John Molyneux Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

John Molyneux

State of the Art

A review of the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts,
September–December 1997

(July 1998)

From International Socialism 2:79, July 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The British art world is cock-a-hoop. It is convinced that in what has become known as Young British Art (YBA) it has found the answer to its dreams. Young, new, energetic, dynamic, cocky, cockney, rebellious (but not too rebellious, not Marxist or communist or anything old fashioned like that) sexy, successful, scandalous (in just the way that attracts the media and draws the crowds) and above all profitable and British – everything they ever wanted from an art movement and were afraid even to hope for. Already two books have been published specifically to celebrate ‘the world of YBA’: Blimey! From Bohemian to Britpop: The London Artworld from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst by Matthew Collings is ironic, hip, cool, a postmodern hagiography; Moving Targets: A User’s Guide to British Art Now by Luisa Buck is just a hagiography. Its opening paragraph sums up the tone and message of the book and also the current mood of the art world:

More than at any other time in its history, British art is booming. For several years critics, curators and collectors from across the globe have been converging on the UK – especially London and Glasgow – to admire, to purchase and to select from Britain’s artistic boldest and best. At home, a fully fledged mythology has grown up around the phenomenon of the Young British Artist as an uncouth entrepreneurial species that emerged fully formed from Goldsmiths’ College in south London with Damien Hirst at its head to fly in the face of orthodoxy and the art establishment. [1]

Everything about this passage and about the phenomenon as a whole seems designed to make socialist hackles rise. There is the crude nationalism reminiscent of the American chauvinism that accompanied the promotion of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s (including its sponsorship by the CIA). [2] There is the unabashed commercialism of the language – note ‘booming’, ‘to admire, to purchase’ and ‘uncouth entrepreneurial species’ – straight out of the Thatcherite 1980s, which, of course, is where a lot of YBA comes from (the Goldsmiths’ year of 1988). [3] There is the conscious emphasis on media hype, played to perfection round the Myra Hindley painting (of which more later). Above all there is the looming figure of Charles Saatchi, patron of Damien Hirst, owner of by far the largest collection of YBA (at the Saatchi Gallery in St John’s Wood), supplier of all the works in the ‘Sensation’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in autumn 1997 and supposedly ‘the Lorenzo de Medici of our times’. In many ways YBA fits exactly the scenario outlined by Trotsky in Art and Politics in our Epoch:

Bourgeois society showed its strength throughout long periods of history in the fact that combining repression and encouragement, boycott and flattery, it was able to control and assimilate every ‘rebel’ movement in art and raise it to the level of official ‘recognition’. But each time this ‘recognition’ betokened, when all is said and done, the approach of trouble. It was then that from the left wing of the academic school or below it – i.e. from the ranks of a new generation of bohemian artists – a fresher revolt would surge up to attain in its turn, after a decent interval, the steps of the academy. [4]

The only difference is that YBAs have omitted the decent interval. Nevertheless, socialists cannot just write a minus where the bourgeoisie writes a plus. In politics simply inverting the judgements of the bourgeoisie soon lets one down and in the sphere of art (as in science) it is completely hopeless. In its time the bourgeoisie has patronised Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Hogarth and David, Picasso and Pollock – all in their different ways great artists. The extremely backward Spanish monarchy managed to maintain Velázquez and Goya, and Diego Rivera was commissioned in turn by the San Francisco Pacific Stock Exchange, Edsel B. Ford (son of Henry) and John D. Rockefeller. [5] In general the bourgeoisie as a class is aware of the power of art and culture and, desirous of maintaining its hegemony in this sphere as in others, ‘delegates’ some of its number to specialise in this area. The latter – the likes of Sir Kenneth Clark and Lord Gowrie, Peggy Guggenheim and Charles Saatchi – seek, in their own way, to promote and embrace the best art, past and present. Which is not to say their taste can be trusted. In the second half of the 19th century the establishment and the bourgeoisie condemned or ignored, by turn, Courbet, Manet, the Impressionists, Seurat, Van Gogh and Cézanne. The bourgeoisie also at times endorses the bogus (Dali), inflates the mediocre (the Pre-Raphaelites) and rewards the downright awful (Landseer). We cannot, therefore, respond to the YBA phenomenon ‘on principle’. There is no alternative to confronting the actual art and judging it on its merits. In this article I attempt to do this via consideration of the art and artists represented in the Royal Academy Sensation exhibition.

