Shit Happens

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, October 25, 1999 | Go to article overview

Shit Happens


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


Camp would have moved on to the Happy Hunting Ground of the old art movement. A new art movement would be in. It would be called Shit. Its test would be: is this object, happening, work, event or production more resonant than it was yesterday? Movies about the Strategic Air Command with Jimmy Stewart, Hubert Humphrey speeches, old Lawrence Welk records, news photographs of Mayor Wagner, Senate testimony by Robert McNamara, interviews with J. Edgar Hoover-these would be the artifacts of the new art movement-Camp was out and Shit was in."

-Norman Mailer, "A Speech at Berkeley on Vietnam Day"

May 25, 1965

There hasn't been a good row about art since Washington went berserk over "The West as America" at the Smithsonian in l99l. That was a fight about history. The comment books were chock-full of spirited exchanges about art and its truthfulness about America's past. In other words, the uproar had content.

It's harder to find much content thus far in the hullabaloo over the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, beyond a glorious week of grandstanding by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Politicians are always at their most comical worrying about art, while simultaneously asserting the primacy of private enterprise. "From what I've read, the exhibit besmirches religion," said George W. Bush, campaigning in the company of Governor George Pataki. "It denigrates someone's religion. I don't think we ought to be using public monies to denigrate religion." Pataki wagged his head in agreement. "That's right. When you use public money to denigrate someone's religion, I think it's wrong."

So the governors apparently agree that privately funded besmirchments- including an image of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and encircled by crotch shots-are fine. We've come a long way, perhaps not entirely in the right direction.

I saw "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" at the Royal Academy in London back in the fall of l997 and didn't care for it at all. The Saatchi brothers, Charles and Maurice, headed an ad agency that figured largely in Margaret Thatcher's triumph in l979. They later came a cropper when they tried to take over the Midland Bank. Charles Saatchi had profitably sold off a large collection of better-established artists and started buying up the work of young artists. In High Art Lite, an excellent new book from Verso (my own publisher), Julian Stallabrass quotes a sculptor, Richard Wentworth, describing the arrival of Saatchi at a student final degree examination at the Slade art college: "He'll just appear. This little figure in the background. He's gone shopping and he's first in line.... a proper collecting culture in this country [is] not there. There's Charles Saatchi, and there's no one else." Stallabrass adds dryly, "Naturally...the power is all on one side: Saatchi's usual practice is to buy very cheap and pay very late. Few are in any position to refuse his offers." Chris Ofili, painter of the dung- accoutered Holy Virgin Mary, has written that "a lot of artists are producing what is known as Saatchi art. …

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