Is the “Sensation” Art Worth the Fuss?

Dear David,

Thanks for your speedy response. I found your comments more interesting than your earlier ones, mainly because you acknowledged liking some of the artists in the show. And that’s good. I’m glad. I was beginning to wonder whether you were a knee-jerk neo-conservative, which is even worse than being a knee-jerk liberal. (Knee-jerk liberals are at least motivated by a desire for social justice, while knee-jerk neo-conservatives operate strictly out of fear–a fear of change; a fear of human instinct; a fear, it often seems to me, of their own latent homosexuality.)

Getting back to Chris Ofili: No, I do not think that his inclusion of porn cutouts in the painting brands him as a rude provocateur. Remember, the Virgin Mary may be a timeless symbol, but she is also a flesh-and-blood woman, and Ofili is hardly the first artist to eroticize the Virgin. It’s been going on at least since the Renaissance. (I’m sure you’re familiar with Leo Steinberg’s book on the subject.) Moreover, since you’re a guy, I shouldn’t have to tell you that virgins are sexy.

Why do you speak of Sarah Lucas as nasty? I think she’s major. I loved Au Naturel, that bare mattress piece with the melon breasts and erect cucumber. It manages to be both cultivated and raw at the same time, which is basically what I look for in any work of art. The piece evokes Rauschenberg’s famous painted Bed and might be seen as Rauschenberg’s bed unmade.

If we get away from the art stars (Hirst, Ofili, etc.) for a moment, I’d like to say that, for me, there were many small discoveries in the show. For instance, I had never before seen Mat Collishaw’s Bullet Hole, and I found it totally engaging. As you know, it’s a big, lighted close-up of a head wound that bears an unsettling resemblance to an anus, and when I saw it, I thought to myself, “That’s the story of my life. Half head, half asshole.” Or, to be more elegant here (in keeping with the spirit of your own mandarin replies), you might say that the piece subverts the tradition of staged photography, blasting a hole through the cold, calculating heart of ‘90s art.

I agree with you that Simon Patterson is not the next Picasso, but so what? The Armory Show of 1913, probably the last show in New York to cause this level of commotion, had its share of duds as well. Let’s concentrate on the artists we like. There are lots of first-rate artists in “Sensation,” and I can’t think of any other recent show that captures so forcefully the particular feeling of being alive in the ‘90s, which sometimes means feeling like you’re dead (I loved Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad).

Yours truly,