Broke baroque

by Yule Heibel on February 18, 2007

The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria has an exhibition centered on “the Baroque” currently on view. There are a few “old master” paintings (nothing first-rate), some prints & etchings, and then there’s the “Contemporary Baroque” piece of it, featuring the work of a single local artist (not well-known) as well as the (infamously known — and isn’t that all that matters these days?) brothers Chapman, Dinos & Jake.

I wasn’t exactly familiar with their work, but I do know my Goya just a little bit. And the Chapmans, ladies and gents, are no Goyas, even if they take Goya etchings and have their way with ’em. Compared to Goya, the Chapmans are so second rate, ridiculous, derivative, and yes: offensive (the only category they can be successful in), words fail. Well, mine, anyway. So I’ll let Johann Hari do it for me: The art of subverting the Enlightenment, subtitled “The Chapman brothers’ declared aim is an old one, offered by fascists and priests for the past 300 years.”

As Hari points out, there’s something deeply fascistic (in all senses) in much of current “romantic primitivist” art and in the Chapmans’ work in particular:

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.


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 a mythical pure, pristine past, before reason supposedly contaminated the world. Jake Chapman says, for example, we shouldn’t think of the sun through “any kind of enlightenment notion of photon particles being useful”. No: we should, like premodern tribes who died at the age of thirty of diseases they did not understand, “start thinking about the sun as a kind of excessive, catastrophic energy.”

…Oh god, not Bataille again. But yes, Bataille again. It’s sad when grown men can’t think of anything new.

For further reading, see also Franklin at artblog dot net, which includes a long comments section. There’s a lot of discussion there as to whether post-modern “discourse” supports the Chapmans’ tripe, but one of the commentors puts it best when he writes:

…current critical thought, such as it is, has never offered even remotely convincing support of work such as that of the Chapmans, certainly not to me. The fact so many have fallen for this glorified offal has little or nothing to do with convincing arguments for it, since there are none. Of course, some people can be convinced of practically anything, no matter how ludicrous, but that’s a matter of cognitive dysfunction, blindness, folly and/or an overwhelming desire to be “with it” at any cost.

Certainly, one gets the impression that here in Victoria, a curatorial desire to be “with it” underwrites the selection. Alas, there’s too little in the real brain department, I’m afraid. Anyone can go to school and pick up the right code words. It’s trickier to think for yourself, independently, and with discrimination and judgement, though.

Oh, we’re not supposed to be judgemental these days, are we? Well, if you’re a curator and dealing with art, but you’re not judgemental, you may as well be blind.

Of course it’s a money issue, isn’t it? Jerry Saltz nails it in a recent Village Voice article (and he’s also interviewed in the College Art Association bulletin, unfortunately not online): Seeing Dollar Signs, subtitled “Is the art market making us stupid? Or are we making it stupid?”

Well, all I can say after seeing the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria‘s Baroque exhibition is: Good question!

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