Jake Chapman, Artshock, Channel 4, Monday 11pm

From: blp
Category: Art, TV
Date: 14 March 2006


In which we learned that the defining feature of transgressive art, from Paul McCarthy to serial killer John Wayne Gasey's self portraits to the Chapman's themselves is clowns. Well I'll be. Nope, now you mention it, yes, they're in lots of it. A floating signifier, surely, but here, by the end, they were representing the always unexpected laughter that perpetually undermines capitalist...something...sorry, it's a bit confused - as it always is when Jake Chapman starts in on this subject. It's quite sweet in a way. Sure of himself as he always appears, he always seems to be tussling silently with a welter of knotty contradictions surrounding the purpose or lack of of shocking or pretending to shock or working with the idea of shock, with exploring shockability or...at first there's lots about heightening what horrifies us as a therapeutic technique, shell shocked soldiers confronted with their denial, Freud etc. Alongside this, contempt for fluffy bunny pictures - unless done by Jeff Koons, natch, or smeared with chocolate by Paul McCarthy - clearly the only alternative for those unprepared to face the strong medicine of children with cocks for faces and sphincters for mouths. But this segues into a more general contempt for the idea of art expressing any kind of hope or utopian ideal or morality - which is sort of fine except that, as a defense of the profane, this seems to be as much a snake swallowing itself by the tail as a defense of religion. Just as the latter, wedded to faith, is supposed to have no use for proofs, but can't, for some reason, can't stop offering them, the former, disgusted with moralising, can't seem to stop wanting to justify itself.

At least some of Chapman's interviewees don't seem to have the same problem defining their position and allowing their transgressions to be permeated with values. Veteran bloodspatterer Viennese Aktionist Herman Nitsch is clear that his Orgies Mysteries Theater is designed to 'wake people up' and Marcus Harvey, author of the Myra Hyndley portrait that took tabloid stick at Sensation makes a clear case for the work as a commentary on an image that had already been ruthlessly exploited by the tabloids themselves.

Maybe for the Chapmans themselves, the problem is the laughter. The sneery, ha ha it's all shit quality should, in theory, make the work even harder to take, but it doesn't, just makes it seem a little dull. Maybe it's a little too easy and - here's a little moral stand of my own - a reinforcement of rather than a challenge to capitalist structures. Adorno, in The Culture Industry, talks about laughter as a weapon of capitalism that emphasies our aloneness, insidiously insisting that no wrong be felt, only laughed off - a kind of machismo or sado-masochism or both. What's salient about the best of the artists Chapman discusses here - Nitsch, Gunter Brus, McCarthy, apparently even Brock Enright (I'd need to see more), is that feeling is privileged over laughter. Even the clowns have pathos.