Is the “Sensation” Art Worth the Fuss?

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

I think you may be aware, Deborah, that “Sensation” had outings in Europe before arriving in the New World (you rap my knuckles for a supposedly unseen critique). I saw the show more than enough times at London’s Royal Academy in 1997 to form an enduring impression of it, and you will note that I confined specific criticism in my letter to a painting; unlike sculptures or installations, a painting is essentially the same object wherever it’s exhibited. Ofili’s work was featured in depth last year at the Tate Gallery’s exhibition for the 1998 Turner Prize, which the artist won.

I like your suggestive angle on the negritude of Ofili’s Madonna. And your anger at Giuliani for picking on a black artist may well be justified. (You’d think he’d have learned a lesson about taking pot-shots at Africans in the outer boroughs.) But even if we accept that Ofili’s dung motif is not to be read as shit but as an exotic artefact, what about those porno-cutouts? Of course, we don’t want to get caught up in the intentional fallacy, and a work of art of strength should be open to a variety of interpretations, but I think there’s a danger of missing the plot (and incidentally patronizing African culture) if we deny Ofili’s Madonna its subversiveness, iconoclasm, and sheer naughtiness.

It’s good, too, that we should get straight on the case of national differences between U.K. and U.S. neo-conceptualism. You are quite right that the Brits are dead against coming over as theoretically highbrow. If anything, they veer in the opposite direction–“dumb enough to be a conceptualist,” to paraphrase Duchamp–but is banality the only antidote to aridity? Almost as painful to my sensibility as the pomposity of Derrida-quoting Whitney Program graduates is the smarmy, too-clever-by-half wit of the YBAs. What on earth is one supposed to get out of Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear, which appropriates the London Underground map (a classic of ‘30s graphic design incidentally), replacing the tube stops with a seemingly random array of celebrities, historic and current? I don’t think that meaningless pretension is any less offensive than the over-meaningful variety.

“Damien as dangerous” is a new one on me. In London he is known as an affable restaurateur. (His urinal in the gents at Pharmacy,which he owns, a vitrine stuffed with detritus, is a masterpiece of interior décor with attitude.) He is, for sure, the leader of the YBA pack, even if he has been surpassed in sheer nastiness by his colleagues, the Chapman twins, Sarah Lucas, Alain Miller. Hirst’s is a stylish nihilism–abjection on ice. Sure it references American minimalism, and sends it up, but that’s hardly his unique achievement: American avant-garde art has been doing that almost since Judd and Morris, the pioneer minimalists, hit the scene. And do we really think Hirst’s shark in the tank would have been possible without Jeff Koons?

You say there are some dogs in this show. I say there are a few pussy cats. I take some credit for writing the first review of Jenny Saville, in the London Times, which brought her work to the attention of Mr. Saatchi. I’m also on record as a fan of Fiona Rae, and even have a soft spot for Keith Coventry, irritating though he is. But the cats’ gentle purring is drowned out by the dogs’ hysterical yapping. At least that was so in the way the show was packaged in London. I’m ready for a miraculous transformation at the Brooklyn Museum, however. And to be converted by your enthusiasm.