Below is an essay I wrote for the second art subject module, APS03. When changing some of the formatting to put it on the website, I noticed a lot of small mistakes; I left them all in. Now, of course, I wouldn't make those mistakes. I now know to italicise the titles of newspapers... This essay was also graded A, of course; I got 14 out of 16 this time.
This essay attempts to analyse Adrian Searle's critical discussion—titled 'Gore Blimey'—of the Chapman brothers' retrospective, 'Bad Art For Bad People', shown at the Tate Liverpool. It will cover what is written and how it is written, comparing it to other critical discussions of the same work. It will also look at the resulting stance that the critic has taken with his discussion.
'Bad Art For Bad People' is the mid-career retrospective of Jake and Dinos Chapman. The show comprises seven rooms of their art, each devoted to a specific theme within their art.
The show begins with room one, called Anatomies, and shows a series of mannequin sculptures such as Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic, Desublimated Libidinal Model (enlarged x 1000) 1995, the group of fused-together mannequins of children, some of whom have genitals in place of mouths. Room two is called Disasters of War, and it contains works that are all based on Goya's prints of the same name. Disasters of War 1993 is a three dimensional interpretation of Goya's etchings, that the artists made from toy soldiers. The third room is dedicated to Sex and Death. Inside there is a work called Little Death Machine (Castrated) 1993, which "addresses the mechanical, absurd and repetitious nature of sex" (Bad Art For Bad People Exhibition Guide 2006). Hell 65 Million Years BC 2005 lends its name to room four. The work is an installation made from everyday materials such as newspaper, and depicts a scene of dinosaurs arranged around a volcano. Room five is titled Miniatures and Hellscapes, and shows some of the scenes of death and violence that the artists have made over the years. In room six is Painting for Pleasure and Profit: a piece of site-specific, performance based body art in oil, canvas and wood (dimensions variable) 2006. The artists set up a stall at the 2006 Frieze Contemporary Art Fair, painting portraits for the reported fee of four and a half thousand pounds, and this installation is the result of the five days the stall existed—there are over one hundred paintings hung in the mock-up studio, the walls of which are covered in a garish, 1960s wallpaper. The paintings themselves are surprising in their childlike quality; one may be instantly shocked by how these paintings do not look like the work of artists, though one may then accept that to be an artist is not to be a painter. Some of the subjects have an elongated nose, or over-exaggerated, cartoon ears. The artists painted Adrian Searle with a big, red, round nose, and the resulting painting appeared in a Frieze special of g2; if the difference between one sitter and his ensuing portrait is so great, I suspect that this is the case with them all. The effect of the paintings is at times comical, and sometimes thought-provoking—one might wonder why it is that one sitter has been painted with a witch's broomstick and hat, and why another sitter has been represented as only a skull. The Chapman Family Collection 2002 is assigned the final room, and is a series of fake 'primitive' totems expertly crafted from wood. McDonalds logos are the giveaway to their real origin, that they have not been made by tribes people hundreds of years ago.
In his article written for the Guardian very shortly after the exhibition opened, Adrian Searle's discussion of the art works that he has seen does not appear to be equally weighted between critical analysis—that is, both negative and positive—and neutral observations. Of all of the paragraphs in the article, the majority is criticism—both negative and positive—with the remaining paragraphs describing the work and making observations. However, despite this imbalance he is fair—positive comments follow negative comments, and (though not always) negative comments follow positive ones.
For example, one paragraph describes the physicality of Painting for Pleasure and Profit. The next paragraph goes on to describe some of the other portraits the Chapmans painted during the Frieze fair.
