Paradoxical Progress - The Art and Politics of Gilbert and George

Gilbert and George – Paradoxical Progress

Gilbert and George are realist artists. Such a statement may seem surprising to those who think of the vivid day-glo hues which envelope much of their work, or the apparent incongruity of some of their juxtapositions (outsized sperm and shit against the Shoreditch horizon). But these are mere shades and highlights in their pallet. The grimy ground-level is their muse and motif. Their more recent exhibitions, while subtly pushing out the boundaries at the edges, are still very much in keeping with this vision.

The Banners shown at the White Cube in Bermondsey in 2015 takes one relatively minor element which has often resurfaced in their work – that of the graffito and newspaper hoarding – and places it centre stage, combining the two. ‘BURN THAT BOOK’ ‘F*** TEACHERS’, ‘FELLATIO FOR ALL’ yell the banners – randomly spewing forth profane rage and saucy outrage. Taken whole, this exhibition is a very minor piece among their oeuvre, a slight little curio.  

Much more involving among their recent work is the Scapegoating Pictures exhibition, also at the White Cube a year earlier. Gilbert and George are often seen as the most supreme of narcissists, appearing in photographic person as they do in much of their own work. Certainly the placing of these elegantly vaunted self creations within the picture adds a beautifully formed signature to a piece. But this is  less self-adulation as a kind of placing of the eye of the artist within their work. The subject, the star, is the streets of East London. There is a new recurring motif in Scapegoating Pictures. Metal pods adorn most of the pictures, either lone examples menacing in the foreground, or dozens emblazoned in the background as a recurring pattern. Eerily reminiscent of bomb shells, these discarded canisters contained not explosives but nitrous oxide; the ‘hippy crack’ exhaled by East London clubbers to enhance an uproarious night out before throwing the remnants (also known as ‘whippits’) onto the Spitalfield side streets.  Found inside their home on Fournier Street, Gilbert and George have picked up and preserved these stray items of detritus for posterity, just as they have done previously with street signs, newspaper bills and rentboy calling cards.   Once again, Gilbert and George are elevating the most earthbound aspects of existence into their art, finding truth in trash.

Gilbert and George are realist artists. They are also right-wing artists. An avalanche of embarrassed apologia from admirers has sought to bury this inconvenient truth. Surely this most playful pair are merely having us on with their conservative bon mots? Yet the evidence is too overwhelming. The repeated praise for Thatcher. We admire Margaret Thatcher greatly. She did a lot for art. Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different.” The love of monarchy. “We’re also fond of the Prince of Wales. He’s a gentleman.” They sided with City brokers against the Occupy protestors, and mused that austerity cuts should be most severe in Labour boroughs as ‘it’s only fair.’  A very rare example of a degree of separation between the two is that George takes the lead in this area – these statements mainly come from him, and it is he who votes Conservative. Italian-born Gilbert claims not to vote, though certainly he does not oppose George’s Toryism either.

Darker accusations are levelled at the pair. That they are not just of the right, but the far-right; racists and fascists. This stems predominantly from images from their 1970s work; skinheads, racist graffiti, a young Asian man appearing under the bald legend ‘Paki’. Social reportage, not political advocacy, though the pair did not help matters with deliberately provocative and ambiguous responses to the accusations levelled during interviews in those days. I recall reading their dismissal of ‘anti-fascists’ as ‘never creating anything worthwhile’ alongside an unpleasant aside about Asians ‘often being the richest people on the street’ or similar (this seems to have been swept into the ether and I can find no proof on the web, still, I know what I read.) At the same time the National Front was dismissed as ‘an irrelevant political party’ in which they had ‘no interest’.

Their disavowal of racism in recent years is more unequivocal, and more convincing.  It’s difficult to think of other white British artists who have featured more British black and Asian subjects in recent years, for the simple reason that Gilbert and George’s work is an endlessly extended love-letter to their home turf, the East End of London, one of the most multi-racial areas in the world which they ceaselessly explore, and in which they find the very essence of life.

In Scapegoating Pictures, prefiguring The Banners, street signs and newspaper bills, (“NAKED MANS ARCHWAY ARREST”, “BIG BUMMED BURGLAR BANGED UP”) are, along with tag graffiti, the most common leitmotifs. In contrast to the later exhibition, placed in the context of other images, they are far more effective and illuminating.

This incarnation of their spotlight on the East End has a greater focus on the area’s Muslim community; hoodie-wearing teenage Bangladeshi boys, Niqab-clad women shoppers, incendiary propaganda posters from the Jihadist extreme. The Muslim montages intersect with a garish-retro collage of Carnaby Street-style kitsch patriotism, double-decker buses, parading soldiers, royalist insignia, cross-sections threading through to a holistic vision of London.  “HM and HRH” Elizabeth and Phillip themselves appear looking pensive in a carriage with Gilbert and George at either side, G&G seemingly stapled to the picture by a bouquet of whippits to the picture’s sides.

Most of the compositional elements in Scapegoating Pictures have been used by the artists before, and are no less effective for that. The ‘grid’ which covers the picture has three separate and distinct effects. Firstly, in separating the picture out into components, it brings the eye to bear on each individual part of the frame, giving a stronger focus to each segment - ‘a net enticing the attention and subduing the will’ to borrow Hazlitt’s phrase on Titian. Secondly, it emulates the target style quality of the camera eye; a documentarian gaze, bringing out the unadorned immediacy in the scene. Finally, combined with the translucent glowing quality of the colouring, it evokes the aspect of a church’s stained glass window, a sacred aura subverted by the earthbound and profane material portrayed. This foundation of their work, unappreciated and under-rated, is composition of genius. Plundering from the great man again, it has that ‘sense of power on the eye’ which Hazlitt dubbed ‘gusto’.

