The Magazine


May 18, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 35 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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Inflation operates in other ways, too. One common procedure is inflation through contradiction. An artist produces shopworn work that is pornographic or blasphemous or both -- but claims that his work is full of deep philosophical and spiritual significance. The critic's job is clear: Take what the artist says at face value and embroider it. In England, Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore -- the artistic duo known as Gilbert & George -- have accomplished prodigies of obfuscation using his technique. Their artworks belong essentially to a species of scatological Pop Art: huge photographic collages of the two men, often naked, generally accompanied by images of excrement or other bodily effluvia. The scatological title of one recent exhibition, "The Naked Sh-t Pictures," admirably sums up the spirit of their work.

But it is part of Gilbert & George's act to prose as moralists whose art is wrestling with profound religious questions. "We believe our art can form morality in our time," George modestly remarked in one typical statement. What is amazing is the extent to which even well-established critics have acquiesced in this nonsense. Writing about "The Naked Sh-t Pictures" in the Daily Telegraph in 1995, Richard Dorment invoked famous altarpieces as a precedent. In the Sunday Telegraph, John McEwen, spoke of the duo's "self- sacrifice for a higher cause, which is purposely moral and indeed Christian." Not to be outdone, David Sylvester wrote in the Guardian that"these pictures have a plenitude, as if they were Renaissance pictures of male nudes in action." The most egregious example -- so far -- of such Gilbert-&- Gergeolatry came last spring when Robert Rosenblum had this to say about their exhibition in New York:

Brilliantly transforming the visible world into emblems of the spirit, Gilbert & George create from these miscroscopic facts an unprecedented heraldry that, in a wild mutation of Stations of the Cross, fuses body and soul, life and death. Once again, they have crossed a new threshold, opening unfamiliar gates of eternity.

All that one can answer to such a sermon is, Amen.

There are other ways besides inflation that art writing earns its bad name. Linguistic terrorism is one. Able practitioners of the art of writing badly about art are legion, but a few rise above the multitude by combining barbarous prose, preposterous ideas, and unremitting pretentiousness. A long- standing champion is Rosalind Krauss, founding editor of the reader-proof Marxist quarterly October and professor of art history at Columbia University. Krauss's works are a gold mine for connoissuers of intellectualized cant. In her book The Optical Unconscious, for example, she explains the relation between the theories of Jacques Lacan and modernist art:

Would it be possible to modify the L Schema as the basis for mapping a visuality that both subtends and subverts the field of modernist vision in the same way that Lacan's psychoanalytic circuity erodes the structuralist relations from within? For if the mirror relation as it is graphed in the L Schema divides the subject from the unconscious, by driving a wedge of opacity through the diagonal center of the graph, it is nonetheless true that the subject is the effect of the unconscious, or what needs now to be called a "subject-effect."

A third way in which art writing earns its bad name is through sex, the ickier the better. Artists long ago caught on to the advantages of using perverse sexuality to endow their works with a "transgressive" glow. But critics have not been content merely to extol such works as Robert Mapplethorpe's obscene photographs. The entire history of art has been turned into fodder for outre erotic imaginings.

One typical example was offered recently by Svetlana Alpers, a distinguished professor of art history at th eUniversity of California at Berkeley, in her book The Making of Rubens. The mildly obscene pun in the title -- such puns are a staple of trendy criticism today -- is a first clue to the contents of the book, and perhaps Alper's most memorable claim is that Peter Paul Rubens's picture Drunken Silenus (c. 1618) is a self-portrait that depicts a scene of anal rape. This may or may not be a shocking claim, but it is certainly a ridiculous one.