Almost worse than some of the degraded pictures that nowadays deface the art scene and demoralize the public is some of the criticism that is written to justify them. And we don't mean the kind of criticism that is confined to obscurantist academic journals. Today the practice of praising, well, cmp, has entered the mainstream, as we were recently appalled to discover in, of all places, London's two leading conservative newspapers, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, on the occasion of a new exhibition devoted to the work of Gilbert & George. Please forgive the language, but the exhibition was called "Gilbert & George: The Naked Shit Pictures."
It needs to be pointed out, perhaps, for those who do not keep up with such esoteric matters, that the copious team of Gilbert & George enjoys a celebrity on the London art scene somewhat akin to that of the late Andy Warhol. Many people regard them, indeed, as having produced some of the greatest British art of our time. Their pictures consist of huge, brilliantly colored Pop photo-murals of themselves and others usually engaged in activities guaranteed to shock public taste. For their admirers, this is what constitutes their primary appeal.
With "The Naked Shit Pictures," shown with much fanfare earlier this fall at the South London Gallery, they would appear to have outdone all their previous attempts to, as we might say, impose their excrement upon an adoring public. For as Richard Dorment, the art critic of The Daily Telegraph, wrote in praise of the exhibition, it "contains nothing but mural-size pictures of the artists—sometimes nude, sometimes clothed—and their faeces."
Warming to his encomiastic task, Mr. Dorment went on to declare that "far from being gratuitously offensive, these pictures are the contemporary equivalent of medieval representations of human corpses in the process of decomposition." (Earlier on, he had invoked the Isenheim altarpeice as an appropriate precedent.) "If this particular series is about the lowest of man's bodily functions," Mr. Dorment observed, "then there are others which are about hope, religion, patriotism and idealism. Seen in isolation, the Naked Shit Pictures are obscene. But seen as part of a much larger mosaic exploring the reality of what it is to be human, it is more accurate to describe them as inevitable."
John McEwan, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, went even further by praising what he described as Gilbert & George's "self-sacrifice for a higher cause, which purposely moral and indeed Christian." Mr. McEwan seems to have meant it, for he then went on to say that "the evangelical point is confirmed by references to the Crucifxion and the Garden of Eden, where the seed of shame was sown. That these cruciforms are composed of photographs of the artists' shit, literally of their own faeces, is their ultimate assault on conformity." Mr. McEwen was indignant about one thing, however — what he described as the "virtual embargo" that the major television networks, and the BBC in particular had imposed on showing "The Naked Shit Pictures" on their screens.
As we say, there are times when the criticism is worse than the . . .art?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 3, on page 4
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