Art and cities

Gilbert & George

The puzzle of Gilbert & George

Gilbert & George. They've been around for decades, producing works in their unique style -- huge brightly-coloured photo-based collage-pictures on a black grid -- which has become their well-known visual signature. Over the years they have developed new ways of showing taboo-grating images of the social world and, most notably, bodily fluids and waste. At the heart of most Gilbert & George works we see the artists themselves: a model relationship of equals, as they say themselves, always harmonious, acting as one to produce their art.

They are also well-known for being a 'living scupture'. When they first came up with this idea -- rather than make the art, you be the art -- it was an exciting challenge to the rather more obvious modernist abstract welded steel things that everybody else was calling sculpure. Even now it's a good idea, especially since they've been doing it so consistently for so long, even though a number of other people during the last 30 years, from artists to pop stars, have also decided that their life is art.

Gilbert & George's famous matching suits were a challenging fashion statement when they were young men in the 1960s and 70s. Now they may just look like "a pair of creepy old uncles", as Laura Cumming put it recently. But the idea of looking 'normal' while doing work which challenges people is a good one.

But is their work challenging? These middle-aged men are part of the establishment, aren't they? Maybe. But their work is, without doubt, much more radical and challenging than that produced by many younger artists who would like to be seen as radical and hip. We will consider the evidence below. First, though, we have to deal with the worrying myths.

Not fascists

For a time people were worried that Gilbert & George might be fascists, because they wore their matching suits like a uniform and let themselves be filmed walking around the East End like robots. And their pictures were bold and orderly. And they did some pictures with skinheads in.

Clever readers will note that this doesn't really make them fascists, however. Gilbert & George clearly adore living in their very multicultural corner of the East End of London; they love the diversity. That's not very fascist. They have a "deviant" sexuality and donate money to AIDS/HIV+ charities. That's not very fascist either.

So we can forget about that worry. Even if they are a bit tory in some ways, they are not tory in the nasty prejudiced sense. In fact they say nice inclusive things about society which make them sound more like hippies than fascists. Even the tory things, like saying they liked Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, are probably just done for amusing outrage purposes. They don't like pompous liberals, or elitism, and react against that. And they have a fear that socialism isn't good for art. But they are not tories really -- look, in The Words of Gilbert & George we can even find Gilbert insisting "I'm not a tory" (p.233). Gilbert & George want to be 'normal' in one sense -- partly in order to get attention from people who wouldn't be interested in conspicuously 'wacky' artists -- but then be subversive from within that position.

In Daniel Farson's Gilbert & George: A Portrait (1999), we find the artists -- in their conversations with the author -- quite unphased by deviance (and even crime), and mixing delightedly with people of all nationalities. Quite the opposite of Thatcher.

They're not even really posh. They come from extremely modest backgrounds. Their acquired poshness is just part of their surreal art pose. And why not.

So now we can consider their art with a clearish conscience.

Always be nice

I saw Gilbert & George talking at Tate Modern recently. As always they were very polite and kind and they signed our leaflet ('with love from') very courteously and I couldn't think of anything to say to them because there was no point saying a compliment because they must hear flattery all the time anyway. Afterwards I thought I should have said something nice, though, because otherwise they couldn't be certain you actually liked them and you might just be a bonkers person who wants to meet them because they are 'famous' rather than for any more careful intelligent reason. So: always be nice to famous people that you like.

Art for all

In their manifesto, What Our Art Means, Gilbert & George declare:

'We want our art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowledge of art. The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing at and dismissing the normal outsider. We say that puzzling, obscure and form-obsessed art is decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People'.

It would be easy to criticise this naively nice statement, of course: Gilbert & George are happy to be a part of the art world really; their works are displayed in galleries, and therefore do not make much of an effort to reach 'the people'; and -- most seriously, perhaps -- the average punter may not find their art any more accessible or understandable than a lot of other modern art.

On the other hand, maybe Gilbert & George's pictures really do mean more to most people -- since they include identifiable objects and words -- than more abstract art. Part of the problem is that viewers often feel they don't understand modern art -- what does it mean? -- even though Gilbert & George seem to be saying here that their work means whatever you think it means.

And although it is shown in galleries, Gilbert & George are committed promoters of their own work, and seem to delight in their international fan-base. So maybe you can't say they're part of an elite art world after all. Although they are.

