Commentary Magazine


The Monotony of "Sensation"

The scandal over Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,1 on exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, has now run its course. It was provoked, as anyone with access to a newspaper in the past several months could have learned, by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s decision to halt municipal subsidies to the museum after it refused his request that it desist from showing a painting called The Holy Virgin Mary.

The mayor objected to the inclusion of this painting, which is composed in part of clippings from pornographic magazines and elephant dung, on the grounds that it was blasphemous. He further argued that since the painting was an outrageous insult to the city’s Roman Catholics, and since the venue for its exhibition was supported in good part by taxpayer dollars, he had both the right and the duty either to stop its display or to withdraw city funding. Needless to say, the director and the board of trustees of the Brooklyn Museum disagreed. They claimed an exclusive right under the First Amendment to decide what would be shown under their auspices. When both sides went to court, this argument carried the day.

In making their case, museum officials sought to drum up support by mounting an all-out public-relations campaign in the press. Over the course of several weeks, numerous articles, profiles, interviews, editorials, and op-ed pieces appeared that revealed a good deal—probably more than the museum’s leaders intended—about their understanding of their role and about current attitudes within the art world.

Perhaps the most salient fact to emerge was that the decision to put on Sensation was in no way motivated by considerations of aesthetic value. As the New York Times reported, the battle with the mayor had less to do with “artistic preferences” than “with extracting Brooklyn’s cultural scene from the long-dominant shadow of Manhattan.” According to the Times, several of the museum’s board members had “made a strategic decision to align Brooklyn’s cultural institutions with the avant-garde” in order “to attract a young, hip, ethnically diverse audience with a taste for cutting-edge art.” And once Giuliani objected, reported the Times, many of the trustees seemed positively to relish a court fight, exuding a “giddy confidence” that they would prevail and that “it will have been a price well worth paying if one result of the controversy is that the Brooklyn Museum of Art is branded in the consciousness of New York City as a pretty cool place to hang out.”

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Whether Brooklyn will ever be as “cool” as Manhattan is hard to say. But that the board of trustees of a distinguished art museum has now publicly acknowledged that its first priority is getting in step with social fashion is certainly a significant development. No less remarkable is the single-minded determination with which both the board and Arnold Lehman, the man it chose as the museum’s director, have set about realizing that goal. To achieve it, they have shown that they are willing to put at risk both a substantial part of the museum’s funding and its good name. If the courts run true to form and the city loses on appeal, the Brooklyn Museum of Art will get to keep its subsidies. Whether its reputation survives intact is another matter.

Part of the damage the scandal has already done is to expose the highly unusual arrangements that were made by Lehman to bring off the Sensation exhibit in the first place. All of the works in the show belong to Charles Saatchi, a British advertising mogul. According to the Times, he made undisclosed payments to the museum to help defray the cost of the exhibit. Money was also solicited from art dealers and from one of New York’s leading auction houses, businesses with an interest in seeing the monetary value of either the particular works owned by Saatchi or other works by Sensation artists inflated by the fallout from a big museum show. Museum officials, the Times reported, were instructed by Lehman to keep secret some of the key details of these financing deals.

And apparently for good reason. About six weeks after the exhibit opened, reported the Times, the auction house in question put several works by Damien Hirst, the most prominent artist represented in Sensation, on the block. One—a medicine cabinet filled with old drug bottles—set a record for the artist, selling for $354,500, some 30 percent more than what it had fetched in 1998. Three other pieces also did exceptionally well. A steel cage filled with formaldehyde containers, masks, gloves, and a syringe went for $178,500—25 percent more than its estimate the previous year, when it failed to sell. A wall of 100 dead fish floating in individual glass blocks filled with formaldehyde, which had also failed to sell in 1998, “soared above its high estimate,” in the words of the Times, going for $277,500. And a photographic self-portrait of a youthful Damien Hirst with a severed human head sold for $74,000, more than double its high estimate.

In conveying these facts, the Times opined that it was “hard to say” whether the auction house’s $50,000 “investment [in Sensation] paid off.” Art buyers may form a different opinion about how works such as these come to command such high prices. In any case, just how irregular Mr. Lehman’s actions were in this matter is an issue that will no doubt be addressed, if indeed it is not already being addressed, by the board that hired him. Until then, the art-going public will have yet another reason to wonder about the true purposes of the museum’s exhibits of contemporary art.

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As it is, those purposes seem to have to do with everything—from making money to playing hardball politics with a Republican mayor to alleviating a sense of social inferiority—except providing the kind of experience one usually associates with looking at works of art. This was certainly the suggestion one got from the museum’s own presentation of the exhibit, which included an elaborately ironic “warning” that some of the objects on display might cause vomiting or fainting. Any doubts on this score were dispelled by the recorded message that greeted those ordering tickets over the phone.

