Just why do artists get so offended when Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is offended?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I recall travelling down the west coast of Australia in a dusty bus, many years ago, reading a collection of Australian short stories entitled Transgressions. The editor of the volume was a long-time enemy of mine. But then you wouldn't want as a friend someone who calls a book of short stories Transgressions. Trespass, sin, disobedience, lawlessness, violation of decency, defiance of right, the courage to confront the impermissible - how many short stories that you know are in the market for any of that? None in the collection I was reading, anyway. A bit of routine Aussie swearing, any number of characters saying "Jeez!", a smattering of conventional sex, some playing around with the conventions of narrative form, and that was your lot. Transgressions, as they say in that wonderful country, my bum!

I recall travelling down the west coast of Australia in a dusty bus, many years ago, reading a collection of Australian short stories entitled Transgressions. The editor of the volume was a long-time enemy of mine. But then you wouldn't want as a friend someone who calls a book of short stories Transgressions. Trespass, sin, disobedience, lawlessness, violation of decency, defiance of right, the courage to confront the impermissible - how many short stories that you know are in the market for any of that? None in the collection I was reading, anyway. A bit of routine Aussie swearing, any number of characters saying "Jeez!", a smattering of conventional sex, some playing around with the conventions of narrative form, and that was your lot. Transgressions, as they say in that wonderful country, my bum!

Of all the nonce words that are flogged into the service of art in pursuance of a nonce concept, none is noncer than transgression. Delivering the Sir Richard Dimbleby lecture to an art establishment audience late last year - not quite a gathering of Bufton-Tuftons, but not exactly the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the Hell-Fire Club either - Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate, all but buttered his toast with it. Transgression, phwah, phwah, phwah! 'Twas caviare to the caviared.

That's the measure of the contradiction into which artists and art administrators have entangled themselves - the more comfortably you nestle in the crook of conformity, the more you proclaim yourself a violator.

Or perhaps that should go the other way around. The more you speak of shock, the more conventional you can be relied upon to be.

Take the example of Norman Rosenthal, Exhibitions Secretary of the Royal Academy, a man from whose lips the vocabulary of the "abyss" drops like sweets from the apron of a pantomime dame - if there is anything sadder in world art than the spectacle of Norman Rosenthal playing catch-up now to Sir Nicholas Serota, now to Charles Saatchi, with a Sensation one minute and an Apocalypse the next, I do not wish to see it. That's a lie. I do wish to see it. As a novelist, and therefore a transgressor myself, I cannot get too much of human suffering.

Regular readers of this column, noticing the pun on nonce, will see where we are heading. If we are to accept it as axiomatic that art's first responsibility is to be provocative, to unsettle, to disconcert, to shock, to outrage, to defy all the decencies and pull heaven itself down around our heads, why do we make such a fuss when we are taken at our word and someone is provoked enough to call a policeman? You want to be an outrage? - le voilà, my name's PC Plod and I'm here to tell you that an outrage is exactly what you have become.

Why such fluttering in the dovecot? When the criminal transgresses, the law strikes. Or don't we really mean transgression when we say transgression? Do we only mean that Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells should write his letter to The Daily Telegraph and thereafter leave us to disgust somebody else? He is very important to contemporary art, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. He proves our point; he validates our enterprise (what the hell else are we for?); and because it is the ambition of modern art never to be too finished or too serious, he completes our work by virtue of being offended by it. For offence, when all is said and done, must have an object. But only let him give his disgust teeth and suddenly it is our turn to be easily offended. Send a policeman to take down those lovely inoffensive holiday snaps of those charming children, how could you!

Let me be plain. In the matter of the lunacy of vice squads hammering down the walls of the Saatchi Gallery, I am with everybody else. In the matter of Tierney Gearon's snaps being no more inflammatory than your average Renaissance painting of the baby Jesus, I am also with everybody else. Paedophilia is in the eye of the beholder. There are necrophiliacs out there, but we do not ban Ophelia dead among the water lilies.

As for the new anxiety around children's bodies, fuelled by zealots of the every-child-has-been-abused-by-someone-sometime school, my horror at catching myself wondering if I'm witnessing a crime every time I see an adult caress a child, is as great as the rest of humanity's.

Otherwise, I can't say that I care passionately whether Tierney Gearon's pictures of her children stay or go. I don't much like photographs and I don't much like children. Excessive devotion to children is its own illness, I have always thought. Not a crime, just a species of retardation. And I've yet to see a photograph as interesting as a single mark from a fair to middling painter's brush.

Shocked? I should hope so.

But intellectually the joke is on the Saatchi. You can't go peddling the line about innocuous holiday snaps when innocuousness has always been the last of your concerns and when we know perfectly well that holiday snaps are not what you put on your walls. Art transfigures - we know that, you know that. So there can be no appeal to the innocence of the photographed occasion. The truth is, you are hoist with your own petard. We all are. We make fists at God. We stand naked in the wilderness, show our backsides and hurl obscenities skywards. And when we are answered with a thunderbolt we howl, to borrow a phrase genuinely apocalyptic just now, like stuck pigs.

Comments