"One sitter here asked not to be painted with pricks coming out of his face, and was rewarded with being portrayed as a multi-organed scrotum, like a penile version of a Swiss army knife... Another woman is shown decapitated, her severed neck depicted with anatomical relish. A man who spent his portrait session with Jake being horrible about his wife ended up appearing as though he were trying to claw his way out of a vagina. The brothers tried to capture looks and personality, but also their disdain and antipathy." (Searle 2006)
Here, Searle uses words such as "tried", "disdain" and "decapitated". These words do not suggest complimentary feelings about the paintings in question—the word "tried" implies that they failed in their attempt to "capture looks and personality". Nonetheless, it does also imply that the comedy and inaccuracy in the paintings is not due to their incompetence as painters, but is a consideration of the sitter's personality as well as facial features. This could be thought of as more meaningful and telling than a portrait that only takes into account the facial features of a person, because a portrait should tell you what kind of person somebody is as well what they look like. However, I believe that the overall sense of this paragraph is not praising the Chapmans' art work because of the other uncomplimentary words used; "decapitated" does not imply that there is anything graceful about the painting.
The next paragraph briefly describes the general arrangement of the exhibition, making the reader aware that there are some items from the artists' youth, concluding with "how labour-intensive their art is has never struck me so fully". Searle describes for the reader one of the portraits in the room, but, although he is damning of the artists' technical abilities, he is not presenting a reader—potentially somebody who does not know of the art works or artists in question—with a biased view that the artists are untalented, as he then goes on to recognise and acknowledge that there is a lot of effort that goes into their art. This is a good way to make an argument, because the reader can make up his or her own mind by being presented with both good and bad points about the art.
The main points of Searle's discussion are that the work is funny, with too much detail, distracting focus from what is going on in them, that shock is not his primary response to the work, and that he also feels that the artists' trademark—work that is often deemed "shocking"—"can turn against them".
"None of the vitrines, the allusions to the death camps, the morphed mannequin abuse, the sex dolls, the reworked Goya etchings and recreated, sculpted scenes from his Disasters of War, shock me... Genuine shock, surely, either happens to us, or happens not at all. I for one cannot empathise with a painted or drawn figure or a sculpted person in the same way I identify with a character in a movie or a novel, or in a biographical or historical account. Art does not move me in the same way." (Searle 2006)
So, despite that the word "shocking" is possibly the adjective applied most often to work of the Chapman brothers, it seems that not everybody experiences being shocked by it, nor is it the primary intention of it.
In an interview with Emily Bearn for The Daily Telegraph, Jake Dinos denies that it is actually their intention to shock audiences who view their work.
"Nothing in a gallery is repulsive... Some people might have problems with a composition of genitalia, but sometimes shock is merely a Pavlovian response." (Bearn 2002)
This quotation suggests that if shock is a response to any of their work, it is only because the person experiencing the emotion has been conditioned to do so in response to certain stimuli, for example a sculpture of children with penises in place of mouths. This conditioning may have come from media, especially media that relays information about the art world to the general public. Sometimes when tabloid journalists communicate news of art—in particular of the artists nominated for the Turner Prize, a prize they often denounce as "sick" (Bowness 2003)—they simplify the language so that it can be easily understood by its audience, and tend to adopt a stance that could be said to be that of somebody working class looking in on a world of art that they do not understand. In turn the language leans towards that of disgust, and the over-simplification is misleading because they are not providing a full, balanced view of the art in question. If people first encounter, and continue to learn about, art through tabloids and other people's biased, unfair accounts of it, then they will only know how to respond to the Chapman brothers' art—and similar work such as Tracey Emin's unmade bed, Chris Ofili's use of elephant dung and Phil Collins' fully functioning office, for example—in the way that they have repeatedly read journalists responding. As such, if these people were to visit 'Bad Art For Bad People' they most probably would experience shock because, as Chapman pointed out, it is "merely a Pavlovian response"; this does not mean that the work is genuinely shocking. If the artists say they do not make work to deliberately shock their audience, the shocking nature can then be looked beyond in order to see other issues that may be contained in the work. Such issues might be that of globalisation (with the McDonald's and Nike logos in some of their work) or child labour (with the fibreglass children of Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic, Desublimated Libidinal Model (enlarged x 1000) 1995 all wearing Fila trainers).