The exhibition consisted of 110 works by 42 different artists and this in itself creates a problem for a review like this. It is impossible to respond to and comment meaningfully on all of them, either works or artists. At the same time there is a difficulty in responding to the show as a totality. Sensation was not a collaborative effort, it was a selection from a collection, and therefore one cannot simply generalise or tar everything with the same brush. The Louvre contains paintings by Raphael, Rembrandt and Louis Le Nain. They are neither similar in style nor equal in merit. Max Ernst, Joan Miró and Salvador Dali are all known as Surrealists. This does not make a judgement of one hold true for the others. Nevertheless, some kind of holistic response to the experience of Sensation seems both necessary and inevitable. I shall proceed by first discussing the work and artists I consider particularly significant (negatively and positively) and then by making some general comments.

Unfortunately it is necessary to begin by dealing with Marcus Harvey’s Myra, the giant reproduction of the familiar newspaper image of Myra Hindley constructed out of children’s handprints. This was the sign under which the exhibition was marketed, its logo, its shop window display, its loss leader. Whether or not this was the conscious intention from the outset, and whether there was actual conspiracy with the media, is hard to judge but this was how it worked out, and very successfully too. Everyone (artist, tabloids, curator, parents of Hindley’s victims, outraged old Royal Academicians etc.) played their required parts and the result was the record 300,000 plus attendance (which at seven quid a time is a lot of filthy lucre). I say unfortunately because as art, as a painting, Myra doesn’t amount to much. Politically it is important to reject the media’s hypocrisy about this image and the absurd inflation of its power. In so far as this particular image of Hindley possesses iconic power in our culture it is the media’s constant use of it, not Harvey, that created it. When The Mirror denounced the painting as a ‘disgrace’ it plastered it all over its front page thus projecting it into 2 million homes. In other words, the fuss is not about the image itself but about making it into ‘art’, or calling it ‘art’. Does this mean paintings of monstrous people cannot be art or morally speaking ought not to be art? [6] Where does that leave Holbein’s Henry VIII portraits or John Heartfield’s photomontages of Hitler and Goering? However, defending the ‘right’ of the Academy to show Myra is not the same as proclaiming its great artistic merits. Technically there is nothing specially original, interesting or excellent about its conception or execution. In so far as it makes a point, it is that the image of Myra Hindley is made out of the bodies of murdered children – this is the function of constructing the image from children’s handprints. But we know this already and the painting does not make the point with any particular power.

What really gives the game away as far as Marcus Harvey is concerned is his other work in the show: Proud of his Wife and Dudley, Like What You See? Then Call Me, two crudely sexist nudes in which art imitates pornography. Of course it is ‘knowing’ and ‘ironic’ so that’s supposed to make it alright. It doesn’t. The catalogue tells us that these paintings ‘simultaneously contain and exceed their salacious imagery’. [7] They don’t. From John Berger’s Ways of Seeing onwards Marxist and feminist critics of the representation of the female nude by the likes of Titian, Velázquez, and Ingres rejected the defence that these were ‘great artists’ and ‘wonderful handlers of paint’. Titian and Co. were indeed great artists and superb handlers of paint but this did not change the fact that their representations of women were sexist or that because they were sexist they were inferior as art to those exceptional works such as Rembrandt’s Bathsheba that managed to rise above the ‘women as sex object’ tradition. The catalogue tries to justify Harvey in terms of his ‘vibrant splashy brushstrokes’ and ‘expressionistic fervour’. But is Harvey’s handling of paint better than Titian’s or Velázquez’s? I think not.

However, when it comes to being offensive, and I mean genuinely offensive to human values, not shocking the bourgeois, Harvey’s ‘readers’ wives’ cannot hold a candle to Jake and Dinos Chapman. The Chapman brothers’ Great Deeds Against the Dead is a lifesize fibreglass reconstruction of an etching of the same name by Goya from the series known as The Disasters of War. These etchings depict scenes of appalling brutality from the revolt of the Spanish peasantry against the Napoleonic army of occupation. They show piles of dead bodies, people being garrotted, mutilated and hacked to bits. Great Deeds Against the Dead presents us with two figures tied to the front joint and back of a tree trunk and castrated and a third figure hanging upside down over a branch of the tree, castrated, arms cut off and decapitated – the amputated arms also hang from the branch and the severed head is impaled on a smaller branch.

