Gilbert and George are the godfathers of modern British art. Without them, the trite messages and facile innuendo of Britart would have been unthinkableby Ben Lewis / March 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
I recently received an email from the White Cube gallery inviting me to see the new pictures by Gilbert and George, which were, they said, “lustrous, ornate, pictorially complex, vividly coloured, yet suffused with tenebrous solemnity.” Imagine my surprise then, as I entered the gallery and beheld what were—even by the diabolically low standards established by the YBAs in the 1990s—the most empty-headed artworks produced in Britain in living memory. The only thing they had in common with the text of the gallery’s email was absurd hyperbole. It left me wondering: what makes Gilbert and George so bad?
Gilbert and George’s new work is not particularly new. As with everything they’ve done since the early 1970s, they’ve made another pile of large brightly coloured panels of photo-montage divided by a grid of frames. They look like a cross between stained-glass windows and cheap Soviet poster art. Their religious subject matter is not handled originally either. Small jewel-encrusted crucifixes cascade across their pictures in pleasing patterns or are blown up to a height of several feet. There are amulets and trinkets that seem to come from Celtic burial mounds, medieval heraldry and Chinese toyshops. As usual, the figures of Gilbert and George appear in the midst of these compositions, like vaudeville performers on a small stage.
It would be unfair to criticise Gilbert and George for lapsing into a parody of themselves, in which their style has become a series of formulaic tropes and painfully obvious gestures. This is not unusual for late work, and the same criticisms could be thrown at Emil Nolde, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The problem is that Gilbert and George have always been like this.
They famously debuted as “living sculptures” in 1969. Taking their cue from the unquestioning adulation the art world was bestowing on European contemporaries such as Joseph Beuys, they told us quickly that everything they did was art. It was a peculiarly staid British version of the newish medium of performance art. In America, Vito Acconci masturbated under the floor of his gallery; Gilbert and George wore suits and sang “Underneath the Arches.” They developed their own Warhol-type personas—making banal corporate-style pronouncements about art and a better world. They told us they wanted to make “Art for All” and that their art was meant to “improve” the world. The art world was charmed by their quaint British ways and they became the cucumber sandwiches of conceptual art.
In the 1970s, they began recording the important moments in their lives as photographs, and then arranged several of them in large squares of nine, 16 or more images. They looked like cinema stills from a British B-movie of the 1940s, or a bizarre photo-love story from a teenage magazine. By the end of the decade, these had metamorphosed into red and black grids of racist and homophobic graffiti, immigrants, policemen, soldiers and Big Ben—the street furniture of urban Britain and the six o’clock news. In the 1980s, they walked through brightly coloured landscapes surrounded by young boys (in the 1980s it was skinheads, at the 2003 Biennale it was hoodies), fluorescent faeces, poo and penises. The art world told us they were social commentators, and they were, but only in the sense that they were reviving the cliché-ridden suburban British world of fusty middle-aged men, of dark rooms in terraced houses, and repressed homosexuality. It has dated very badly.
But it all looked very different in the 1980s, even to me. There were huge Gilbert and George exhibitions at the Guggenheim and the Hayward. I was a fan and bought the catalogue. I used to write manifestos for my own performance art group in the style of their daft pronouncements: “The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing at and dismissing the normal outsider” (What Our Art Means, Gilbert and George). In the 1980s, “radical” artists and critics thought it was clever to write off the entire history of modernism with glib generalisations about the “People.” The fact is that the modernist art movements they were attacking, most obviously constructivism, set out with exactly the same ambition.
Gilbert and George present us with a British version of political art, and a British version of performance-based photographic work, and a British version of “shock” in art. In America, people were being shocked by artists who cut off their penises and shot themselves; and in Austria they were being shocked by artists who drenched their naked friends in the entrails of slaughtered oxen. But in Britain, we were shocked in the 1970s and 1980s by Gilbert and George titles like Cunt and Coming. If they had never existed they would have been invented by the writers of Little Britain.
But who am I to contradict the opinions of great cultural commentators such as Michael Bracewell and Janet Street-Porter? They would doubtless point out to me that Gilbert and George are the godfathers of the new generation of famous British artists. They are right. Without Gilbert and George, the trite messages, facile sexual innuendo, publicity-hunger and alcoholism of Britart would have been unthinkable.