Gilbert & George

Anthony D'Offay

The penis is no longer a penis. This is the dilemma facing Gilbert & George in their latest series of hand-colored photomontages titled New Democratic Pictures (all works 1991). Up to a certain point a penis was still a penis; prior to the ’80s an artist didn’t need to be any more explicit about what a penis actually meant. And as long as Gilbert & George remained clothed in their works, they didn’t need to worry either. But genitalia are now as implicated as soup cans and kitsch in the dance of transfiguration and transgression in Art and Life. Gilbert & George know this quite well and in response—some might say too quickly and too obviously—have dropped their trousers and knickers, admonishing us to “go in the street and listen. What word do you think is most important? Penis!”

Some would argue that dick has lost the same neat quality of self-evidence that successfully animated Gilbert & George’s earliest “living sculpture” shtick. Domesticated Robert Mapplethorpe and Mr. and Mrs. God doing the rumpy-pumpy in public have outflanked Gilbert & George’s peckers. Contemporary art’s major discovery of the potential of ironically appropriating sexuality is indeed a far more sophisticated form of esthetic consciousness than simply walking about in funny suits and mouthing self-denigrating lines like “[we are] old boring farts.” Granted, the funny suits and homosexual caprice came first; but these days one cannot help suspecting a willie (or a fanny) of being an ironic quotation, so it’s important to know how genitalia in inverted commas are to be distinguished from the real thing. In Gilbert & George’s New Democratic Pictures, their nudity is saved from being gratuitous owing to the coarseness with which they pursue the theme of homosexual culture.

Gilbert & George have built their career upon the Warholian assumption that authenticity of any sort—the “real thing”—is beside the point. Since they have more or less endeavored to remain “living sculptures” for so long, they are now in a position to produce art based on their own imaginative constructions. This current body of work no longer dissembles the boundary between Art and Life; rather, each new attempt to sustain the dissolution demands, as Warhol understood so well, a kind of perverse reinstatement of art and its enabling institutions. For Gilbert & George this means supplying an endless stream of gossipy, essentially banal, and repetitive details that serve to enliven, for the benefit of a knowing English audience, an image of them as eccentric and pious homosexuals.

While Gilbert & George are busy cultivating the illusion of total solipsism they are obliged by the very terms of their play to speak to the issue of the dissolution of the Self. For many years, the use of urban images has provided Gilbert & George with an immediately evocative and recognizable context for staging the latter. Their newest series—made up of pictures titled City Drop, City Fairies, Cold Street, Flat Man, and Street Beached—does not seem to depart from that strategy. Even Nature is enlisted as a stage upon which the opposition between the material and the spiritual—and similar fey existential dilemmas—is revealed and discussed. But the total effect is, at the moment, rather naive even for this expectedly anachronistic duo. Remarks such as “We like nudity because it is forbidden” are not particularly controversial; nor are they so easily offset by complaints that revolve around their lack of artistic status or credibility.

Once upon a time Gilbert & George’s cunning boasts about their influence on popular culture and media seemed perfectly congenial next to their more cynical litany about having to be dead and foreign to command any respect as an artist in England. Now, in the artists’ own words, when the pictures are everything, we wonder why the vulgar colors, the prissy papter, and the overwrought refinement can’t quite shake the sense of diminishment.

Michael Corris