Poseurs, pornographers, idealists or just great artists? The success of Gilbert and George has put other art brand-names in the shade. Ian Burrell reports. Photograph by Herbie Knott
he well-tailored suits, blank stares and ever-present backdrops of brick terraces are eerily reminiscent of those other legendary East- End figures, the Kray twins. But the success of Gilbert and George in turning their humble east-London art operation into an enterprise of international standing would have left Ronnie and Reggie gasping in admiration.

For three decades, the relentless G&G machine has maintained its position in the public eye, establishing the two artists with the single persona as the unquestioned champions of the British avant-garde. At the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris, record crowds are currently flocking to see the often shocking giant tableaux which characterise their work. At a New York exhibition in the spring, more than a dozen of their pieces were sold at around pounds 100,000 a time. They have just published their collected thoughts, The Words of Gilbert & George. They have also shown this year in Stockholm and Tokyo, where they were a source of endless wonderment and the subject of 250 media interviews.

Their name has become a brand which one critic describes as being "as recognisable as Louis Vuitton luggage or a Rolex wristwatch". Daniel Farson, who is writing an authorised biography of the artists, The Extraordinary World of Gilbert and George, says, "They are masters at self-promotion. No artist since Salvador Dali has manipulated publicity so cleverly and effectively as they have."

Gilbert & George have exhibited in more than 20 countries including Russia, Poland and China. The books and catalogues which describe their work, lives and times - the costs of many of which are underwritten by the artists themselves - now stretch to 39 publications. Next on the market will be a Gilbert and George CD-rom.

To some art critics, it is all too much. The constant stream of publicity material emanating from the pair has become known among certain arts writers as "Gilbert and George Trash". "There's a constant influx of stuff coming from Gilbert and George," says David Lee, the editor of Art Review. "Their work will suffer very badly when they are no longer there to promote it, in much the same way as Warhol's work has suffered."

But to other art experts, the G&G machine is something to be admired. "Fame is visibility. Shrinking violets don't get very far in our culture," says Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton, director of visual arts at the Arts Council. "Gilbert and George are just using the tools of their time to promulgate their work to as many a people as they can."

The industry of the two artists is legendary. In the words of one critic, "Gilbert and George work like dogs". They have produced some 800 pieces in the course of their career and their works currently sell for between $40,000 and $200,000 (pounds 25,000-pounds 125,000), depending largely on the scale of the piece. According to Susan Ferleger-Brades, director of the Hayward Gallery, "They have become a must for contemporary art galleries."

The artists live in the same 18th-century timbered house in Spitalfields they moved into in 1968; they have since bought a second property two doors down, which has been converted into modern studios. They have also acquired fine collections of pottery and antique furniture. Jeremy Tan, the estate agent who sold them the second house, says that the combined value of their home is now pounds 1 million. Yet Gilbert and George insist that they are not millionaires: "Because of the radical nature of our pictures, we are very unlikely ever to be. It's very difficult to sell pictures like `Bum Holes' or `Spunk on Us'."

They pay themselves a modest annual salary of pounds 25,000, which they say is sufficient to support their frugal lifestyle. Meals are famously taken at the nearby Market Cafe run by their friends Clyde and Phyllis. Their famous "Responsibility Suits" have always been bought from the same Spitalfields tailor.

"Money is only important for us in being able to continue as artists," they say. "Luckily, we have never been interested in wealth as such." So where does all the money go? Roger Bevan of the Art Newspaper explains: "Part of it is channelled back to finance their own exhibitions, and they also underwrite publications so that you or I can buy a book that would cost pounds 60 for pounds 10." Museums are allowed to sell G&G postcards and T-shirts without paying the artists.

Throughout their career, Gilbert and George have espoused the motto "Art for All". It will soon be possible to download their work from computer for next to nothing. A further statement of their idealism is the last of their "Ten Commandments of Gilbert & George": Thou Shalt Give Something Back.

Their apparent humanism does not wash with critics such as David Lee. "They claim to be social commentators, but they're not really," he says. "It's just shock tactics."

It is clearly in Gilbert and George's interest to be seen as generous philanthropists, but the accusations of gimmickry for commercial gain will not worry them. They insist that their work represents nothing less than "a life development", and there are queues of people who will testify to their sincerity.

As Andrew Wilson, assistant editor of Art Monthly, says: "They have been living this life for the last 30 years. You don't do something like that as a joke"