Money-Not Art-Rules Show

Well, I’ve been over to Brooklyn to see the Sensation show and–guess what?–it’s a lousy exhibition. It’s an appallingly witless and stupid exhibition. But that’s what it was expected to be, wasn’t it? If it wasn’t guaranteed to be stupidly offensive, it wouldn’t be getting all this attention, would it? If it wasn’t guaranteed to be stupidly offensive, the hapless director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art would never have brought the show over from Europe, as everybody now knows. He saw the long lines of sensation-seekers waiting to get into the Sensation show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and that settled the matter for him. Of such appallingly stupid stuff are museum careers now made.

What is essential to understand about this exhibition, the full name of which is Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection , is that it is first of all about money–or, to put the matter more delicately, about the vicissitudes of art commerce in the 1990’s. That Charles Saatchi is an advertising genius is beyond doubt. That he is also one of the shrewdest traders on the international art bourse is also well known. He buys and sells art futures the way other traders buy and sell pork bellies. It’s not as if he is entirely indifferent to quality in art, either. The fact is, he has acquired the work of some very fine artists.

But it is also a fact that he isn’t exactly inhibited by the total absence of quality. He is the Andy Warhol of art traders. He knows he has the power to make an unknown artist famous for 15 minutes–or as long as it takes to create a lucrative market for his work. He knows how to play the media for maximum effect. He made his fortune in the advertising business, after all. He also knows that in the market for contemporary art today, quality is an alien concept.

Another thing that Mr. Saatchi knows is that the facilities of museums that traffic in contemporary-art reputations are nowadays more or less for hire. Not for everyone, of course, but for certain influential traders on the international art bourse. It was therefore a cinch for Mr. Saatchi to get his latest collection of young British artists into the Royal Academy. The Academy jumped at the opportunity to bask in the limelight of Mr. Saatchi’s controversial reputation. Whatever he offered the Academy was bound to be great box-office. It could have been elephant dung–or, for that matter, yours or mine–without paint or canvas, and the lines at the box office would have been equally long.

The title of the show, by the way, was not Mr. Saatchi’s idea. In the acknowledgements in the catalogue for the London show, the well-known American art trader–sorry, consultant–Jeffrey Deitch is thanked for coming up with Sensation . The Brooklyn Museum hasn’t bothered to produce a catalogue of its own for the show; it simply recycles the London catalogue, which is not an entirely reliable guide to what you actually find on view in Brooklyn. Not that it matters much with art products of this type.

As for what you do find in the show, be warned that quite a lot of the Sensation exhibition is fairly boring. What look to me like examples of slick art-school abstraction are particularly pathetic. Their only merit is to provide the eye with rest stops, so to speak, between our encounters with some of the nastier stuff on view. One of the nastiest objects in the show is indeed Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), which has already caused so much uproar. It turns out, however, that the elephant dung that is attached to this canvas is by no means the most offensive thing about this disgusting picture. Attached to its surface are myriad little cutouts from porno magazines depicting assholes and vaginas in graphic detail.

Who was it who said that anti-Catholicism was now the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals? I have no reason to suspect that Mr. Ofili is any sort of intellectual, but he seems to have understood that it is O.K. now to engage in this kind of public ridicule of sacred subjects–and win a little art-world fame in the bargain. Had he attempted something similar in mocking the sacred tenets of Islam, Mr. Ofili would probably now require the protection of Scotland Yard, and the Brooklyn Museum would probably have some security problems, too. But it seems to be O.K. to engage in this kind of lewd anti-Catholic expression in public places so long as it passes for serious art.

But the nastiest stuff of all in the Sensation show are works of Jake and Dinos Chapman, who specialize in doll-like mannequins of naked little girls amply equipped with erect penises for noses and more numerous vaginas than nature normally provides. The Chapman brothers served an apprenticeship as studio assistants to Gilbert and George, who, it will be recalled, made a sensational success of exhibiting pictures of their own assholes and penises–and even their own excrement. It was a hard act to follow, but the Chapman brothers have managed to score with their little-girl porno figures.

As for the Damien Hirst animal stuff, it would make me ill to talk about it.

As you might expect on an occasion of this sort, the catalogue for the Sensation show attempts to provide the exhibition with a very prestigious historical lineage, citing paintings by Géricault, Courbet, Manet and Hieronymus Bosch and the graphic art of Goya as precedents. All nonsense, of course, but a vivid reminder of what now passes for serious thought at the Royal Academy. I would suggest a more recent historical development as a likely precedent for the Sensation mentality: the early work of Salvador Dalí and the decadent milieu that nourished it in the period between the two world wars.

Writing in 1944 about Dalí and the perverse tastes of the European haut monde in that period, George Orwell gave us what now reads like a prophecy of this Sensation mentality. “If you threw dead donkeys at people,” he wrote, “they threw money back. A phobia for grasshoppers–which a few decades back would merely have provoked a snigger–was now an interesting ‘complex’ which could be profitably exploited. And when that particular world collapsed before the German army, America was waiting. You could even top it all up with religious conversion.”

As Orwell also wrote: “Clearly, such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it.”

Sensation opens on Oct. 2 and remains on view at the Brooklyn Museum through Jan. 9.