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Young artists making a 'Sensation' in London

Sensation October 26, 1997
Web posted at: 5:30 p.m. EST (2230 GMT)

From Correspondent Hillary Bowker

LONDON (CNN) -- Britons are queuing up to view "Sensation," an exhibit at London's Royal Academy featuring the work of young British artists that most agree lives up to its name.

Although many of the featured artists have won international acclaim and fame, some critics say their brand of "shock art" fails to reach the creative heights attained by old masters.

Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were controversial in their time. Today, they are some of Europe's most famous and respected artists.

"They were controversial in a way that was slightly different to what we expect now," said David Lee, the editor of Art Review. "They were doing things which were very unusual, which did cause offense, which slapped the bourgeois in the face if you like. But they were doing it within the context of very clearly defined genres."

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By comparison, some critics say, most of the artwork in the "Sensation" collection seems designed purely to shock.

Take Damien Hirst's "A Thousand Years," in which a severed cow's head crawling with flies, maggots and reeking of decay is encased in a glass box. Another Hirst work displays a preserved pig sliced in half and rigged it to a mechanical soundtrack: "This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home."

Artist Mat Collishaw's "Bullet Hole" reproduces a closeup shot of a bullet in the brain.

"The artists who are working today seem to be shocking deliberately," Lee said. "Instead of conventional genre and materials, one gets things which many people don't even recognize as art, and subjects which to many ordinary people are extremely offensive."

People are apparently eager to be shocked, offended or inspired by the "Sensation" exhibit; 3,000 visitors a day have attended the show, which features pieces from the Charles Saatchi collection.

Controversial 'Myra'

The painting "Myra" by Marcus Harvey has drawn the most attention. It reworks an infamous police photograph of child murderer Myra Hindley using acrylic paint and, as a brush, the plaster cast of a child's hand.

Last month, the portrait made news when protesters splattered it with ink and eggs. Three weeks later, after special restoration, it was back up, this time protected by glass and, when the museum is open, by guards.

"It was said at the time that this work was exploring and examining pedophelia and aspects of child abuse," Lee said. "It wasn't actually doing anything of the kind. It was merely exploiting a very famous image of a very infamous subject in order to advance the career of the artist."

Lee said such exhibits are becoming more common among artists, who correlate fame to the amount of press coverage they generate, often to the detriment of their long-term artistic impact. Lee compared today's works to advertising in that "you get the punchline and it's finished."

By contrast, he said, "great works of the past are works to which you can return time and time again. They renew themselves before your eyes. They're inexhaustible, and that's what makes them great."

Commercialization of art has roots in past

Lee concedes that some of the great artists of the past set a bad example for artists today.

"The precious behavior, humorous behavior of Picasso, Dali, Warhol has given a bad example for contemporary artists to follow," he says.

Most of Europe's famous artists have been richly rewarded for their works and strategies, Lee said. The only major exception was Van Gogh, of whom Lee says, "He simply killed himself too early."

"If he'd waited, he would have been within five years probably the most famous artist in the world."

In the art world today, fame and fortune go hand in hand. Lee says for an artist, selling yourself is as important as selling your work.

"It is said that the best way to become a good artist now is, as you leave artists college, employ the most expensive PR company you can afford," Lee said. "It's as cynical as that, I'm afraid."


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