Is the “Sensation” Art Worth the Fuss?

Click here to view the entire “Sensation” show online.

Dear Deborah,

Last time we chatted, it was in the TriBeCa loft of the abstract painter Melissa Meyer, at one of her Sunday teas, and like her work and her friends, our conversation was eminently civilized and stimulating. I must say I’d rather spend the next couple of days thinking and writing about, and hearing your views about, a single picture by Meyer than every piece by every artist in the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum. Even though I’m young and British myself, born on the same day as Rachel Whiteread, as it happens, I have to confess to being as profoundly alienated from the YBAs as they seem to be from the kind of art that turns me on. From the kind of art, in a word, that is about “little sensations” as Cézanne called them, rather than the tabloid sensationalism in which the Brooklyn show wallows.

Of course, however wonderfully and sensitively you and I were to write about one abstract painting, there is no denying that to the average reader–even indeed to the committed art aficionado–a two-day debate about Meyer’s (or anyone’s) use of pink would get a little wearisome. Whereas we could get hotter and hotter under the collar about the ethics of displaying one man’s collection of new art in a public institution, of public subsidy for art the public is goaded into hating, of how blasphemy has become an article of faith in an institutionalized avant garde, etc. etc. For journalists–even for respectable critics like you and me–“Sensation” is great copy.

I know Slate wants us to talk about the art in Brooklyn, not the kerfuffle surrounding it (and hats off to them for wanting it so) but one point has to be made: It is irksome when art becomes a moral cause. It is as if during a fencing match someone were to start hurling bombs. It polarizes debate in such a way that aesthetic discernments become irrelevant. When mayors and clergymen and animal-rights activists start weighing in, the issues become freedom of expression, the meaning of images, the ownership of icons (does the Virgin belong to the Church or to everyone touched by the concept?) etc., all fascinating issues, but leaving anyone concerned with art obliged to argue for basic artists’ rights rather than attending to more localized and interesting issues, like is Chris Ofili any good? But this in turn raises another issue: Does Ofili want us to ask whether he is any good, or does he not short-circuit the evaluative process by making art contrived to raise hell with Catholics and excite a frisson of old-time anticlericalism in the rest of us?

It seems to me absurd to try and read an image like The Holy Virgin Mary 1996 in purely formal terms, because it would be to apply aesthetic criteria and art-historical comparisons to a work that draws its power primarily from iconoclasm and irreverence. Ofili wants, surely, to be raw, crude, angry, Bad. It doesn’t do much good to come along and say, well, the encrustation of cut-out porno photos has a decorative quality that recalls Gustave Moreau’s overloaded, quasi- (queasy) mystical images of the (last) fin de siècle? Better would be to compare and contrast it with other art brut and with other blasphemous imagery. In respect of the former, it competes with Dubuffet, and of the latter with Buñuel, Dalí, Max Ernst. I’m thinking of Ernst’s mock Renaissance altarpiece of the Virgin spanking the Holy Infant with the artist, Breton, and I think Éluard as witnesses. On both counts, prewar anti-clericalism and postwar apocalyptic angst gave the Surrealists and Dubuffet, respectively, historic urgency lacking in the gratuitous neo-primitivism of Ofili. Unless we want to argue that Ofili’s art is about the loss of center that gives meaning to the kind of gestures he deploys.

The problem remains: Do we, should we, bother with evaluative comparisons and contextualizations with an artist like Chris Ofili whose agenda seems to be anti-aesthetic, and whose context is much more the current sensations of pop music and fashion with which he vies in terms of energy and verve, than the old masters, the “strong and durable” art admired by Cézanne in the Louvre, and by many of us in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum?

Best to you,