"Art inflames people," was dealer Paula Cooper's memorable response to the disturbing news that vandals with axes and crowbars had destroyed Andres Serrano's "History of Sex" photographs at the Kulturen Gallery in Lund, Sweden, last Friday night. The subsequent news that the thugs had posted the carnage on YouTube, edited with commentary such as, "Is this art?," offered the startling realization that contemporary art and its enemies had finally reached a perfect equivalence of creative destruction.
Jaded New Yorkers yawned ten years ago when "History of Sex" opened at Paula Cooper Gallery. Sexy female dwarves being penetrated, women fondling horsecock, men being screwed by strap-on-dildo wielding babes were, after all, just a replay of occurrences in their own bedrooms. Serrano, long recherché, considered kitschy even, must feel some satisfaction that he had to go all the way to Sweden of all places, with an old, tired series of work, to relive the glory days of Piss Christ.
Let us not be tempted to wonder whether there is a difference and distinction between anonymous Swedish fascists on YouTube and Dinos and Jake Chapman putting penises on the faces of little children. The distinction is, perhaps, that the Chapsticks have the endorsement, via commentary and checkbook, of a privileged elite, all too willing to slap the masses with the velvet crowbar of superiority. Those who righteously and rightly decry hooliganism against a roomful of helpless objects should reflect on the steady stream of hopeless morbidity (sex without love, death without desire, big sums of money without taste or discernment) that a Dark Christ like Damien Hirst dumps on helpless people. Like snakes, they will lash back!
We all think of Hitler and "degenerate art" at times like this. God knows the state, in all its manipulative crushing power, is an ever-present master at exploiting the touchstone of art. The examples are too numerous: Giuliani's elephant dung will be slung on us again if Rudy is elected president. Yet contemporary art remains its own worst enemy, for sucking the spirit out of something to which people turn for inspiration, becoming through big money and conformist thought-control the secret sharer of masked marauders in the same dark museum.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).