In Scapegoating Pictures, more predominant than any one person, including the artists, are the whippit-strewn streets themselves; the labyrinthine megapolitan alleyways absorbing the truth of the dirty air around them. The paving stones themselves form the backdrop in ‘Pave the Way’ – the metal frames of NCP car parks, McDonalds restaurants star elsewhere. In unearthing the unrepeatable specifics of the streets, in dirt, graffiti and stickers, the artists are tracing the veins, the very lifeblood of the city. They unearth the immense psychic pathos hidden within the quotidian.

While they would doubtless deride such a Marxisant term, the pair are very much within the spirit of psychogeography; drifting into the urban environment which itself drifts back into you. In ‘E1’ the streets appear within Gilbert and George’s own heads, making the fusion between themselves and their landscape more explicit than ever before. The effect of the figures of Gilbert and George appearing within their own pictures is two-fold. Firstly, in both creating and appearing in their own work, the effect is to acknowledge the fact that anyone looking at art are also looking at themselves. The two are indivisible, they are a symbiosis. ‘Follow our lead’ they seem to say, in bonding with their creation.  And secondly, they are showing their own complete identification with the scenes within, whether the people or the places themselves. The ‘Scapegoating’ here is irony, Gilbert and George pass no judgement and show no animosity whatsoever. This is their life, this is the life of their compatriots, the life of the street, one great karmic whole. They are undivided and indivisible.

And this is the paradox of Gilbert and George. They may identify as conservatives, but in showing the stark, unadorned reality of life as it is actually lived at the hard edge, by the marginalised, the impoverished, the lost and the plain normal, their achievement is in both spirit and effect fundamentally progressive. The famously pristine suits and diction alike bely the fact that both George Passmore of Plymouth and Gilbert Proesch of South Tyrol were born to working-class families, and these birth pangs are felt still. They are true to themselves to a highly unusual degree, the famed insularity of their intensely closed personal relationship letting in the outside world only wholly on their terms. This insulates them from the ‘establishment’ in its most all-encompassing sense.  The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’ says Marx, and in every official outlet, in every sly insinuation of language we find a defence of rulers over ruled, a bolstering of privilege, a normalisation of hierarchy.

The regimented daydreams of the official world, the ‘authorised’ world,  present a phantasmagoric falseness which denies the reality of injustice and inequality. A subtle and insidious means of keeping people dredged in apathy against their own interests; plied docile in pacifying chloroform, an illusory aspirational netherworld.  Most of what the state and commerce tells you is a self-serving half-truth at best.  The street-level outsider world with Gilbert and George is the antithesis of this mirage, the plain voice of the man who has the courage to see two and two and state the word ‘four.’ It is occult in the true sense, a hidden knowledge of the street as lived, and immune from the codification of hierarchy. It could be countered that this depiction of life as lived is a celebration of the now , which does not in itself seek a better future; the definition of progress. Correct in its way, but this underestimates the extent to which simple truth is in itself revolutionary.

Gilbert and George’s self-stated aim of ‘art for all’; manifestly for ‘the people’ with whom they identify, is in itself a fundamentally socialist ethic. It opposes the art establishment, but then, seeing this establishment itself as ‘left-wing’ finds a haven in conservatism - reactionary in the most literal sense.  To quote Orwell’s judgement on Swift, ‘driven into a sort of perverse Toryism by the follies of the progressive party of the
moment.’  On one level at least their conservatism can be seen as an epater le bourgeoisie, a deliberate provocation. “Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different.” The category error is so infantile, so glib, it is hard to see it anything but a gleeful two fingers up to liberal bourgeois bohemia.  

The mask may have melted into the face, but despite their cheerful championing of reaction, they make poor conservatives in many ways. The uncompromising hostility to religion for in all its forms. Being in the quaint phrase ‘openly gay’, and donating to HIV charities. Their absolute refusal to condemn the ‘immigrant’ or ‘scrounger’, their celebration of the street the absolute antithesis to the social climbing of the archetypal working-class Tory. A distinct tincture of universalist cosmopolitan idealism in the mix here too. And I would at least like to think they will not raise their glasses to the inauguration of President Trump.

‘We want to bring out the fascist in the liberal, and the liberal in the fascist’ once said George. They have certainly succeeded in the former; open any stray internet comment-thread in a ‘left-liberal’ forum on their work, and witness the acid hatred pouring their way; homophobia by no means off-limits.  Whether many members of the BNP have taken a stroll around one of their exhibitions and found strange awakenings within their own soul I cannot be so sure; and to be frank, I somewhat doubt. Is it not too fanciful to suggest however, that this stated aim is in itself true a vision of universal brotherhood, an idealistic and idealised sense of common humanity in keeping with the most radical and egalitarian of utopians?

Well, maybe. Perhaps this is all a bit of a stretch. Have I joined the ranks of the embarrassed apologists myself? A socialist seeking spurious ideological justification for my gut-level love of the work of this pair of Tories? Their motivations may be very different to those of my idle speculations. Be that as it may, I still find a damn sight more inspirational truth in their vision of the world than in that of a thousand other modern artists, self-styled progressives all. To tell the truth is the most radical act, and I for one find a very real and peculiar truth in the singular world of Gilbert and George.

[First published on 3:AM Magazine, 2017]