Is the “Sensation” Art Worth the Fuss?

Dear David,

You accuse me of being overly literal and insist that I’m not sufficiently sensitive to “surface, shape, color,” and the formal qualities of art. I make no apologies for my taste. Henrik Ibsen once wrote that you can’t chose whom you fall in love with; you can’t choose what works of art you fall in love with, either. To me, a great work of art is roughly equal to a great phone conversation–it pulls you out of your own head and allows you to join with someone else.

May I add that I find formalism entirely overrated? I think it’s led to a lot of arid, deadening art. It may sound old-fashioned to say so, but I do want art to reflect lived experience rather than just classroom questions. I think one of the problems of contemporary art is that it has lost touch with the big themes–namely, love and nature and death. These, of course, are literary themes rather than art themes, yet I think that the artists in “Sensation” are helping to bring narrative back into art. Britain, of course, is a literary culture, and basically I feel that the “Sensation” artists are grafting literary themes onto avant-garde forms devised in America. In other words, Americans (true to myth, we’re all cowboys) are good at busting up established conventions, and Brits (who actually read books) are good at finding metaphorical meaning in the forms that we over here conceived.

Let’s talk about Mona Hatoum for a moment (who I realize is Palestinian but who lives in London and is part of the “Sensation” generation). I loved her (wittily titled) Deep Throat–a real-life dinner table chastely set for one. I looked at it and thought to myself, “It’s a 3-D Anita Brookner novel.” I think the piece says something about female loneliness, but it does more than that, too, because the lung projected (via laser) onto the dinner plate brings anatomy into the equation. What does the piece mean? Lungs allow us to breathe, but here the act of breathing seems to guarantee little beside the likelihood of dining alone.

And now I head off to lunch (by myself)–

Until later,


P.S.: What do you think of Richard Billingham’s photographs of his down-and-out parents? I think there’s a lot of tenderness in his work.

P.P.S.: I realize I will never convince you of Sarah Lucas’ worth (I think of her as Duchamp’s daughter), but are you at least willing to concede that Charles Saatchi deserves points for taking a gamble on young artists instead of just buying de Koonings and Frank Stellas and the blue-chip stuff that other collectors favor? When collectors buy a de Kooning painting, they do not help the art world; they merely help the art market. Saatchi, by contrast, has kept a whole generation of artists from having to wait tables.