In England, the middle-class art audience knows the Chapmanswell. They are survivors from the early waves of 1990s Young BritishArtists. Transgression merchants. Shockers. Their success and their first classexistence, the respect they enjoy—their status as iconic figures—has a lot to do with the readable, literal content of their art. But also withsections of the mass media in England being willing to tune in to artand exploit it. So between art and the media, a kind of contest of unrealshocks is played out for a public that is used to grappling with a feelingof unreality generally, because of fast-moving social changes.
The insider audience mostly reveres the brothers (although there isa sanctimonious subsection who deplore their irresponsibility and lackof obvious worthiness). I like them too, because of their intelligence.But they can be preposterous. One of them, Jake, is in the habit ofgiving interviews to curator-mandarins. He spouts a lot of stuff abouttransgression, trying to get on top of the clichés of the Bataillediscourse while at the same allowing himself to get hopelessly buriedbeneath them in a sort of conflicted attempt to be obedient andoriginal simultaneously.
What this says is that the Chapmans want to be taken seriously.They don’t really want to violate the law; they want to please solemnity.And it must really hurt that on the whole, it’s only lightweights whofall for their strained intellectualese (Tate curators) and not higher-upWizards of Oz like Rosalind Krauss or Thierry de Duve or Hal Foster.
On the other hand, I don’t think a bit of posturing in interviewscounts against the success of Fucking Hell. At White Cube, nine metaland glass vitrines were arranged in the form of a swastika. An epicjourney was described within: many individually modeled humanoidcreatures emerge from a kind of volcano hole or giant anus and starttorturing and killing each other, while at the same time traveling overrope bridges across deep valleys (the landscape changing from rural toindustrial, northern to tropical), heading for some kind of reprocessingendpoint where the torture can start up all over again. A horror cycle.
The figures are full of comic animation, pursuing their nuttyriffs on the death drive in an environment that is part Nazi death camp(huts, barbed wire, and burial pits) and part Apocalypse Now (foliage,rivers, and heads on sticks). Plus, since many of the figures seem to beskeletons, there’s a definite element of Ray Harryhausens charming1963 movie Jason and the Argonauts.
I looked at the work twice, once alone except for an art dealerwho’d come with me, and once with the gallery filled with visitors.On the second trip, I was struck by the audience’s social type, whichwas middle-class, educated, but not arty or intellectual. They didn’tseem an ironic crowd. They were earnest, amazed by the detail—which was amazing—but also made thoughtful by the idea of whatthey were seeing.
In the piece, Nazi torturers make decorative arrangements ofmutilated body parts: long necklaces of heads; or severed human armsatrophied in right angles and stuck together to form a swastika. SkullheadNazi zombies form a semicircle around Hitler, who stands at anartist’s easel on the edge of a deep valley filled with bodies and carrion,painting a happy picture. One death zombie regards Hitler’s canvas witha quizzical expression, head cocked in thoughtful, focused concentration,as if he’s imitating an art critic—a perfect joke on aestheticism.
On the first visit, I’d come from the Bernard Jacobson Gallery,where I saw a painting by Robert Motherwell (an exhibition of his workis on view from October 15 through November 22). Some blue, somecharcoal lines, and that was it. I looked at it with pleasure, frowning andsquinting. The work’s owner came with me to White Cube. I said theChapmans’ stuff obviously isn’t what Motherwell was about: his calm,high drama; his sensitivity and chance taking; his knowledgeable, elegant, experienced,pared-back visual forms. But, I said, it’s a worthy opponent to all that. Theywork like hell at their lowness.
