The Brooklyn Museum of Art, as if persuaded by its own ill-advised publicity that the art in its “Sensation” show might endanger the welfare of its viewers, at first thought it prudent to turn away children under age 17 unless accompanied by an adult. It ought instead to have turned away adult viewers unless accompanied by a child, preferably one well under 17. Children are not squeamish, nor capable of indignation. They giggle at things that make adults uneasy. They do not carry a burden of art history, so they will not dismiss things on the ground that it has all been done before. They are not cynics, nor are they “taxpayers.” And they exist on the same level of feeling as do many of the artists in this extraordinarily youthful show. So borrow a child if you don’t have one–or better still, be your own child, and treat the exhibition initially as if you were making an expedition to FAO Schwarz. There is, surprisingly given the title of the show, no sex to speak of, though there are some oddly distributed penises that the child will find hilarious. Whatever may be said on the floor of the Senate, it really is art. Whatever has been said in City Hall, it is not sick. It is, on the contrary, healthy. The worst that can be said of it is that it is brash. It is the brashness of art students the world around. There is an exuberance, a confidence, a swagger unfortunately not to be found in the demoralized American art world of today (for explanation refer to the floor of the Senate and the offices of City Hall).
The first work you will encounter, dominating the first gallery of the show, is a real shark in an immense tank. The child will gasp at the majesty and beauty of a work it would have been difficult to anticipate from photographs of it or from descriptions or representations on the Internet. The artist is Damien Hirst, effectively the chef d’école of the post-Thatcher London art world. Putting a huge fish in a large tank of formaldehyde sounds easy enough for even a city official to do. But imagining doing it requires a degree of artistic intuition of a very rare order, since one would have to anticipate what it would look like and what effect it would have on the viewer. The work in fact has the power, sobriety and majesty of a cathedral, some of which, of course, must be credited to the shark itself. It does not look preserved but as if it rests in its fluid medium ready to strike. Hirst is given to florid titles (as well as to rude and silly ones): This work is called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. It is a very philosophical title, which goes perfectly with the work itself. Heidegger pins his entire philosophy of authenticity on the difficulty of envisioning one’s own death–a difficulty Wittgenstein explained by saying that death is not an event in life, not something we live through.
The child, having registered the shark and emitted its admiring “Wow”s, will want to press on, pulling you away from the metaphysical reveries in which Hirst’s work has entangled you. There is, after all, more to experiencing art than what the involuntary “Wow” implies. (Being your own child simply helps keep you open to what you see–it will not enable you to understand what anything means.) The show, like any, is almost always more than mere sensation, and the works of art more than toys for the rich. You have to function simultaneously as child and adult, and it is to the credit of the art on view that “adult” does not mean “mature enough to deal with sexual content” but “wise enough to respond to philosophical significance.”
Let us at this point tour the first gallery, which serves as a prologue to the show you are about to see. To your right as you enter the gallery is a large painting (156 inches by 126 inches) of a woman’s head. It is titled Myra. The child will have but a modest interest in the work until it discovers that the paint resolves itself before our eyes into a pattern of tiny handprints. Wow. The child resolves to give this a try in her next art class. You, hypocrite lecteur, will see it as a kind of knockoff of Chuck Close, especially a painting he once did of his mother-in-law using fingerprints. Close’s fingerprint painting is a virtuoso performance, but the fingerprints play no role to speak of in relation to the content of the portrait. The subject of Myra, however, is Myra Hindley, a notorious and reviled child-killer. That makes it difficult not to see the tiny handprints as referring to her victims. (In Britain, the painting is seen as a greatly enlarged police photograph rather than a distant derivative of a format Close has made his own.) It was Myra that was detested most when “Sensation” was installed in the Royal Academy of Art two years ago–as if the wickedness of the subject were transferred to her effigy in paint. It was Myra for which a Plexiglas shield had to be made, Myra that was declared sick by right-thinking Londoners. Brooklynites, unfamiliar with British headlines, give the painting an aesthetic once-over and pass on to the next work.