To change people

Later in their 'Art for all' statement, Gilbert & George state:

'We want the most accessible modern form with which to create the most modern speaking visual pictures of our time. The art-material must be subservient to the meaning and purpose of the picture. Our reason for making pictures is to change people and not to congratulate them on being how they are'.

This seems a noble aim for an artist to have. Unless we disagreed with the ways that the artists thought people should change. Not that Gilbert & George are prescriptive. 'Our Art is the friendship formed between the viewer and our pictures,' they say. 'We want to spill our blood, brains and seed in our life-search for new meanings and purpose to give to life'. Which must be good, mustn't it? Not everybody will be affected by their art, but that applies to any artist.

So now we've thought about Gilbert & George for a bit, and they seem to be doing well.

Back to the 'right-wing' thing

Julian Stallabrass, in his book High Art Lite (1999), observes that Gilbert & George's critique of less accessible art has a lot in common with "right-wing populists" who criticise left-leaning but 'difficult' art as elitist and incomprehensible. Stallabrass throws in some names of horrible right-wingers in order to make you think that Gilbert & George must be small-minded bigots too. But they clearly are not. And just because some right-wing people have made an argument, such as the one saying that some supposedly radical art is elitist and incomprehensible, doesn't mean that that argument is wrong, or inherently right-wing. Gilbert & George clearly do want to challenge and upset some traditional values and preconcieved ideas -- it's a bit silly to suggest that they are not like that.

Urban living

The 'Art for All' idea means that Gilbert & George try to include everyday life in their pictures. Their wish to take this to its logical extreme is one way of explaining why their work features nakedness, shit, spunk, and other everyday (but still strangely shocking) human material.

Their work is also connected to contemporary life and -- even though the white male middle-aged artists are very closely identified with their works, even appearing in most of them -- still manages to seem somehow quite multicultural, progressive, and urban. In one of his diary pieces, Matthew Collings visits Gilbert & George (March 2000):

'Because I know they walk everywhere I ask if they'd ever get a train out to the countryside and go for a walk. 'Are you mad!' They love the beauty of nature but they don't like the bigotry out there. They prefer to take their chances in the urban melting pot. They only go to the country once a year to stay in the Norfolk (or somewhere) holiday home of top German curator Rudi Fuchs, to show loyalty. 'Good morning!' they once said to a young couple with a pram outside a lovely church near his house. 'Fuck off you weird looking prats!' came the reply'.

This is why the countryside is bad. Quite right.

Shock and defence

We are used to the contemporary art world being a bit 'shocking'. But we are not really shaken by would-be 'controversial' material because we've come to expect it. Extremely bland art, showing a woman in a nice dress with some antiques, perhaps, would be much more shocking in a gallery these days, we think. But Gilbert & George do still actually manage to get a reaction. A show in Belfast in November 1999, for example, had priests denouncing their 'impure filth', and pickets at the gallery. Rev Ian Paisley -- not too surprisingly -- found the artists 'abhorrent' and said their work was 'an outrage of decency, morality and purity'.

So here we see Gilbert & George actually managing to shock in a way that they would like to -- to challenge entrenched views of what can and cannot be shown. The duo also emerge from this looking a bit more delicate, and courageous, than we might have expected. The Guardian reported from Belfast, for example, that George 'was angry at being insulted by a number of protesters who shouted "Sodom and Gomorrah" at him as he entered the gallery. He said it was anti-gay jibes like these that were beyond the pale and not their pictures' (4 November 1999).

Matthew Collings suggested at the time that their life and art were a defence against, as well as an attack upon, these bigoted views: 'We could easily imagine -- I think it would be reasonable, anyway -- that the pair's robo-movements, their posing, their never-changing suits, and George's unlikely made-up Prince Charles accent, are all part of the same package of insulating themselves against a world that is hostile to their particular sexuality -- their badge of defiant otherness' (The Independent: The Weekend Review, 6 November 1999, p.5).

Adverts for progress and liberation

So that's Gilbert & George, using bright, advertising-style displays -- a language everyone understands -- to communicate something surprising. Whether it really works or not is unclear but I think it's nice that they had a go, that they continue to want to shock, and that they're still a bit puzzling.

If you have anything to add, or any comments, email me.
(But please don't write asking me to send you information about Gilbert and George -- sorry but all of the 'information' I have is here. However there are several excellent books about Gilbert & George, including their own The Words of Gilbert & George). Thank you.