Jake & Dinos Chapman in Conversation with Nick Hackworth
NH: Do the same things get written all the time? Do you think the responses to your work tend to be stereotyping?
DC: I think what happens is, the way the press works, it’s like a feedback loop, and it only takes notice of what’s already been in the press. It doesn’t really acknowledge anything outside of its own archive. I did this abortive thing with the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, where they asked me to go in every week and do a picture for them based on the news, and I got sacked immediately, because the picture I did was too harsh, or they said it was too childish. Basically, what they do is they look at the Sun, and take the stories from the Sun and rehash them and turn them into Guardian stories. So it’s like a big cycle. They’re still trying to find out whether our dad’s a vet. It’s kind of stupid.
NH: Where would they have put your picture, in the cartoonist’s slot?
DC: No, it had its own slot, but they copped out. It was a thing that was going to happen every Thursday, a big double-page spread thing.
NH: Did they print any of them?
DC: No! [Laughs] The first one was a savage, brutal attack on George Bush. I basically accused him of being quite happy that lots of Black people drowned in Louisiana, and they said that I couldn’t do that.
NH: Did you put words in it?
DC: No, no, it was just an image, only visual, yeah.
NH: Did they ask you to tone it down?
DC: I said no, and I said let’s forget it, so we did. I think the press is very lazy, mainly. Journalists are very lazy. They get someone to cobble together the things they can find from previous papers, and then they just cobble those together again.
NH: Are you happy when someone comes from the art press, or is that just boring in a different way?
DC: It is, mainly, yeah.
JC: I think it’s true to say that the focus of interest has become on identities and not the work. Critical responses to the work either address the work as though it’s a symptom of some sort of psychological problem, in which case the critic acts as a sort of doctor, or in the case of [mainstream] journalism, it’s just simply to produce, embellish what people expect artists to be like, full of tantrums, romantic...
DC: Jake’s gonna get caught snorting some cocaine in a toilet the night before the show just to give us a bit more press.
JC: Yeah, I’m gonna walk around with a note already rolled.
NH: [Laughs] I can break that story if you want! Does it make a difference to the commercial price of your work, from the level of publicity and all that kind of stuff you get? There’s kind of a weird disconnect in contemporary art, isn’t there? Because, mass-market publicity, those people aren’t going to go and start buying your etchings, are they?
DC: I think you’re not selling to people that would really be influenced by that.
NH: Why does White Cube care if you get lots of publicity?
DC: Because it makes them feel like they’re doing some work! [Laughs]
NH: Because there really isn’t that much of a direct connection between that publicity and your commercial value, and who buys your stuff, is there?
DC: No, no.
JC: It just generates heat, doesn’t it?
NH: It’s massively inefficient though, isn’t it?
JC: Yeah, but I think there are levels of desire being created, aren’t there? There's a desire for cultural meaning, which is what White Cube has an investment in. You have to maintain this notion that art not is not only an important capitalist commodity that can be sold for scarcity value. The whole notion that everyone can buy art is absurd, because you need only twenty collectors around the world who can actually afford it, so you can keep your prices up and keep the scarcity value. But on the other hand there’s always the idea that you have to make sure that art maintains its sort of cultural mythology, its place as one of the presiding mechanisms of culture, it gives us indications of how sort-of civilised we are.
NH: You’re quite happy to say that’s a pile of crap, then?
JC: I don’t know if it’s whether we say it or not. All of these questions are kind of superfluous to us really, because our work is very very intense, internally intense.
NH: What does internally intense mean?
JC: It means that all of these peripheral concerns about what culture is, what all of this stuff means, is being worked out inside the premises of the work.
NH: Aren’t they just irrelevant?
JC: They’re not irrelevant, but they’re not the most important thing. I think that ultimately – it will sound very old-fashioned, or slightly archaic to say – one of the problems about art these days with all these young whipper-snappers around is that nobody actually looks at the work! There isn’t a lot of looking at the work, and I mean really working out what it’s doing. To go back to Walter Benjamin, the only revolutionary potential that art has is in comparison to other works of art. The conditions of its production and the conditions of its possibility are not outside of that.
NH: It’s a closed language, within itself?
JC: It’s not that it’s a closed language, it’s that the work of art can’t be political in any other way other than within the mechanisms of its own production and its own self-overcoming. Your basic question was ‘What is the function of a work of art?’ What does it do, outside of its own limits? Not much. Especially now, when there’s such a saturation in terms of middle-class interest, even more so now it’s becoming used as a sort of demographic, part of the state-apparatus.
