Just how rebellious is contemporary art? Last week the sensational work of the Chapman brothers was defended by British justice when District Judge Brian Loosely sentenced "comedy terrorist" Aaron Barschak to 28 days in prison for tipping a pot of red paint over Jake Chapman and his Goya-derived The Rape of Creativity. It seems that the YBAs (young British artists) are now part of the establishment they once sought to subvert. At the same time, it was revealed that Damien Hirst had bought back key works from Charles Saatchi, having disapproved of the way in which they were displayed at the latter's South Bank gallery. Where Hirst once needed Saatchi's patronage, he can now afford to reclaim work for his own collection (not least because his last show at Hoxton's White Cube 2 sold out within a day, accruing £11m in the process).
I'm not a big fan of the Chapmans' brutal vision, although in person they're perfectly charming. Their art reflects a cynicism in contemporary culture - yet acts as a critique of it, too, given the violence of our times, and our continuing obsession with consumption, image and celebrity. One of most sensational works of modern art I saw last week was Michael Jackson's mugshot, taken on his arrest for suspected child abuse. The bizarre, asexualised, pantomimic face with Joan Crawford eyebrows stares quizzically, and speaks volumes for our age. Jackson's own weird, airbrushed transition from blackness to whiteness resembles nothing so much as one of Cindy Sherman's self-transformation photo-pieces, in which the American artist casts herself in characters ranging from whores to clowns.
But perhaps there's a new faith in art. For his White Cube show, Romance in the Age of Uncertainty, Hirst installed blood-spattered vitrines filled with medical symbols of the 12 martyred Apostles; and although many might take issue with his severed cow's head, there was something authentically moving about the overtly unironic manner with which Hirst treated these Christian themes, freighted as they are with 2,000 years of faith. Similarly, Bill Viola's video pieces, The Passions, at the National Gallery are proving the pulling power of emotionally and spiritually direct art. Perhaps we are finally over all that Nineties irony. Perhaps that's why the V&A's Gothic show has been so successful; and perhaps it is why Olafur Eliasson's "transformative utopian installation" at Tate Britain is one of the biggest draws in town.
And perhaps it is why artists such as Rachel Howard - brought up as a Quaker and currently showing her cruciform photographs in Dering Street - and the Mancunian feminist Linder, the muse of Morrissey, are producing gripping new work. Linder's latest project is sponsored by the British Council and opens in Prague next spring. Like Sherman, she is fascinated by identity and sexuality; only her work adopts personae from the edge of religious belief: bearded female saints or the Mother of the Shakers, Ann Lee. Others might find such performances extreme; I find them essentially restorative - not least because I've spent the past three years writing about utopian beliefs. And to paraphrase Moz, Heaven knows we need a new utopia now.
Gore beats grind
I've just spent my second week back at school. It's a strange sensation: I keep expecting to be told not to run down the corridors or (as I was taught by monks) to hear the swish of a black cassock in pursuit as my mates and I are discovered smoking in the cricket nets. In fact, I've been commissioned by Hampshire County Council's literature development officer, Emma Dolman, to teach creative writing, and my classes have ranged from sweet seven-year-olds at Sholing Infants to the rather more intimidating teenagers of Hamble Community College. (Actually a well-behaved bunch: one of them even came up and shook my hand, an act which, given the strict codes of cool operating in school society, was a true honour.)
The premise for these sorties is the subject of my last book, the vast Victorian military hospital which stood at Netley, on the eastern banks of Southampton Water. The idea is to elicit fiction from fact and to get the little darlings thinking laterally. I've realised that to silence a group of restive infants, all you have to do is to mention amputated limbs - there's nothing they like better than a bit of gore and a gruesome ghost story. Bitterne C of E Juniors particularly liked the tale of the Grey Lady, a Victorian nurse who threw herself off the chapel tower after mistakenly administering a fatal dose to her soldier-patient-lover, while the tougher nuts of Hamble preferred the macabre Pathé film from 1918 of shell-shock victims at Netley. And when we took a class from Townhill Juniors to the site itself - now the Royal Victoria Country Park - they were most excited by the cemetery.
Taken out of the daily grind of the National Curriculum, you get the sense that you are freeing young minds. That afternoon, one of the boys turned to his teacher and said, "I think Mr Philip is the best person in the world." What do you say to that? The experience has impressed on me the extraordinary things we expect teachers to do. They're entrusted with our children, shouted at by parents and beleaguered by league tables, Sats and targets. Their hours get longer as their pay gets shorter. Yet they have the responsibility of rearing a new generation.
What really brought it home to me was the fact that, as the Townhill kids wandered towards the beach, their supervisor pulled out a life preserver and had to instruct her charges how to use it should they start drowning (even though the tide was so low that they would have had to wade through mud for 30m before they got wet). It is difficult to understand a society which undervalues these professionals while its fat-cat company directors display a sense of responsibility which begins and ends with taking a 10 per cent cut in their million-pound bonuses when the shareholders cut up rough.
On my list of things to do, watching a rugby match at 9am on a Saturday ranks somewhere below root canal treatment. However, after an early-morning call from my excited sister in Sydney - she'd flown out to join her husband and sons who had tickets for the final - I felt duty-bound to spend nearly two hours watching 30 grown men wrestling in a muddy Australian field. After about half an hour, I think I'd worked out the rules. I even cared who won. But I do wonder what it says about our priorities when it is proposed that pupils get time off to watch the victory parade, while their peers who wanted to go on the anti-Bush march were threatened with punishment for truancy.
Janet Street-Porter is awayReuse content