Saturday, February 10, 2007

Well, at least their art is about something

Johann Hari profiles the Chapman brothers, two English post-modern artists with a very nasty agenda:

If a single work of modern art has penetrated our distracted consciousness in the past decade, it is the penis-nosed, vagina-mouthed child-mannequins designed by Jake and Dinos Chapman. These monstrous "zygotic twins" stare at us from behind their genital-noses and demand we stare back. After an infinity of watery watercolours and old Old Masters served up as the only face of Art, the Chapman Brothers offer a kind of punk art that spits in your face, punches you in the stomach, and nicks your wallet while you are puking on the floor.

These works have somehow leeched into our collective subconscious. So why - as I staggered around their retrospective in Tate Liverpool, gaped at their new exhibit at Tate Britain, and read through their scattered essays - did I find myself ravaged by hatred for them?

Many people assume that the Chapmans' work is simply a scattering of anarchic insights and provocations with no underlying coherence. They're wrong.

In the 18th century, a swelling of philosophers, scientists and artists launched the Enlightenment. At its core, they argued that instead of relying on divine revelation, we should closely observe the world around us and base a rational world-view on the empirical evidence we gather. Everything good about our world, such as the miracle of modern medicine, or the birth of human rights movements, comes from this project. The Chapmans' declared aim is an old one, offered by fascists and priests for the past 300 years: to puncture and destroy it.

Jake Chapman has declared that "the Enlightenment project. ... virulently infects the earth". Let's look at an example of how this hatred animates their work.

Francisco Goya was one of the first great artists of the Enlightenment. In 1799, in his famous Caprichos etchings, he caricatured the religious figures who controlled Spain, and he lauded the secular and liberal politicians who fought against them. It was his Enlightenment commitment to showing the unvarnished truth that later made him paint war-scenes as they really were, for the first time. He stripped out the old chivalry and romance; he showed the blood and broken bodies. In 2003, the Chapmans bought some of Goya's original prints - and vandalised them.

Where Goya drew with documentary clarity the agonised victims of war, the Chapmans painted the jeering faces of clowns and puppies over them. "Goya's the artist who represents the kind of expressionistic struggle of the Enlightenment with the ancien regime," Jake Chapman explained, "so it's kind of nice to kick its underbelly." Goya famously said "the sleep of reason produces monsters". The Chapmans say the opposite: it is when reason is wide awake that it produces monsters. (Really? Did Hitler scrupulously adhere to fact, evidence and reason-based inferences?).

The Chapmans trashing Goya is a pure expression of postmodernist philosophy. They vandalise and ridicule the fruits of reason - and what do they offer in its place?

At times, they offer up a mythical pure, pristine past, before reason supposedly contaminated the world. Jake Chapman says, for example, we shouldn't think of the sun through "any kind of enlightenment notion of photon particles being useful". No: we should, like premodern tribes who died at the age of thirty of diseases they did not understand, "start thinking about the sun as a kind of excessive, catastrophic energy." You can see this mentality in The Chapman Family Collection, their fake African tribal artifacts which the viewer gradually realises are modelled on Ronald McDonald and his friends. We are supposed to lament the contrast between their 'authenticity' and our 'fakeness'.

But ditching the Enlightenment quickly leads to even darker places than this. The Chapmans' intellectual hero is Georges Bataille, the French writer and (anti-)philosopher who was obsessed with moments of "transgression", when the "prison" of the Enlightenment could be left behind. And these glorious moments? They mostly consist of torture. He lauded the Marquis de Sade, an aristocratic rapist who preyed on working-class women, because he "had only one occupation in his long life which really absorbed him - that of enumerating to the point of exhaustion the possibilities of destroying human beings, and of enjoying the thought of their death and suffering".
It's hard to fathom where people like the Chapmans get their intense hatred from. However, it is even harder to fathom how the art establishment can tolerate, or even celebrate such anti-human bile. I could launch into a strident indictment of the irresponsibility and hypocrisy of the promoters, collectors and enablers of these monstrous clowns, but that is such burned over territory that it is hardly worth the effort.

