The Art of State Britain

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The book and play reviews of Dorothy Parker are written with such a masterly sense of style and wit that it is impossible not to like them, no matter what they actually say. What they actually say is pretty damn good too. I wouldn’t want to have been on the receiving end of a thumbs-downer — you’d have little choice but to stagger away doubled over from metaphoric brickbats to the gut, and look for a place to curl up and whimper. One of my favorite pieces of (brick) batting practice is Mark Twain’s The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper. Let’s just say that Twain finds several. And that I’ve always been relieved to look at the pieces of ID in my wallet and confirm that none of them reads James Fenimore Cooper. Well, Dorothy Parker is like Mark Twain and Groucho Marx together on a bender. In one of her reviews, Mrs. Parker admits to a "congenital lowness of brow." That admission was tongue-in-cheek. Mine is real — congenital beetleness of brow is more like it. In short, I’m no more qualified to opine about art than Newt Gingerich or your Uncle Elmer. But opine I’m about to.

State Britain is the name of an exhibition recently (15 January—27 August 2007) shown at Tate Britain, Millbank, London. The work has received a great deal of attention, filling a central gallery of the museum where people anticipating Turners, Blakes, Constables, and Bacons have found themselves confronted (if not affronted) by this 40-meter long "sculpture." A sign warned that visitors might find some of State Britain’s images "distressing" — an odd advisory inasmuch as no such signs were posted to brace one for the potential distress of a Francis Bacon or a William Blake. But then, such advisories are growing familiar in State Britain. On the way to the museum, one is bound to notice that many of the fence posts bear a neat message for drunks, vandals, thieves, terrorists, kids, generic interlopers, and ultimately you: PAINTED WITH NON-CLIMB PAINT. Indolent though I am, such messages rile my inner climber.

Until the night of 23 May 2006, visitors to London would have seen the display that was to become State Britain in its raw state, stretched along Parliament Square. That was where a protestor against the sanctions on Iraq, and then the war, had installed himself in June 2001. His name was Brian Haw. Mr. Haw came to be a thorn in the side of the state, which in 2005 passed the "Serious Organized Crime and Police Act," in no small part to remove or at least relieve the distress of his presence. Section 132 of the new law authorized the police to come and haul off most of the posters, teddy bears, paintings, photographs, banners, letters, and other protest debris that had accumulated around Mr. Haw over the years. Haw was democratically allowed to retain a two by three meter patch of pavement, and God bless him, he’s still on it.

Before the raid, artist Mark Wallinger photographed Haw’s "eyesore" — then spent a year meticulously reproducing it right down to the last smudge and smear. He enlisted Tate Britain to exhibit his recreation, which he called State Britain. It is especially fitting that State Britain should have appeared at Tate Britain, as Section 138 of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act (and God bless the British: who else would come up with such a name?) decrees that unauthorized demonstrations may not occur at any point within a circle having a radius of one mile and Parliament Square at its center. Wallinger was keen to note that the perimeter of the state’s circle ran smack through the Tate, rendering half of State Britain technically illegal. (Some of Wallinger’s critics contend that this coincidence is less astonishing than was claimed — that in fact the Tate sits outside the boundary line.) Whatever the case, the effect remained powerful, forcing visitors to State Britain to consider the absurdity of stepping in and out of legality as they moved through the building. Wallinger had taped a boundary line all through the museum. His exhibit had real presence, and even seemed to lend a fresh power to the Turners, Blakes, Constables, and Bacons. In other words, Wallinger’s art more than met what ought to be a basic condition — it did not waste one’s time. It made one, at the very least, consider.

In an article in The American Spectator (July/August 2007) called u2018Art, Beauty and Judgment,’ Roger Scruton asserts that there is such a thing as taste in art, no matter how thoroughly current trends may conspire to make one believe that there isn’t — that it does matter how a piece of art makes one feel, that it does matter whether a piece of art is ultimately uplifting, demeaning, or just plain insignificant. Scruton considers the legendary example of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal attached to the museum wall, entitled Fountain, and often as not accompanied by a paragraph or two of text telling the viewer why it is legendary. The joke may have been clever back when u2018What is art?’ was a fresh and loaded question. Scruton finds the joke "downright stupid" today, when the question u2018What is art?’ tends to be as tired a cliché as the phrase tired cliché. I’ve wandered past enough copies of Duchamp’s pisser over the years to agree with Scruton that maybe its moment has passed, though I have to confess that to an inveterate drinker of beer the work retains a certain appeal. But as I’ve already said, I’m not an ideal judge. I once spent a good deal of time looking at a thermostat-like object attached to a wall of the Chicago Art Institute, then realized that it was a thermostat. I think that’s what art critics call an epiphany. Anyway, for what it’s worth, I thought State Britain was worth the trouble. There were You Lie Kids Die Bliar posters, and pictures of bloodied children, and peace signs, and Bush, Blair, and Brown dipping their hands Pontius Pilate-like in basins of blood, and verses from the Bible, and all the unsubtle accusatory moralizing one might have expected. But there were humor, artistry, and intelligence as well. Perhaps the only truly distressing thing about State Britain was that it was not a mile away on Parliament Square where it belonged.

John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

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