The dealer thought that was a good way of putting it, and then after a fewminutes, he said he’d had enough. But the structural point of Fucking Hell is thatthere’s never enough. It relates to the brothers’ proposal that violent fantasies areendless. Whatever horrible thing you just heard about, you can always think ofsomething worse. In Fucking Hell, giant cows give birth to human corpses, men haveskulls instead of heads, and vultures have the heads of men. Machines create deathchemicals and somehow use mutilated human body parts as fuel. A Nazi skeletonsurreally steps out of its covering of flesh, or maybe it’s Death stepping into a Nazi—we don’t know which way we’re going—atrocity is circular and endless.I looked again at the ordinary people on high-ish incomes staring at the scenes.I wondered if they thought the work was about mankind. Was it the new SeventhSeal? Or did they think it was about jazzing a market? Was it impressive because itdid that so successfully?
Fucking Hell is far from Ingmar Bergman, far from the medieval dance ofdeath, far from anything in art of the past that is substantial and important. But still,the Chapmans are great at what they do, which is a new kind of game, exemplified bythe YBAs in the ’90s, in which you use art to focus on the uncertainty that the publichas about value, but always stay somehow within the capabilities of an audience,which, up until this cultural moment, has had little to do with art.
The audience fails to develop, and that’s how the YBAs prefer it. So the Chapmanswork with visual forms that the ignorant tend to like, such as Hollywood modelmaking. Or obsolete high art forms, like etching and watercolor, the kitschy potentialof which the Chapmans don’t at all undermine or challenge but deliberately exploit.They picture horror but in a pleasurable, if unrefined, way. They have their ownrefinement, their own original balance of skill, silliness, and wickedness, of hilarity,stamina, and focus.
When they reference art history (Goya, Brueghel, Bosch), it is only that: reference.Blind to anything profoundly visual, they demonstrate an interest in art’s simpleliteralism, a perspective that fits with culture’s present preoccupations. The kind ofart that plays well generally now is engaged with a kind of punning, ironic explorationof a sort of multilayered, slightly aestheticized daily life—aestheticized only as muchas is needed to get the idea across. The question is how to adjust to the new mind-setwithout acting stupid.
Society’s new fantasies about the artistic mind-set are part of the joke of FuckingHell. Artists live on the edge. They dare to go “out there,” to zones the rest of us don’tdare think about, but we’re intrigued when artists bring back their psychic souvenirs.These are primitive Romantic thoughts, separated from anything believable thatRomanticism has to say about the connection between the inner lifeand Nature. But also totally untrue in terms of what the global art sceneis really like now, with its population of pampered artist-pets; worthycritics and curators with obedient, suburban imaginations; and Theoryhigh priests, with their droning theology.
Hitler was an artist; tribes make tribal art; and when civilizedpeople regress, they perhaps become tribal. And beneath the streamlinedfakery of the consumer society is a lot of writhing cavemanmurderousness. Simple thoughts like these go into Fucking Hell and arerealized in a profusion of engaging detail: humans and their gestures,their faces and poses, their relationship to objects and to landscape, andtheir interesting changeability as they individuate or as they merge intocrowds.
There is a definite reminder in the work of the great casts ofcharacters in medieval paintings of the Last Judgment, all the detailedweirdness of medieval hell. But although the Chapmans do have theirown sense of form, there is nothing in their approach that recalls themedieval eye for pattern and arrangement—hell’s former sublimemusicality. (This is Motherwell’s area.)
What is the power of medieval religious art, anyway? When you’relooking at the Isenheim altarpiece (Grünewald is a hangover of medievalisminto the Northern Renaissance), you’re not looking at horror anddisgust but at a monumental, distanced, grand staging of these emotions,an animation involving realism and symbolism that is simultaneouslyplayful and of the greatest seriousness. You’re looking at a staggeringbuildup of abstract values—the whole range of visually compelling effectsof which an art form at the peak of its development is capable.
This all sounds as though the Chapmans deserve a good whipping.But hang on. They compensate for their lack of interest in transcendentvisual experience—or visual ideas, even—with jokes, an elementoften present in artistic expressions of biblical hell, but not paramount.But they also compensate with something else, something that Bosch,Brueghel, or Grünewald, or even Motherwell, who died in 1991, cannever offer: contemporaneity, creative mainlining into Now.
