Bums on pedestals

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The Independent Online
Are you eating? If so, skip this column and only return to it when the table is cleared and the washing-up done, because today we are going to explore our bottoms. And not the nice, fleshy outer bits, either - you can see a hundred of those in any old Mel Gibson movie. No, I'm talking anuses, rectums. Hell - I'm talking colons.

Don't think I like this particular journey; the whole subject fills me with a queasy disgust. I would far rather squat over a hole in the ground than use one of those appalling Teutonic loos, where a ledge catches everything for a quick pre-flush inspection. Out of sight, out of mind - that's me.

But some of this country's influential artists see things differently. Recently, Mona Hatoum exhibited a series of photographs taken by a camera inside her own body. Surgeons visiting the show could be overheard commenting expertly on the quality of the work. "I think I detect a small polyp," said one, "or am I reading too much into it?" With Helen Chadwick, it's wee. Last year, she took casts of the patterns made by her boyfriend's urination in the snow.

Both are eclipsed, however, by Gilbert and George's new show, "The Naked Shit Pictures". To great critical acclaim, G and G have put together a series of pictures featuring, er, nakedness and um, shit. The centrepiece of this exhibition is a montage entitled Bum Holes, wherein two men are shown rear-first, exposing their orifices to the camera. Coming across the picture in this newspaper shortly after changing the nappy of my two- year-old, I found the sight depressingly familiar - just more wrinkled and rather hairy.

But I don't find this art risible; despite its extremism, I think it is telling us something. What it reflects is the fact that in the West, we are going through a period of unparalleled confessionalism and self- examination. From Oprah to The Lover's Guide, from Desmond Morris to Outing, people are admitting, confronting, stripping bare and coming out as never before. And while much of this is metaphorical - the eternal quest for soul and spirit - an increasing element of this self-searching is now comically literal.

Today, chauffeured limousines shuttle our Royals between appointments with friends and enemas. At one end of Harley Street, the psychotherapists reach into the minds of the rich and famous, while at the other end, there is treatment for ... the other end. If this is an Age, it is the Age of Colonic Exploration.

What the art can do is help us to understand whether this is a good Age. Some believe it is. One critic, rapturously explaining the work of Gilbert and George yesterday, talked about the exposure of vulnerability, the "immanence of mortality" and the "brutality of fact". "A man is never so little the master of his fate than when he is defecating," he went on. So this exploration of the exposed self (and the inner self) is nothing less than a new and extreme honesty. We are unravelling the Riddle of the Sphincter.

But is honesty really the defining feature of this Age? The artists themselves unwittingly suggest a more negative interpretation. In an interview this month with Mona Hatoum, the 43-year-old was asked whether she would ever have children. No, she replied, how could she? She was, after all, a child herself.

This answer, so redolent of the chronically self-absorbed Harold Skimpole in Dickens's Bleak House, may offer a clue to what is going on. Like Ms Hatoum, Gilbert and George are middle-aged and childless. Their perspectives rather naturally tend towards contemplating their own mortality and their own condition - and there is nothing to interrupt their contemplation.

What this amounts to is, of course, narcissism. And not just among artists. We inhabit a society where individuals are increasingly fascinated with themselves. So it is more than the artists' bums that remind mums and dads of their kids - it is the whole shtick, the complete package of childish self-obsession. Today, disappearing up your own arse is not an insult - it is a journey of exploration.