Last week, I went to the East End of London to witness the death of the avant-garde. At first glance, Gilbert and George’s Sonofagod Pictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual?’ exhibition at the White Cube did not look like a wake. The bright and glistening gallery is in Hoxton, a corner of town that has been full of life since it was colonised and gentrified by ‘Young British Artists’ in the early Nineties. As fashionable visitors move between its loft conversions and cafes, ‘edgy’ is the highest compliment they can bestow and ‘taboo’ the gravest insult. Taboos are taboo in Hoxton.
Even on a wet Thursday lunchtime, there were plenty of sightseers from the metropolitan intelligentsia enjoying the show rather than mourning the passing of their world. In prose that might embarrass an estate agent, novelist Michael Bracewell told them in the catalogue that Gilbert and George were engaged ‘in rebellion, an assault on the laws and institutions of superstition and religious belief’.
Burbling critics agreed. Gilbert and George still get a ‘frisson of excitement’ by including ‘f-words, turds, semen, their own pallid bodies and other affronts to bourgeois sensibilities’ in their work, wrote a journalist with the impeccably bourgeois name of Cassandra Jardine in the Daily Telegraph. ‘Is it the perfect Christmas card to send George Bush at Easter? Yeah, yeah,’ added groovy Waldemar Januszczak of the Sunday Times
Their justifications for edgy art won’t work any longer and not only because the average member of the educated bourgeoisie likes nothing better than f-words and pallid bodies on a visit to the theatre or gallery. After the refusal of the entire British press to print innocuous Danish cartoons, the stench of death is in the air. It is now ridiculous and impossible to talk about a fearless disregard for easily offended sensibilities.
Sonofagod is clearly trading under a false prospectus. Gilbert and George narcissistically present themselves as icons towering over a shrivelled Christ. ‘God loves Fucking! Enjoy!’ reads one inscription. This isn’t a brave assault on all religions, just Catholicism.
The gallery owners know that although Catholics will be offended, they won’t harm them. That knowledge invalidates their claims to be transgressive. An uprising that doesn’t provoke a response isn’t a ‘rebellion’, but a smug affirmation of the cultural status quo.
If they were to do the same to Islam, all hell would break loose. In interviews publicising the show, Gilbert and George showed that they at least understood the double standard. They’re gay men who live in the East End where the legal groups of the Islamic far right – Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Association of Britain – are superseded by semi-clandestine organisations which push leaflets through their door saying: ‘Verily, it is time to rejoice in the coming state of Islam. There will be no negotiation with Islam. It is only a short time before the flag of Islam flies over Downing Street.’ Even if the artists found the audacity to take on the theocrats around them, they know no gallery would dare show the results.
The fear of being murdered is a perfectly rational one, but it is eating away at the cultural elite’s myths. In the name of breaking taboos, the Britart movement has giggled at paedophilia (Jake and Dinos Chapman) and rubbed salt in the wounds of the parents of the Moors murderers’ victims (Marcus Harvey). It can’t go on as if nothing has happened because the contradictions between breaking some taboos but not others are becoming too glaring. They were on garish display last year when the Almeida Theatre, the White Cube of theatreland, showed Romance by over-praised American playwright David Mamet.
His characters hurled anti-semitic and anti-Christian abuse at each other and very edgy it sounded, too. The justification for his venom was that he had set the play against the backdrop of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. He meant the hatreds on stage to reflect the hatreds of the Middle East.
Readers with an interest in foreign affairs will have spotted that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is between Muslims and Jews, not Christians and Jews. Islamophobic abuse ought to have followed the anti-semitic abuse if the play was to make sense. Neither Mamet nor the Almeida had the nerve do that. Their edginess was no match for the desire of the prudent bourgeois to save his skin.
The insincerity extends way beyond the arts. Rory Bremner will tear into Tony Blair, but not Mohammed Khatami. Newspaper editors will print pictures of servicemen beating up demonstrators in Basra, which may place the lives of British troops in danger, but not Danish cartoons, which may place their own lives in danger.
You can’t be a little bit free. If you are not willing to offend Islamists who may kill you, what excuse do you have for offending Catholics, the families of murdered children and British troops who won’t?
Listen to this victim of torture
Mr Justice Collins enjoys the doubtful distinction of being the favourite target of the British right. Only Abu Hamza and Ian Huntley have been as consistently rubbished. It was no surprise last week that politicians and newspapers condemned as ‘extraordinary’ his ruling that America’s definition of torture is different from that of ‘most civilised countries’.
It is extraordinary because what the judge said was true. In a briefing leaked to the New Statesman, the Foreign Office told Tony Blair that Americans adhered to a narrow definition of torture but did not ban cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment unless the US constitution specifically prohibited it. The FO couldn’t promise the PM that the Americans would not subject captives to ‘sleep deprivation’, which the Spanish Inquisition thought more effective than the rack or constant exposure to loud noise.
Theirs wasn’t a technical quibble. The disgrace of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo begin with a permissive culture at the top. It’s not that Presidents and generals authorised torture; rather, they created a climate in which it didn’t feel such a shocking breach of discipline.
Intelligent voices on the American right know this as well as the liberals. A forthcoming book from Human Rights Watch has Republican Senator John McCain damning those in the Bush administration who argued that al-Qaeda had rendered Geneva Conventions ‘quaint’. These standards ‘are never obsolete; they cut to the heart of how moral people must treat other humans,’ he says.
Vietnamese communists tortured McCain, so he knows of what he speaks. He may also be the 2008 Republican presidential candidate. I guess most readers will instinctively support the Democrat, but it may not be such a disaster if he won.
Huhne – your number’s up
Last week, this column revealed how Chris Huhne, the ultra-green candidate for the Lib Dem leadership, had led porcine Independent executives as they stampeded towards company BMWs.
His love of what Margaret Thatcher called ‘our great car culture’ didn’t stop there. Colleagues from his time in newspapers in the late Eighties remember it well. The corporate welfare for the fat cats was followed by mass redundancies and, frankly, they’re still sore about it. They tell me that after Huhne snatched his Beemer, he scoured the country for a personalised number plate. The closest he could get was H 11 H N E. By carefully inserting the bolt between 1s, he ingeniously turned it into H 1.1 H N E.
‘We face a fundamental challenge to the sustainability of our society,’ declares the new Huhne. ‘Listen to my baby roar,’ whooped the old one.