Why Britart is a burning issue

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The Independent Online

A minute's silence, please, in memory of the Britart landmarks that were destroyed in Tuesday night's fire at a Momart warehouse in east London.

A minute's silence, please, in memory of the Britart landmarks that were destroyed in Tuesday night's fire at a Momart warehouse in east London. Without fear of contradiction, they can be said, on this occasion anyway, to have generated more fire than smoke. And now, 60 seconds over, a huge round of applause for the Chapman brothers, who reacted to the news that their piece Hell was feared to be among the casualties with a masterly display of British phlegm. "We will just make it again," Dinos Chapman was reported as saying. "It's only art."

If you never saw Hell, then you may not grasp just how heroic this insouciance is - because he's not exactly talking about an afternoon's watercolour work here. Hell was a huge model landscape, contained in nine display cases arranged as a swastika and composed of some 5,000 tiny model figures, each of them individually hand-painted and customised to represent vengeful mutants and their stormtrooper victims. The very first thing that struck you on seeing Hell was that it represented brain-cramping quantities of tedious labour - so to dismiss its destruction so lightly was stoical, to say the least.

It's perhaps understandable that others couldn't show quite the same stiff upper lip. Carole Hastings, the director of Momart, could be forgiven for being "devastated", since it was her professional obligation to keep the works safe. And it would be inhuman not feel a little for Charles Saatchi (also "devastated"), given that he has a proprietary interest in many of the missing pieces. Less explicable was Brian Sewell's reported comment that it could be an "appalling tragedy" for contemporary British art, given the torching he's given in the past to several contemporary British artists. But perhaps he felt it was best to be tactful while the ashes were still warm.

Whatever the case, it was surely the Chapmans' reaction to this event that properly got it in perspective for the vast majority of us, even those of us who count ourselves as art-lovers. It certainly chimed with the Daily Mirror's cheerfully flippant headline "Saatchi and Scorchi", which seemed to give vent to a little pulse of schadenfreude with regard to millionaire art collectors and conceptual art. And it agreed with the editorial cartoon which featured a newsman doing a live report in front of a smouldering building and saying, "And it seems millions of pounds of meaningless tat has been lost to the nation for ever."

Dinos Chapman's remark was, of course, calculatedly contrarian and, as such, entirely consistent with the brothers' previous public pronouncements about art, which are more often delivered by Jake. These are generally characterised by an open hostility to any kind of aesthetic sanctimony. Jake is on record as scorning the notion of gallery-going as a kind of "redemptive religion for poor people from council estates who then go off and perhaps instead of using MFI will use Ikea". The Chapmans' recent reworking of a set of Goya prints by overpainting them with cartoon clowns and rabbits made it plain they don't have much time for the "holy relic" approach to works of art. And one of the reasons these kind of remarks generate the frisson they do is they seem to play right into the hands of the philistines.

Take that line, "we'll just make it again"; an offhand concession that the original work of art is not a one-off at all and that stock phrases of appreciation such as "unique", "inimi- table" and "irreplaceable" (the latter actually used by Charles Saatchi) are just so much hot air. The first half of Dinos Chapman's remark rakes its boot down the shin of high-art proselytisers; the second chops their legs from under them: "It's only art". Only? And this from Turner-prize nominees? You can easily imagine Richard Littlejohn being so dismissive, but not any of the mullahs of high seriousness and life transformation, for whom a gallery is the closest thing we have to a sacred space. If it's only art and entirely replaceable, then what price our respect for the authentic work of art itself?

As it happens, most reports of the fire found that easy to answer: £40,000 in the case of Tracey Emin's embroidered tent Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95, an estimated £500,000 for Hell, and an overall ballpark figure of "tens of millions" for the total loss. As is so often the case when art makes it into the news pages, the insurance value of the work came before any of the more intangible values. That, in truth, was what Dinos Chapman was kicking at with his knowing act of indifference to the "tragedy". Because though the tangible assets might have been incinerated, the ideas - and the artists - haven't. For all its mischievousness, his response takes the event far more seriously than those who have treated it as an appalling disaster.