PRINT Summer 1984


THE EXHIBITION “GILBERT & GEORGE,” organized by Brenda Richardson and shown this spring at the Baltimore Museum of Art, gives us an opportunity to look sideways at a body of work that has, over the past fifteen years, been presented frontally, both in content and in scale. From the perspective of the implosive ’80s we can view work that has assaulted and confronted us for over a decade. From their picturesque styled images of communion with the second nature of the English countryside, through the swirls of darkness in the ellipse of intoxication, and into the cold, clear “day after” of the “Red Morning” series, 1977, we follow, intoxicated, as art follows life—but with the incontrovertible certainty of the hangover.

Show follows show; each series is, in many ways, a simple public work produced to the deadline of the next exhibition. Since the mid ’70s there has been a flexing of a particular muscle within a gymnastics of the photographic image. Together, the works suggest a narration of life, but cumulatively they tell no story. What is narrated is a cycle of stylistic development. From the giddy expressionism of the “Dark Shadow” series, 1974, through the constructivism of the “Mental” series, 1976, to the psychedelic dreamworld of the most recent work, the different series betray no inner world, but seem like reawakenings to the cold, hard surface of the photographic image. The royal “we” implicit in their public identity is not Gilbert and George the people but “Gilbert & George” the sculpture. The “we” is the staging of the representation of an esthetic attitude.

Art for Gilbert & George is a regimentation of life: the regime, the discipline of being Other embodied in their dual performance. In their images we confront the destruction of the image—the phantom of content. Whether we are looking at dead branches, obscene graffiti, or the lineage of time in a wino’s face, Gilbert & George enact the image as fallen and the pictorial as lost; thus the content is experienced, in the words of Jean Baudrillard, as a “homeopathic graft” of the medium.

For Gilbert & George, all imagery is public. Every simulation of a private attitude is effaced in the public nature of the image. Their huge photo-pieces of the past ten years suggest a public art, a social realism of a nightmare world not very far from this one: a public art fallen from public grace (removed from public service and convenience). We watch them pictured as frozen simulacra, as the death-effigies in Misery, 1980, or The Alcoholic, 1978, anticipating apocalyptic resurrection when their world of simulation becomes a social reality and when Art, which kept a polite “one step behind” life, supersedes it. Now, the crusade is pitted against the dragon of the world: social reality (from which, in their earlier work, they stood apart). The distance of esthetic decorum has become a fixed line of opposition and confrontation.

In 1974 the series “Human Bondage” used the reversed Nazi swastika to frame scenes of squalor, with Gilbert & George sprawled across newspapers littered with broken bottles and glasses. In later works, a direct use of Nazi symbols was replaced by motifs with a more specifically British-nationalist association, such as the cross, the sword, and the heraldic line. And yet, despite the obvious intention to provoke some sort of response to the suggestions of fascism and racism, this aspect of their work has either been disregarded or oversimplified. A scholarly essay by Carter Ratcliff, published in the book which accompanied the last European touring show (Gilbert & George: 1968 to 1980, Eindhoven, 1980), preoccupied itself mainly with establishing them as latterday romantics, as twin heirs of Coleridge and Beau Brummell. While the essay deals excellently with the distortion of romanticism in the 20th century and with the self-consciously debased (handed-down) romanticism of Gilbert & George themselves, it does not deal with the historically more significant distortion of romanticism in fascism. Where there is a mention of the swastika, Ratcliff refers us specifically to its original Sanskrit meaning as a good-luck symbol, and further suggests that the inversion of the tilt displaces the horror with which we normally associate the symbol. Although Rudi Fuchs’ preface to the same catalogue echoes the rhetoric of the artists (referring to the nobility of their labor), it does go as far as calling the works "social emblems”—though without suggesting what the emblems might stand for. Is it that political content in art, even when it is openly acknowledged by critic and curators, is reduced to art-politics rhetoric? Is it that, no matter how explicit, art is condemned to silence by the museum?

