In yesterday's Dabbler, Brit was recalling the grim experience of walking through the first 20th Century British gallery in the Tate. I too was making my flinching, wincing way through that gallery on Sunday, immediately after enjoying the little connecting room that contains Georgiana's Dead Bird - not to mention a fine Ruskin drawing of a corner of the facade of San Marco, and Arthur Melville's stunning The Blue Night, Venice.
What is it with British art of the past century or so that it is so fixated with the grotesque, the repulsive, the ugly and horrific? Surely no other culture has ever put such high value (and sky-high prices) on art that no sane person could bear to live with - fancy a Bacon on the wall, anyone? A Lucian Freud nude? How about some nice Chapman Brothers mutilations or Gilbert and George coprophilia? Call me old-fashioned and simplistic, but surely art should be (or attempt to be) beautiful and give pleasure. But maybe this kind of grotesquerie does give pleasure of a sort - something akin to what the French call nostalgie de la boue, a yearning for degradation. There is a very strong strain in our culture that regards the ugly and brutal as essentially more 'authentic' than the beautiful and pleasing - despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that most of us live lives of such comfort, peace and ease as past generations could only dream of. It's akin to the curious predilection for violence, dark secrets, corruption and conspiracies in TV drama (British and Scandinavian - i.e. the least violent and corrupt societies on Earth, more or less). This is the spurious glamour and cost-free thrill of 'authenticity', a kind of inverse sentimentality. In the world of the visual arts, our preoccupation with the dark side might come to seem as baffling to future generations as the overt sentimentality of the Victorians, and ugliness might again be recognised for what it is. Ugly.