Tom Sutcliffe: When shock value is the soft option

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"I've got a catalogue I can't walk down the street with!" said one of the Chapman brothers on the Today programme last week (it was a double interview and I can't be sure whether it was Dinos or Jake who was talking). His tone was mildly indignant, and he offered this observation in contradiction to Sarah Montague's suggestion that they'd become a little tamer in their art. "There's 30 SS Nazis downstairs!" one of the brothers added, as if to say "Honestly... we do our best to offend but some people are never satisfied." And the catalogue was hazardous, I take it, because its plain brown cover featured a gold swastika. Personally, I wouldn't have thought this exposed anyone to public hazard these days, but the remark, and in different ways the exhibition itself, revealed an almost naive trust in the power of the crooked cross to cause shock and consternation.

The trust isn't entirely misplaced, of course. Prince Harry discovered the hard way only a few years ago that while some ideological symbols can be flippantly deployed the swastika isn't one of them. Indeed, we retain almost as superstitious a notion of its potency as the Arizona tribesman who, according to Steven Heller's book The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption, ceremoniously repudiated their own tribal use of the pattern in 1940, promising never to use it again and ritually incinerating blanket and baskets that bore the symbol. If you want to work someone up – as Siouxsie Sioux certainly did when she donned a swastika armband in the early days of punk – this design will reliably do it. It doesn't need to have any connection to your own political beliefs either. You shock because you really are a Nazi, or because you're flagrantly indifferent to the prospect of being mistaken for one.

Context matters, naturally. Stick a swastika on the front of Gitta Sereny's into That Darkness (as some paperback editions did) and you won't have a problem. It's undoubtedly a marketing device and intended to attract the browsing reader, but the book is serious enough to provide a mitigation of its use. You might even be able to get away with jokily employing it as a marketing device, as some early editions of Alan Coren's Golfing for Cats did (it was part of a joke about the saleability of any book about the Nazis), though I suspect no one would try nowadays. But carve it bloodily into the forehead of a statue of Jesus Christ – as one of the artworks at White Cube Hoxton Square does – and you can pretty much guarantee you've restored its power as a taboo symbol.

Which raises a question really. Isn't this a lazy shortcut to shock? To buy a set of Goya prints, in which material and aesthetic value have become messily confused, and then increase both their market price and (you claim) artistic significance by doodling clown faces on them is, whatever you think of the gesture, a startlingly inventive way of aggravating gallery goers. It traps you between an admiration for the craftsmanship and commitment of the vandalism and an uncertainty about whether it can be justified by the end result. But swastikas? On Jesus's head? Isn't that Beginner's Level Provocation? And since laziness or stupidity isn't something anyone would sensibly accuse the Chapmans of you find yourself in quite an explanatory tangle trying to work out what's going on.

In that same Today interview, the Chapmans turned the radio arts interview into an instrument of torture, taunting their questioner with flippancies and teasing evasions. They urged Montague repeatedly to upturn one of the sculptural works to see what was written underneath and then, when she finally was on the point of doing it, barked at her not to touch the artwork. She couldn't win, in short, and I suspect the swastikas in their current show are designed to achieve exactly the same effect. React to them with blasé sophistication and we condemn ourselves as numbly anaesthetised (which is to say blind to aesthetics). React to them with a primitive dread and affront and we open ourselves up to accusations of superstition. They've been used because they're simultaneously vulgar and serious, unignorably grave and intellectually trivial. Whichever end of the seesaw you choose the Chapmans will be at the other end (and they're quite likely to jump off without warning). It's almost shocking.

Elvis and Roddy: my dream ticket...

The news that Lily Allen has been working on a Bridget Jones musical resurrects one of my occasional fantasies – a kind of theatrical equivalent of the fantasy football leagues which are so popular with sports fans. It's provoked by the fact that whereas there used to be a considerable overlap between Tin Pan Alley (pop music at large) and Broadway (pop music for theatre) those two fields have steadily diverged over the last few decades. If you were to list the most popular songs in 1930 I'm guessing that a far higher proportion of them would have had some kind of theatrical origin than if you conducted the same exercise in 2010. Jukebox musicals have been one response to that widening gap, raiding the pop catalogue in retrospect. But in my game the point is to conjure up a dream-team of pop songwriter, book and subject matter to produce something original. He might not be remotely interested, of course, but I still think it's a pity that Elvis Costello – one of our great narrative songwriters – has never been coaxed into doing something for the National. I'd suggest Roddy Doyle for the book and the Irish touring showbands of the Fifties as the setting, so that Costello can pay tribute to his father's era and explore a whole range of musical idioms, from folk to early rock. I'm still looking for the ideal collaborator and subject for Rufus Wainwright ('Crystal: The Musical'?) but I'd welcome suggestions.

Surfing shifts in the literary web

Nobody who loves reading could be anything but excited about the ways in which technology and literature have started to affect each other. Really interesting interactive texts are beginning to appear, and the distance between living writers and their readers has diminished because of blogs and tweets. More is promised, as e-books develop and writers start to conceive of stories that may not require conventional pagination. But even the most conventional novel already has an interactive element, because you can Google anything that confuses you while reading it. Malcolm Knox's surfer novel The Life plunges you into a sub-culture (Australian surfing in the Sixties and Seventies) that won't be familiar to many English readers. Curious to find out what repeated references to a "Coolite" meant, I hit my search engine, and discovered that it was a cheap, entry-level surfboard made of polystyrene. By the time I returned to the novel, I'd seen video of several of the arcane manoeuvres described in it and had a rough grasp of historic shifts in wave-riding technique. In other words, even dead-tree books now have virtual hyperlinks. I still can't work out whether this counts as a brave new world or a pernicious counter-literary distraction. But that reading isn't what it was is undeniable.



t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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