Shit changes everything. Until two weeks ago "Sensation" seemed so over. The early reaction in the New York art world to the coming exhibition of Charles Saatchi's spunky but flabby collection of young British artists was blasé: "Ten years late," "Juvenile and derivative," "It'll never play here." Then Rudolph Giuliani, already looking more and more like Bela Lugosi, breathed a second life into "Sensation."
When it was shown at London's Royal Academy in 1997, "Sensation" was the biggest thing since, probably, the 1913 Armory Show, drawing record crowds and strong public reaction. One merely had to say to London taxi drivers, "Take me to that art show," and they knew exactly where you meant. It was the exhibit everyone had to see, no matter what they thought of it.
In London, the offending work was Marcus Harvey's enormous portrait of Myra Hindley, an English child murderer akin in creepiness to our own Charles Manson. To us, the painting looks like a sloppy knockoff of Chuck Close, but to the British, Myra was the face of evil. The tabloids went crazy; the painting had eggs thrown on it; guards were posted. But that's how they show their love for art in Great Britain: with hatred -- it bonds everyone together. In New York, things have turned ugly. In the New York Observer Jeffrey Hogrefe contemptuously labeled Saatchi and his brother as "a couple of Iraqis," as if to signal their otherness or Jewishness. Here the hatred is hard, the hostility breathtaking.
In the Myra Hindley slot this time is Chris Ofili's Africanized The Holy Virgin Mary, one of whose breasts is adorned with a beaded clump of elephant dung. That's what made the mayor go batshit. Old white government guys love telling black artists what's offensive. (See the separate discussion of this piece.)
Before we examine what makes British art British, and how much of the art in "Sensation" is aggressively routine -- a wet kiss. Installed in some of the city's best, grandest galleries, contemporary art has rarely looked so good in a New York museum. Nor has "Sensation." I saw the show in London (where it looked handsome but the worse for wear, due to the crowds) and Berlin (sharp but antiseptic). Charles Saatchi, who hung the show, may collect art primarily for the pleasure of installing it beautifully.
"Sensation" is not an exhibition, however. It is a collection of things owned and operated by one man; it's a franchise. The 122 works here, by 40 artists, represent a tiny fraction of his holdings in British art. These artists have entered into a pact with Saatchi: he buys their work in great numbers but does with them as he pleases. In fact, he is currently collecting a new breed of local art he has labeled "New Neurotic Realism."
As for the show itself, "Sensation" is a wildly mixed bag. It could have been cut by half. There are terrific things that will knock your socks off and maybe win you over. Damien Hirst's shark suspended in formaldehyde is less shocking than it is marvelous: a Francis Bacon in a Jeff Koons (though Koons would be appalled to see the shark hanging by monofilament line). A Thousand Years (1990), Hirst's life cycle in a vitrine, involving flies, an "insect-o-cutor," and a fake cow's head, is one of the strongest works in "Sensation." On the opposite end of the naughtiness spectrum is Ghost (1990), by resident preservationist Rachel Whiteread. A full-sized cast of an English parlor, it whispers memories and hints at House, her public sculpture that got England so worked up in 1993. Jake & Dinos Chapman look uneven, though they bring sex and death into proximity. Their three-dimensional re-creation of a Goya etching and a Siamese clump of nude, Fila-wearing children are convincing; the rest of their Saatchi work is sophomoric kitsch.
Much of the art here is theatrical: what it does is more important than what it is. Hence, there is no need for the magic of a Koons basketball tank; all Hirst has to do is get the shark on view. Transgression prevails over insight; external codes come before internal dynamics. Myth, fantasy, or narrative -- which play a role in so much American art -- mean less to these artists than everyday life. The English seem more interested in what you're made of (flesh) than what you are (persona). Many of them have moved into the abandoned skyscraper of late-'80s American art. Using classic Duchampian strategies of displacement and the found object, they take the methodologies of Pop, Minimalism, Neo-Geo and Conceptualism whole and inject a kind of realism into it.
Realism in all its guises fuels the beast that is the best and the worst of British art: the Madame Tussaud realism of the Chapmans; the unnatural/natural science of grandmaster Hirst; the physicalized imprints of Whiteread; the ball-busting, Dada recapitulations of Sarah Lucas (who here continues her grad-schoolish, parafeminist effrontery); the insane sculptural accuracy of Ron Mueck, less an artist than a surreal F/X guy; the photo-documentary sociology of Richard Billingham, whose 32 images of his disfunctioning family are some of the most jarring, most tender, works on view; the flesh-and-bloodiness of Marc Quinn; or Ofili's excremental vision.
But there are too many textbook examples of shock-your-grandmother art: Mat Collishaw's photograph of a Bullet Hole, the insipid, pseudo-chicken sculpture by Paul Finnegan, and those hackneyed works by the Chapmans. There are also tedious spin-offs. See Mark Wallinger's deadpan depictions of horses, Jane Simpson's refrigerated furniture, Hadrian Pigott's portable sink, and everything by Marc Quinn except his Self -- five pints of his own refrigerated blood (the British love preserving things) in the shape of his head. The painting in "Sensation" is generally academic and at its worst when it's about painting (i.e., Fiona Rae, Richard Patterson, Jason Martin, Marcus Harvey, Mark Francis, and Simon Callery). Of the painters, Gary Hume's decorative, poster-like canvasses are pretty cool, but his one abstract work is clearer. Then there are the funny art-lists-about-art by Peter Davies (see him rank his 100 favorite artists: Hirst #28, Rae #54, Lucas #98); maybe Martin Maloney's kooky monstrosities; Glenn Brown's over-the-top photorealism; and Ofili's folk art-inspired pop phantoms.
Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman was seduced by the mentality of the blockbuster. He saw the sensation around "Sensation" and went for it; he dreamt of box office, not art. In February, the museum will present the Sonnabend Collection, and after that a Star Wars exhibition. (Note to the Observer: Sonnabend is Romanian and Jewish.) The space around contemporary art -- not just this show -- is now distorted, and will be for a while. People are looking for adrenaline or news, not art. A pox on all their houses. For our part, we didn't see this coming. The so-called shock tactics of British artists do give Americans something to think about. In all likelihood, the show itself will have little effect. One thing is certain: "Sensation" brought Rudy the Bear out of the woods and into our backyard. We now have a clean shot at him.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.