My objection to the Chapmans’ piece, and I object to it vehemently, is not based on the subject matter it depicts. That is identical to the subject matter depicted by Goya and the Goya etchings are among the greatest works in the history of art: it is impossible to see them without being physically stunned by their utterly authentic presentation of the horror of war and, at the same time, moved by their profound humanity. Nearly 200 years on they retain – and thank god they do – all their power to shock but they contain (the word is appropriate) not an ounce of sensationalism. In contrast, the Chapman brothers have produced a piece of plastic kitsch in which the torture is drained of its terror and the art drained of its humanity. They have indeed committed ‘great deeds against the dead’.

With Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic, De-Sublimated Libidinal Model (Enlarged × 1000) also by the Chapmans, it is not the dead but the living we have to worry about. Once again we have fibreglass mannequin type figures, this time children, about a dozen in all, melded together into an outward facing ring. Lacking sexual organs in the genital area, some of their noses are transformed into penises, some of their mouths into vaginas and anuses. The image as a whole is blatantly paedophiliac. This raises the question of whether the charge that a work of art is paedophiliac is in itself enough to condemn it? No doubt this would produce vigorous debate but let me put the question a slightly different way so as not to stray too far from this particular work. How might those wishing to defend Zygotic Acceleration respond to the charge that it is paedophiliac?

They might ask what’s wrong with paedophilia. To my knowledge, no one has said this openly, but if they did, that would be a different debate. I intend to assume here that the sexual use of pre-pubertal children by adults is seriously damaging to children and that we condemn it. They might say that this is only an image, not the reality. This is true and we must remember it (I am not calling for the Chapman brothers to be prosecuted for child abuse) but the accusation is that this image appeals to and encourages paedophile tastes just as other images might appeal to and encourage racism or violence against women.

They might say that the charge is false, and that Zygotic Acceleration is not paedophiliac. This defence is not convincing. The mannequins are plainly children. The absence of breasts and normal genitalia, the ‘innocent’ expressions on their faces, their haircuts and the oversized trainers on their feet all reinforce this. Yet the transformation of their noses into penises and their mouths into anuses and vaginas immediately sexualises them; in particular, the rendering of the mouths as open orifices and the fact that one figure is bent over at the waist while another is upside down so that its anus/mouth and penis/nose are at genital level all suggests sexual access.

Then there would be what might be called the ‘postmodern’ defence, that the work is so obviously paedophiliac that it must be ironic. Along these lines it could be argued that the trainers signify commodification and therefore Zygotic Acceleration critiques the commodification of paedophiliac images. Clearly I am no expert on the conscious and unconscious motivations of the Chapmans but it seems probable that something like this was their intention. Unfortunately there is no necessary correspondence between intention and outcome in art. I am by no means convinced that it is even possible to play ironically with titillating paedophiliac visual material and in this particular case one is forced to conclude that, in a work which itself was and is bound to be commodified, the paedophiliac element of the mannequins overwhelms the commodity critique of the trainers. [8] Irony is always risky (Johnny Speight intended Alf Garnett’s racism to be taken ironically but Alf became the racists’ hero) and here, if irony was the intention, the work has been captured by that which it tries to ironise.

The curators and producers of the catalogue have been particularly dishonest on this question. On the one hand the catalogue makes no reference to this work’s paedophiliac tendency – it fails even to acknowledge the existence of the accusation – covering up the issue in language that is simultaneously pretentious and disingenuous, speaking of ‘genderless, self-reproducing manifestations of excess libidinal energy gone awry’. [9] On the other hand Zygotic Acceleration was placed in a room for over 18s only. Given this was an exhibition with Great Deeds Against the Dead, Myra and the readers’ wives paintings on open view, there can only have been one reason for this restriction: an unacknowledged recognition that the work is paedophiliac or likely to be perceived as such.

Finally the paedophilia might be acknowledged and admitted as a problem but the work is still defended on the grounds of mitigating circumstances: either that it offered important insights into the nature of paedophilia or that paedophilia was only one element in an otherwise valuable work [10], or that despite its content it was especially skilful or well made. [11] But none of these arguments work for Zygotic Acceleration. As for being well made, one has only to look at Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad (also in Sensation) to see what can be done with these kind of materials and how shoddy the Chapmans’ piece is. Nor does it offer any special insight into paedophilia (other than possibly the aforementioned point that paedophilia can be commodified) or into anything besides paedophilia. It simply is paedophiliac and that makes it into something quite rare – a thoroughly meretricious work of art.