Gilbert & George, however, have always been quite clear about what they stand for: Art with a Capital A. To be with Art is all we ask is the title of an early text piece (1970) which addresses Art almost in prayer. At the center of the work is the claim to represent art in person. It is interesting to compare them with Joseph Beuys, that other manifestation of the ’70s cult of the artist-personality. Both Beuys and Gilbert & George refer to their work as sculpture and seem to suggest an involvement both in politics and in romanticism, and, for both, the public image is a significant part of the work. But for Beuys, the public image is an opening onto his private world, whereas Gilbert & George are famous for having sacrificed a personal life for the “sculptural” exterior of their public personas. In series like “Mental” and “Bad Thoughts,” 1975, an inner world is invoked only as a reminder of being confined to the surface of their representation. They accept their status as representations as a duty to be fulfilled and endured (forever and ever “for Art’s sake”). Instead of the artist as representative of freedom, they embody the life of constraint to public decorum under the weight of the abstraction “Art.” Their work is about loss in representation and an acceptance of representation.

56?What is shocking in their work of the past eight or so years is the juxtaposition of their own personification of the esthetic attitude with what is personified by, say, skinheads, Pakistanis, and rastafarians. It is not the subject matter that is provocative—poverty has its own esthetic appeal; instead, it is the pair’s personification of the esthetic attitude in the extolling of a lost social norm (of a white British middle-class majority) brought into relation with the urban realities of oppressed minorities.

In works like The Alcoholic, the sovereignty of the esthetic is represented in the distortion of scale. The double gaze of Gilbert & George becomes the representation of power. To represent the position of the power of the gaze in such an obvious relationship with the powerless is shocking; but it is our own position as watchers, the sovereign position of the social voyeur, the tele-viewer, that is ultimately put into question. We are forced into complicity in a crime. The suggestion of taboo areas of seeing reemerges through our being forced to take sides in looking. With the mass media, our hidden complicity of seeing is suppressed. We are all-powerful and yet powerless. Cut off from the realities that we watch, we have the best vantage point. This, the secret/public look of the media, the subjectivity that underlies the look of objectivity, is what Gilbert & George represent in their work.

In an age dominated by the show-biz culture of mass communications, Gilbert & George represent art as a form of nostalgia. The esthetic life becomes a half-forgotten ritual which they feel duty-bound to enact in the most reduced of circumstances. The esthetic attitude that, in the embodiments of Gilbert & George in their earlier work, became a certain poise is now reduced still further to merely a certain “distance” from the “real” world. They bring the furtive eye into the open. By suggesting the vantage point as one of looking down, they are able to touch on political realities excluded from most political art which, taking the vantage point of the street, reproduces the accepted standards of objectivity of the media.

That Paki, 1978, is racist is a suggestion made by the work but it is one that the inscrutability of their (Gilbert & George’s) looks rebounds back onto our own unconscious fears. Political cynicism, anyway, has become a distinct part of the climate of English cultural life. Never before has the cultural periphery of the excluded and disaffected (the unemployed, homosexual, and youth subcultures) been larger. In the late ’70s, right-wing symbols emerged as the fashion accessories of street kids. But they were used not as points of identification or continuity of an ideology, but as points of mutual alienation. Nazism appeared to be taken up as the rhetoric of alienation rather than of fraternity.

The youth culture of the punks adopted these same symbols. Worn along with the bondage symbols of sexual constraint, the swastika became a symbol of oppression rather than expression. The safety pin, the bondage strap, and the swastika combined to symbolize the different spheres of social repression, the unconscious, the sexual, and the political. Or, rather, they seemed to touch on taboos in each. The punk adoption of Nazi memorabilia was a manifestation of their unreality as emblems to kids who had not experienced Nazi Germany and for whom the Second World War was a part of myth.

