Is the “Sensation” Art Worth the Fuss?

“What modern man wants,” said the French symbolist poet Paul Valéry, “is the grin without the cat, the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.” Francis Bacon was fond of this quote, and Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn are fond of Francis Bacon. Knowing this, New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch suggested the title for the Brooklyn exhibition. Bacon cited Valéry to mean precisely that modern art, including realist art like his own, could do without narrative, without literary values. Indeed, art had to strive to achieve an instantaneity that bypasses laborious storytelling. Things have pretty much come full circle if you now think that what makes Generation-Sensation so groovy is that they “graft” literary themes onto modern art. I can’t quite think that you are being serious when you assert that love and death and nature are themes germane to literature to the exclusion of the visual arts: There’s plenty of each big theme, I’d have thought, in Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Picasso.

You coyly ask permission to voice the heresy that formalism is overrated, as if we are writing in 1970 and you have something brave to say. Come on, Deborah. Formalism has been the theory non grata for quarter of a century. It has been replaced by a conceptual orthodoxy every bit as reductive and exclusionary as Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg never actually were. The analysis of art profits nothing by a Manichaean opposition of form and content. It is a symbiosis of form and content that makes for satisfying aesthetic experience. Anyway, as soon as a generation of artists or connoisseurs declares for one, the gauntlet is dropped, and the next will plumb for the other.

Incidentally, you do subscribe to one formalist dogma. The insistence that one must see an exhibition before having anything critical to say about ideas and images within it attributes a great importance to the visceral experience of objects, an attendance to form. If the art is so much about “real life” as you praise it for being, communicating beyond the precious confines of the art world, dealing with themes and issues that are bigger than paltry aesthetic experiences, then all credit, surely, to Citizen Rudy for plunging right in with his criticism?

To me, Mona Hatoum, whose work you admire, is very typical of a kind of institutionalized avant-gardist whose work sends me to sleep on my feet. Installation–her medium–is a non-starter anyway, at best a poor cousin of window dressing or stage design, simply the wrong instrument for conveying subtle ideas visually (if her ideas are subtle). Hatoum’s grating nihilism always needs to revert to theories or story lines extraneous to the actual object to have any validity, with lots of special pleading on the feminist and Third World fronts. It’s odd that you started our correspondence by congratulating the young Brits for their raucous theory-free and politically incorrect humor and you should end up with Hatoum, who could have been invented for October magazine (and virtually was invented by the arid Marxist journal Third Text).

Rachel Whiteread is vastly more interesting, to me, than Hatoum. Even with her, though, the problem remains that too much of the aesthetic decision has been taken before the work begins; that form is imposed rather than achieved. But still, I’d say to anyone earwigging this correspondence that it is worth going to Brooklyn, crossing the pontifical picket line, and breezing past the offal and Ofilis just for the clear, calm, meditative experience of Whiteread’s Ghost. I’ve long been convinced that it is Whiteread’s masterpiece (better than her short-lived House and the West Broadway watertower), but I’m coming round to realizing that it is a masterpiece on any terms. So, I must say I’m grateful to Mr. Saatchi for letting me see it at his gallery, the Royal Academy at theirs, and now the Brooklyn Museum, too. It’s a rare case of improvement on repeated viewings.

But let’s be honest: Most of the stuff in “Sensation” evaporates even during the first viewing. As soon as you “get” the joke, say, of Gavin Turk depicting himself in a waxwork as Johnny Rotten, in the pose of Warhol’s portrait of Elvis, there is not much left for aesthetic uplift. As an ad man, Mr. Saatchi will be aware of the infamous dictum of a certain master of propaganda (Goebbels) that the lie repeated often enough becomes truth. I think the critic’s job is to resist the inevitable process by which junk exhibited often enough (and written about enough) becomes important.

David Cohen

P.S.: I hate to think of you lonely at lunchtime. How about next week sometime?