Today I visited a major international art gallery in London which had removed its public toilets as part of a temporary exhibition. It has been inspired by the work of Mark Rothco who intended his audiences to utterly submerge themselves in his work without the distraction of commerce, entertainment or bodily needs. The art exhibition without toilets is a natural extension of that principle and it was exhilarating to see that the galley was, despite these limitations, doing a hearty trade.
Many visitors had flocked to the exhibition’s many multi-storey galleries and were variously absorbed, challenged or disturbed by what they encountered there: the usual bread and butter experience for a modern art gallery these days it would seem.
The shops and cafes too were doing a roaring trade, plying their wares of ceramics, calendars and cream teas as if tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough. But the most interesting aspect of the gallery with no public toilets was the speed at which visitors engaged with the gallery. Instead of lingering to absorb the work, viewers were tearing through the galleries clearly more intent on emptying their bladders their filling their souls. The cafe had turned into a fast food joint with sandwiches, cakes and croissants abandoned – frequently mid-mouthful. At the end of the afternoon it resembled the Marie Celeste, plates strewn across the floor, tea cups suspended in mid-air and doughnuts bayoneted on the backs of chairs.
As the visit wore on however, it became clear that visitors’ biological needs were becoming more pressing and their ability to wait until they got to the nearest McDonald’s had been stretched beyond breaking point.
Several urination hotspots were making their presence felt in the corridors and secret spaces of the gallery. Foot fall became flooded feet as damp streaks across the atrium concrete floor indicated where visitors had not only been caught short but made their contribution to the gallery experience of others. Whether this was through hormonal influence, peer pressure or instructions from the gallery guide is unclear but their contributions were unmistakable in every sensory way imaginable: sight, sound and of course the smell of the Art Gallery without toilets is something that is not quickly forgotten.
Some may say that the modern art gallery is nothing more than the excrescences of contemporary artists who don’t know how to paint but I think that is an unfair charge against the artist. They may not know how to paint but the modern gallery sure knows how to make people piss in the most unlikeliest and inspirational of circumstances.
The recent and utterly predictable furore about Damien Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern has so far unsuccessfully (on the BBC at least) tried floating the same old questions when you’re talking about Hirst and his ilk: is it art? Is it any good? And hidden behind those questions – often poorly masquerading as intelligent criticism Jeremy – is the punter’s stealth bombing attitude that is appalled at the economy that surrounds Hirst. He makes money. Tut. He makes tons of money. Tut tut. He bypasses the traditional dealers and sells dead flies to rich foreigners. Tut tut bloody tut.
The question of whether or not Hirst’s oeuvre is ‘art’ is as dead a question as that shark in the formaldehyde. It just stares at you, demanding you look directly into its mouth and be scared, be very scared that you get the wrong answer. Worse, be prepared for your flimsy swimming costume of a rationale for what constitutes art will be torn from your human flesh, exposing you in all your idiotic posturing. No, the question of whether something is art or not just generates un-ending trails of snail mucus which never answer the question (because its always the wrong question) and just serve to reinforce the critic’s own habits predilections and prejudices. The slime trail wends its way slowly, inexorably over the ‘I know what I like and I like what I know’ tautology.
The more significant question about Hirst is what our concern about his earning capacity tells us about what we expect from our artists; how they behave, how they should look and what place in society they should feel content to inhabit. Our concern and sometime hostility to his relationship with the arts markets suggests not so much that we’re are appalled that his spot paintings generate a million times their value every time he adds another row of pastel spots, but that he has the nerve to make any money at all. Artists surely do what they do because they love it? They’re driven by a vocational call that has nothing to do with filthy lucre? Surely they should be living in hovels, surrounded by the dead cows they carve up with their chain saws: not living off their profits?
Clearly, artists shouldn’t be linked to the word profit at all. Their place in the world should be at the altar – or better still, in the kitchen gallery ready to be poached, fried or plain old skewered on our prejudices that artists should be poor, anonymous and plain old dead before they’re entitled to benefit from the madness that is the arts marketplace and the market in general.
Hirst will only really have ‘made it’ once he dies and leaves instructions in his will for his own body to be drenched in formaldehyde and then strung up on a plinth in Trafalgar Square. When that happens Jeremy, you and your colleagues will no doubt be leading the campaign for the sanctification of Hirst because as you know, the only good artist is a dead one.