Magazine article The Spectator

Excelling at Squalor

Magazine article The Spectator

Excelling at Squalor

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 1

Gilbert & George

(Milton Keynes Gallery, Milton Keynes, till 6 January)

Excelling at squalor

Martin Gayford

At the risk of seeming obsessed with the subject, I offer another thought inspired by Tracey Emin's bed. It's not that it strikes me as a successful work of art, simply that - especially in conjunction with the Bloomsberries down the hall at the Tate - it is, shall we say, suggestive.

What it suggests is a tradition, an alternative to the often touted English lines of romanticism, ruralism and Turnerian mistiness, an omission from the celebrated categories in Pevsner's The Englishness of English Art namely, squalor. Yet seediness, seaminess, nastiness are all qualities at which English artists have excelled at evoking, from the days of Hogarth and Gillray to those of Francis Bacon and, well, that bed (which, as was reported in the press, became rather niffy as the exhibition wore on and was, apparently to the dismay of the artist, doused in disinfectant). Indeed, it is often only those artists who go in for squalor who are noticed abroad - unlike our native imitators of Matissean colour or classical form. Squalor, you might say, is a department in which we Brits excel.

Another artistic case in point is that of Gilbert & George, who - specialists at turning up in unexpected places - are currently holding a major exhibition in Milton Keynes. The mere mention of the name Milton Keynes, they announce, brings a smile of enthusiasm to the faces of our younger friends.

G&G have, of course, always concentrated on aspects of life that the genteel find yukky - swear-words, excretion - the kind of thing that the poet Kathleen Raine once, while talking about Francis Bacon, described as the armpits of existence. For less robust sensibilities, though, this new work is not so extreme in yukkiness as some they have produced in the last few years, the cringe factor is still fairly high. Various pictures feature dead flies, obscene graffiti, sweat, bits of gum stuck to the pavement, the nakedness of middleaged men - that is, themselves; all items from which the well-brought-up eye is likely to flinch.

Why do they do it? The hostile answer is that they do it to draw attention to themselves or out of infantile naughtiness. And it is true that they attract a great deal of publicity, much of it unfavourable, by thus associating themselves with embarrassing things which it has been tacitly agreed to ignore. In the eyes of their detractors this drawing attention to themselves is itself a crime; indeed one of the primordial English sins, also committed by such G&G heroes as Oscar Wilde. Their combination of showing off and being embarrassing often produces a mixed reaction of mockery and anger (not an uncommon AngloSaxon aesthetic response ).

Obviously, from the G&G point of view, it is different. The object of forcing all these horrible sights on our attention is to conquer our and their repugnance. Indeed, as George puts it, to show their beauty. In religious terms, they are out to redeem the yukky (that is probably why they find themselves arguing with the religious; recently they were to be heard debating morality with a Northern Irish clergyman).

This is not so different from what Stanley Spencer was up to when he painted the loves of the elderly and the odd-looking, and the unideal, naked, middle-aged bodies of himself and his mistress. …

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