The bondage straps and gadgets which to a previous generation had symbolized social, sexual, and political oppression attracted the punks because of their opening onto a forbidden, culturally taboo, mythic world. Their circulation as fashion accessories dispelled that aura and contributed to the interchangeability of signs as well as to a loss of unitary, shared meanings. The youth-cultural developments of the late ’70s seemed to represent a point beyond politics and beyond the fixed parameters of allegiance, identification, and solidarity; and the wearing of right-wing symbols was simply a public declaration of disassociation with both the left wing and the right.

To see Gilbert & George’s work as a kind of social realism makes it a threat to both the left wing and the right wing. The left accuse it of fascism, racism, and sexism. The right see in it highly unfavorable representatives (pedophiliacs, homosexuals, perverse voyeurs of urban decay) of a spirit of conservatism. The space that Gilbert & George enjoy between political readings of their work is the “for Art’s sake” of their regimented estheticism.

But the “Amen” of their prayer seems to threaten that space of vision in eclipse. It no longer seems possible to maintain the position of the esthete (the outsider) who is beyond the reach of political bias. Today, the left wing and right wing in England seem to be unified in a mood of moralizing, censorial iconoclasm. The ’80s cleaning-up (after the transgressive ’70s) of what is pictorially acceptable has recently intensified in England—forget left and right—and definitions of pornography have become restrictive straitjackets. Implicit agreement by both sides on “moral” issues has resulted inevitably in a successful application of a new criterion of “good taste”—a limit that Gilbert & George have “dutifully” overstepped in recent years in their iconolatory crusade. The forbidden fruits of their art have, I think, already had the effect of marginalizing them in English culture. A growing conservatism has led critics in England to remain silent about a series of works that is increasingly provocative politically. This spirit of conservatism is felt as heavily from the “liberal left” as from the right in the English art world, and only the detachment of the esthete can arouse public controversy and overturn established mores The present ideological convergence of left and right in the realm of images makes a nonpolitical political art seem inconceivable to many. Gilbert & George’s staging of this impossibility is a politically contradictory reality; it is esthetic autonomy as political ambiguity.

On one level, the works aspire to the photographic transparency of advertising campaigns which, in the past five or six years, have undergone a tremendous transformation. Corporate advertising, for example, seems to have taken on a threatening dimension. A scan of TV ads and billboards for corporations suggests that all that is required of advertising is an awesome projection of scale. The sublime, almost transcendentally real sunsets of the beer commercials do not promise peace in the world; the corporate image needs only to restate that it is there. The important thing is image saturation and monstrosity of scale. Consequently, corporate advertising is both spectacular (it is everywhere) and it can afford to seem low-profile, to the point where some advertising almost excludes the product name. The image is everything. Esthetic autonomy gives a kind of all-round authenticity to its objects. In their monstrous scale, the photographic works of Gilbert & George represent precisely the same threat, the same sense of power, and the same sponsorship of the image.

Stylistically, the works also make a claim to an earlier form of English public art which has been displaced by 20th-century publicity. The most recent works resemble the kinds of stained-glass windows produced at the end of the last and the beginning of this century in the Midlands of England and in the “craft academies” of the North of England. A fusion of Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, the windows represent the extinction of the two traditions of Pre-Raphaelite naturalism and of the Arts and Crafts artisanship. Gilbert & George’s combination of primary colors and photography represents the same unease as in the marriage of the hyperreal Pre-Raphaelite technique and the “medieval” geometry of emblematic leading design found in the last gasps of this tradition from the turn of the century up to the 1920s and ’30s. An example of this might be the Four Knights, 1980, in which the heraldic formality of the early-20th-century popular spectacle that saw the local grocer boy become a helmeted Saint George is given a perverse twist by the context of current slum voyeurism. It is a typical paradox of Gilbert & George’s art that a forgotten tradition of English artisanship should be resurrected in the medium originally most responsible for its extinction. But the paradox which reflects the break in tradition which 20th-century consumerism represents, belies a more deeply rooted continuity in the rediscovery of a popular emblematization of the image in a new formalism of the photographic image.

