-graduate art and design school, the Royal College of Art. Since 1996 he has been Rector in charge of the College. He is also Chairman of the Design Council, Chairman of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, and a Trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was a governor of the British Film Institute in the 1980s. He was knighted in 2001 for ‘Services to Art and Design Education’.

A similar sense of double standards is shown by many artists. The Evening Standard told of the millions that Damien Hirst is spending on the mansion once owned by Lord Sudeley’s family. Hirst is supposedly worth £135 million. Death is a central theme in Hirst’s works, a series in which dead animals like a shark, a sheep and a cow are preserved—sometimes having been dissected—in formaldehyde. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is a 14-foot tiger shark immersed in formaldehyde in a vitrine. Arts Council England is the national development agency for encouraging this disturbing practice. It distributes public money from the Government and the National Lottery to the arts organisations that share their ideology and refuse those that do not.

A further feature of contemporary art is paedophilia. Bowie’s 1975 concept album 1.Outside has a tale about the dismemberment of a young teenage girl. Hypocrisy is another. In his video ‘Let’s Dance’ Bowie is filmed playing the guitar and singing while watching an Aboriginal couple struggling with metaphors of Western cultural imperialism. It looks cool and gives an atmosphere of culture and poverty. Bowie is worth £200 million. Modern art is not really art but anti-art and detached from true culture which develops amongst a people or community and grows traditions over time. However, the irony is that the people producing unmade beds or piles of bricks need the established old masters and traditional art as a background; for if the old standards were truly swept away, no one would be able to say: ‘Oooh, what a provocative statement, Tracey’.

For the June 2008 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Tracey Emin was invited be curator of a gallery. The sex-themed works on show include a Zebra with an erection. ‘... it is a crankshaft that operates a model of a zebra, which in turn is copulating with a model of woman in Victorian dress’ as the hackneyed image of prudery. It is pretentious and has no intrinsic merit; only what the elites who buy and sell it give it. It is a piece of propaganda for cultural elites; changing the Victorian woman to someone like Cherie Blair or Diane Abbott would provoke hysterical prejudice from these pseuds.

The Chapman brothers are conceptual artists who work together. They were part of the Young British Artists movement that was promoted by Charles Saatchi who also sponsored Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Jake Chapman has published a number of catalogue essays and pieces of art criticism in his own right, as well as a book, Meatphysics in 2003. The brothers have also designed a label for Beck’s beer as part of a series of limited edition labels produced by contemporary artists.

The Chapman brothers were nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003, and their work also centred on themes of sex and death. Their piece ‘Sex’ referred to their previous work ‘Great Deeds against the Dead’. The original work shows three dismembered corpses hanging from a tree; ‘Sex’ shows the same scenario, but in a further state of decay. Clowns’ noses have been added to the skulls of the corpses, while snakes, rats and insects, similar to ones in joke shops, cover the piece. ‘Death’ is two sex dolls, placed on top of each other, head-to-toe in the 69 sex position.

But one could get still more pretentious than this. In May 2008 the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a performance of composer John Cage’s 4’33”, which does not have a single note. Radio 3 broadcast it live and switched off its emergency system that cuts in when there is silence. The performance took place at London’s concrete block the Barbican Centre. TV viewers were also able to watch the event when BBC Four broadcast the concert. Cage’s justification for 4’33” was to demonstrate that ‘wherever we are what we hear mostly is noise’. General manager Paul Hughes told BBC Radio 5 Live the orchestra had rehearsed to ‘get in the right frame of mind’. Even though they had no notes to play, the musicians tuned up and then turned pages of the score after each of the three ‘movements’ specified by the composer. The audience applauded enthusiastically.

Mr Hughes said Cage believed ‘music was all around us all the time’ and the piece was his attempt to make the audience focus on sounds that were ‘part of our everyday lives’. But the audience at the premiere in 1952 was not so gullible and people were heard walking out. Mr Hughes said, ‘They were completely outraged and extremely angry’.

An interesting precedent comes from 1937 when novelist Graham Greene reviewed the Shirley Temple film Wee Willie Winkie for Night and Day magazine. He was sued by Twentieth Century Fox and Miss Temple. The plaintiffs objected to this section:

‘Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has peculiar interest: infancy with her is a disguise, her appeal is more secret and adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers - middle-aged men and clergymen - respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.’

When this review was written Miss Temple was eight years old. Greene suggested the film makers were pandering to those older men who had an unhealthy and perverted sexual interest in young children. This was a complaint about the sexualisation of children by Hollywood. Greene found himself being vilified as some sort of abuser of children for daring to point out that Temple’s films were a magnet for dirty old men. The basis of the claim was that Greene’s article damaged her and was libellous to the extent that it suggested she was deliberately sexually provocative. The trial was before the Lord Chief Justice of England in the Kings Bench Division on 22 March 1938. Temple’s counsel described the article as ‘one of the most horrible libels that one could well imagine’, and described Night and Day magazine as a ‘beastly publication’. The magazine was on its last legs anyway the trial finished it off.

Greene was in Mexico and apologised through his counsel for the libel and paid £3500 in damages to 20th Century Fox/Temple - a considerable sum then. The Lord Chief Justice wanted Greene arrested and prosecuted for criminal libel, describing the article as ‘a gross outrage’ but he was not arrested. Now, it is clear Temple’s films did portray children as objects of lust which is now commonplace - TV soaps have a tendency to show their younger female cast as objects to arouse desire and break down people’s inhibitions to grooming young girls. Those who do this are not innocent television producers and writers but culpable and therefore punishable. On EastEnders, Jim Branning’s daughter Lauren (Madeline Duggan) who was born on 29 March 1994, usually wears a very short dress; Lucy Beale (Melissa Suffield), who was born on 9 December 1993, looks as though she is wearing a push-up bra. On Coronation Street Kevin Webster’s daughter Sophie’s breasts almost fall out of her top and she is about 14. Contemporary art and entertainment is creating a climate where our young people are only valued as sex objects. Parents who watch these programmes should start to realise what is being done to their children and future generations of society.


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Resources

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Marxists Online
Marx, Engels, Lenin and beyond

New Left Review, international Leftist journal

Mute Magazine, culture and politics after the net

Red Pepper, influenced by socialism, feminisim and environmental politics

Dissent Magazine, US Leftist journal for the clashing of strong opinions

And its counterpart, Commentary, general, yet Jewish

Granta, magazine for new writing

Wikipedia, ze internet encyclopedia

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, all things philosophical