Of Dustbins and Binmen

I have just returned from a semi-enjoyable sojourn in London. It was only semi-enjoyable, alas, for my primary purpose in going was to attend the funeral of a good friend who made it to the Biblical span of three-score and 10, but just barely. 

There were a few other sobering things. You may have noticed that repellent cultural trends that take America by storm eventually get wafted by some metaphysical Gulf Stream across the ocean, gathering virulence as they go. It was that way with political correctness and identity politics, and it is that way now with the corporate and municipal celebration of sexual exoticism. Richard von Krafft-Ebing is definitely in charge of the evening entertainment. 

Irving Kristol once observed that “the love that dare not speak its name is now the love that won’t shut up.” He would have toured London with a knowing look. Every passing year the rhetoric and the demands for—I was going to say “recognition,” but recognition, like tolerance, is very much yesterday’s desideratum. 

It is interesting to ponder why tolerance, which was until recently the defining liberal virtue, has now been enrolled in the Index Prohibitorum of reactionary vices. An answer to that would take us into deep waters. In any event, today, what is demanded is not tolerance but celebration, positive affirmation. And what is to be celebrated today is always more extreme than what was demanded yesterday. 

In the United States, I believe the current hot trend is bringing “drag queens” into schools in order to instruct the young ’uns in the fine art of twerking. Of course, it’s not just countenanced; often it’s taxpayer-funded

I’m not certain that this species of pedophilic activity has made it into the mainstream of British life, but if not, it is probably just months away. What did impress me was the plethora of so-called “Progress” flags hanging in glorious profusion above major thoroughfares like Oxford Street and Regent Street and atop once-staid cultural institutions like the British Museum. 

Mike Kemp via Getty Images

Just a year or two back (if my chronology is right), the so-called “Pride Flag” was all the rage. Pride, which celebrated the LGBTQWERTY “community” now seems passé (once upon a time, it was just the LGB community, but we’ve come a long way baby). It has been replaced by a flag—the “Progress” flag—that, in addition to colored stripes representing the now-usual sexual potpourri also includes five arrow-shaped bars of color set on their side at the far left of the flag. Quoting the flag’s designer, an article at the Victoria and Albert Museum website enthusiastically explains that 

the light blue, pink and white stripes represent trans and non-binary individuals and the brown and black ones represent marginalised People of Colour (POC) communities. The black stripe has a double meaning as it is also intended for ‘those living with AIDS and the stigma and prejudice surrounding them, and those who have been lost to the disease.’

Has anyone been left out?

Well, Vera Lynn sang that “There’ll Always Be an England.” I am not so sure. (And what would Robert Browning say? I wonder if he would have second thoughts about some of the lines in “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad.”) 

In any event, not everything in London was exotic. As I write, there is a superb exhibition of paintings and drawings by Raphael at the National Gallery. Stepping into those galleries, you are a long way from Regent Street or Oxford Street. As I recall, none of the wall labels talked about imperialism, colonialism, race, or gender fluidity. No, it was just consummate and astonishingly energetic genius on display. The energy was every bit as astonishing as the skill. Remember, Raphael (1483-1520) died at the tender age of 37. Amazing. 

That show contrasted sharply with a preposterous piece of art-world nonsense I recalled encountering some years ago at a trendy exhibition space near the National Gallery. 

“The most delicious news to emerge from the art world this year,” I wrote at the time, “came in October, courtesy of the BBC.”

Under the gratifying headline “Cleaner Dumps Hirst Installation,” the world read that “A cleaner at a London gallery cleared away an installation by artist Damien Hirst having mistaken it for rubbish. Emmanuel Asare came across a pile of beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays and cleared them away at the Eyestorm Gallery on Wednesday morning.”

I went on to express the hope that Asare would be immediately given a large raise. “Someone who can make mistakes like that,” I noted, “is an immensely useful chap to have about.” 

I also daydreamed about this paragon of the cleaning industry being taken on by some large metropolitan paper, the Daily Telegraph, for example, since he clearly demonstrated sounder aesthetic judgment than most of the fellows calling themselves art critics.

Alas, Asare’s good work was soon undone. 