In the creation of their windows, the early-20th-century stained-glass painters confronted similar problems of combining the naturalistic transparency of the image with the formal transparency of pure color. These artists’ hierarchical ordering of large, allegorical landscapes is comparable with Gilbert & George’s working process of building up large compositions from drawings and contact sheets, a method described thoroughly in Richardson’s catalogue essay. The windows of the Midlands painters (which can still be seen in churches throughout England and are at this moment going through a revival) are built up from fragmentary individual “life” studies, and were often split between painters of different specialties—of flesh or trees or whatever. In fact the Midlands’ Methodist imaginary vista of Egypt is as bizarre and secondhand as Gilbert & George’s new cosmic imaginaries derived from the modern equivalents of the turn of the century’s concept of “medieval romance.” Taken from the special-effects graphics of science-fiction cinema and the garish icons of computer graphics and games, the source of the newer work seems to be an aggressive species of kitsch. The use of gold suggests this point of connection between the religious and the kitsch images.

Probably nowhere more than in England is art so masochistic. The self-effacement of the Modernist artist takes on a specifically British inflection in exaggerated forms of self-sacrifice which reflect the deep-rooted Protestantism of English culture. The image of the artist as self-defined eccentric, exiled from life, is something that Gilbert & George have dramatized from the beginning of their career. It may be reflective of the indifference of the English to nonliterary culture. But the stance of self-sacrifice of the artist/outsider seems rooted in a Protestant ideal. Coexistence with the world, which was irrevocably and inescapably evil, demanded, for Luther, the stance of “being in the world but not of it.” Gilbert & George’s latest work seems like a resurrection of the demons of Protestant paranoia within the descent of contemporary culture. Luther fought his demons by countering obscenity with obscenity. Gilbert & George’s fleurs du mal are only obscene in the sense that they are concentrated exorcisms of social evil and obscenity.

For Heidegger, the poet of “time’s destitution” is bound to the sacred duty of “tracking the trace of the fugitive Gods,” even in a world which has “grown so destitute, it can no longer discern the default of God as a default.” The world night is the holy night; for Heidegger its priests are the poets, who, by an attenuation and concentration of prevailing conditions (destitution), are the first to “reach into the abyss” of our social destiny. The poet of destitute times is therefore a religious figure. Heidegger’s pursuit of the holy is achieved by sending out the sacred (the poet) to enact the forbidden in the face of destitution. Gilbert & George’s forbidden fruits (of visual pleasure) are sacred because they are forbidden. Their images make visible realities which are rendered invisible socially. They bring together realities separated by the discontinuous channels of image consumption—to reveal the taboo limits of seeing.

The newest work, especially, suggests obscenity; and it is in this that the entire repertoire of imagery which they have built up over the past few years of their photo-pieces is brought together. The worlds separated by the channels of mediation are broken down into the world view of the religious composition. The pedophile, the male nude, and the youth gang appear together in the same work, titled Life Without End, 1982. And so the world of documentary realism and pornography enter into a union—an uncomfortable form of interpenetration. In obscenity, they are one. The perversity of cultural voyeurism is shown in the track of desire/fascination. The points of fusion of disconnected worlds are where Gilbert & George’s world touches on the obscene, rather than in any particular images they use in their work. The imagery is not transgressive in itself; it is at the cultural limits of the visible where taboo is encountered. The pristine innocence of photographic realism is despoiled: the obscenity of the photograph is revealed in the dissolution of its reality.