Surprisingly, as both an artist and an art critic, Searle says that nothing about the show shocks him. As somebody who is educated about art, if there is one thing about the entire retrospective that might do so it would be that Jake and Dinos Chapman bought and defaced (albeit a posthumous) Disasters of War by Goya. They have defaced the work of an important artist, and this might be thought of by some people, as disrespectful. But Searle does not say he is bothered by this.
"A mid-career survey or retrospective offers a chance to take stock. What also becomes apparent is not just range and breadth, but also narrowness and limitation. An artist's focus, their strength and mental agility, can turn against them. For all the variety and changes of pace in the Chapmans' work, the differences of approach and of touch, how long can they maintain their moral ambiguity, their suspensions of judgment?" (Searle 2006)
Here, Searle is commenting that the Chapman brothers have a trademark—that is, they make work that all has similar themes, that elicits the same kind of response from various critics—that it is disturbing, shocking, that it is designed to shock but actually fails to do so, that it is nonsensical; despite the different media and skills the brothers encompass in their art (wood sculpting, painting), and the different themes that they cover (religion, science, capitalism), it is all largely the same message communicated with a different art work. That is to say that we will never see them paint a watercolour landscape, or take photographic portraits, or make any kind of art that is not heavily involved in the aforementioned themes. They have a focus, and this is good, but as Searle highlights there is only so long they can continue in this direction. After such time the artists themselves may find that they are regurgitating the same concepts in the same style; in a few years' time perhaps we will see them sabotaging yet more Goya prints, trying to deliver the same ideas that we have already seen from them. Searle is reasonable enough, however, to state that this trademark is also their strength. He is not dismissing this, but simply acknowledging that they have a strength which they should not let become their weakness, which it will become if they do not keep evolving as artists.
"Hell Sixty-Five Million Years BC is extremely funny, in all sorts of ways... It is hard not to walk amongst these doomed and savage life forms without grinning wildly." (Searle 2006)
Searle is not alone with in his opinion that the Chapman brothers' work is amusing. In the book '100. The Work That Changed British Art', there is a text by Patricia Ellis in which she briefly comments on all one hundred pieces of art showcased in the book about the first two waves of Young British Artists.
"Jake and Dinos Chapman lie awake at night, dreaming up a nation's nightmares. Exiled in a self-made world of teen boy gross-out contests, the brothers constantly up the ante on doom through a never-ending source of DIY special effects." (Ellis 2003, p.206)
In her succinct introduction to Jake and Dinos Chapman, Ellis does not forthrightly comment that she finds their work funny, as Adrian Searle does. However, she assumes that it is juvenile, by saying that they "lie awake at night", as though their only preoccupation in life is what deplorable subject matter they can next incorporate into their work. It is patronising to describe the artists as "exiled in a self-made world of teen boy gross-out contests", and by using patronising language she appears to not be able to take their work seriously.
In comparison to this, Searle finding it funny does not seem like a bad thing. He has said that he does not experience shock at any of the work, but it does make him laugh. Ellis does not even seem to be open to experiencing the work, and can only be patronising about it.
"It is difficult to focus. There's too much detail. Not being able to take everything in, the eye skates over the piles of bodies, circling the buildings (like the vultures that sit on the pediments), homing in on the action." (Searle 2006)
Having made comments about the merit of the artists and their craftsmanship and focus, I believe that his observation that there is too much detail within the work is a minor one. It is a complaint made, presumably, because he wants to be able to take in the work properly in order to understand it fully and give a balanced view of it. However, given that the work in question is Hell 65 Million Years BC 2005, a miniature scene of destruction over which the viewer gets to stand like a god admiring what they have created, it would probably not have the same effect i , instead of five thousand figures and hundreds of trees, rocks and buildings, there were considerably fewer. The sense of devastation would not be as convincing. At least Searle has commented honestly on his feelings about the work, though.
