Suffering As Joke: The Horrors Of The Contemporary Art Press

As regular subscribers know, I read about a dozen or so outlets of the art press every day, so that you don’t have to. Most of the time, I focus on following stories that I like: fascinating discoveries, interesting exhibitions, and so on. For the most part, it’s actually a very difficult and painful task, for this particular corner of the media is primarily focused on the world of Contemporary Art, which the art press worships and makes excuses for in ways that, at times, can be truly sickening.

Take the Chapman Brothers for example. Jake and Dinos Chapman are two middle-aged British brothers who enjoy creating adolescent art in extremely bad taste, in order to shock their viewers. I’ve written about them before, as you can see here. Suffice to say, they create garbage art which they are able to sell for significant amounts of money, largely because the art press is able to persuade major art collectors that they ought to do so.

In their new show at Blain Southern in London, the Chapmans bring together both sculpture and graphic art. We will ignore the unbelievably bad taste that characterizes the former (which are, if you can believe it, bronzes representing terrorist suicide vests), and instead concentrate on the latter. For the Chapmans, you see, are obsessed with “The Disasters of War”: the hugely significant, nightmarish images of atrocities engraved in the early 19th century by the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

Goya is a monumental figure in art history, whom one might describe – as I did last week to a curator from the Musée d’Orsay, who did not disagree with my assessment – as the Beethoven of Western art. He straddles the world of the Old Masters, from the early part of his career, and the development of what we now call Modern Art, which he helped to usher in. His personal experiences and observations during Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Spain radically changed what had been the work of a sly, cunning follower of fashion, highly conversant with all of the frippery and mockery of the Rococo era, into a bitter old man who was a brooding, haunted genius, pursued by thoughts and images of evil, suffering, and death.

The Chapmans on the other hand, would be more at home straddling a dirty urinal in the loo of a fast food restaurant. They became famous roughly twenty years ago by deliberately destroying Goya prints in order to make their own art. And that pretty much sums up a good 50% of their output over the past two decades.

Mind you, these Goya works are not the sort of prints you might order from Zazzle at $1.99 a pop, i.e., digital photographs of existing images. Rather, they are printed from the original plates etched by Goya himself, using carefully-chosen inks and papers, and drawn from the printing presses by artisans trained in the skill of producing high-quality, museum-level images. If you wanted to buy one of these prints from an art dealer or at auction, each would cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at Apollo Magazine, which used to be a stalwart publication for the promotion of connoisseurship, good taste, and culture for art and antiques enthusiasts. Unfortunately it decided quite some time ago to follow the Tina Brown formula for the revamp of The New Yorker, by cheapening itself for the sake of popularity among the high rollers and hangers-on of the Contemporary Art world. Nowhere is the decline of this particular media outlet more obvious than in its reaction to the latest Chapman expo.

In a piece out yesterday, Apollo described the latest Chapman Brothers show as “superb”, naturally glossing over the fact that Goya’s art is being destroyed in order to create it. It describes as “pleasure” what it terms “the subversion of the horrible to the hilarious.” It observes how, in the Chapmans’ defacing of the etchings, “Goya’s hussars become disco pirates; the dismembered corpses of Grande hazaña! Con Muertos! look like they are wearing leotards or yoga leggings.”

How very “hilarious” it is indeed, to not only destroy great works of art, but to mock the suffering and death of thousands of people. Particularly at a time when Spain is experiencing so much political upheaval and violence, Goya’s prints seem painfully redolent of that country’s bloody past and present. But never mind: in the eyes of Apollo, if the Chapmans can belittle the experience of human suffering, so much the better, because the end result is so amusing.

Unfortunately, the Art Newspaper is no better. In describing the defacing of Goya’s work, the publication explained how the Chapman brothers “have superimposed images of artists such as Jackson Pollock, clowns’ heads and other ghoulish features on to the etchings, which have been reworked in various media (The Disasters of Everyday Life, monochrome collage set; The Disasters of Yoga, glitter set; and The Disasters of War on Terror, watercolour set).” One wonders what Pollock, much as I loathe his work, would think about destroying Goya’s art just so his face could be superimposed upon an etching of a corpse.

While granted, the Art Newspaper’s piece is more of a bland bit of reporting, rather than an exhibition review, like Apollo it fails to question why a reputable gallery, art publication, or the like should even take the time to consider these pieces. In the Chapmans’ empty-headed appropriation of both the hard work and sufferings of others, neither publication appears to hold any qualms. And of course, the greatest irony here is that not only do publications such as the Art Newspaper and Apollo routinely call for the preservation of artists’ rights in their own works, they are the same publications which champion works of Contemporary Art created to draw attention to the suffering of refugees, illegal immigrants, and so on. Perhaps it’s easier for them to overlook the rights of both artists and suffering people who have been dead for quite awhile, since they won’t be posting rejoinders on Instagram or Twitter.

One of the Goya prints defaced by the Chapman Brothers for their latest show is titled “Bárbaros!” (1810), which from the first series of the artists “The Disasters of War” etchings. The original shows a man tied to a tree, facing the trunk, who is about to be shot in the back at very close range. It is one of the many images which Goya created based on what he saw, read, or heard about, during the effort to overthrow Napoleon and his troops. The artist wanted to make certain that the world did not forget what had happened to many innocent people.

Unfortunately it seems that the art media, which gives succor to mental defectives such as the Chapmans in the first place, finds all of this terribly funny: forgive me if I don’t get the joke.


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.