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March 15, 2007

What's wrong with Gilbert and George? David Wootton argues that Gilbert and George should never have been allowed into the Tate: Gilbert and George: Major Exhibition at Tate Modern

Posted by David Wootton

Gilbert and George: Major Exhibition
Tate Modern, London
15th February - 7th May 2007
Sunday - Thursday 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Friday & Saturday 10am - 10pm (last admission 9.15pm)

David Wootton - Anniversary Professor of History, University of York - explains why he believes that the Gilbert and George show should not be at the Tate.

The Tate is showing a massive retrospective of the work of Gilbert and George. They have been telling the press how they had to fight and fight to get the show approved, and the first thing to say is that whoever was against this show was right: it shouldn't be in the Tate. And this not because Gilbert and George aren't talented: there are some lovely early drawings here from the beginning of their relationship, bucolic country scenes that are profoundly puzzling, but really interesting. There are some wonderful pictures of them posing in their house in Spitalfields, when they had just moved into it (the whole show, it must be said, gives a new range of meanings to the word poseur, for these two have made posing their profession). And there is some other striking early work. Still, if you consider what Warhol or Lichtenstein were doing at the same time, it is pretty minor, if rather good, stuff.

No, the argument against G&G can't be that they arenít any good at what they do. It must be that sometime in the late seventies they lost their way and they have never found it again. And when I talk about losing their way I fear I mean to say that they became decadent or immoral or perverse. Which of course they have a perfect right to be: it just makes their art profoundly unsatisfactory if for a single moment you ask yourself what is really going on.

Here are some problems:

1) They are obsessed with religion. Christianity for the most part, but also Islam. Much of their work is intended to remind us of stained glass in Churches. They both hate Christianity for being opposed to homosexuality, and seem to want a religion for gays. Now I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with religion myself, but this obsession with crucifixes and saints and Last Suppers seems to me Gothic without the fun.

2) They have lost their sense of scale. As they began to be able to command high prices, they produced ever larger works of art - works of art so large that even the vast spaces of Tate Modern are hardly big enough for them. G&G live in a late eighteenth century house: they can't produce this art or show it in their own home. Who is it for? Loft-living millionaires I suppose. Why would two people who claim to be producing an art to change ordinary people's lives produce art that no ordinary person could house?

3) There are no women. Actually this isn't quite true: there is a collage of photographs of Charles and Diana. But otherwise there are no women - at all, at all. A thousand men and Diana. What sort of mentality is it that pretends half the human race don't exist?

4) There are lots of images of bodily products: spunk, blood, faeces, chewing gum and so on and so forth. This from two people who don't have a kitchen in their house: they are revolted by the smell of cooking, but not the smell of shit. I can see that it might well be the function of art to ask us to re-examine out attitude to our bodies and our excreta, but this seems to me closer to a childish obsession with poo and farts.

5) There are lots of images of fit young men. We are surely supposed to see them as sexually attractive, and probably as sexually available. Now I have no idea what the relationship of G&G with their models is. But these images verge on the titillating and the exploitative. A female journalist (Deborah Ross), writing an admiring piece on how wonderful they are in the Independent, tells us they have pornographic DVDs lying around their house. Which raises a question: Would their art be worse if it was directly pornographic? The answer I think is no, because it is pretty miserable and mechanical already.

6) Their tailor is dreadful. As they get richer, the cut of their awful suits noticeably fails to improve. What are they posing as when they pose at being ill-dressed?

Now of course there is a case to be made in their favour. This is art about what it is to be a gay couple in late twentieth-century London. They have to construct, it might be said, their own politics, their own aesthetics, their own morality, their own relationship to the high art of previous ages. But to be honest I don't think that's what I have difficulty with. It's true I much prefer their art when it is bucolic, domestic, or even depressive than when it is aggressive, assertive, and alienated. I prefer it when it is about feelings, and don't like it when its subject seems to be body parts. I prefer it when it is a meditation on being a couple to when it seems to be offering some sort of new religion. But I think I would have exactly the same set of preferences if they were heterosexual male artists or a heterosexual couple.

I don't like their art because so much of it seems to me coarse and crude, not (I think) because it is about men having sex with men (and boys). I realise I'm in danger of sounding like a refined petty bourgeois snob, but then there really is something to be said for the bourgeois virtues. G&G, indeed, celebrate them in their early art, which is one reason why I like it.

It's an interesting exhibition. There are remarkable things in it. But in the end it is a waste of some enormous and wonderful spaces. Just think what could have filled them instead! Tom Lubbock in the Independent had it right:

the black-and-white composites from the mid-1970s [are] masterpieces.. [but as their] art has got bigger and brasher, it has only become dumber and dumber.
Two talents (or one talent - who can tell?) who once were capable of remarkable work, and now offer a pastiche of what it is to be an artist in a sad and lonely world. The sadness and loneliness were there from the beginning, and are at the heart of their best work; it's the boldness, the brashness, and the dumbness that constitute the problem in everything they have produced since some fateful day in 1977: walk from Room 5 (the Mental and Red Morning series) to room 6 (The Dirty Words Pictures) and you can see the moment when they became their own heroes and decided they were better than everybody else. Head as fast as you can for the espresso bar, where the coffee is good and the cakes excellent. By then you will have reached 1989; best skip the rest.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

To read Christie Davies' take on Gilbert and George, see: Feminists and Muslims will be offended by Gilbert and George, but the rest of us can enjoy the aesthetics and anthropology of an exotic tribe.

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This is one of the most concise, elegant, accurate reviews I've read for a very long time - extremely funny in places, but also extremely incisive. There's a great aesthetic pleasure to be had from seeing someone get something, anything, absolutely right - and if Gilbert & George didn't deliver it for me (and trust me, they didn't), well then, Prof Wootton's review certainly did.

Posted by: Bunny Smedley at April 12, 2007 04:34 PM

This is mainly description posing as criticism. We find out some things that are and are not in the art, and that the reviewer disapproves of both the inclusion and the omission, but there is nothing convincing about *why* these points can count as criticisms. I used not to like G&G myself, but having just seen the video installation in the Stedelijk (Our world), I begin to be impressed by the careful structures, the language-play, the oil-and-vinegar combinations of themes.

Posted by: fjones at September 7, 2007 01:05 PM

I just watched the movie about Gilbert and George. I didin't know about them before, but I didin't like them at all.
Great article, thank you! It makes me see more differently now. More complete.

Posted by: Mugen at January 26, 2011 01:44 AM
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