That will be a frivolous doll called Bunny, by Sarah Lucas (who has made a comically sexy still life, called Au Naturel, where a cucumber sticks up between two oranges on one side of a mattress, and a pair of melons surmounts a water bucket on the other). Bunny has stockinged feminine legs, no head and protuberances that could be read as bunny ears. It has the floppy look of one of William King’s handsewn sculptures, and it will certainly appeal to the child, if only because of its name. You will have to invoke some concepts from feminist theory–the male gaze! the objectification of women!–in order to get the child to lose interest in what it thought was a plaything. It is Bunny‘s misfortune to have to share space with a shark.
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.)
The best artist in the show is the sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Her main work here is Ghost, which we initially perceive as a large white cubish structure. It replicates the interior of a child’s room in an old house, however. The room serves as the matrix for plaster slabs, which register its architectural details–a door, a fireplace, etc. The slabs were reassembled in such a way that the interior of the room was reproduced as the exterior of the sculpture. The room was in effect turned inside out. That and its funerary whiteness make it a monument to lost childhood. You cannot enter the room–the door does not open–and this surely is a metaphor for the fact that we cannot revisit childhood. All we can see are its ghosts.
In 1993 Whiteread extended this procedure to replicate the interior of a whole nineteenth-century house, scheduled to be torn down to make way for a housing development in East London. She made, in Norman Rosenthal’s words, a “concrete cast of the interior of an old terraced house [which] seemed…almost an apparition in the pallid daylight…palpable but not quite believable, pale and forlorn against a backdrop of trees and grass.” House was bulldozed away the following year, as Whiteread was told it would be. Perhaps its ephemerality is a dimension of its meaning, but I cannot help wishing some enterprising institution had found a way of preserving what I have no hesitation in describing as one of the supreme masterpieces of twentieth-century sculpture. Whiteread’s work often consists in sculpting negative spaces, such as the space beneath chairs, bounded by legs, floor and seat. One whole gallery is given over to ranks and files of these. Critics like to say that Bruce Nauman did the same thing years ago, but I cannot see in Nauman’s work the humanity that belongs to Ghost or to House. So maybe something much deeper is being transacted in Whiteread’s spaces, to which the similarities to Nauman blind us.
I have left untouched the large portion of what I think of as one-dimensional works, pieces that you and the child can negotiate easily enough and find more or less interesting but never deep or serious enough to clarify the topography of the soul. No harm in that. How many of the works in the concluding segment of the Whitney Museum’s “American Century” rise to that level? As the Whitney show enters the present decade, it becomes more and more diffuse, lacking entirely the robust coherence of the British work here, which was all made in the nineties. I have to say that, whatever we may feel about Charles Saatchi, he has, as an adventurous collector, helped create an art world that would not have existed without him. I think the role of the collector is badly underappreciated, probably because of the art world’s lingering suspicion of commodification. Saatchi has no real counterpart on the American scene. And that, augmented by the government’s craven reluctance to support the arts, accounts in large part for the present demoralization of art in America. We have wonderful artists, but a vital art world requires a lot more than that.
I want to conclude with The Holy Virgin Mary, the occasion for political spite and spume, for the accusation of sickness and of what the Mayor calls “Catholic bashing”–although like the Mayor, the artist is himself a former altar boy. It is not a marvelous painting, questions of Ofili’s signature elephant dung aside (a substance we now know comments as art itself rather than on what the art is about). On the other hand, the Holy Virgin has never been especially choosy as to how she is portrayed. The wonder-working Madonnas are usually badly painted, as if the Virgin were not entirely comfortable being shown as beautiful or even pretty. The miraculous paintings of the Virgin rarely have much by way of aesthetic charm, but they are not prayed to for the rewards of aesthetic gratification. They are prayed to, rather, for the things that matter in the dark moments of life. If I were a praying man, I would pray for a miracle in the Brooklyn Museum–the tiniest miracle, as long as it could be attributed to the Madonna. All at once, I imagine, someone looking through the Plexiglas protective screen might say, “My God! The Virgin is weeping!” People would come running, kneel, pray, marvel–or say “Wow.” The gallery would soon be overrun by pilgrims. It is asking too much, perhaps, to expect that some would throw down their crutches, but still, it would be a miracle if even such a miracle helped. The Mayor could always say the Virgin wept because of the elephant dung. It would be hard to know how to deal with that, but at least the discussion would have moved to a higher level.