ART / Condensed controversy: Anthony D'Offay's latest show has shocked some. Andrew Graham-Dixon wonders whether it's worth the bother

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE IS a sign on the door of Anthony D'Offay Gallery which says 'No one under the age of 18 may enter the exhibition'. The exhibition in question is called 'Strange Developments' and it contains many images of (as they say) a sexually explicit nature. These range from Simon Linke's large painting of a hand masturbating an ejaculating penis to Paul McCarthy's electrically automated sculpture of an elderly man attempting to copulate with a beer barrel and Jeff Koons's large and glossy photographs of himself having sex with his wife, the Italian film actress La Cicciolina.

Response from the over-18s is likely to be mixed. 'Strange Developments' is plainly intended as a Controversial Event, although the nature of the controversy it seems bound to trigger may prove to be a little predictable. But it is in the nature of controversies to be predictable, and the 'Is it art? Is it pornography?' debate is unlikely to prove an exception: the same old views can be counted on to be trotted out by people with the same old axes to grind, in a drawn-out ritual as closely prescribed as a church service. So regard the rest of this column as a time-saving device: a controversy condensed.

Pete Vibe, author of Letting It All Hang Out: A History of Erotic Art (1971):

I think the whole furore that is threatening to engulf the exhibition 'Strange Developments' could have sinister consequences for the future of the freedom of expression in this country. There's this terrible sense of deja vu about it - it all reminds me of the famous Oz magazine obscenity trial, in which I myself played a modest part as witness for the defence. Does it really need restating that serious erotic art of the kind so bravely and selflessly promoted by Anthony D'Offay advances rather than retards social progress? Well, perhaps it does. By enhancing sexual awareness, art of this kind leads to a better and freer society.

One of the most striking works in the current exhibition, Paul McCarthy's sculpture Alpine Man, has been the butt of much thoughtless and cruel ridicule on the part of certain people. I would be the first to admit that its subject is close to the edge of what is often thought to be acceptable in art: it's a sculpture of an old man masturbating through an aperture in the side of a large barrel. But where some see pornography, I see a liberating work of art - a testimony to the breadth of man's capacity for sexual feeling.

There are many people who, like Mcarthy's Alpine Man, feel irresistibly drawn to copulate with inanimate objects, whether beer barrels or milk bottles, car exhausts or vacuum cleaner nozzles. But existing stereotypes of 'normal' sexual desire often make such people feel alienated and unhappy: they feel somehow odd, different. 'Strange Developments', by presenting such forms of sexual compulsion without prejudice, contains much hope for the alternatively oriented. Modern art can, in a very real sense, be a healing force in modern society.

Derek Luff, Professor of Drawing and Anatomy, Slade School of Art

What saddens me about the exhibition 'Strange Developments' is the almost complete lack of traditional skills displayed by the artists involved. It seems to me that if you are going to take the human form for your subject, you should at least have a rudimentary ability to draw or model from the life. On a more encouraging note, I was impressed by Simon Linke's painting: he has a firm grasp of the essentials.

Sir Charles Foster, CB, KCMG, Friend of the Royal Academy:

Dear Sir,

I cannot claim to be an expert on such matters, but I was outraged by my recent experience of so-called 'art' at a West End art gallery. Last Thursday afternoon I noticed a large crowd gathered on the pavement in Dering Street, apparently witnessing a theatrical event of some kind. Inside an art gallery a young lady was dipping her hair in a vat of what appeared to be black ink and 'painting' the floor with her head. I was told that this was a 'work' by a 'performance artist' from New York, titled I Soaked My Hair with Hair Dye and Mopped the Floor With It.

This was as nothing compared with the obscenities on show in the rest of this exhibition: grossly pornographic photographs, statues and paintings. Some of us are old enough to remember the days when artists knew how to paint, and painted things of beauty: attractive ladies, sometimes nude admittedly, but always decorously so; landscapes; horses. If only Sir Alfred Munnings were alive today.

