An open letter to Jake Chapman
Post #955 • February 9, 2007, 10:02 AM • 43 Comments
At times, [you and your brother] offer up a mythical pure, pristine past, before reason supposedly contaminated the world. Jake Chapman says, for example, we shouldn't think of the sun through "any kind of enlightenment notion of photon particles being useful". No: we should, like premodern tribes who died at the age of thirty of diseases they did not understand, "start thinking about the sun as a kind of excessive, catastrophic energy." You can see this mentality in The Chapman Family Collection, their fake African tribal artifacts which the viewer gradually realises are modelled on Ronald McDonald and his friends. We are supposed to lament the contrast between their 'authenticity' and our 'fakeness'.
His point caught my attention because I recently considered a specialty of mathematics to demonstrate the sorry state that the art world has devolved into. You see, no human pursuit continues forward without standards. The famous end of the contemporary art market shucked most of the useful ones inherent to art, and consequently, it has become vulnerable to influence by amoral, corrupted impulses like consumerism and intellectual laziness. Nature abhors a vacuum, but apparently any hot air will do to fill it. In the case I was referring to, a writer used topology - at least, a version thereof seemingly gleaned from the non-mathematical portions of its Wikipedia entry, maybe even just the pictures - as a metaphor for the usual deconstructionist nonsense of category-blending and hierarchy-inverting and whatnot. It was a new analogy for an old set of aims. It also turned topology, a provable, rigorous enterprise, into slush.
As it happens, Harvard reported soon afterwards that one Dmitri Tymoczko, a composer-in-residence at the university last year, developed a method for mapping music that uses a topological object called an orbifold. I won't pretend to know what an orbifold is - Wikipedia defines it as "a generalization of a manifold," and hilarity ensues - but Tymoczko built a convincing demonstration around one that shows that pleasing combinations of notes share a common mathematical space. It became the first paper on music theory accepted by Science magazine in 127 years of publishing. I reacted with acute envy, because art theory's attempt to pull in topolgy was so bogus by comparison.
So I was already wondering if a phenomenon that I characterized as pathetic and problematic was actually more pernicious. Back to Hari:
But ditching the Enlightenment quickly leads to even darker places than this. The Chapmans' intellectual hero is Georges Bataille, the French writer and (anti-)philosopher who was obsessed with moments of "transgression", when the "prison" of the Enlightenment could be left behind. And these glorious moments? They mostly consist of torture. He lauded the Marquis de Sade... Jake Chapman echoes his hero. He talks about the "libidinal pleasure" that comes from seeing a real picture of a real person being tortured, because of the "transgression of the ethics that that image is supposed to trigger or incite". A few years ago he was asked in the Papers of Surrealism: "Does Battaille's formulation of the conception of transgression relate to the way that work like your own is sometimes suggested as being part of a necessary force?" He replied: "Yes - a good social service like the children who killed Jamie Bulger."
I had to look it up. I wasn't pleased by what I found. I won't link to it - Jamie was a British two-year-old who was killed by a couple of ten-year-olds.
Hari rather brilliantly outlines how one of Battaille's top pupils, Foucault, became an admirer of Ayatollah Khomeni, and how this lapse is "the culmination of his life's work dismantling reason. Why shouldn't premodernism and postmodernism come together in the face of a common foe?" Bringing it back to your art, he continues:
The Chapmans inhabit the same fetid dead-end. Jake has described the international opposition to the Taliban blowing up ancient Buddhist sculptures as "strange", describing it with bland semi-admiration as the "live, vital religious opposition to something that has a direct and local meaning to them".
If there's a body of work that deserves the application of several tons of dynamite, it's yours, not the Bamiyan Buddhas. At any rate, The Independent generously printed your response to Hari:
What a cheap fat-faced ugly four-eyed shot. Cheaper still because a lazy editor saw fit to allow a journalist to sling words like "fascist" around and permit shoddy thoughtcrimes to stand as journalism? Oh yes you did!
Anyway, we'll bump into each other, I'm sure.
I have only ever previously heard accusations of "thoughtcrimes" come from the fictional totalitarian government in Orwell's 1984. Apparently you believe that thoughts against your work are impermissible. That's disgusting, but the "shoddy" thing also sounded a bit familiar. When I laid responsibility for the hypercommercialization of the art world at the feet of people who assault standards, a noted art critic, someone whose work has been anthologized, responded thusly:
What?? Why? What have you been taking up north? C'mon boy. You used to be more careful with your arguments.
They even look similar, now that I see them paired. I guess the emotions that accompany culpability are universal.
You see, some us cannot silently countenance the aesthetic and philosphical outrages perpetrated in the name of contemporary art, but fighting them is like punching a hill of meringue. You and yours are entrenched. Even a notable professional setback, such as your delicious loss of the Turner Prize to Grayson Perry, is nothing you can't salve by rubbing your art world earnings on the wound. I worry for myself though, because in light of the Tymoczko article and others, I look longingly over at other fields and bristle at the pandemic rot in my own. That first topology article I mentioned appeared in a magazine published by the College Art Association, and it also featured a piece that ran a semiotic analysis on the life of Ghandi. The man's actual life. It was one of the most offensive things I've ever seen, treating the biography of the author of the Satyagraha movement as if it were a prolonged performance piece. Vile projects like that are normal, and even lucrative. I'm the weirdo saying that maybe it's not okay while I line up my next side job.
Frankly, I'm still exhausted from Art Basel/Miami Beach, and next week, heaven help me, I'm going to the annual conference of the College Art Association to look for teaching work. I won't lie to you - it occurs to me at times to give up on art. I experience ferocious episodes of self-criticism in which I look over my entire visual and written output and say, Meh, and why bother. But no matter to what extent the art world becomes dominated by sophists, charlatans, fashionistas, and idiots like yourself, it still has a place for brave humanists like Hari, and maybe it has a place for me too.