Incurable Impotence: The Chapman Brothers

If you are Christian, Jewish, or simply have good taste, you will not be attending the new Chapman brothers exhibition at London’s White Cube Gallery, which opened today and runs through September 17th. The exhibition however, gives us an opportunity to reflect not only on the purpose of art, but more importantly on our reaction to it.  Here we have an ideal example of how our emotional reaction to a work of art must be tempered by subsequent reason.

As reported in today’s Torygraph – with an accompanying slideshow that I caution you is not for the faint of heart or stomach – the latest installation from two of the British contemporary art scene’s most famous droppings  features the combination of horror, blasphemy, and pornography that has become a hallmark of the Chapmans’ work since they gave up destroying other people’s work for a living. Among other elements of the installation, we see mannequins of disfigured, elf-like children dressed in track suits embroidered with swastikas; a member of the KKK standing guard over a painting; Nazi corpses wearing smiley-faced arm bands; and a statue of the Madonna and Child, altered and turned into something from a Guillermo del Toro film.  It is hard to imagine how the Chapman brothers could have come up with a montage more capable of offending just about everyone, though no doubt they will try even harder in future.

Clearly this is a show designed to get people talking.  As repulsive as this art is, there can be no denying that the Chapmans know how to push our buttons.  As you read the description I gave of the exhibition, or looked at the images in the slideshow, you probably felt different emotions.  Perhaps you felt a bit queasy in your stomach, or perhaps you felt a rising flush of anger, etc.  If you did, then the Chapmans have done their job.

The only problem for the Chapmans is, once we, the viewing public, take a moment to separate ourselves from the visceral reaction we have to this show, in the end we find that their work is flaccid.  While one measure of the power of a work of art is whether it generates a reaction, truly powerful, effective art is that which comes to define/redefine how the viewer sees himself or others.  In this case, after the initial emotional reactions we may have to the Chapmans’ show, our reason kicks in, and the Chapmans’ work goes from evoking a cry of “Scandalous!” to eliciting merely a “Meh.”

When a work of art is created with a purpose beyond that of decoration, it can have an incredibly powerful effect on us.  In portraiture, for example, the artist tries to capture the essence of his subject so that future generations can get a sense of what the person and their times were like in a way which, if done well, even the modern digital camera cannot hope to fully replicate.  In devotional art, the artist is trying to help the believer direct his thoughts toward matters eternal; because we are both body and spirit, and not simply spiritual beings, this can often be helped through visual clues provided by the artist.

Here, there is no real attempt at reaching a wider audience.  Presumably not being entirely moronic, the Chapmans realize that their show will go the same as all other shows of this type.  The show will provoke a negative reaction from the more conventional branches of society, the Chapmans will be feted and applauded by their peers, who will laugh about such complaints given their mutual loathing of traditional society, and then everyone will go home. It is a pattern that has repeated over and over again in the contemporary art world and its never-ending quest to insult what it terms the bourgeoisie.

The problem is, neither the Chapmans nor their infernal cohorts – for be in no doubt, gentle reader, that from dark places come the ideas which produce and promote such art – are changing our minds.  They are shocking us, yes, at least initially. But after the initial shock wears off, there is little left to talk about. If that is all the Chapmans wanted to achieve, then they could simply streak the Trooping of the Color.

There is no real, lasting impact from work such as this on the people it was designed to hurt or insult, because the average man or woman who would find such work shocking walks away from it thinking, “what sick people those Chapman brothers must be,” rather than “I must stop being a Catholic now.”  It will be forgotten within days, perhaps hours, of being seen, and sag limply beside the work of great artists who, even when they disturb us with an image  – e.g. Rembrandt’s stunning “Anatomy Lesson” – can seemingly paradoxically achieve greatness by something comparatively smaller and less complicated than what the Chapmans set out to do.

Being able to speak only from my own experience, nothing I have seen of this show changes my opinions on the Faith, Our Lord and His Blessed Mother, the Nazis, the Klan, etc.  It is art that brings about no fundamental change of mind on my part, no questioning of my long-held assumptions and conclusions.  This is not to say that what the Chapmans have done, whether in this installation or in their previous shows, is merely poorly-executed, poorly-thought-out art.  One can fault the Chapmans for many things, but one cannot deny that they have clearly thought about what they were going to produce, and put a lot of effort into producing it.

We can acknowledge that, in the case of this installation, the Chapman brothers wanted a reaction.  And, as we have admitted above, they certainly succeeded.  Yet ultimately we have to ask, along with Miss Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing.