Piss Christ, the X Portfolio and now Spiritual America: the culture wars have a new Bull Run. On Sept. 30, days before the public opening of Tate Modern’s exhibition “Pop Life: Art in a Material World” [through Jan. 17], Scotland Yard ordered the removal of Richard Prince’s 1983 page-size rephotograph of Gary Gross’s 1976 skin mag picture of the 10-year-old Brooke Shields-nude, masked in mommy’s make-up (if mommy was a female impersonator), hard little torso glistening and queerly reminiscent of Donatello’s David. London’s constabulary had been alerted to the offending image by early reviews of the show. (Who says art criticism has no impact today?) It may be pertinent that the police raid followed on the heels of the Sept. 26 arrest in Zurich of Roman Polanski, a fugitive from sentencing after being convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. As coincidence would have it, that same year, Louis Malle was shooting Pretty Baby, with Shields, then a ripe 12, playing the daughter of a New Orleans prostitute, her virginity auctioned off at mom’s workplace before a throng of bidders slavering as if Sotheby’s were offering the last Gerhard Richter candle painting in private hands. Into Malle’s tale of sexual commodification and auction fever rides Shields’s would-be savior. He is-OMG!-a photographer, E.J. Bellocq, the early 20th-century chronicler of Storyville, who seems to have preferred snapping the girls to sleeping with them. It’s an early instance of the machine replacing the artist’s hand.
“Pop Life” opened on schedule, and a replacement Prince arrived in time for the Frieze Fair spike in visitorship. The pinch hitter is Spiritual America IV (2005), a monumental print of the adult Shields, who had once tried to have the childhood photo suppressed. Roughly 6 feet tall in art as in life, wearing a Bond girl’s gold bikini and leaning on a Vengeance motorcycle, the 39-year-old mother has a death-ray stare that can be traced back to Manet’s Olympia. I’m not sure if commissioning the photograph from Sante D’Orazio rather than appropriating it brought Prince one square closer to the glow of authorship. But I do know that this picture belongs to Shields. Vengeance is hers.
I was happy to see Big Bad Brooke at Tate Modern, even though she offered only temporary relief from the smug and superfluous show. “Pop Life” delivers the not-quite late-breaking news that a sizable segment of contemporary art has been organized as a commercial enterprise zone, with the art object a factory-made product, and the artist aspiring to be both brand and celebrity. Warhol, of course, is the eminence blanche. It’s a familiar premise, but I was still unprepared for the deeply dismal presentation of women, who evidently have only their bodies and their sorrows to sell. There are Cosey Fanny Tutti’s porno shots from the 1970s and a 2003 video of Andrea Fraser being screwed by the collector who paid for the “piece.” The show celebrates the coldly entrepreneurial and the cheerfully pop, but Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas sold crummy handmade trinkets and sour self-deprecation in their short-lived East End shop. Nicholas Cullinan observes in the catalogue that “the photographs of the artists [Lucas and Emin] posing on the threshold of the property deliberately toyed with the imagery of a brothel.” Ah, Bellocq, Bellocq. “Pop Life”‘s X-Men are Koons, Hirst and Murakami, who foregoes erecting another Louis Vuitton shop to conclude the exhibition with a music video directed by McG-the auteur of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle-which stars Kirsten Dunst in a blue wig and schoolgirl drag, romping through Tokyo while lip-synching the Vapors’ 1980 masturbation anthem Turning Japanese.
Of the show’s power trio, Hirst was drawing the most fire in October, and not just in London. Denis Dutton, a philosophy of art professor writing for the Oct. 16 op-ed page of the New York Times, decried the supplanting of manually crafted art by idea-driven art-as-product. Galled by the artist’s auction success, Dutton made Hirst his whipping boy. Arguing for the evolutionary necessity of skillful handwork, and comparing the virtuosic variety of prehistoric axe heads to the peacock’s display of his tail in the mating dance, Dutton stopped just short of holding Hirst accountable for the West’s declining birth rate. Across the ocean, London’s art community was engaged in an orgy of schadenfreude. Art Review announced its 2009 “Power 100,” in which Hirst had plummeted from first place to 48th faster than Wile E. Coyote in a canyon drop. Moreover, the artist was being flogged for his new show at the Wallace Collection [through Jan. 24],
a series of 25 blue-hued paintings executed between 2006 and 2008, so it was trumpeted, by Hirst’s very own unassisted hand. Writing in the Evening Standard, Brian Sewall condemned the canvases as “shoddy, slip-slop and derivative” (primarily of Francis Bacon), and dismissed the show as “detestable” and “fucking dreadful.” Not to worry: the suite has already been acquired by the Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk.
It all comes together as one long disheartening ride, from photographers and venal mothers who exploit 10-year-old modelettes, to artists and auction houses that keep the super-rich in a state of arousal with the prospect of possessing status art, to self-congratulatory curators who hitch their wagons to a cavalcade of bald careerism and then wonder in their essay if artists facing the current economic downturn will be “ambitious enough to rise to the challenges of their time.” Still, we aren’t enlightened by pitchfork-wielding moralists like Dutton, who lump Manzoni, Kosuth and Hirst together as “conceptual” artists and render the category void in the process. Far better to debate the merits of craft and the hand using equally high-profile artists (Rudolf Stingel, Bruce Nauman and Urs Fischer come to mind) who don’t automatically trail auction figures in their wake. We can even lighten up on Hirst (am I really defending this guy?), who is, after all, emblem, symptom, player and beneficiary, but not the true architect of the situation diagrammed in “Pop Life.” At least Hirst’s flawed paintings urge us to clarify what we might be longing for in art. Finally, we can thank Shields, herself a New York Times op-ed writer (July 1, 2005), who, not long after posing for D’Orazio, mopped the floor with Tom Cruise, Scientology’s foremost expert on psychiatry, in her published defense of the use of anti-depressants. Some of us may be needing them now.
-Marcie E. Vetrocq
December 2009 Cover: Lynda Benglis, Untitled (#12), 2005-2006, pigmented encaustic on wood, 15 3/4 by 11 3/4 inches. Photo courtesy Cheim & Rea, New York.