But if the Chapman brothers plumb the depths there is also a substantial amount of serious, high quality, perhaps even major art in Sensation: notably the work of Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. With eight pieces on show Damien Hirst is the best represented artist in Sensation and as he is the central figure in the YBA movement this is fitting. Of the eight, two are paintings and six are the three dimensional ‘sculptures’ or ‘installations’ for which he has become famous. The paintings are, in my opinion, not of much consequence: Argininosuccinic Acid is a large multicoloured dot painting which is pretty but offers little beyond what has been achieved in much 20th century geometric abstraction; beautiful, kiss my fucking ass painting is a circular canvas on which bright primary colours have been spun but it doesn’t even manage to be pretty. The 3D pieces are a different kettle of fish – at the very least they are an original and major provocation.

Much of the provocation and much of the ‘scandal’ attaching to Hirst derives from the materials he uses: the bodies of dead animals. In modern art there is a history to this question of materials. For about 500 years virtually all art was made from the same limited range of materials: tempera, oil paints, watercolours, bronze, marble, etc. Explicitly or implicitly these materials came to be regarded as inherently artistic and other materials as inherently non-artistic (just as certain subjects were regarded as fit for art and other subjects as unfit). The first breach in this convention was made by Picasso in his ‘synthetic cubist’ phase in 1912 when he introduced pieces of oilcloth, newsprint and wallpaper into his paintings. Picasso took the process further in his transformative sculptures like the bull’s head made of handlebars and bicycle seat, and the monkey made of toy cars. So did Duchamp with his bottle rack and urinal ‘ready mades’ and his complex Large Glass ‘sculpture’. Later came sculptors who used iron, steel, aluminium, plaster, bricks, fluorescent lights and so on, and Rauschenberg who combined painting with screen printing, photography, and objects found in the streets, including a motor tyre and stuffed goat. However, even against this ‘anything goes’ background Hirst’s use of a large shark and cut up cows was a dramatic innovation.

In general in art, formal innovations occur not just for their own sake but because the artist has something new to say which requires the formal innovation for it to be said. Hirst’s use of real dead animals is an example of this. Its purpose, I think, is to force a face to face confrontation with the brute fact of death on a blasé modern audience for whom images of death are superabundant while its reality becomes ever more removed and hidden. Short of exhibiting an actual human corpse this was about as far as Hirst could go.

In order to progress a little further in explaining how Hirst’s art works I want to employ the concept of the ‘objective correlative’, developed by T.S. Eliot:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. [12]

This seems to me exactly what Hirst is doing: constructing an object (using, as we have noted, unusual and original materials) which will be the objective correlative of certain thoughts and emotions, of certain ‘felt ideas’. Thus the huge shark piece works as the ‘objective correlative’ of death in at least four ways: (1) it is an actual dead shark; (2) the shark is a powerful cultural signifier of the fear and threat of death; (3) the curvature in the glass of the tank containing the shark reinforces point 2 by making the shark appear to move threateningly in the direction of the viewer; and (4) the title of the work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, works in tension with the piece itself and with the taboo on ‘death’ in our culture. Thus the one object serves as an objective correlative for the fact, fear, threat and taboo of death.

In A Thousand Years with its cow’s head, breeding maggots, flies and insect-o-cutor we have a work that is even more transgressive in its materials – not only dead flesh but living creatures that are killed before one’s eyes – and which incorporates a new element, smell (or rather stench). Here we have represented not just death but a whole life-death cycle, a mini-ecosystem complete with breeding, feeding and human intervention. If it is a spectacle which evokes disgust and nausea, then that too is part of its statement. It asks us to examine our responses. Away from the Flock – a white lamb with black face and feet suspended in a white steel and glass tank – serves as objective correlative for rather different ideas and emotions. The work itself interacts with its title (titles usually play an important role with Hirst) to represent and evoke separation, isolation, loneliness and abandonment, especially as these might pertain to a child. As such it generates an acute pathos. Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding works with a related theme but to different emotional effect. It consists of a large glass cabinet containing six shelves and on each shelf is placed a row of six or seven perspex cases each containing a suspended fish, all ‘swimming’ head to tail. We are presented here with an embodiment of individuals as part of a conformist collective yet all isolated and hermetically sealed from one another (a ‘series’ not a ‘fixed group’ in the old language of Sartre). Of course it might be objected, à la Lukács, that this is a profoundly false view of life. In the final analysis I would agree, but it is also the case that this is an important element of human experience in this alienated society and that here Hirst has succeeded in giving powerful visual expression to this experience. The construction, it should be said, is very beautifully composed in terms of its ordering of forms and colours, possessing some of the visual qualities of a Mondrian or Klee. Emotionally it induce not pathos or sympathy but an almost terrifying chill.

