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Young British Artists
From the Saatchi Collection”
At the Brooklyn Museum of Art to Jan. 9
What has most impressed me about the “SENSATION” flap is the speed with which the combatants assumed the proper roles. No sooner had Rudy “Tha Upstata” Giuliani picked Chris Ofili as his whipping boy than the Brooklyn Museum of Art threw its rhetorical—and, more important, legal—weight behind the besieged merdiste, thereby ensuring that nothing serious would befall the show before it was scheduled to close. The mayor played proud defender of the Cult of Mary, which, though not affiliated with the government, seems to warrant official protection; the museum propped up the First Amendment, which, though under state aegis, is regarded as one of the frailer players on America’s team, susceptible to mortal injury even when it isn’t on the field. All of which goes to show, apropos of the culture-war flare-ups of 10 years ago, that while Rudy learned nothing from the succes de scandale of Catholic provocateur Andres Serrano, the BMA got some solid schooling from the negative example of Christina Orr-Cahall.
Remember her? Responsible for canceling the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective, and consequently flung like a turd from a catbox, the Corcoran director eventually came to rest in West Palm Beach, Fla., far from the shriek of art-world backlash. In light of which, the BMA’s fast bravado looks less like the exercise of fundamental principle and more like the bluster of someone who knows that though enemies without are a bitch, enemies within are a bear.
In homage to her graceful arc into the hinterlands—one of the finer conceptual actions of the last decade—I figured I’d propose a little London-D.C.-N.Y.C. exchange and enumerate some of the lessons, heeded and not, the locales have to offer one another, “SENSATION”-wise.
From D.C. to “SENSATION”
(museum admins only):
* The Hype Doesn’t Last Scandal’s gravy train is always just passing through. At the “public dialogue” several weeks ago, one naive enthusiast in the crowd chirped that Giuliani had secured the health of the BMA for years. Attendance may be booming now, but don’t expect to be packing them in at the Mummy’s Cafe once “SENSATION” sweeps up after the elephants, furls the big top, and goes home. It was standing-room-only when the Washington Project for the Arts picked up the Mapplethorpe show, but now the WPA is the WPAC, the virtuous champion having been absorbed by the stodgy deserter. Not to say that a big museum will eventually wither like a small nonprofit, but “SENSATION” is a mere spike on the graph. Everything will return to normal soon enough, and Brooklyn will once again be too long a ride from Jersey to fool with.
* The Ignorati Don’t Have to Be Treated Like Suckers The BMA blew it here. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden attracts scads of first-time art-museum visitors—that’s location for you—but just because Gordon Bunshaft’s sci-fi torus looks more air-and-space than Air and Space, that doesn’t mean the Hirshhorn’s official line is pitched to the field-trip escapee. “SENSATION” is filled with wall text that has the cozy, smarmy tone of a language-arts workbook. Re Mark Wallinger’s pony-portrait suite, Race Class Sex: “Can you determine a person’s ‘breed’ by examining them closely, the way you might scrutinize a horse? Can you buy into a good bloodline, like a horse breeder?”
* But They’ll Still Want to Be Coddled One of my most lasting memories of the Mapplethorpe show was of hugging the walls so closely I could barely see the photos. Why? Because almost all of the capacity crowd was sitting on the floor watching TV—some video about the artist. Novices drawn by scandal’s scent want to be able to tell the folks back home what they saw, and they don’t necessarily want to look at the art to find out. PBS-in-the-head audio tours get you halfway there—but why not go whole hog? If you want to take the high road, do as the Hirshhorn does: Ditch the audio tours and stick the tube in the basement.
From “SENSATION” to D.C.
* Naughtiness Matters Bad boy, you may not know what you’re gonna do when they come for you, but come they will. And that goes double for you, bad girl. If youngsters are trying to jump-start an over-localized, superannuated scene, a little misbehavior goes a long way. Smoke, drink, drug, throw fits, live it up—just apply a bit of style to your newfound high life. Brit-pop artists model their public outbursts on those of Brit-pop pop stars; if our own local-rock demigods are too chaste to serve us similarly, why not borrow theirs?
* Loudness Matters In 1987, a 20-year survey of British sculpture by a half-dozen gritty, earnest, earthy types stopped at the Hirshhorn. The title? “A Quiet Revolution.” The current show of “Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection” is called “SENSATION.” Hear the difference?
* Newness Matters If most everyone in the hidebound local art establishment apes Anthony Caro, Ben Nicholson, and Henry Moore, and has “R.A.” after his name, it’s time to try something else. Think things aren’t that bad here? The hot art news in the new ish of Washingtonian is that Gore Vidal just had to have a big ol’ portrait bust and Around Town motormouth Bill Dunlap was man enough to jet to Ravello to give it to him. Mnemosyne be praised!
* New York Matters Newness is a relative thing, however, and there’s nothing wrong with looking to Manhattan to bring the gang up to date. Richard Patterson’s painted blowups of toy figures recall Laurie Simmons and Allan McCollum’s photo blowups of table-top train-set hangers-on. In the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Roberta Smith tried to distinguish Glenn Brown’s appropriation by emphasizing its handcrafted character, but ubercopyist Sherrie Levine was doing Schiele watercolors and Malevich caseins 15 years ago.
