Monday, May 31, 2004

Monday Schadenfreude: Burn, baby burn

Somehow -- I blame the election -- I missed the news last week that Charles Saatchi's art warehouse went up in smoke taking much of the most celebrated/hated BritArt of the last decade with it. Among the losses: Tracey Emin’s "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995," a tent embroidered with the names of her lovers, of which I have a picture on my fridge.

Many people disliked the controversial conceptual BritArt stored in Saatchi's collection -- say, Jake and Dinos Chapman's sculptures of children with penises where their noses should be -- and were non-plussed by the inferno. Other were even gleeful to see the art burn: You couldn't walk through a British tabloid's letters to the editor page with stepping in Schadenfreude.

One of the smarter anti-BritArt arts pundits is Terry Teachout. Teachout makes a good point about the BritArt movement on his blog, quoting from his old review of Sensation, a 1999 show from Saatchi's collection at the National Gallery in New York:
Artistic effects are not what "Sensation" is about; rather, the show is about ideas, meaning that you don't have to like these works in order to "appreciate" them. Once I've told you, for instance, that Marc Quinn's "Self" is a refrigerated Plexiglass box containing a bust of the artist sculpted in his own frozen blood, you know everything there is to know about "Self" that matters. Actually seeing it is superfluous. That's the nice thing about conceptual art: Once described, it need not be experienced.
Can't really argue with that. I, for instance, happen to think that Emin's "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995" is worthy of my fridge door, but I've never seen the work in person and it probably wouldn't make a difference to my appreciation of it if I did. While the actual tent went up in flames, the idea behind it still exists. Frankly, Emin could make another one in a weekend. Heck, she could contract it out to a factory and sell them at Army Surplus stores. (I'd buy one for camping, for sure.)

The Guardian's David Aaronovitch, who is more sympathetic to BritArt than Teachout, had a really excellent piece yesterday trying to understand why so many Brits (and international observers) were so blase (or giddy) about the Saatchi fire. Among other things, Aaronovitch notes that we just can't preserve every piece of art from every moment in history forever:
Ecologists know that, far from being the disasters they are usually depicted, forest fires are an essential part of keeping things going. If the old trees don't die, there won't be new ones. If people never expire, there won't be any room for new people. If all old buildings and all old art and all our photos and scribblings and loved old toys - if all this survives, it will crowd out our attics, our warehouses, our museums, our TV channels and, ultimately, our brains. Can we cope with it?
Aaronovitch suggests that our obsession with preserving every piece from the past, makes it really hard to create new art: There's no room in our cluttered attics and our cluttered minds.

For the final word on the Saatchi fire, we turn to Emin herself, who told the BBC yesterday that she was irritated by the public's "sniggering" at the incident.
It is just not fair and it's not funny and it's not polite and it's bad manners... I would never laugh at a disaster like that - I just have some empathy and sympathy with people's loss.
Quite right.

She says, by the way, that she will not make another sex-partner tent. "I had the inclination and inspiration 10 years ago to make that, I don't have that inspiration and inclination now," she said. "My work is very personal, which people know, so I can't create that emotion again - it's impossible."

Well, not impossible, reeeeally. But probably wise considering what that kind of thing would do to the market value of her other work... You know: "Oh, don't worry. I can whip up another one anytime."

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