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Saatchi warehouse fire in Leyton

Jake and Dinos Chapman

Tracey Emin
Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995 (interior)

Barnett Newmans Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, one of the paintings slashed by art vandal Gerard Jan van Bladeren in 1997

Jake and Dinos Chapman
Hell (detail)
Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire
by Charlie Finch

Last week in The Wall Street Journal, Eric Gibson gleefully celebrated the destruction of seminal works by the YBAs Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, et. al. He argued that since pieces like Emins Everyone I Ever Slept With have hardly stood the test of time, that their destruction was rough justice for their reification by steamy contemporary art fans.

Dinos and Jake Chapman, whose tableau grotesque Hell was incinerated in what will be forever known as The Saatchi Fire, cheekily observed that the extinct piece had now gone up in value.

New York arties of the non-discourse variety joked about the blaze with a mixture of lust and envy.

Clearly, observers of all political stripes in our little universe felt an erotic tingling from the auto-da-f of the YBAs. What gives, aside from jealousy, glee and general turdiness?

Like a leaking isotope, art is a process, pace Lacan, of gradual syncopated dissolution, in which person and piece, dancing with each other, dissolve towards death.

The art usually takes longer to leave than the artist, although selling an artwork to a collector or dumping an unwanted painting in the cellar are both a sort of dying.

A fire uniting a rich collector, a bunch of celebrated, transgressive works and the sadness and regret of some British art stars speeds up the process admirably.

All the struggle and vanity are accelerated satisfactorily, like a Douglas Gordon in reverse.

This also applies to willful destruction of masterpieces such as the Barnett Newmans wrecked by visitors at the Stedelijk Museum, as well as the theft of Vermeers and Rembrandt classics from Bostons Gardner collection.

Some observers, such as the editors of Flash Art magazine, have even long defended the destruction of the Newmans, for example as legitimate art acts.

As Al Qaeda proves daily across the globe, civilization, a series of calibrated measures bowing to a disappearing past and an unreal future, can be whacked and hacked with impunity.

But to destroy every artwork would be a lugubrious exercise in entropy, with painters violently creating away to replace the carnage, like so many accountants balancing profit and loss.

Creators aim for Borges universal library of every book in the world, while critics seek the earths largest match and the gravity on which to strike it.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).