According to that message, the 100 works by the 42 artists represented in Sensation

offer a dark, satirical, unflinching view of the contemporary world. They investigate our culture’s most pressing problems and most persistent obsessions: sex, violence, death and disease, class, race, and gender, normalcy and deviancy, and the definition of art itself.

Together, the recording concluded, these works “comprise the most widely discussed art of the last decade.”

This sort of hype is, of course, familiar: it is the staple of the huckster and an omnipresent part of our mass culture. If there was a false note in this jaunty little promo, it was the unstated but unmistakable claim that the art in Sensation is somehow unique. It is not. In fact, at the same time that Sensation was running at the Brooklyn Museum, another exhibit, Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century, was on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. (October 7 to January 17). Apart from differences in tone and technical quality, the two had a lot in common.

In both cases, the most recently produced works—whether paintings, sculptures, photographs, or installations—were largely derivative of the pop, conceptual, minimalist, and neo-realist movements that first emerged in the 1960′s and that have undergone several recyclings since then. Both exhibits contained works that seek, in one way or another, to simulate nature; or that are based on the products of popular culture and everyday life; or that are intended, so we were informed, to make some kind of statement. Many of these visual statements have to do with the vanity or futility of art. Others have to do with the meaninglessness or absurdity of life, or with troubled personal relationships, or with specific social concerns, like housing for the poor or the need to protect the environment. But in all of this apparent variety there was nothing that could be said to represent new art.

Consider, for example, the painting that caused Mayor Giuliani to put his foot down, The Holy Virgin Mary by Cris Ofili. What caused the commotion was not Ofili’s cartoonish drawing or use of glitter and nearly indiscernible pornographic cut-outs: these are characteristic features of contemporary picture-making. The supposed “novelty” of this work, and what got the mayor so riled up, was the application of elephant dung to the surface of the painting.

Yet far from being, as the Times put it, “avant-garde,” the use of such excretions in the creation of art objects is old hat. To cite just one example: in 1961, Piero Manzoni, one of the early practitioners of conceptual art, presented Merda d’artista, a work in which cans of his own excrement were priced for sale according to weight. By the same token, when Andres Serrano created a flap in 1987 by putting a crucifix in a jar of his own urine and calling it Piss Christ, he was hardly breaking new ground. In the late 1970′s, Andy Warhol, one of the preeminent leaders of the pop art movement, began a series of pictures—known as the “piss paintings”—in which canvases were coated with metallic copper paint, spread on the floor, and urinated on. One of these, Oxidation Painting (1978), was in Regarding Beauty, and the most the catalogue writers could think to say for it was that it asserts “that beauty is a fallacy, a surface quality that is only ‘skin deep.’ ” The paltriness of such judgments suggests that, in the absence of a provocative title or explanation of the “shocking” manner in which they have been produced, such works would arouse little interest outside the art world.

Even for those within that world, the interest these works hold seems highly problematic. On the one hand, there is the wish to assert that they are genuinely significant works of art. On the other hand, there is the tendency to identify that significance as ultimately lying outside the works themselves, in the various external realities—social, cultural, or personal—that the works are said to refer to. The one reality that seems to have little relevance in all this—apart from the seemingly endless recitation of all the oddball materials the artists use—is the aesthetic. Indeed, once the works in question are fully “explained,” they begin to seem less and less like art and more and more like commentary by other means.

Which raises the question: is something that elicits no response beyond mild curiosity or revulsion, that is so aesthetically unsatisfying that it has to be named or explained in order to acquire some kind of “meaning,” really a work of art? Although this issue received no real attention in all that was written about the Sensation controversy, it is critical to understanding the true nature of the objects on display and whether, or to what extent, they fall within what the promo called “the definition of art itself.”

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In this regard, it is worth considering how a collector very different from Charles Saatchi, the progressive physician, entrepreneur, and polymath Albert Barnes (1872-1951), who possessed an almost unrivaled eye for quality, installed the works he purchased for the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. Here is how Henri Matisse, after visiting the United States, described it in a 1930 interview:

One of the most striking things in America is the Barnes collection, which is exhibited in a spirit very beneficial for the formation of American artists. There the old master paintings are put beside the modern ones, a Douanier Rousseau next to a primitive, and this bringing together helps students understand a lot of things that the academies don’t teach.

Barnes’s purpose in arranging his collection in this way—without the sort of lengthy explanatory wall texts that nowadays clutter up so many exhibits—was to focus the attention of students and visitors on the experience of looking at the works themselves, and on the value of seeing the interrelationships of form among art objects from diverse historical periods and locales. As a 1993 catalogue put it, he was interested in “the way an artist uses color, light, line, and space . . . in relationship to each other, fused by the artist’s own uniquely personal perceptions of . . . form.” But this was not formalism. “What Barnes sought to convey in front of the painting itself,” the catalogue continued, “was a means of sorting out the varieties of human experience embodied in a painting.”

