I admit it: I laughed, not cried, when I read that most of advertising magnate Charles Saatchi’s famous collection of “transgressive” art got burnt to a transgressive crisp in a London warehouse fire a few weeks ago.
Gee, sad. Lost to the world forever, for example, was Tracey Emin’s famous work “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995,” consisting of a tent along whose inner sides Emin had sewn 102 names. Saatchi was reported to have paid Emin, a star of the then-hot, now-passe “Britart” movement of the 1990s whose other artworks include her own unmade bed, some 40,000 pounds (lucky girl!) for the bit of embroidery. Also destroyed–sob!–were several works by the Chapman brothers (Jake and Dinos), merry souls who specialize in arranging store-bought plastic mannequins in tableaux of sadism and torture, often with male genitalia where their noses should be. Saatchi had reportedly shelled out a grand total of $90 million for this sort of stuff and claimed to be “totally devastated” when it went up in smoke.
Naturally, the British art establishment pulled long faces after the fire (although hardly anyone else did), and Emin herself compared the loss of her tent to the loss of Hans Holbein’s fresco of Henry VIII and his family when Whitehall Palace burned down in 1698. But as my favorite Brit cultural commentator Theodore Dalrymple notes in City Journal, even most Brit intellectuals weren’t quite swallowing this line. Dalrymple writes:
“The fire does not seem to have resulted in any national mourning in England. Indeed, there was speculation that a transgressive art critic, or even performance artist, might have sparked the fire; some even saw it as proof of divine justice. Even those who would normally recoil at the thought of burning a used pulp fiction paperback were not deeply upset: which perhaps is why certain cultural panjandrums went into overdrive to explain to the philistines why the fire was such a catastrophe.”
One of the artworks destroyed in the Saatchi fire turned out to have been Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary. That was the elephant dung-splattered, female-buttocks-and-genitalia-surrounded painting of the Madonna that was part of the “Sensations” show of Saatchi-owned art at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. As might be expected, New York City’s substantial Catholic population was incensed that a tax-supported museum was using their money to pay for what they considered to be a three-way combination of blasphemy, scatology, and pornography. Then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to pull the museum’s $7 million grant from the city. A lawsuit followed, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the rest of the usual suspects–but it would seem that the final justice rendered might have been divine, for most of the “Sensations” show perished in the recent fire.
What I loved about the Holy Virgin Mary flap was the tidal wave of pretentious blather it induced from the intelligentsia, who cast themselves as usual, as defenders of free speech and great art from the mindless, puritanical mob. Here, for example, is Salon’s Daniel Kunitz, going on and on about how Ofili’s work was really an expression of deep Catholic piety and how those elephant droppings added beauty and meaning:
“Had Giuliani actually paid a visit to the exhibit’s Thursday night preview, he would have seen, in Ofili’s ‘Virgin Mary’ painting, a large, exuberantly decorative black Madonna, made sparkling by the addition of map pins, on a fluorescent yellow-orange ground. Its colors, shiny pins, and Mary’s benign expression all combine to give the painting a celebratory air. True, cut-out rear views of buttocks with p–sies peeping underneath surround the image of Mary — these are meant to refer to the naked little putti of traditional religious art. Are painted versions of naked cherubic boys less offensive than photographs of parts of mature nude women? Is there only one way to paint a Madonna?…
“Oh yes, I forgot the dung. By now we all should know that in Africa, where the dung idea came from, elephant droppings carry none of the horrible connotations that s— carries in New York. Before offending us all with his own bulls—, Giuliani might have troubled himself to learn about the sacred nature of pachyderms and their dung in other parts of the world.”
Thanks, Daniel, for enlightening us of the great unwashed–we never would have known. (For an extra chuckle, compare the actual painting imaged here to Kunitz’s gush.)
As Theodore Dalrymple writes:
“For myself, I rather regret the fire and the losses it occasioned’not because of the artistic but because of the documentary value of what was lost. In 100 or 200 years’ time, it might have helped social historians to understand the current state of our soul.”