Instead, I'm more interested in theories of why the Enlightenment and its accomplishments continues to breed such self-hatred. Where does this come from, psychologically speaking? Is there something about Enlightenment based societies that make them inherently unstable? Are the Chapmans just an aberration, or do they represent something that is much more dangerous to civilization than we recognize?

5 Comments:

Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Is there something about Enlightenment based societies that make them inherently unstable?

I would suggest that the two most stable societies on the planet are both based upon the Enlightenment.


Don't the Chapman brothers remind you of someone else we know?

Your questions could be asked much closer to home.

February 11, 2007 2:37 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

They're an abberation, which is what makes them interesting to novelty-seekers.

Their philosophy is a potential danger to civilization as we know it, but not much of one, since they're essentially freak-show troupers, and not in the vanguard of a mass movement.

February 11, 2007 3:08 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

They are certainly not an abberation in the world of modern art. They are just pushing the envelope a little further than many others have pushed. This game of "they pretend to shock us and we pretend to be shocked" has been going on for over a hundred years.

Duck, I suggest the answer to your question is that, although the Enlightenment brought us all kinds of great things like "the miracle of modern medicine, or the birth of human rights movements" (Hmm..), it is ultimately an existential bore that doesn't and can't answer the question: "Why should I get up in the morning and do something I don't want to do?"

The very word has all kinds of positive resonances, but it really needs two things to keep that liberating spirit fresh and attractive. The first is that, unlike a traditional religion, the Enlightenment needs to be reacting constantly against "fascists and priests", which I assume is why guys like Harry and Skipper are always dredging up putative past horrors of intolerance, racism, bad water, etc. It needs bogeymen. It looks like a breath of fresh air as an antidote to ignorance, intolerance, prudery, religious fundamentalism, yada, yada, but without these it's just a tedious or tyrannical effort to force irrational human nature into rational holes.

The second thing it needs, and has usually gotten in the English-speaking world up to now, is a bedrock of "common sense", which is itself completely irrational and unscientific. Our image of the Enlightenment is something like the reserved, pipe-smoking Oxford don who instinctively knows when things are "a bit over the top". When he defends adultery or porn, he just "knows" most folks will limit themselves to one or two romantic affairs or a little rare and harmless, private fun. He just "knows" that ethical concerns about things like euthanasia will always stay on the margins and can be dealt with by bureaucratic controls. And he just "knows" that if you tell everyone marriage and parenting are lifestyle choices we can all take or leave, most people will somehow keep taking them.

They aren't so naive on the continent, where they understand much better how people often need to be persuaded to appreciate the blessings of the Enlightenment. Firmly persuaded. I think there is plenty of evidence the era of Anglo reasonableness and common sense is on the wane.

As to the destructive impulses of the Chapmans, they are in all of us. Who among us hasn't dreamed of finding a way to blow up the office, erase our IRS file, make a competitor disappear or whatever? they are just living out the dark side religious folks know is always there, but which you Enlightenment guys quaintly deny. You can't say you weren't warned.

February 11, 2007 5:40 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

When [our Enlightened, pipe-smoking Oxford don] defends adultery or porn, he just "knows" most folks will limit themselves to one or two romantic affairs or a little rare and harmless, private fun. [...] And he just "knows" that if you tell everyone marriage and parenting are lifestyle choices we can all take or leave, most people will somehow keep taking them.

So far the "common sense" Oxford don has been right on the money, at least in America, so it's a difficult sell to posit that common sense is on the wane.

Most adults in the U.S. who consume pornography do so harmlessly and privately, and most people in the States get married and have kids.

They also get divorced more than they used to, and have fewer kids, but they usually get re-married, and virtually everyone on Earth is having fewer kids, even in highly religious and/or highly oppressed societies, so it can't be some factor unique to advanced or secular societies.

February 11, 2007 8:58 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

The majority of their stuff is vacuous: designed purely to make you feel a bit queasy - with no more artistic value than one of those gore-filled Italian zombie movies.

But 'Hell' (thousands of plastic toy soldiers committing atrocities) was good, though nothing new.

February 12, 2007 1:23 AM  

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