I’ve always had a certain fondness for British conceptual artists Gilbert & George, now the objects of a show at the Brooklyn Museum; concurrently, Creative Time will screen two of their early films (1970’s A Portrait of the Artists As Young Men and 1972’s The Nature of Our Looking) on MTV’s huge HD screen in Times Square.
Gilbert & George’s large stained-glass-like artwork obviously bring to mind antecedents found in churches and cathedrals, except with rather different subject matter. (Semi-naked men can actually be found on church walls, but syringes and excrement…not so much.) But most of all I love the pair’s po-faced eccentricity, the fact that they don’t just make art: They’ve turned their own life into an art project that’s completely consistent with what they exhibit in museums and galleries. As they put it in this interview, “we made ourselves the center of our art in 1968,” and they are still going strong. From the fact that they incorporate themselves—or projections of what we think is themselves—in their works (including installations and performances) to their matching suits and their daily routines (apparently they always eat at the same restaurant at the same time), they are far, far removed from the bland, opportunistic MFAs who seem to swarm the art world these days. (I feel the same way about bland, opportunistic MFAs swarming the literary world, by the way. Feel free to take me on!)
Gilbert & George are so iconic that, as I mentioned a few months ago, comedians French and Saunders once spoofed them as Muriel & Maddie.
Alexei Sayle also took them on in a skit in which the duo visits a class and evalutates the young children’s art (“You have no ideas. It’s all been done before.” “It is decadent filth”).
What’s particularly appealing about them is that they are clearly very political and involved in what’s going on the world, from poverty to AIDS, but they don’t fit the standard picture of the engaged artist, all cool clothes and wild hair. Gilbert & George looked middle-aged even when they were young, which made their art all the more pointed. One of the reasons they have remained subversive is because like, say, the highly conceptual, highly influential German electronic band Kraftwerk, it’s impossible to even imagine them in sweat pants and sneakers: Their (public) lives and their creations are forever intertwined. How not to admire this kind of single-minded dedication?