Mother and Child Divided was not in this show but I want to comment on it here (in preference to the cut up cow and pig works in Sensation) because I think it is Hirst’s most important work to date and because it brings together a number of the themes from the other works. It consists of a bisected cow and a bisected calf. Each half of the cow is placed in its own glass tank and the tanks are adjacent to one another but with enough space to walk between the tanks and observe close up the insides of the cow. The same is done with the halves of the calf but the two calf halves are placed several yards away from the cow. Of all Hirst’s pieces this is the one that seems to have made the biggest impact on the public consciousness and this in itself testifies to the power of its conception. [13] However, what is most impressive about it is the way in which it functions as objective correlative for a range of different almost conflicting ideas and emotions. First there is the confrontation with death and dead flesh. Then there is the ‘shock’ of the violence of the bisection (shock like the shock of Goya, not the Chapmans) and disgust and distaste at the exposure of the innards. But this works in tension with the knowledge that this is how we treat animals and this is what we eat as food. One does not need to be an animal rights supporter or vegetarian to feel the force of this, just as one does not need to be a pacifist to respond to Wilfred Owen: Hirst is merely insisting we face facts. Finally the title (again) and the placing of the cow/mother and calf/child evokes the pathos, despair and separation anxiety of Away from the Flock and Isolated Elements Swimming. Mother and Child Divided has the integration of thought and feeling and the combination of complexity with visual and emotional power that is characteristic of major art.

Two final comments on Hirst. First significant art, no matter how ‘new’ or ‘original’, always turns out to be the next step in an ongoing tradition. Nevertheless Hirst, on examination, is seen to be the point of confluence of a remarkable number of artistic streams. Most immediately there is the influence of Francis Bacon in the themes of framed and caged flesh (and also a distant echo of Rembrandt’s great painting of a beef carcass, The Slaughter House). In the use of ready made materials, in the making of art out of apparent anti-art moves, in the mix of playfulness and high seriousness, he is clearly the heir of Marcel Duchamp. The use of the glass case also looks back to Duchamp (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, aka The Large Glass) and the vitrines of Joseph Beuys. The white steel boxes expand the form pioneered by Sol LeWitt and the minimalists in the 1960s. [14] And in the self conscious deployment of hype there is the unmistakable legacy of Warhol.

Second, it is an art cliché that reproductions cannot compare with the original works. Often there is an element of myth involved here for the extent to which this is true varies greatly from artist to artist and work to work. In fact you can get a better idea of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from good reproductions than you can from the floor of the chapel. Gauguin, Miró and Mondrian reproduce excellently: Van Gogh (because of the texture of the paint) and Pollock (because of the texture and the importance of the size) much less well. Indeed with most paintings and some sculpture you get ‘a pretty good idea’ from quality modern reproductions. This is not the case with much of Hirst’s work. The curvature in the glass in the shark piece and its visual effects do not appear in photographs. The same is true of the flying and dying flies in A Thousand Years, not to speak of the smell, and you have actually to walk through the bisected cow and calf in Mother and Child Divided to experience its full effect. In short, Hirst demands to be seen first hand. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a debate for another occasion but it is a fact which must be taken into account in discussing his merits.

The same applies to Rachel Whiteread who makes casts in plaster and other materials of the insides and underneaths of things. Indeed it applies to her with particular poignancy for of her two most important works, House and the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, to be called The Nameless Library – the former was destroyed and the latter never built. Whiteread had five works in Sensation, casts of: the underspaces of 100 chairs and stools, a kitchen sink, two baths and the inside of a Victorian room.

Before discussing these let us reflect a moment on Whiteread’s distinctive method – the casting of the negative space of an object – and consider its slightly uncanny nature. It is tempting to say that to make a cast of the inside or underneath of something is to make the invisible visible – before you couldn’t see it, now you can. Except that isn’t quite right. You might as well say that before you could see the space and now you cannot because it has been filled up, obliterated – the visible has been made invisible. The ‘things’ whose negative spaces Whiteread casts are (so far at least) domestic, familiar. So perhaps she makes the familiar unfamiliar, but perhaps one can become familiar with a tangible object in a way one cannot become familiar with a space. So the intangible is rendered tangible? Yes, except that in the gallery they won’t let you touch it. Christo, the Bulgarian artist famous for wrapping the Reichstag and the Pont Neuf, has argued that wrapping a building blots out the decorative details and brings out its underlying structure. Does making a cast do the same thing? Nearly, but not quite, since it is the structure in reverse. Can we compare the cast to a fossil? Yes, and it bears those associations, and yet an internal cast is an inverted fossil. So what is Whiteread’s art – just a play on words, a clever but soluble conundrum or a real enigma? The answer depends, I think, on how her technique is realised in specific works.

Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) consists of 100 resin castings in various colours of the spaces beneath different sized chairs and stools. It is visually attractive, arguably beautiful (in fact it is rather more beautiful in the catalogue photograph, where it is placed in a pure ice blue gallery space, than it was in the cluttered Academy) but in the end rather inconsequential. The ‘underneaths of chairs’ simply do not carry enough associations or meanings with sufficient emotional charge to give the work any real point or power. Untitled (Square Sink) works better in this respect – it is an object of genuine curiosity, at once highly modern and suggestive of the past, both recent and distant. Nevertheless it is still a relatively minor piece. The two bath pieces are on a higher level. Untitled (Bath) in white plaster with a glass top manages, almost effortlessly, to condense a multitude of ‘bath associations’: the enamel bath in the cold bathroom that once marked the English petty bourgeoisie (in contrast to the tin bath of the working class), signifier of narrow respectability, genteel impoverishment and austere aspiration; but also the sinister bath, the bath as site of murder, the bath in the Chamber of Horrors; and finally the white plaster suggests stone and the stone suggests sarcophagus. Untitled (Orange Bath) is remarkable in a different way. Made of rubber and polystyrene it is the nature of the material itself that comes to the fore. To the viewer it resembles a giant rubber eraser which might be bent or broken in two, or scratched with the fingernails or have its corners worn down through use. It is enormously intriguing and the attendants have to be constantly on the alert to inhibit the probing fingers of visitors.

However, it is in the large Ghost, the cast of the inside of a room, that Whiteread’s method really bears fruit. Ghost is not like the Hirst pieces where one can attribute fairly precise feelings and ideas to particular aspects of the works: it is an altogether more mysterious object. Nevertheless it has extraordinary presence. In the Academy its looming bulk made me feel pressed up against the gallery walls or perhaps it was pressed against the walls of the room that are no longer there – a kind of claustrophobia in reverse. In a way the title – Ghost – sums up the work. It is the trace of what has departed, the presence of an absence, the materialisation of memory. Indeed it is haunting, despite the all too obvious pun. But what is remarkable – the measure of Whiteread’s achievement – is that one can talk in these terms, the terms of ghostliness, about 1,000 cubic foot, apparently solid, white cube which also manages to look as if it were made of concrete.

The success of Ghost is what makes me so regret not having seen the original House in Grove Road, Bow, before it was demolished in 1994. [15] More or less everything I have said about the casting technique in general and about Ghost would probably have applied to House but my guess is that the poignancy of the work would have been greatly increased by its positioning alone in an otherwise bulldozed street in a traditional working class area. Even more regrettable is the non-construction of the proposed Holocaust Memorial in Judenplatz, Vienna. Tremendous aesthetic/political problems attend any attempt to memorialise the Holocaust. How can the work be adequate to that which it is meant to commemorate and if it is not how does it avoid being an insult? Clearly the Holocaust cannot be visually depicted or described as a totality – in naturalistic mode all that could be achieved would be the illustration of an instance, and is that good enough? If it is shocking it runs the risk of being insufficiently solemn, if it is solemn of being too undemanding. It is just possible, I think, that Whiteread would have overcome these problems. Her proposal was for a huge concrete cast of the inside of a library. In one way, therefore, it would have been a place of quiet dignity, redolent of study and reflection, of the preservation of civilized values in the time of barbarism and of the recording of history. Yet, following Ghost, it might also have had the same effect of filling that Viennese square to bursting, of pressing itself insistently on every visitor and every passer-by so that they could not have avoided the reminder and the challenge that it constituted. Which was just what was needed in Judenplatz in Vienna.*

I have now discussed the worst and the best of ‘Sensation’ and should make it clear that I think Hirst and Whiteread are not just the best of this show but probably the major artists of this generation. Nevertheless the exhibition contains a number of other works I want to mention. There are two outstanding individual pieces: Mat Collishaw’s Bullet Hole – a huge close up of a head wound mounted on 15 light boxes which is genuinely painful to look at, as it should be – and Marc Quinn’s Self – a frozen perspex cast of his head filled with his own blood which achieves an intense lyrical beauty. But I suspect that both of them may be one-offs. There are three women artists [16] – Jenny Saville, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin – all of whom make an immediate ‘sensational’ impact. It is easy to see the appeal of Saville’s huge nudes but they are painted in the style of Lucian Freud only not as well and the fat-is-a-feminist-issue type points they make are by now rather obvious and well worn. With mass media that preach puritanism and practise prurience Lucas’s up-front sexual pieces are bound to cause a minor stir. Some of her sexual symbolism (the cucumber, oranges, bucket and melons of Au Natural) is too unimaginative to take very seriously, but Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (which neatly combines references to street slang and Magritte) is a witty and pointed challenge to sexist putdowns. Also there is Sod You Gits, made of large, blown up photocopies from the Sunday Sport which both exposes and somehow copes with the assault of alienated tabloid culture. [17] Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963–95, in which the names of her bedmates are stitched to the inside of a tent, is based on a powerful idea, both sad and grimly funny, but it lacks visual impact. Emin’s vulnerability is so evident that where her future is concerned one hopes for the best but fears the worst. In a different league is Palestinian exile Mona Hatoum who may well prove to be the third major figure alongside Hirst and Whiteread. Unfortunately Hatoum has only one piece here, Deep Throat, showing film of her throat in the middle of a plate at a place set on a table, and this is one of her weakest, least evocative works. [18]

Finally there are the photographs of Richard Billingham. These depict members of Billingham’s family – principally his parents – with apparently alarming candour in their daily life of drunkenness, squalor and TV dinners. The point about this work and the reason for leaving it until last is the way it forces one to choose: for or against. I don’t mean decide whether it is good, bad or indifferent or whether one likes it or even whether it is socially progressive. I mean one has to make a fundamental decision as to whether or not it is in good faith. In this case that means trying to decide on the nature of the relationship between the work and the subjects it depicts. Is it, fundamentally, a work of solidarity and sympathy or a work of exposure and exploitation? I repeat, this is a decision about the work, not the artist. The artist’s motives are doubtless relevant but not decisive; in the end the choice must be made on the evidence of one’s eyes, not the evidence of history or gossip. Personally, in this instance, I have decided against. I think Billingham has humiliated his parents by holding up working class life as an exhibit for the bourgeois gaze much as the inmates of Bedlam were exhibited to bourgeois visitors in the 18th century. [19] Could I be wrong and doing Billingham an injustice? Certainly I could – the dividing line is a fine one – but what I want to stress is that the work forces me to make the decision, at least implicitly, and in this it is representative of the Sensation exhibition as a whole. One has to make very much the same decision about the Chapman brothers’ work, about Harvey’s readers’ wives, about Hirst’s bisected animals and putrefying cow’s head, about Collishaw’s bullet wound and Mueck’s dead dad.

It could be objected that all serious art confronts one with choices and judgements. This is probably true but it is not usually this particular kind of choice. Faced with Seurat’s Bathers in 1884 the choice was, is it great art or is it irredeemably vulgar and commonplace? With Salvador Dali it is, are these really profound images from the human subconscious or are they artificial and fabricated? With Carl André’s Equivalent VIII (the infamous ‘bricks’) it is, can something so minimal be art, can it be meaningful and can it be beautiful? With Guernica in 1937 a number of questions arose. Does it work as a painting? Is it moving? In what way is it moving? Which side am I on in Spain? Does it help the anti-fascist cause? But not, is the painting in solidarity with those on the receiving end of the bombing or is it relishing and exploiting their suffering? Yet that is precisely the question posed by Billingham’s work and the dominant question posed by the exhibition as a whole.

Why? Why does this question arise in relation to this body of art more insistently than is generally the case in the history of art? Because the underlying theme of all the more striking work here, its common denominator, is alienation – the alienated individual in an alienated society. [20] This is the other side of the coin of the Thatcherite entrepreneurialism of the 1980s. It is smack and crack on estates in Hackney (where many of the YBAs live [d] and have/had their studios). It is poverty, the dole and a sense of collective powerlessness in the face of ‘a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market’. [21] It is personal rebellion in the absence of any felt connection to a wider force for social change.