After all, Fucking Hell isn’t really about hell or evil. It’s not as if thedark side of human nature were really being explored. The work isabout taboos, contemporary people’s fascination with seemingly evershiftinglines between what society finds acceptable and what it doesn’t:the Chapmans have something real and original to contribute to thisdiscussion.
A notoriously conservative art critic, Brian Sewell, wrote in hisregular Evening Standard column (on June 6, 2008) that FuckingHell is so important, so indisputably connected to the greatest art andculture that’s ever existed (he says he sees in the work the “digestedinfluence” of Rubens, Ingres, Goya, Greek antiquity, the Pergamonaltar, Roman triumphs, medieval art, Altdorfer, Brueghel, Bosch, andMichelangelo), that in the future the Chapmans will be “the only artistsof their generation to deserve more than a wry footnote in the history ofart.” Sewell is wrong about there being any real or important connectionback to old art, but even so, the Chapmans have got something.
The argument against them from the worthy brigade in art academiain England (summed up in the books of art historian Julian Stallabrass)goes something like this: the aesthetic heights can’t be in the cards forart right now, because of problems of elitism and so on, not to mentionthe impossibility of inhabiting old artistic mind-sets originallyproduced by defunct social structures. You have various options instead.One is the Chapmans’ strategy, which is the wrong option; to do a kindof ersatz old-fashioned type of art just for the sake of entertainment,for lulling the middle class or pandering to this class’s hypocrisy anddelusion. (Sewell’s farty trumpeting of the brothers’ genius falls intothe hands of this argument.) The more correct artistic thing to do, theworthy argument goes, is to help society by making art using democratic forms (especially the Internet), which have a wide currency andappeal, with the aim of changing consciousness and bringing to lightinvisible structures of regression and injustice.
Stallabrass’s errors are to assume that (a) the Chapmans ape highart and (b) that their shocks are of the same nature as the shocksin movies such as Hostel and Saw, or (especially in their earlier worksfeaturing distorted child mannequins) the English tabloid newspapers’double-standards treatment of stories combining sensationalist stimulationwith virtuous hunting-down of pedophiles.
In fact, the Chapmans are sophisticated in their unsophistication—they dumb down their forms, but they don’t suck up to contemporarypiety. They offer a critique of hypocrisy that involves imaginative newtakes on despair and futility, but without the expected easy moral homiliesthat go with pop-culture movies and tabloid stories. Their achievementis all in their refusals.
Stallabrass is an academic, do-gooding, vicarish Marxist who isrepelled by the sadism of the Chapmans’ art in the first place, but evenmore repelled that the mode should be comedy—whereas Sewell isturned on by the sadism of Fucking Hell and doesn’t even notice thecomedy. The careerist leftie assesses too low and the overheated fogytoo high, but they both don’t know what they’re looking at.
The critical difference between Fucking Hell and pop culture isthe work’s open-endedness, its refusal to be so certain about what itsmorality really is, as opposed to the wrapped-up meanings that arealways present in gross-out violent movies as much as in tabloid newsstories. The Chapmans’ fiberglass children-figures with adult sex organsgrowing out of their heads are not really titillating like the tabloids;they go in too much for something like mutation: clumped-togetheranus-penis children are too repulsive and zombie-like to be titillating.
The Chapmans are uneven, but at their best—as with FuckingHell, their children-horrors, and their African fetish carvings withdisguised McDonald’s symbols—they think up scenarios and see theidea doggedly through until it works. They make up for the lack of ahigh visual aesthetic with constant, restless, inventive idea-energy. Inpicturing the sickness of society on their own terms, thinking up theirown original takes on corruption and distortion, they are not complyingwith hypocrisy but doing the opposite: refusing illusions, trying toexercise judgment about right and wrong. Ultimately, they’re on theside of the angels.
"Hell Calling" originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' October 2008 Table of Contents.