And the trustees of the Brooklyn Museum? When they got their first look at The Holy Virgin Mary, they almost all agreed (according to the Times) that it was “beautiful.” But what they surely meant was that it was pretty. And, indeed, many things in the world are pretty, but that does not make them art.

Most of the paintings in Sensation and Regarding Beauty are not much to look at—some, of course, are much worse than others—nor do they reward a sustained effort at seeing. The same can be said of other works, such as, from the Hirshhorn, Charles Ray’s mannequin in a red dress, Fall ’91, or Louise Bourgeois’s Mamelles, a succession of pink rubber breasts; or, from Brooklyn, Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model, a group of fiberglass mutant girl figures wearing running shoes and having penises for noses and anuses for mouths, or Sarah Lucas’s Au Naturel, a mattress on which are arranged a bucket, two melons, and a cucumber between two oranges.

Nor is there much in these works to sort out in terms of “the varieties of human experience.” This is particularly evident in Sensation, and part of the reason, no doubt, is the very limited way certain themes—namely, death, mutilation, and dismemberment—have been treated by the artists. They seem to have been deployed to one end only: the evocation of some distasteful sentiment. While those who made the works are clearly fascinated by the more lurid aspects of death, and keenly attuned to their commercial appeal, they seem no more capable of treating this theme thoughtfully than they are of recognizing the aesthetic—which is to say moral—responsibilities of the artist.

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In pondering this failure, it is useful to reflect on one’s own experiences with the dead or dying, subjects that have, after all, been the inspiration for much great art. When I was in college, for example, I once went with a friend to visit his father, a doctor who was the head of the pathology department at a large metropolitan hospital. Arriving at his office, we were told he was working in the basement. We found him in a small gray room, bent over a sort of operating table. Next to him, lying face up in what looked like a long deep sink, was the body of a five-year-old boy. His torso had been cut open and several of his internal organs removed. My friend’s father beckoned us over to the table, where he had been busy examining the boy’s heart. It had, he explained, a congenital defect, which, with cold-blooded avidity, he helpfully pointed out to us.

I do not remember what I learned that day about the workings of the human heart. But I do remember looking at the body of that dead child—chest open, eyes open, the former engine of his life now prodded to explain itself on a table some distance away—and being impressed by its powerlessness (powerless in life as well as death). I also remember thinking that seeing him like that was an indignity to him. Perhaps in his case an autopsy had been necessary—and certainly, from the pathologist’s perspective, this had been just another day’s work. But such considerations have never altered the nagging feeling I had that there was something wrong with making the boy’s dissected body available for display to casual visitors.

The experience of seeing an autopsy is quite different from the experience of looking at a painting of an autopsy. Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632) does not induce a desire to faint, or a sense of uneasiness that in some way one may be dishonoring the deceased. On the contrary, one of the fascinating aspects of this painting is that the dead body it depicts seems just as “alive” as the half-dozen or so figures grouped around it.

In his 1990 study, Rembrandt, Emmanual Starcky, a curator at the Louvre, recalls the reaction of the 19th-century painter and critic Eugène Fromentin:

Fromentin disliked this picture, criticizing the corpse, which he saw as no more than “a pale lighting effect in a black picture.” He concludes his case thus: “Rembrandt’s subject was a man, he was not concerned with the human form; his subject was death, and he overlooked it in order to search his palette for a whitish tone representing light.”

Fromentin was partly right: Rembrandt did put his aesthetic goals first, above any interest in trying to imitate—or reproduce—nature. As a result, however, he was able to infuse his work with his own interpretations of those “varieties of human experience”—including death—to which we as viewers can respond.

Starcky writes that “throughout his career, Rembrandt explored in paintings and drawings the links between man and death, but it would be man’s struggle, not his capitulation, to which he would draw our attention.” Two of the pictures Starcky has in mind are Christ on the Cross (1631) and The Suicide of Lucretia (1666). But perhaps the most remarkable of Rembrandt’s works on this theme does not have a human subject. The Slaughtered Ox (1655) depicts, with utterly stark simplicity, the beast strung up and carved open, suffused in death with the extraordinary power and dignity it had in life. It is little wonder that this picture was later copied by painters as various as Eugène Delacroix and Chaim Soutine; it is one of the most inspiring in the history of art.