One senses something of this kind of obscenity underpinning social representations in kitsch. For gentlemen who have devoted their lives to the decorum of taste, this is the ultimate taboo—the forbidden territory which joins the sacred and the obscene. Their use of gold seems to thoroughly abandon their works to the obnoxiousness of kitsch. Gold is cheap because it represents value; gold is profane because it is sacred. In Naked Beauty, 1982, there is an implied relationship between the color gold and anality, and in their most recent pieces (not in the Baltimore show), there is a preoccupation with both the color gold and images of excretia. In kitsch, the image hovers between worlds—the Virgin Mary with lipstick. Kitsch threatens the mutual implosion of worlds separated by the image (e.g., the sacred and the profane). Kitsch is obscenity in imagery. Kitsch is pictorial excess. And it is to this that Gilbert & George have enacted their latest acts of sacrifice. “Obscenity’s revenge is always double-edged: it’s never where you think it is, it’s always there where there are those thinking of it.” (Jean Baudrillard, “What Are You Doing after the Orgy?”, Artforum, October 1983.)

Life Without End is an embodiment of pictorial excess, a “Garden of Earthly Delights”—a pleasuredome, cultivating endless mutations of visual pleasure; a gathering of the fleurs du mal of industrial pollution. In this work, the horizontal/vertical formality of the earlier photomurals is broken down into figure contour lines reminiscent of the leading outline of stained glass. All the formal devices of earlier work—silhouette, photogram, contour, cutout—are used at once. Like a glue-sniffer’s nightmare, the newer works seem to be a last-gasp gratification in the pictorial. (Gilbert & George’s work has, however, entered this cycle of intoxication and delirium before.) But this pictorialism is no reverie in lyricism; it seems to exploit the cruel and corrosive aspect of images.

The mammoth photomontage Life Without End (it is approximately 14 feet high by 36 feet long) simulates the mastery of the world encapsulated in the tradition of stained-glass painting in its bringing together of fragmentary details (enclosed by leading lines) into the continuity of allegorical “composition.” The effect, though, is to emphasize the discontinuity, disparity, and mutual alienation of the realities drawn together. The cohabitation of a gang of youth, a male nude, flowers, and Gilbert & George in the epic composition is made pictorially uncomfortable through the mutual annihilatory effect of clashing, lurid colors. Mastery of the heroic composition is felt as an uncomfortable sense of the manipulation of Gilbert & George’s proletarian knights, boy, and nude model.

What the work seems to emphasize is the cruelty of esthetic distance. The esthetic cruelty that Wyndham Lewis expressed in The Diabolical Principle (1931) seems closest to Gilbert & George’s attitude. Lewis’ erotic Cubist drawings of 1917, which seemed too obscene for exhibition at the time, are precursory even in their titling: Prick, Arseward, Coitus 1 & 2, and Ornamental Erection. His combination of shock tactics with the immaculate cruelty of his neo-classical estheticism—the irrevocable distance of art from life, reflected in Lewis’ posture of esthetic alienation, as an “enemy” of life—seems a prototype for the poised antihumanism of Gilbert & George. Political art, for Lewis, was dull, humanistic, and ineffective. He believed that only by the artist’s natural gravitation to power (over the world of the imagination) could he reflect the form of social power (the political artifact). Only by a cruel attenuation of art’s classical autonomy is the terrifying autonomy of power glimpsed.

The artist at a distance from the world, reflected in a distaste for the “mob,” offers himself for sacrifice as the poised enemy of social hatred. Lewis in his day opened himself up to the same kinds of political attacks as Gilbert & George: as “fascist,” “militaristic,” “sexually perverse.” Gilbert & George’s crusading defense of Art has become a fight with the dragon of the contemporary world. But the crusade is not moralistic: as Lewis wrote in The Diabolical Principle, “the ethical canon must ultimately take its authority from taste.” Gilbert & George are like living embodiments of this principle. Their own images are like heraldic shields in their confrontation with contemporary life. Volunteer martyrs of the fallen religion of art, they present an image of art’s eclipse, its disappearance between ideological “positions,” its absorption into the code. Perhaps Gilbert & George’s political position might best be described in the same words in which Lewis, in The Diabolical Principle, described his own: “partly communist, partly fascist with a distinct streak of monarchism in my marxism but at bottom, anarchist with a healthy passion for order.”

Rosetta Brooks is the editor of ZG magazine, and a critic living in New York.