In this situation art can go different ways. Hypothetically it could retreat into formalism and decoration (what Clement Greenberg in Avant Garde and Kitsch called ‘Alexandrianism’) but the history of art in the 20th century has more or less closed off that option. [22] It can embrace the alienation, wallow in it, internalise it and as a result produce art that is itself alienated in the extreme, alienated to the point of cruelty and collusion in cruelty – with a repudiation of all ties of human solidarity. Or, even in its alienation and isolation, it can battle through by exploring the depths of its condition ‘in the place of excrement’, [23] with intelligence and without surrender to produce work that in its own way is positive and life enhancing. Hence the polarisation in ‘Sensation’. The first option produces work that is the stuff of Lukács’ worst nightmares. The second produces work that can stand in the tradition of Kafka and Ginsberg, Goya and Picasso, Duchamp and Brancusi.

This then is the moment of Sensation. Soon it will pass (life has already moved on) but not before it has left its mark on our culture and on the history of art for both better and worse.

* Since this article was written it has been reported in the press that the Judenplatz memorial now will be constructed. However, whether or not it actually happens remains to be seen.


Thanks are due to Steve Edwards and John Roberts who both endured lengthy arguments with me about the contents of this article. They will not agree with it, unless I have persuaded them, but hopefully they will see in it how much I learned from the dialogue.

1. L. Buck, Moving Targets: A User’s Guide to British Art Now (London 1997), p. 7.

2. See E. Cockcroft, Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War, in F. Frascina (ed.), Pollock and After (London 1985).

3. In 1988 Damien Hirst, in his second year at Goldsmith’s College, curated the Freeze exhibition which marks the origin of Young British Art.

4. L. Trotsky, On Literature and Art (London 1977), p. 105.

5. Until he insisted on including a portrait of Lenin in his proposed mural for the Rockefeller Centre!

6. People get into the most absurd confusions about subject matter and ‘art’. Can you make great art out of a man being slowly tortured to death? Yes! In fact it is probably the most common theme in the history of European art – the Crucifixion. Titian painted someone being hung upside down and flayed alive (The Flaying of Marsalis). Can you make art out of a pair of old boots? Both Van Gogh and Chaplin managed it. The question is not what the subject matter is but how it is painted or represented or used.

7. Royal Academy of Arts, SensationYoung British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (London 1997), p. 198.

8. I am reminded of Vivienne Westwood and others associated with punk in 1976/77 attempting to ‘play’ with the swastika for shock value, attempts which socialists had to firmly oppose.

9. Royal Academy of Arts, op. cit., p. 194.

10. For example, such a defence might be offered in relation to the anti-Semitism in T.S. Eliot’s poem Gerontion.

11. All three of these arguments might be used to defend Nabokov’s Lolita.

12. T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose (Harmondsworth 1965), p. 102.

13. It is worth noting that those works of art which became exceptionally well known – like the Mona Lisa, The Hay Wain, Monet’s Water Lilies, Munch’s The Scream etc. – are often despised for this reason, but usually are powerful and important works in their own right.

14. For this point see D. Batchelor, Minimalism (London 1997), p. 95.

15. Bitter controversy surrounded the decision by the local authority to destroy House which had been erected on a temporary basis. Doubtless the decision was motivated by philistinism and it can easily be seen as an artistic tragedy (as well as a financial blunder). However, it seems to me that there is also a sense in which, just as Duchamp decided to regard the cracks received in transit by The Large Glass as part of the work, so the demolition of House is its fitting dialectical completion.

16. It is worth noting that, of the 42 artists represented, 11 are women – still a small minority but probably a higher proportion than would have been found in a supposedly representative survey of British art at any time in the past.

17. I have revised upwards my opinion of Lucas’s work as a result of a number of discussions with students, colleagues and comrades, especially Sarah Dryden, Paul Clarke, Jenny Walden and Alison Jones.

18. Far more powerful are Light Sentence and Corps Etranger by which Hatoum was represented in the Turner Prize show of 1995.

19. As depicted by Hogarth in the last of The Rake’s Progress series (but Hogarth shows and implicitly condemns the voyeurs).

20. It is possible, thanks to the shift to the right in academia in the 1980s that many of these artists do not know either the name or the analysis of the condition in which they are immersed.

21. K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology (London 1985), p. 55.

22. Traces of this are to be seen in some of the work, such as that by Chris Ofili, Glen Brown and Jason Martin.

23. ‘But love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement/For nothing can be sole or whole/That has not been rent.’ W.B. Yeats, Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop, Collected Poems (London 1982), p. 285.

John Molyneux Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 25.4.2012