'Tasteless' stars of Britart vetoed by war museum

The Chapman Brothers are dropped as Britain's official artists in Iraq over fears their anti-war stance will upset top brass
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The Independent Online

The Chapman Brothers, best known for their uncompromising images of death and decay, have been vetoed as Britain's official war artists by the Imperial War Museum on grounds of "taste".

The decision to "deselect" them has infuriated Jake and Dinos Chapman, who had intended to use the position to make a political statement against the Iraq war.

After weeks of deliberation, the museum has announced that Steve McQueen, the video artist who famously won the Turner Prize by fending off competition from Tracey Emin's unmade bed, is to be sent to interpret the aftermath of the conflict.

But the decision was only reached after fierce infighting on the panel set up to select the war artist which for days was split three to two in favour of the Chapmans.

McQueen was eventually chosen after the panel's chairman, artist Bill Woodrow, was forced to cave in to pressure from the museum.

Its representatives had argued that sending artists whose works have included Hell, a sequence of cabinets arranged in the form of a swastika, might be seen as "tasteless". Insiders suggest that their prime concern was avoiding upsetting the "crusty generals" who sit on the museum's board.

Never ones to shy away from controversy, the Chapmans are furious. Last night, they declared a "fatwa" against the museum, and dismissed its choice of war artist as an "over-earnest" latter-day "watercolourist" whose work is "full of nothing".

"They're sending someone whose work is so enigmatic, so poetically ambiguous, that something that's really about dirt and horror and filth will be reduced to hazy watercolour-type images," said Jake. "It's full of nothing, and lots of it. I don't want to make this a criticism of Steve McQueen, but it's over-earnest, over-sincere."

Jake is unsurprised by the ferocity of the opposition to sending him and his brother to Iraq. His proposal to the panel took the form of a "rant" against not only the war itself but the very idea of artists being sent to conquered countries by what he terms "imperialist" powers.

"I clearly made the point when I was there that there was an obscenity here. First you bomb people, then you use war as an aesthetic," he said. "I said if I was going to be sent to Iraq, my work would be something to do with pointing that out - how trying to suggest there can be an aesthetic appeasement is in itself obscene.

"It amounts to saying 'we are going to flatten you with bombs and then flatter you with art'."

Jake, who with Dinos has been shortlisted for this year's Turner Prize and last week won the £25,000 Charles Wollaston Prize at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, added: "We're over-subscribed with awards at the moment, but to be honest I would have preferred to be going to Iraq."

The decision to appoint McQueen as Britain's latest war artist elevates him into a privileged club whose previous members have included the likes of Stanley Spencer, Scottish illustrator Peter Howson and the painter John Keane.

Last night Keane, whose painting Mickey Mouse at the Front provoked a minor public outcry after his return from the first Gulf War, said he too would have voted against the Chapmans, had he been on the museum's panel.

"The Chapmans are in danger of over-exposure at the moment," he said. "That's not to say that they're not interesting artists, but whether they're appropriate for a commission like this is open to question. You would feel that they were going there with quite an agenda."

A museum spokeswoman would not comment on the split on the panel.