Damien Hirst reportedly found the episode “hysterically funny.” And why not? The gallery owners—spurred, possibly, by the “six-figure-sum” that the work was expected to fetch—instantly set about putting his opus back together. 

Thank goodness they had “records of how it had looked.” Imagine the loss to world culture otherwise! 

Actually, I suspect that the task of reconstruction was not all that arduous. This is not Humpty Dumpty we are talking about. No, Hirst lays different sorts of eggs. The BBC report carried a photograph of the work. (The original? Or the reconstruction? Perhaps we will never know.) 

It looked exactly like what it was: a tray of “beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays.” That description cannot be improved upon. Picture it in your mind’s eye. Then pause to recall the phrase “six-figure-sum”: that means at least £100,000—$130,000, more or less. For a tray of “beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays.” 

I for one do not blame Hirst for finding the whole thing “hysterically funny.” Doubtless his banker did, too. A “spokesperson” for the gallery suggested that Asare’s salutary sense of order might have “a positive outcome, by encouraging ‘debate about what is art and what isn’t, which is always healthy.’” 

Here is my second suggestion: that an immediate moratorium be called on the “debate about what is art and what isn’t.” Far from being healthy, it is one of the great intellectual debilities of our day. It isn’t a “debate.” It is a dead end. 

When critics catch the what-is-art-and-what-isn’t bug, you know they are utterly bored by art. When artists catch that bug, you can see clearly why the critics are bored.

And yet there is a real pathos at work here. Confronted with the cynical detritus of a Damien Hirst, it is only natural that one would wish to ask: Is it art? Or is it just rubbish? 

As I put elsewhere, I do not use the term “rubbish” in a euphemistic or Pickwickian sense, meaning “a product of dubious, indeed, shoddy quality.” I mean the real thing: open soup cans, used paper towels, coffee grounds, orange peels, egg shells, the remains of last night’s dinner, some crumpled paper that should have been recycled if only you were more ecologically aware—that sort of thing. 

Not that Damien Hirst was really pushing the envelope, even back at the turn of the millennium. At least, he had lots of competition. Consider, for example, the suicide that a hip-public mistook for a cutting-edge performance piece

Delicious, was it not? (Except, of course, for the protagonist.) 

The suicide-or-performance-piece act was in Berlin. And then we had Frankfurt offering another Hirst parallel with The Garbage Man Who Cleared Away the Work of Art He Thought Was Rubbish.

To the dustmen of Frankfurt, they were a mess that needed to be cleared from the streets of their spotless city. The yellow plastic sheets were swiftly scooped up, crushed and burned.

But the diligence of the rubbish collectors was little consolation to the city’s prestigious art academy, which is now ruing the loss of an important work. Unknown to the binmen, the sheets were part of a city-wide exhibition of modern sculpture by Michael Beutler, a graduate of Frankfurt’s Städel art school.

The upshot? Re-education for the hapless garbagemen. “Thirty of the dustmen are now being sent to modern art classes to try to ensure that the same mistake never happens again.” Yes, how awful would that be? 

Apparently, though, the reeducation was not sufficiently thorough. Or perhaps the enlightenment has yet to reach Italy. In what seemed a terrible recapitulation of the tragedy of the Eyestorm Gallery, the BBC had this headline: “Cleaner throws out ‘rubbish’ Sala Murat artwork.” 

Why, you might wonder, does the word “rubbish” sport scare quotes? You are right to wonder. The art work in question consisted of “Works made out of newspaper and cardboard, and cookie pieces scattered across the floor.” Oh dear, Oh dear: “the cleaner had handed them over to refuse collectors, thinking it was rubbish left behind by workers who set up the Mediating Landscape exhibition.” 

Here’s a rough rule of thumb, a working principle, if you will: if an intelligent janitor or maid cannot tell the difference between a genuine work of art and an art-world fraud that is visually indistinguishable from a pile of rubbish, then the agglomeration is a pile of rubbish and should be treated accordingly. 

It’s not a foolproof rule, but it is a good working presumption. If one were really brave, one could also ask them what they thought about the infestation of “Progress” flags. The phenomena are, I suspect, connected. Anyway, I wish more critics would adopt it.

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

Photo: Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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