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September 25, 2004

More Echoes of the Bildersturm

ArtsJournal, Modern Kicks and From the Floor all point to a must-read Guardian article about the Momart fire. The article is worth your time top to bottom, but I found the following particularly striking.

Witness the face of the insensate mob:

By this time, reaction to the fire in Britain had already taken a decisive shift in another direction: towards glee and schadenfreude. A virtual mob of journalists, pundits, radio phone-in callers, letter-writers and vox poppers declared in one way or another that the Momart loss was Britain's gain. Whoever set the building alight, they implied, was an artist at least on a par with any of the creators in the Saatchi collection.
On the first edition of Radio 4's Any Questions? after the fire, a questioner asked David Lammy, Theresa May, William Rees-Mogg and Don Foster: "Does the panel mourn the loss of works of modern art, such as Tracey Emin's tent?"
May said: "I'm just waiting for Tate Modern now to have a pile of ashes in the room, as one of the exhibitions." The audience applauded. Jonathan Dimbleby asked May if she had heard of Patrick Heron. May said she had not. Dimbleby told her that Heron's widow Katharine had described the fire as like a bereavement. May tried to backtrack. Dimbleby turned to Rees-Mogg, who had been honing his response to the original question. "I think mourn is a bit strong," he said, and the audience laughed and clapped.
One of the people listening, at his home in Barnes, was Mel Gooding, Heron's biographer. He told me recently that he didn't hold it against Dimbleby that the presenter wrongly described Katharine Heron as Patrick Heron's widow—the artist's wife, Delia, is dead, and Katharine is one of their two daughters—but had been shocked by Rees-Mogg's dismissal of the impact of the loss of artworks.
Katharine Heron is an artist too. She is a successful architect and heads the architecture department at Westminster University. I asked her about the reaction of the media and the public to the fire. "Artists still have the ability to make people frightened," she said. "So they make them into a joke ... I think art, altogether, has taken a beating from this fire."
I interviewed Michael Craig-Martin in his beautifully austere, white, bright studio, located at ground zero of British hipness somewhere between Clerkenwell and Shoreditch. Some of his recent prints, colours as sharp as sweets, lay on view; he had two shows coming up. Craig-Martin said he had been disturbed by the vehemence towards the destroyed art from the more serious press. He had felt strongly enough about Lubbock's piece in the Independent to write to that paper in protest.
"I thought, in the review I wrote a letter about, that there was extraordinary personal anger, this is revenge, he's furious about something," Craig-Martin told me. "Many of the people in the art world are very angry about the art world. I don't know much about the other worlds but I never get the impression that the worlds of music or the worlds of theatre or literature have so many people who are angry at the art form itself, and angry or disappointed or upset about it. There's a lot of people involved in the art world who are on the verge of hating it."
Talking about Britain and its relationship to art, Craig-Martin recalled the treatment of Jacob Epstein's Ages of Man sculptures for the British Medical Association building—now Zimbabwe House—on the Strand, in 1907. Edwardian London proved unprepared for 18 monumental, anatomically correct, naked males in a public place, and the Evening Standard launched a campaign to have them removed. In the 1930s, on the pretext that a fractured stone penis had fallen and nearly killed a pedestrian, the sculptures were castrated and mutilated; thus they remain today, neither fully destroyed nor fully preserved. It was as if the icon-smashing years of the Reformation had never been forgotten.
"In most other countries the average person is not interested," he said. "Here there's a history of vehement attacks on, particularly, the visual arts, and I always wonder whether this doesn't have some puritan base, some base in iconoclasm, the destruction of the arts in the past; if there isn't some strange folk memory of this thing. It's hard to understand the level of upset about it unless there was some deep-seated feeling that it was really very, very important."

"More Echoes of the Bildersturm"
Posted by Dan at 05:37 PM


Referenced in this post:

ArtsJournal Visual Arts: Daily Arts News—September 2004
From the Floor: Weekend Reading
Guardian: Art into ashes—James Meek
Modern Kicks: 'You don't expect them to turn to ashes in a few hours.'