Amid the to-do over Damien Hirst’s cut-up cows in formaldehyde, a piece entitled Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything, it is difficult not to think of the majesty of The Slaughtered Ox. In this master-work, whose compressed tension becomes an emanation of beauty and sensation, Rembrandt painted what might be called, even though his subject was an animal, the humanity of death. By contrast—and the contrast could not be greater—Hirst’s conceptual work embodies nothing to which a viewer can really respond. It can only be “read” as the solipsistic expression of a clichéd cynicism or an inhumane psychological impulse. Like much else in Sensation and Regarding Beauty, it seeks to collapse the distinction between art and nature, and ends up violating both.

Contrary to the extravagant and truly ill-considered claims of the curators that this sort of thing represents a return to the tradition of realism in art, as exemplified by Goya, Courbet, and Manet, such works actually have an entirely unreal quality about them—they belong more to the realm of special effects than of art—that recalls the excesses of the surrealist Salvador Dali or Marcel Duchamp’s now-ancient “readymades” (like the urinal he bought and presented as Fountain). Moreover, despite all the fancy talk about infusing the formalist varieties of minimalism and conceptualism with reality-based social content, these works are profoundly antisocial in nature. Objects with such titles as Spaceshit; Popcorn Tits; Wrecked; Dudley, Like What You See? Then Call Me; Everyone I Have Ever Slept with 1963-1995; Beautiful Kiss My Fucking Ass Painting; and Bullet Hole are clearly not intended to engage the viewer in a serious experience of the visual pleasures or peculiar mental satisfactions that genuine art provides. Nor can they be said to represent, as the curators insist, “the art of ideas with a high visual impact.” On the contrary, they are a form of assault—on art, on the life of the mind, and on the human spirit.

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To the curators, the “transgressiveness” of these works is their chief virtue, although, perhaps uncertain about how intrinsically valuable the works really are, they also seem to want to make them more palatable by attaching them, like barnacles, to the freighter of political correctness. What such a strategy cannot mask or alter, however, is the fundamentally sociopathic nature of this art—the thing about it that led Mayor Giuliani to label it “sick stuff.” For that is a direct result of its creators’ shunning of aesthetic values, in particular the values of 20th-century modernism.

As the Sensation catalogue candidly acknowledges, it was precisely the rejection of modernism that laid the foundation for the eventual emergence of Hirst, et al.:

Behind the achievements of today’s young artists are 30 years of solid acclaim for many aspects of British art, particularly since the general removal of modernist sightlines abroad has allowed for a more liberal climate of appreciation.

But once those “sightlines” were abandoned in favor of the now-dominant aesthetic of “anything goes,” respect for the artistic enterprise itself, and appreciation for the discipline and other rigors it demands, also went by the board. That respect and that appreciation are among the things that once anchored artists to a tradition, and made it possible for genuinely significant new art to develop. They were at the heart of the modernists’ struggle, a struggle that was at first fiercely resisted and that entailed the demand that we, too, make the requisite effort, however difficult or time-consuming, to appreciate and understand what those artists were trying to accomplish.

By contrast, contemporary artists like those represented in Sensation make no such demands, either of themselves or of us. As the catalogue says, they “made art as they would make any other lifestyle choice,” and “they found, too, that they did not have to fight or skirt around an unsympathetic regime.” Almost by definition, their work, which has basically gone straight from the art schools into galleries and museums and private collections, cannot be, as it is so frequently described, “challenging.” As one contemporary-art dealer in London put it: “It’s very accessible art. . . . You can look at the title and the piece and understand what they’re doing and summarize it in one sentence. . . . It’s not going to alienate a general public.” And little wonder: 40 years of postmodernism have by now all but obliterated the distinction between art and kitsch.

The kind of unhappy era in which we find ourselves today is not entirely without precedent. It was described by Wassily Kandinsky, the great Russian abstract painter, in his 1914 book Concerning the Spiritual in Art:

At such a time art ministers to lower needs, and is used for material ends. . . . Objects, the reproduction of which is considered [art's] sole aim, remain monotonously the same. The question “what?” disappears from art; only the question “how” remains. By what method are these material objects to be reproduced? . . . [T]he artist in such times has no need to say much, but only to be notorious for some small originality and consequently lauded by a small group of patrons and connoisseurs (which incidentally is also a very profitable business for him). . . . In each artistic circle are thousands of such artists, of whom the majority seek only for some new technical manner.

Of such times, Kandinsky said that “Art has lost her soul.” It is hard to think of a more apt description of our present condition, or a more persuasive demonstration of it than the art in Sensation.

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Footnotes

1 The exhibit, which opened October 2 and closes January 9, had earlier appeared in Berlin (September 30, 1998-February 21, 1999) and London (September 18-December28, 1997).

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About the Author

Steven C. Munson’s contributions to COMMENTARY include “David Smith’s Vision” (May 2006) and “Inside the New MOMA” (February 2005).




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