Johann Hari: The art of subverting the Enlightenment

The Chapman brothers' declared aim is an old one, offered by fascists and priests for the past 300 years
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The Independent Online

If a single work of modern art has penetrated our distracted consciousness in the past decade, it is the penis-nosed, vagina-mouthed child-mannequins designed by Jake and Dinos Chapman. These monstrous "zygotic twins" stare at us from behind their genital-noses and demand we stare back. After an infinity of watery watercolours and old Old Masters served up as the only face of Art, the Chapman Brothers offer a kind of punk art that spits in your face, punches you in the stomach, and nicks your wallet while you are puking on the floor.

These works have somehow leeched into our collective subconscious. So why - as I staggered around their retrospective in Tate Liverpool, gaped at their new exhibit at Tate Britain, and read through their scattered essays - did I find myself ravaged by hatred for them?

Many people assume that the Chapmans' work is simply a scattering of anarchic insights and provocations with no underlying coherence. They're wrong.

In the 18th century, a swelling of philosophers, scientists and artists launched the Enlightenment. At its core, they argued that instead of relying on divine revelation, we should closely observe the world around us and base a rational world-view on the empirical evidence we gather. Everything good about our world, such as the miracle of modern medicine, or the birth of human rights movements, comes from this project. The Chapmans' declared aim is an old one, offered by fascists and priests for the past 300 years: to puncture and destroy it.

Jake Chapman has declared that "the Enlightenment project. ... virulently infects the earth". Let's look at an example of how this hatred animates their work.

Francisco Goya was one of the first great artists of the Enlightenment. In 1799, in his famous Caprichos etchings, he caricatured the religious figures who controlled Spain, and he lauded the secular and liberal politicians who fought against them. It was his Enlightenment commitment to showing the unvarnished truth that later made him paint war-scenes as they really were, for the first time. He stripped out the old chivalry and romance; he showed the blood and broken bodies. In 2003, the Chapmans bought some of Goya's original prints - and vandalised them.

Where Goya drew with documentary clarity the agonised victims of war, the Chapmans painted the jeering faces of clowns and puppies over them. "Goya's the artist who represents the kind of expressionistic struggle of the Enlightenment with the ancien regime," Jake Chapman explained, "so it's kind of nice to kick its underbelly." Goya famously said "the sleep of reason produces monsters". The Chapmans say the opposite: it is when reason is wide awake that it produces monsters. (Really? Did Hitler scrupulously adhere to fact, evidence and reason-based inferences?).

The Chapmans trashing Goya is a pure expression of postmodernist philosophy. They vandalise and ridicule the fruits of reason - and what do they offer in its place? At times, they offer up an imaginary pristine past, before reason supposedly contaminated the world. You can see this mentality in The Chapman Family Collection - a gathering of fake African tribal artifacts which the viewer gradually realises are modelled on Ronald McDonald and his friends. We are supposed to lament the contrast between their "authenticity" and our "fakeness".

But ditching the Enlightenment quickly leads to even darker places than this. The Chapmans' intellectual hero is Georges Bataille, the French writer and (anti-)philosopher who was obsessed with moments of "transgression", when the "prison" of the Enlightenment could be left behind. And these glorious moments? They mostly consist of torture. He lauded the Marquis de Sade, an aristocratic rapist who preyed on working-class women, because he "had only one occupation in his long life which really absorbed him - that of enumerating to the point of exhaustion the possibilities of destroying human beings, and of enjoying the thought of their death and suffering".

Jake Chapman echoes his hero. He talks about the "libidinal pleasure" that comes from seeing a real picture of a real person being tortured, because of the "transgression of the ethics that that image is supposed to trigger or incite". A few years ago he was asked in the Papers of Surrealism: "Does Battaille's formulation of the conception of transgression relate to the way that work like your own is sometimes suggested as being part of a necessary force?" He replied: "Yes - a good social service like the children who killed Jamie Bulger." (Perhaps opening their exhibition in Liverpool was not such a smart idea).

Some foolish critics have praised the "moral anger" in the Chapmans' work, directed at "injustice and cruelty". Precisely the opposite is the case. This is immoral anger, celebrating injustice and cruelty as "transgression".

This isn't surprising. When you strip away our Enlightenment defences against psychosis, what are you left with? The best thing you can say about this philosophy is that very few people will ever take it seriously. But a few have: look at Michael Foucault, the postmodernist icon who was another disciple of Bataille. In a telling parable about postmodernism, Foucault went to Iran in 1978 to witness the incipient revolution. Having dismantled the Enlightenment, this was for him "year zero" in terms of political thought.

He was searching for a new intellectual project. He found it with the Ayatollah Khomeini. He met him, called him an "old saint", and fawned about "the love that everyone [in Iran] individually feels for him". He attacked the secular, democratic and feminist wings of the revolution, saying Iranians "don't have the same regime of truth" as Westerners.

Khomeinism descended into tyranny and mass murder. If Foucault has stayed another few months in Tehran, he would have been hanged for his homosexuality. But he only ever criticised "the old saint" once - when he worried he might be about to adopt democracy, because "we know where that leads".

His embarrassed defenders see Foucault's flirtation with the Ayatollahs as a weird abberation. It isn't. It's the culmination of his life's work dismantling reason. Why shouldn't premodernism and postmodernism come together in the face of a common foe? After reason, what remains but raw irrationality?

The Chapmans inhabit the same fetid dead-end. Jake has described the international opposition to the Taliban blowing up ancient Buddhist sculptures as "strange", describing it with bland semi-admiration as the "live, vital religious opposition to something that has a direct and local meaning to them".

So there are only two options left in assessing the faeces-flinging provocations of the Chapmans. You can dismiss them as a pair of unserious middle-aged millionaires who grew up in Cheltenham and now pose as rebels from the badlands of Tate Britain. Or you can assume they mean what they say. So which is it, boys - are you clowns, or monsters?