Contrary to Adrian Searle's opinions of 'Bad Art For Bad People' are those of Richard Dorment. In an article written for The Daily Telegraph Dorment opens with "Jake and Dinos Chapman are among our most original artists". Straight away it can be seen that this will not be a critical analysis that will equally weigh up the negative and positive aspects like that of Searle, but one where the author already knows what he thinks and will explain his reasons for doing so. Therefore, unlike Searle's critical discussion, this is one that only combines descriptive writing and observations with positive comments. It also explains the wherefores of the art works:
"And yet it wasn't true to say that the work glorified violence; if anything, it was a commentary on the way we have become inured to slaughter, routinely watching events in Gaza, Rwanda, Dafur, and Baghdad on the ten o'clock news without it making the slightest impact on our lives. Because it is always the same images we see, wherever they take place, it is as though mass murder has been globalised, like the McDonald's franchise." (Dorment 2006)
Here, after describing Hell 65 Million Years BC 2005 in the previous paragraphs, Dorment explains to the reader how the piece works—that it is a "commentary". This is something that Searle does not do, and I think that both types of critical discussion are valid. Searle's is strictly an analysis of the art work, meaning that it is more objective. Comparatively, Dorment's is far more subjective because he leads the reader to believe his own interpretations of the work. His interpretations may or may not be what the artists intended, but regardless of this is the fact that the reader can not make up his or her own mind when influenced by somebody else's subjectivity. A positive consequence of including his own interpretations is that, for readers who do not know about the artists, or art in general, can quickly take on an understanding of what is being discussed, and people who do have some prior knowledge can obtain a different perspective; when the critic includes personal opinions about meanings of works it is far easier to do this than when they have been objective only.
Compared to Searle's discussion, Dorment's is much shorter, with pithy paragraphs. The bulk of it is descriptive, and the only negative comment made against the Chapman brothers is regarding Painting for Pleasure and Profit, which he says "has neither the fangs nor the cackle of manic laughter I now expect from two of the most entertaining and consistently interesting artists working in Britain today". This is not even a real negative comment—he is merely praising the artists by saying that they can, and have, made better work. It seems that Richard Dorment is incapable of making a proper critical analysis for, not only has he not considered aspects from an objective point of view, he also describes both Painting for Pleasure and Profit and The Chapman Family Collection as "a send-up". He has used quite an informal phrase best reserved for comedy, and used it twice, suggesting that he is so mesmerised by the talent and wit of these artists that he can not think of any other adjectives.
Whilst a subjective and leading discussion is helpful for engaging the reader and introducing them to different interpretations, the objectivity of Searle’s discussion, with its focus on the art works as art (rather than metaphors that need to be deciphered), means that it is an actual critical discussion. So, in spite of the more negative analysis in his discussion, the whole thing is balanced.
Looking at a few of Adrian Searle's other recent critical discussions it is noticeable that they are all of the same considerable length as 'Gore Blimey'. He obviously takes care to write discussions that are long enough to consider the art work at a depth that will give the reader a good understanding of both the art and his responses to it; the short Daily Telegraph article is too short to consider more than Dorment's own personal opinions of the Chapman brothers, never mind his responses to being in front of the art.
In an article written in The Guardian about David Shrigley, just as in 'Gore Blimey', Searle manages to be critical in both a negative and positive way through his observations of the work he is confronted with.
"A number of oddly shaped paintings on bits of wood, displayed on a shelf that runs round a corner, don't quite manage to remain true in voice." (Searle 2006)
Rather than simply say "I don't think Shrigley is entirely convincing", Searle has observed something in the work and communicated his feelings about that.
This is just one example which typifies the writing of Adrian Searle. Personally, his writing is sometimes difficult to read. Regarding 'Bad Art For Bad People', I would rather have read a review that is a mixture of Searle's and of Dorment's—a review that makes observations and comments objectively, but also tries to explain possible meanings of the work. That would make it a lot easier to go into the Tate Liverpool knowing other people's opinions and using them to inform myself and make up my own mind. In turn this would help with me to determine which critics I would rather read because I agree with what they say, or I prefer the style of writing.
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