Holding up a mirror to perversity

Painting, 1946 / WikipediaAn old New Yorker cartoon has four men contemplating an abstract painting in a gallery. Two of them, Runyonesque philistines, are rolling on the floor laughing. The snooty-aired dandies standing behind them look disdainful, but a bit wistful, too. One says to the other something like: "We miss out on a lot of fun by understanding art."

Would that philistines today still reacted to contemporary art with merriment, and how very innocent the once-sophisticated term "abstract" now seems. Rather than laughing in galleries nowadays, ordinary folks are more inclined to head for the vomitorium.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York opened a Francis Bacon show last week. Bacon, who died in 1992, was a very disturbed man, a sadomasochist, in fact. Amongst his recurrent motifs were screaming popes in glass cages and copulating male bodies. His favourite quote was Aeschylus's "the reek of human blood is laughter to my heart."

It's a curious paradox: In the real world we are increasingly obsessed with seamless, poreless, ever-youthful Botoxed beauty, while the art world seems to vie for who can represent the human body in its most degraded, damaged and repulsive form.

It doesn't seem so long ago that Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven was painting landscapes because he found in lakes and mountains "a power and a majesty and a wealth of experience at nature's summit." Today his "artist" great-granddaughter Kyla Harris, paralyzed in an accident from the neck down, employs herself as a photographic model for wheelchair erotica.

Another Canadian artist, Terence Koh, is enjoying enormous commercial success in New York for his controversial works featuring eclectic cultural icons like Jesus, Michelangelo's David and Mickey Mouse in a state of sexual arousal. Sometimes he smears his work with his own blood or semen.

Then there's the touring exhibit, Body World, visited by more than 20 million people. Body World goes beyond disgust in the degradation of the living to delight in the violation of the dead. Creator Gunther von Hagen's Crayolabright plastinated cadavers, articulated into jocular poses, treat the human corpse as a kind of stylized meta-human: death imitating art imitating life.

Several of the cadavers used are alleged to have been executed in China. Von Hagen once did a live autopsy on London television and laughed when bodily fluids shot out of the corpse.

The way acknowledged artists treat the human body reflects a culture's attitude to itself. When artists take their inspiration from skin disease manuals (as Bacon did) rather than Olympian or godly ideals, that doesn't say much for our cultural confidence. It's no coincidence that the race to the aesthetic bottom coincides with our acceptance of the body's functions and continual decay as all that's left after the banishment of any linkage of corporal humanity with sanctity or a higher purpose.

Art critic John Richardson feebly attempts to exculpate Francis Bacon: "By holding a mirror up to our degenerate times, Bacon proves himself to be one of the most moral artists of the day."

What nonsense. For if it is moral to find aesthetic inspiration in humiliation, filth, disease, deformity and sadism, what, pray tell, would be immoral in the topsy-turvy world of today's art world elites? Lakes, mountains and the Mona Lisa? No, Francis Bacon and his ilk are holding up a mirror to their own perverted selves.

Bacon's painting of an abattoir with trailing entrails and blood went for $86-million, and a Qatar sheik paid £26-million for one of his screaming popes. I don't know the price for the painting of his boyfriend sitting on the toilet.

This so-called art is degenerate; the so-called cultural elites' fascination with it is indecent. Degeneracy and indecency are, of course, quaintly archaic concepts, still understood by philistines, that have coprophilic artists and their enablers rolling on the floor laughing.

Barbara Kay is a columnist for Canada’s National Post, in which this article was first published.


Barbara Kay has replied in the National Post to criticism suggesting that (a) she wants indecent art banned; (b) she thinks Bacon untalented; (c) her use of the word “degenerate” puts her in the same camp as Nazis who destroyed works of art by Jews; (d) she is homophobic; (e) she thinks all art must be about “sweetness and light”.

She also responds to the idea that Bacon’s art is very popular and therefore cannot therefore be as bad as she alleges. “The public is notorious for flocking to exhibitions that feature shock art. Body World, which I cited in my column, has drawn over 20 million viewers to see its plastinated cadavers. That doesn't make it moral or any the less a violation of human dignity.”

Read her response in full here.


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