* California Matters, Too What does Gavin Turk’s fake career-memorial English Heritage plaque (“Borough of Kensington Gavin Turk Sculptor Worked Here 1989-1991”) remind you of more than John Baldessari’s marker for his cremated paintings? And Turk didn’t even have to destroy anything.
* Facture Matters My mom doesn’t know quite what to make of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s hypersexualized mannequin morphs, but, you know, I don’t think anyone does, least of all the artists themselves. You can try sticking theory to ’em, but it slides right off. So why do the Brothers Chapman make ’em? Because they can. Everybody grooves on seamless abominations. Someone once said that the Cali finish fetishists worked so slick because they were used to taking in Manhattan merch through glossy magazines. It’s worked for L.A., it’s worked for London, and it could work for you.
* Patronage Matters And the well-made does nothing so well as attract the well-heeled. People with money crave luxe goods they don’t understand, so they buy them. (People with book-learning crave luxe goods they can’t afford, so they write about them—but that’s another story. Sure, press matters, but not like patronage.) Damien Hirst couldn’t have made his infamous shark box without outside funds, and he couldn’t have made his name without having Charles Saatchi buy the thing. Don’t count on the government; that’s responsible patronage. What you need is the irresponsible kind—high-risk, high-return. Saatchi may eventually dump some artists, but at least they got their shot. If you win the sweepstakes, you can hang your shingle out on a permanent basis, taking a teaching gig only if you need to get out of your own head once in a while. Wasn’t it Alex Katz who said that you have your moment for about three years and after that you just go on making masterpieces? The idea behind attracting and exploiting patronage is to get your moment.
* DIY Matters The punk-infected D.C. do-it-yourself contingent has always shunned the idea of making it big. But think long-term. Would you rather end up a grande dame or a denizen of the where-are-they-now file? Because there’s no Saatchi in D.C. (or anywhere else but London, for that matter), how about making one yourself? Fairfax and the MoCo tech corridor are bristling with digerati. Some of them will be looking for hobbies once they hit 30 and retire. Art collecting, you say? Right on. If you take but one lesson from this little primer, it should be this: You need to cultivate a new breed of local art collector from the ranks of people who are accustomed to having their wealth ebb and flow like vapors; they are used to risk, and contemporary art will seem refreshingly substantial to them. If you get your presentation right, they will want to hang out with you. So what if they’re geeks? Peter Norton’s a geek, and he’s been great for art. Truth be told, a lot of artists are geeks, too.
* Scale Matters—But Not the Way You Think Anybody can scale big. But you get maximum impact when you scale weird. Craft and presence pal uncannily in Ron Mueck’s giant, scowling Mask, a triumph of 3-D photorealism. His Dead Dad gains respectfulness and tremendous—yet soft-pedaled—oomph by being smaller than you expect. Though glossy interior views make it look cavernous, Tracey Emin’s tent appliqued with the names of all the people she’s slept with (and she means for “slept” to be taken literally) is just small enough to equally advertise and cradle her past. You know those mysteriously brittle people who seem strong and fragile at the same time? She’s one.
* Repro Matters Fiona Rae comes out on the other end of the magazine-photo game. A baseball-card-size shot of one of her melanges of Kenneth Noland-esque targets and Gerhard Richter-esque smears makes it look as if the real thing’ll kick your ass all over hell and half of Georgia. It doesn’t, but by the time you figure it out, you’re already half-sold.
* Maintenance Matters Hirst’s bug zapper was so caked with fly goo when I went that it was no longer producing much in the way of fireworks. This was a disappointment (but not as much
of one as being told the cow’s head
* Art School Matters That’s because friendship matters. “SENSATION”‘s organizing principle is social, not aesthetic, critical, or theoretical. The Young British Artists are linked by nationality, age, scene, and, most obviously, collector appeal. Hirst got the YBA ball rolling when he put himself and his friends in “Freeze” in 1988. Do your homework, kids, take on lots of extracurricular activities, and buddy up wisely.
* Art Matters There are those who will argue that Ralph Rugoff’s Harper’s Bazaar feature on Sam Taylor-Wood is in the same league as Dunlap’s ‘Tonian Vidal butt-kiss. If it is, someone’ll come along and push the artist off her pedestal soon enough. (If we’ve learned anything post World War II, it’s that fashion is better than hegemony.) And if it isn’t, that’s because, as fabulously uneven as Taylor-Wood is, her stuff is chancier and pays off, when it does, more handsomely than Dunlap’s sturdy, musty crap ever could. (And no, it didn’t spoil her Hirshhorn strongman piece if you were in on the end from the beginning.)
* Longevity Matters—Later But you knew that, didn’t you?
And from “SENSATION”‘s public to everybody else:
* Art’s Still a Family Affair I wasn’t shocked, my mother wasn’t shocked, and the three generations of women I saw examining Hirst’s sliced-pork special weren’t shocked. Grandma was plugged in to the audio, but Mom was treating her daughter, age 4 or 5, I’d guess, to a facts-of-life discussion of porcine culinary anatomy. “There are the chitlins, and there’s the pig’s liver, and there,” she said, fluttering her fingers in a circle, “is all that souse meat.” Amen. CP