13th May

All good art is subversive either in form or content.

I have in mind, for example, Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’, a photograph of the crucifixion submerged in the artists urine which outraged critics back in the 1980s: it was (is) considered disrespectful to those of the Christian faith, a blasphemous work that led to debates about the issue of public funding of artistic projects. Twenty-four years after the work’s first showing, a print of the photograph on display in Avignon was destroyed by French catholic fundamentalists. No one understood that the photograph depicted the cheapening of Christ’s image; and the ongoing hypocrisy of those who misinterpret or twist the words of Christ for their own ends. The artist, Serrano, is a devout Christian.

And what about Tracy Emin’s Turner-nominated instillation ‘My Bed’? Sold recently for four million quid, complete with an ashtray full of fag ends, used condoms and the artist’s dirty knickers. Many, probably the vast majority of people, feel the work meaningless and the artist’s success illegitimate. Me? I think it’s worth the four million for Tracy’s knickers alone! Although in fairness, the bed is representative of a bad period in the artist’s life, depicting the four days she lay in bed contemplating suicide. It is a work about life and death; life in the balance; it is Hamlet’s famous soliloquy ‘To be, or not to be…’ It is a four day lay -in, a long sleep – sleep, death’s sweet counterpart.

Then we have Hans-Peter Feldmann’s The Hugo Boss Prize instillation: exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, he’d cashed in his $100,000 honorarium, pinning it to the walls of the gallery in rows of dollar bills, some crumpled, some folded, some not – much to the outrage of the many who viewed it. Oh, ‘money, money, money…’A fresh blasphemy, but this time against the ‘new’ God of plenty and his royal court of austerity, poverty, hunger and ignorance.

The Guitar Lesson by (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) Balthus from 1934, created outrage and controversy when it first appeared and still has the power to shook today. This painting of a young girl pulled backwards by her hair across the lap of an older woman, both fascinates and disturbs: the girl has pulled free the breast of the woman who in turn plucks the girl’s naked, prepubescent genitals like the strings of a guitar.

Then we have something like the Mona Hatoum exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Sarah Kane tells us: ‘In a tiny cylindrical room I watched a projection of a surgical camera disappearing into every orifice of the artist. True, few people could stay in the room as long as me, but I found that the voyage up Mona Hatoum’s arse put me in powerful and direct contact with my feelings about my own mortality. I can’t ask for much more’ (from a work of art).
(Sarah Kane, Drama with Balls, 1995).

Again, take William Holman Hunt’s painting The Awakening Conscience (illustrated above). Controversial or not? In its day (1854) it caused consternation among critics and the viewing public alike. Here we see a young woman rising from the lap of a bewhiskered young man. Critics were uncertain as to the subject of the painting. The fact the artist had painted the carpet’s pattern with as much care as the young woman’s face, many felt the work to be simple ‘illusionistic imitation’.

But then John Ruskin in one of his letters to the Times newspaper explained that what we were viewing was a ‘kept’ woman and her lover:

‘there is not a single object in that room – common, modern, vulgar…but it becomes tragical, if rightly read…the torn and dying bird upon the floor; the gilded tapestry…the picture above the fireplace, with its single drooping figure – the woman taken in adultery; nay, the very hem of the poor girl’s dress…has story in it, if we think how soon its pure whiteness may be soiled with dust and rain, her outcast feet failing in the street…I surely need not go on?’

Outrage followed. ‘Not only had the artist famed for his religious conviction dared to portray a mistress rather than a prostitute – prostitutes were non-threatening to families, mistresses were terrifying – he did so with compassion.’

The face of the woman we see today is not the face these early Victorian viewers would have seen. The model, Annie Miller, Hunt’s fiancée, was prone to infidelity, and when Hunt found her out, he removed the expression of guilt-stricken horror for which the painting was most noticeable when first exhibited. The new expression on Annie’s face has far less impact ‘than the painting’s contemporary reviews show’.


The weather has been pretty shit the past couple of days. Warm and wet. God bless rising levels of humidity, especially when accompanied by falling rain. Horrible. Hopefully, today will be drier?


If your eyelids aren’t sticky after giving a woman oral sex, you didn’t do all you could to please her…