Art in Europe now crosses borders from one nation to another as easily as that newest instrument of commerce, the Euro. One week's cultural exchanges may include: Spanish Flamenco dancers performing Bizet's Carmen in Dresden; a show of Impressionist paintings by Alfred Sisley in Madrid; and, this summer, art shows in London alone range from a major retrospective by native son Lucian Freud, to Russia's Hermitage collection of great German romantic paintings by Casper David Friedrich, to magnificently conserved "cartoons" by Italian Master of the Renaissance, Raphael. Most of these are exhibitions of old, historically referenced, or "traditional" art. An exception is Chris Ofili's one-man show at a top-notch, very exclusive contemporary art gallery.
Ofili. Ring any bells? Back to the 21st century. To the art world of Chris Ofili, whose use of camel dung in the infamous SENSATION show in Brooklyn epitomized the proliferation of art-based-on-hype coming from 21st century London. And thus to Nigella's refrigerator and to Marc Quinn, who used his own blood to cast his self-portrait.
It's no mystery that Charles "You're only as good as your last ad" Saatchi, the man behind SENSATION -- which made its debut at the Royal Academy and later crossed the Atlantic to the Brooklyn Museum -- has enjoyed a "reputed knack... of gaining sensational publicity for his exhibitions."
Teamed with his brother Maurice in the advertising firm of Saatchi & Saatchi, Charles has accomplished a great deal, including helping to put -- and keep -- Margaret Thatcher in power. It was by using that "reputed knack" that Saatchi evolved into "the patron saint" of a cabal of disaffected publicity-hungry YBAs (Young British Artists).
In London earlier this summer, the Saatchi name surfaced and resurfaced, indicating that the contemporary "scene" continues to be manipulated by the man some regard as a modern Medici. But Saatchi is no discerning Cosimo or Lorenzo. Instead of honing any sense of artistic quality, the Saatchi playbook values notoriety rather than aesthetics or craftsmanship. As Saatchi's choices accumulate in galleries and museums as gifts and donations, their ubiquity and the incessant hype applied to them shift the original shock into acceptance. It's always been like this -- guys with cash collect art according to their idiosyncratic tastes -- in the Renaissance and now.
Early this July, Marc Quinn, YBA and former flat-mate of Damien (sliced-animals-in-formaldehyde) Hirst (one of Saatchi's early proteges), made the front pages with news of the demise of his bleeding self-portrait. Quinn cast nine pints of his own frozen, congealed blood to create this rather macabre head. Aided by a leaky news bite, Quinn slipped easily into the fame slot when "Self," owned by none other than Charles Saatchi, was reported to have melted.
By published accounts, builders making improvements on Charles Saatchi's kitchen at the request of his girlfriend, television chef Nigella Lawson ("domestic goddess" of Nigella Bites), inadvertently switched off the refrigeration unit which kept Quinn's sculpture intact, "...leaving the head to melt into a pool of blood."
Other cutting edge bodily antics recently reported in London included a beheading of a different sort, involving a hagiographic white marble statue of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (complete with her hallmark handbag). In that "act of protest against global capitalism," 37-year-old West Londoner Paul Kelleher, a theatrical producer, first attempted the decapitation with a cricket bat. According to the Corporation of London, Kelleher then "deployed a metal rope support stanchion" to finish it off.
Even without its head, the 8-foot-tall statue by Neil Simmons (44, and reportedly "deeply saddened" by the attack) weighs close to two tons. The former Conservative leader herself was quoted as saying the act was one of "sabotage." Meanwhile, letters offering support and money for Kelleher's legal defense filled the newspaper columns.
In England, the arts do matter. Even when those acts are puerile, the arts are more integral in ordinary life than in America. Toppling and disintegrating heads making front-page news!
What comes next? Will another Saatchi-backed SENSATION II follow? Featuring more body parts cast in body fluids? Or something different? Perhaps the work of YBAs Jake and Dinos Chapman, who "aimed to disgust with their recreation of Nazi atrocities" or with their "painted mutilated cats"?
Art like this goes against the grain of playwright Tom Stoppard, whose remarks from the keynote speech he gave at a recent dinner at the Royal Academy for the Turner Prize (a significant honor often bestowed on highly conceptual YBAs) ought to resonate inside some empty heads. "Art," said Stoppard, "should be made. The term artist isn't intelligible to me if it doesn't entail making."