Sarah Megson, founder and spokeswoman, CASTRATE ('Campaign Against Sexual Terrorism: Reject Art's Testosterone Excesses'):

How sad and yet how typical of male-dominated white bourgeois phallocentric cultural debate in this country that so little attention should have been paid to the fine and liberating work by women artists in the exhibition 'Strange Developments'. No attempt has yet been made by any of the exclusively male critics who write for our newspapers to indicate the singular importance of Janine Antoni's piece I Soaked My Hair with Hair Dye and Mopped the Floor with It. Could it be because Ms Antoni's cogent demonstration of the link between housework and the oppression of women (the act of mopping beomes an image of self-degradation: a dirtying, rather than a making clean) goes far too close to the bone? And why no mention of Cindy Sherman's unsettling photographs of sex-aid dolls twisted into contorted, sexually suggestive poses? Could it be that the white male bourgeoisie are intimidated by the idea of a woman appropriating territory - the territory of sexual fantasy concerning the female body - that they are used to thinking of as exclusively theirs?

Richard Smith, critic and curator of the recent exhibition 'Penis Envy: Abstract Painting as Ejaculation':

The controversy surrounding the exhibition 'Strange Developments' may have obscured many of the true aesthetic issues which it so courageously addresses. It was Jacques Derrida, I believe, who once wrote that 'L'art, c'est l'onanisme': art is masturbation. How true. The act of creating a work of art is, indeed, intimately related to the sexual act, with this difference: because the artist (re)produces ab nihilo, alone in the studio, the nature of that act is essentially masturbatory. Desire is displaced to the site of its enactment in the surrogate world of the simulacrum that is the work of art. To bring a painting or sculpture to realisation is also in a sense to achieve climax.

Simon Linke's large untitled painting of an ejaculating penis in the current exhibition makes the relationship between art and masturbation enlighteningly explicit. The penis is held like, so to speak, a paintbrush, and the painted semen splashed across the canvas evokes memories of the 'Action Painting' of the 1950s and 1960s. The parallel between art and orgasm is subtly underlined. People standing in front of Constable's Hay Wain, no less than the works at Anthony D'Offay, might do well to recall this fundamental truth. Every work of art is a fetish, representing a sublimation in paint of the sexual urge. All art is pornographic; and every painting is (to borrow, appropriately, the language of pornography) a cumshot.

The Sun, Leader:

So, the police have finally closed the so-called art exhibition called 'Strange Developments'.

Not a moment too soon. The owner of the gallery that put it on claims that it is 'art', and 'a beautiful exhibition'.

If a sculpture of a man sexually abusing a beer barrel can be art, pigs can fly.

Nobody has defended the right to freedom of expression more than this newspaper.

But the line has got to be drawn somewhere.

The evil of pornography must be stamped out.

Andrew Graham-Dixon, art critic, The Independent:

'Strange Developments' is a moderately interesting and not particularly shocking group show the primary theme of which is not sex but that old preoccupation of modernism: the (supposed) hidden anxieties of the bourgeoisie. Its curator, Jeffrey Deitch, wants the exhibition to ask the question 'Is the wholesomeness that we once expected to find at the heart of middle-class life being slowly replaced by weirdness?' But the work in the show says less about the anxieties of the middle class, perhaps, than about the anxieties of artists, curators and dealers - and what they seem to be anxious about, mostly, is that people might not have the least interest in what they are doing.

Choosing sex as subject matter is a way of saying 'look at me'; it's usually a publicity ploy used by magazines to boost their ailing circulations and by novelists (like Brett Easton Ellis, in his American Psycho) to achieve a brief succes de scandale. The real subject of 'Strange Developments' may be art's loss of the ability to scandalise: much of the work in the show seems to hark back to earlier models of the avant-garde, especially Surrealism. It is an essentially nostalgic exhibition, dreaming of the days when art could still shock people.

See Listings, opposite, for details

(Photograph omitted)

Comments