Why is Nobody vomiting over this Dirty Filth?

Posted on March 7, 2011


It made the news when Radio 4 presenter, James Naughtie, accidently mispronounced the name of culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. Jonathan Ross was booted off his own chat show when he and Russell Brand made a provocative prank phone call to an aging TV actor. Everyone has heard about the breast milk ice cream.

But when Gilbert & George frame a whole exhibition around the work of a suspected kiddy fiddler, nobody bats an eyelid. When Tracey Emin scribbles obscenities across the walls of a public gallery young London couples are still happy to take their kids along for a Sunday afternoon of culture.

What is going on?

Why is nobody writing letters, throwing paint and vomiting (yes, vomiting) over this dirty filth? Why is nobody countering with – “It’s Aaaart!” and retorting with mocking bemusement: “it’s political correctness gone mad!” Have we lost the will to rile about art? And back at those who do? I am not condoning vandalism, I’m just wondering: have we lost interest?

Or, have we simply lost the ability to be shocked by Art?

Excrement and other bodily fluids sprawled across a canvas – we’ve seen it. Mutilated endangered animals – we’ve seen it. A portrait of a convicted child murderer formed out of kids’ handprints – we’ve seen it. Nudity, war, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, masochism, fire, death, peadophilia – we have seen it all before!

We were up in arms. It was all over the news.

And then the world moved on.

So maybe is it not us, but art that has changed. The scene has indisputably mellowed since the days of Sensation, Saatchi’s scandalous show of 1997. His recent Newspeak exhibitions alone are testament to that. But have those days been forgotten, or have we committed them to our banks of experience? Maybe they have become – those old days when art could really sucker punch you in the mouth, and now, veterans of experience, we can enjoy today’s prudent art whilst proudly sporting our war wounds.

But what does this mean? Has contemporary art, as we know it, entered its retirement years?

Even Marina Abramović, who during the 1970s got naked and cut 5-pointed stars into her stomach, seems to have entered a more placid phase in her career; last year at the Lisson Gallery she showed her more recent work, which included sedate and beautiful photographs presenting themes of nature, nationality and religion.

Another way to look at it is that the avant-garde exists in many guises. Abstract expressionism may no longer seem scandalous, we may have even become accustomed to performance and interactive art, but people will always want to push boundaries.

Look a little deeper and it becomes apparent that today’s artists are trying just as hard (arguably much harder) to challenge the way we look at the world and to come up with new ways of communicating their ideas in an artistic context. Take for example the work of, Turner Prize winners, the Otolith Group, who use film, text, workshops and any other way possible, to engage with delicate issues from history and to suggest radical futures; encouraging audiences to think and relate in ways that art has not attempted before. The issues they address are big, but they do so with refrain and an air of melancholy, avoiding shock tactics and sensationalist tricks even though they might gain them a more popular profile.

So maybe as a culture we have got a little bored of all that drastic stuff: the violence, the confrontation, the seeming insensitivity. We still have fire and nudity (get yourself down to the Hayward), but it is less obvious fire and nudity.

Some artists such as Emin and Gilbert & George will always want to cause a scandal, but that’s just what they do. They’ve worked their way into the cultural scene so we’ll humour them for now. Meanwhile, we can enjoy the work of a thoughtful and subtle group of new artists. It may be less newsworthy, but maybe that is not such a bad thing.

Who knows what approach artists will choose to take in the future; like fashion, these things are often cyclical. Have we really seen it all? Are we now unshakable? Only time will tell.

Posted in: Feature, Musings