Last night Mark Lawson Talks To... Gilbert & George on BBC Four. I’d always been slightly put off by their garish pictures, with obviously “shocking” images (I use the word ‘shocking’ in that meaningless way typified by The Daily Mail), and their registering extremely high on the Pretentious Artist-o-meter. This is the first time I’ve seen them interviewed out of character, as it were. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much more than to have my preconceptions confirmed, but as it turned they were almost totally dismissed.
They don’t have a load of bullshit Art Theory to explain why they dress almost identically, and act as though they are only one artist (not two working together), and why they express themselves the ways they do. They behave in that unusual way because it makes them happy. Seems like a good reason to me. Also hearing them talk about their lives dedicated to art has reminded me that art really is a good cause, not a total waste of time. It might have started undoing years of damage done to me by the bullshit post-modern philosophy and art theory I was exposed to at university, and which made me despise the act of thinking about art conceptually.
They did exhibit some childish attitudes towards making rather studenty glib points, such as when discussing their picture which features an Asian man and the word ‘paki’ they refuse to accept that the word is offensive. Gilbert cites how the word used be used in phrases like ‘Indo-Pak’, but seems extremely reluctant to accept the way in which the meanings of words can change. They do highlight how a picture like that can provoke discussion about racism in a way that am abstract couldn’t.
(Aside: to me the word ‘paki’ is completely unacceptable. At my primary school there were many Asian children, mainly of Indian decent and with Hindu parentage. The word was used viciously and with spite by horrible thoughtless children. Our teacher gave the class a talk on how mean and offensive the word is, and also how stupid and inaccurate (given that it derives from the work ‘Pakistani’). This talk has always stuck with me, and since then I have always felt physically sick at the sound of the word, and can’t help but feeling pity for the poor uneducated idiots who use it. To me it is always a word used by bullies to make little girls cry. That’s you told.)
Another example of their childish attitude to ‘shock’ is illustrated well by this exchange:
Mark Lawson: Another element that is there from very early on is the use of words, almost a graffiti-like element, often words that are used in graffiti such as fuck or cunt in some cases. And this is what has lead to the suggestion from some people that your, er, work is shocking. You must have... you’re aware that those words were explosive?
George: They are mostly ones which also appear in The Bible and the Oxford Dictionary, by the way. (pauses for effect, turns head slightly to one side, expression to say ‘that told you’)
P.S. there is nothing wrong with being childish per se; it’s just when it is combined with juvenile know-it-all posturing that it begins to grate. Some of Gilbert & George’s attitude stinks of 6th form.
Mostly however they just seem like a sweet old couple who like making art and who love each other very much. It reminds me that I used to love making art, and that love was chipped away, first by post modern theory and secondly by trying to do some work to commission. I can’t stand working to commission, and although a few opportunities for illustration and album cover artwork have arisen, I have been both shit at it, and unenthused by the constraints. When I draw or paint from now on I hope it will just be self-expression; nothing more or less. I have nothing but respect for illustrators, political cartoonists, comic artists, graphic designers, even courtroom artists. But it’s not for me.
I also enjoy the way they buck the trend of contemporary artists/liberal media types by being openly Conservative and expressing admiration for Margaret Thatcher. This seems odd given that they talk about trying to keep the cost of their art down, and mention their disdain for the practice of pushing up the value of contemporary art artificially and the secondary market (“It’s cheaper to buy something from 1650 it seems; extraordinary”). An artist like Damien Hirst who seems very new media and non-conservative is actually much much more Thatcherite in practice; dealing in his own art, reselling to push the price up further, marketing, advertising.
This is the first time in ages I have really thought thought about art (or indeed ‘Art’). Yesterday I also listened to an In Our Time podcast about Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Perhaps it’s time I dug out some pens and sketchbooks, paints and canvases, crayons and scraps of paper, and made some pictures. I’m sure I have a colouring in book around here somewhere.