Live

Watch CBSN Live

Has British Art Lost Its Way?

In a way, the first shots in the Great Brooklyn Art War were fired thousands of miles away, at the Tate Gallery, in London.

It is here that artists such as Chris Ofili, whose work so offended New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, are actually encouraged and even rewarded, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips for The Early Show.


Ofili, who created the rendition of the Virgin Mary incorporating elephant dung at the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" show, won a competition last year called the Turner Prize. And if the mayor found last year's work offensive, it's a fair bet he wouldn't be much impressed with this year's offering.

Frankly a lot of the British aren't either. At the center of this year's debate in Great Britain is what appears to be, at first glance, a bed. On second glance, it's a filthy bed surrounded by items such as yesterday's dirty underwear, crushed cigarette boxes and empty vodka bottles.

It's the work of a self-absorbed British artist named Tracey Emin.

"She says that it's a self-portrait but not one that people will really like to look at. It is hard to look at, but it's very confrontational," notes Tate Museum curator Simon Wilson.

Emin supplements the bed with a video called Why I Never Became a Dancer. Some critics say the associated sketches should have been titled "Why I Never Became an Artist." Emin has one subject matter for all her work: Tracey Emin.

"I'm just trying to say this is my life," she says. "People don't have the courage to express their emotions. Look, people have secrets they shouldn't keep," she says.

A lot of people think Emin should have kept more of her secrets to herself - not that there isn't a long even a noble tradition of self-absorption in the artistic world.

"We have neglected painting for so long that so few people do it properly," notes David Lee, an art critic.

Critics here like Lee aren't concerned over issues of taste or freedom of expression. The argument is over whether the stuff is any good, or whether contemporary British art has lost its way.

"If you haven't got a gimmick, you need not apply as far as the Turner Prize and the sensation shows are concerned. You have to be doing something which is odd - something which arouses the curiosity of viewers to go and see," says Lee.

"In much the same way that in somebody might, when they were wandering around a fairground, go into a tent to see the hairiest woman in the world or a two-headed pig or something," he adds.

In place of the two-headed pigs at this year's exhibit is a multiple view of what a row of washing machines might see if they were turned into cameras. It's a mildly amusing idea, which at least has the benefit of being clean, unlike the bed.

There's even some more or less traditional video art presented by the twin artists Jane and Louise Wilson.

Their multiscreen imagery is of Las egas. Even the twins admit the modern approach to art is a lot like the modern approach to casinos: Do whatever you have to do to get the players into the tent.

"It really invites people in and kind of makes them confront things maybe that you might not do necessarily, unless you are...someone who goes to private galleries and knows about art. I suppose that's what's kind of interesting about it," says Jane Wilson.

But others fear that once attracted by the sensation around today's artistic offerings, an unsuspecting public might be disappointed.

"It merely serves to reinforce people's preconceptions that most of temporary contemporary art certainly that exemplified by the Turner Prize is a trick," says Lee.

How are the politicians in London reacting to this stuff? They're buying it, or at least the government is. Tony Blair and his cabinet colleagues are hanging it in their offices.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue