'Sensation' in Brooklyn
We now encounter a painting by Chris Ofili, a recent celebrity in consequence of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's animadversions on another of his paintings, The Holy Virgin Mary, which had scarcely been noticed at the Royal Academy. The Mayor's lawyers brought up the fact that the auction house Christie's is a kind of co-sponsor of the show as evidence that the whole exhibition is just a way of inflating the value of the work, all of which belongs to a single collector, British advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Whatever the increase, it dwindles to nothing in proportion to the value conferred on Ofili's work by Giulianian invective: The Holy Virgin Mary must by now be the most widely reproduced painting since Millet's The Angelus. The painting we find in this gallery, called Afrobluff, is of what appear to be white chains painted on a blackish ground, possibly--since Ofili is an Anglo-African--alluding to the practice of slavery. The child will know immediately that there are some lumps of shit attached to the surface and that the painting in fact rests on some other lumps of the identical substance. You will explain that it is elephant dung, adding a word to the child's vocabulary and powers of connoisseurship: It will always be able to recognize an Ofili by the presence of dung. Seeing how educationally successful the exhibit has been, you will explain further that Ofili is English-born but of African descent, and that Africa is a place where certain magical properties are ascribed to elephant dung. The child will find this comical, but you will reflect that since it is unlikely that as a black Anglo-African, Ofili would have used dung to besmirch the slaves implied by the picture, there is no reason to suppose he was bent on besmirching the Holy Virgin through its presence there either. Probably it is intended to transmit power to the art, irrespective of its content. In any case, it adheres to each of his four paintings in the show.
Adjacent to Ofili's picture is a bust in what looks like wax, a traditional enough material. It is called Self, and it is the artist's self in two senses: It is a self-portrait, and it is made of the artist's own frozen blood. ("Some of the exhibits," a CNN anchorperson gasped, "use human blood!") Blood did not recommend itself as sculptural material until the invention of refrigeration (there is a backup system in the event of an electrical outage), but it would have instantly recommended itself to the artists of the Counter-Reformation had they known how to turn it into art. The sculpting is competent enough--it looks like a death mask--but it is the knowledge that the substance is the artist's blood that gives the work its excitement and uncertainty.
Finally, there is another very large painting, titled Trace, by Jenny Saville. It shows a woman, seen from the back and cropped just under her buttocks and just above her shoulders. The woman's flesh and her undergarment are of the same opalescent pink tone, so the only clue we have that she is wearing a chemise and panties is some lines traced in the pigment. Hence--I surmise--the title. Saville is far and away the best painter in the show, which includes several of her monumental studies of amply fleshed naked women. In one, titled Plan (in another gallery), the woman is probably lying down, her body cropped just above the knees, and diagonally across her forehead. The title refers to several sets of concentric lines traced around her belly and on both thighs, which we see in topographical maps showing the heights and depressions of a certain terrain. This is almost certainly a feminist emblem, and though an exceedingly ambiguous one, it probably refers to a tendency to see the female body as a landscape and hence an object of some kind. There is a very generous pubic thatch.
Body, blood, menace, death, shit, murder--these are pretty heavy subjects, and we are only in the first gallery. But already we are able to sense the agenda of the young British artists. They are probing certain boundaries it had never occurred to us to think about. We know when the boundaries are touched because we feel queasy in the presence of the work, though exactly why is probably too deeply buried in the thalamus for the higher cognitive centers to access. Though it is in another gallery, the same order of question is raised by Ron Mueck's Dead Dad--alleged to be an effigy of the artist's own dead father, naked on a slab, the penis curled against a thigh. We know from the Bible the dangers inherent in seeing one's father's nakedness. But does this apply to one's father's corpse? The work, exceedingly realistic, is only forty inches long--a gruesome kind of doll from which one supposes even the child will recoil. But why? We perhaps all respond in the same general way--but we have not transformed feeling into thought as yet. What does it matter that blood is used as a sculptural material? Does it make a difference if the blood is one's own? Male poets often refer to their beloved's bodies as landscapes--but do they really see the body they love as something to be mapped and perhaps exploited? Is anyone justified in immortalizing the face of a horrible criminal? Is it right to use a once-living animal in a work of art? In my view, the shark lucked out to have animated a powerful piece of art rather than being turned into fertilizer or cat food. Indeed, the vision of danger from which we know ourselves to be protected is precisely what Kant meant by sublimity: "One can regard an object as fearful without being afraid of it." How much of all this should be communicated to the child depends, of course, on the child and upon you. But having ascended to this level of speculation, you can appreciate the foolishness of the museum's publicity, in the form of a "Health Warning" that "the contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria, and anxiety." And you will be less tempted to agree with the newspapers that all the artists were interested in was to shock. Indeed, what you will have recognized is that virtually everything in this gallery is the kind of reflection on art in which so much of modern and contemporary art consists. It always has a philosophical dimension. That is its postmodernist birthright.
Hirst uses whole animals in a number of works. There is a lovely lamb (Away From the Flock) and a somewhat less successful pig, which has been split in two, from tail to snout, showing the animal's insides. I think this distracts from any meaning the pig may have, since it is now midway between animal and pork--and because the preservation process dulls the forms (they are not viscera-red but pickled brown). Animals have meaning for us primarily in their integral state. A shark split in two could not affect us the way the integral shark does. It is hard to generalize, however. Hirst has distributed cross sections of some cows among twelve tanks, set in a line at regular intervals, like a sculpture by Donald Judd. I could not suppress the memory of a French advertisement for bouillon cubes, some years back, that shows the front half of a cow, sniffing appreciatively at a cup of hot Maggi presumably made from its rear half. I would have thought a work made of bovine sections would be pretty hard to take, but alongside Hirst's A Thousand Years--in which a cow's head slowly putrefies in a large glass case, as generations of always new black flies deposit eggs that turn into maggots, which turn into flies in a cycle that never ends--it is fairly civilized. Even art critics have a threshold of squeamishness. But I cannot think of a moral reason A Thousand Years is any more objectionable than the beautiful Away From the Flock. The difference may have to do with all the marvelously poetic allusions lambs evoke, by contrast with maggoty animal heads, which evoke none and are, in the idiom of contemporary childhood, simply gross. (Kant thought the disgusting to be one kind of ugliness that could never be overridden by beautiful representation.)