NH: Outreach programmes and so forth?
JC: Yeah. It’s become the... it determines a sort of a class membership, doesn’t it?
NH: So you’d feel that art doesn’t have any intrinsic values that it has to impart to people.
JC: No. I would avoid any universalist claims.
DC: We tried very very hard to find them, when we were a bit younger. Couldn’t bloody find them!
NH: Would you say you’re satirists?
NH: But to an extent what you do is satire, isn’t it?
JC: No. It’s art. It’s different!
NH: But satire can be a subset of art, can’t it?
JC: Satire is… its narration is interested in content and subject matter outside of its own parameters. Our work is entirely, entirely formalist. I think there are some real structural formalist activities going on in our work.
NH: But Beckett’s a satirist? I would call him a satirist, wouldn’t you?
NH: Takes the piss quite a lot sometimes?
DC: I think there’s a difference between taking the piss and satire. I think satire is linked very strongly to politics, like party politics, and it’s a tool of politics.
NH: It can be. I don’t see that it has to be party political, though.
DC: It tends to be. It tends to have a purpose behind it that, as Jake said, is outside of its means.
JC: Also, satire is a pretty superficial activity compared to the potential—to the experimental and speculative potential—of making art. That’s not to say that has necessarily to be then linked to universal notions of deeming what are meaningful, high-brow ideas. But at a certain point there is a difference between a simplistic one-liner and a work of art that has a set of complex and component problems internal to it. Which is not invented by each work of art, but that’s the inherent state of art – it’s a complex activity. Satire is a little bit too, it’s too indebted to a very simplistic narrative between a representation and the object of representation. I mean, look at any work of art. Even a picture of a chair, painting a picture of a chair, is more complex than satire, because it’s dealing with the notion of the relationship between the representation of the chair, what the chair is, bla bla bla, objecthood and stuff like that.
NH: So, as an example, one of the Goya’s you’re doing right now,—how would that example work in that case?
JC: Because there’s a conceptual paradigm to the work which is overbearing. It’s not our work, we’re painting on it, we’re changing it. That’s not satire.
DC: We’re de-satirising them. Removing, hiding the original intentions.
JC: I can see where you’re heading with this. Because there has always been this—, one of the main criticisms of Goya from modernist, high-brow points of view was that his work, at its best, has some kind of transcendent modernity to it,—it was artistic in as much as it investigated the psychological profundity and depths of human thinking and pathos and meaning,—but at its worst it was just merely satire. There’s always been a slight push and pull argument between, say, a linear sketch of Picasso and a caricature of Rolf Harris. What’s culturally determined is that the cartoon’s referent is so superficial it has no transcendent claims to it, whereas Picasso has some sort of amazing wormhole back to some notion of pure innocence.
NH: Not inherent to the object itself?
JC: No. I think that’s why someone like Richard Prince has been making work that sort of, on the one hand, you couldn’t say that Richard Prince’s work was satire, although his work includes images which are satirical.
NH: But it’s almost because it’s so oblique, no? It’s almost a question of degrees, because it’s quite—
JC: No, no, because there’s something else going on there. The work isn’t just a picture of man, like a cartoon, and then the joke underneath, where the joke’s wrong. It’s not simply that that painting’s satirising satire. It’s that the painting has some other kind of element going on in it, which is slightly a bit more psychological – it has a psychological depth to it, maybe, that satire doesn’t necessarily have. Another way of looking at this is that satire has a purpose to it. The work of art, in its greatest embellishment, has no purpose.
NH: But everyone will be projecting their own purposes on it regardless of your intention.
DC: That’s what makes it interesting. It is a constant battle to remove—, as soon as someone says it’s ‘this,’ then you say ‘Okay. Let’s get rid of that now. Let’s see what happens when you remove that bit.’ That’s when it’s interesting.
NH: The crudest stereotype when people write about your work is obviously just that you’re out to shock. That’s something you deny, to some extent. But then you’re happy to put the cues in to let people project that stereotype.
JC: The problem with the idea of shock is that it forecloses on any other kind of experience you can get from that work. It’s not to say that our work hasn’t ever intended to produce some sort of frisson of either antagonism or displeasure or pleasure or whatever. But shock is a dead end. But it's also become a mechanism of bad journalism. In any interview I’ve ever done with a journalist about shock, they’d say ‘Some people are shocked by your work,’ and I’d say ‘Well are you shocked?’ and they’d say ‘No, I’m not shocked.’ So in some sense it becomes a sort of a melodrama, in which all parties are complicit.
DC: Also, the assumption from the journalist’s point of view is that we want to be described as that. That’s the weirdest thing about it,—if you do read anything that we’ve said, it’s just like ‘No, we’re not interested in that,’ and then the journalist thinks they’re being flattering in saying—, what was that thing in the Standard,—what did they call us?
NH: Brothers Grimm? [Laughs]
DC: It constantly returns to this idea. It just doesn’t—
JC: I mean, it’s not to say that the work doesn’t have a sort of maleficent intent to it,—of course it does! It is doing a sort of violence to one certain set of ideas. That’s without a doubt.
NH: It’s a very rarefied sort of violence.
JC: Well, the problem is the work of art, I can’t really think of a static representational image or a sculpture that has the potential to be shocking, it just doesn’t have that animate potential. I mean, film can be shocking, because film has animation, but I don’t think a work of art can be shocking. It just can’t be—, there’s nothing you can do. And also, the shock motif is using the ignorance of people who are unfamiliar with that kind of culture, using their naivete to dramatise a cultural activity. If you think about the YBA thing,—the post-punk culture, part of its whole motive has been to introduce the idea of order, rather than the idea of euphoric entertainment. If you look at the past twenty years of stuff, it all looks kind of flat. In order to stop the assumed march of progressive enlightened works of art, moving towards this teleology of great art at the end, people have been trying to produce things which drag, drag a lot, which don’t—
NH: Even unintentionally? I doubt that’s intentional.
JC: Yeah. I don’t think it’s intentional. In a sense, what happens—, the shock thing is actually more flowery. It doesn’t really relate to the misanthropic boredom that was intended to—, y’know.
NH: If you wanted to make something really offensive, there’s a whole realm of other stuff you would make, right?
DC: You could get yourself put in prison in two minutes, if you really wanted too! [Laughs] It’s not that difficult.
JC: If you push that question, and you look at our work and you say ‘Well this is the sum-total of two people’s imagination. If this is “shocking,” then they’re fucking impoverished,’ because you can stand in front of our work and think of something worse within a millisecond,—and continue, because it’s and infinite,—you can’t make the most shocking thing because there isn’t one. So, if the work isn’t about shock, because it doesn’t reach that apex, then it must be about something else.
NH: I saw over the weekend they’ve got a big show they’re opening at the Hayward, called Universal Experience, curated by Francesco Bonami. Thomas Hirschhorn has done this enormous installation, with all these bits of stuff hanging on the wall. It’s superficially about the looting of the Baghdad Museum, and you get right to the end of it and there are four video-screens playing, the third one is just anal sex happening, and then the next one is just edited footage from newsreels showing quite graphic Iraqi deaths, and bodies. So, in fact, he could only make something so gratuitously tasteless because he had this kind of political, didactic intent behind his work, that I suppose he could justify it to himself, because you just think this is just absolutely, just moronically repellent.
DC: That’s the interesting thing, because there’s the assumption people make with us that we’re doing things purely to offend. It’s that inability of people to understand that there is a purpose to what we’re doing. They see it as an absolute lack of purpose, and they replace anything we might want to do with ‘Oh, they’re trying to shock us.’
NH: You want it to be understood?
JC: [Laughs] It’s not that. You’d have just thought they’d be a bit more imaginative. Yeah,—it’d be more fun!
DC: I think there’s a huge difference between wanting to be understood and being so misunderstood.
JC: No, it’s not misunderstood!
DC: No, but the absolute inability to even get near what we might think is interesting.
JC: It’s sort of nice, the idea of what you do, if you thought what you did was interesting, the thought of what someone else could do would be more interesting, so there were some kind of exponential consequence to what you do, rather than put an exhibition up, stand around with a bottle of wine, a glass of wine, mumble a bit, and then go home, wake up the next morning, feel like the most redundant fucker on earth until there’s the next whisper down the phone saying do you want to do an exhibition at the Museum of wherever.
NH: Did you enjoy writing more?
JC: Than making art? No, it’s the same.
DC: I think the problem is a basic—, well, I’ve certainly not acclimatised myself to the idea that actually life is very boring. [Laughs] I keep thinking it might be exciting, but only to always be let down.
NH: What always lets you down?
DC: Everything, everybody, everybody and everything, Jake especially. [Laughs] I have to wake up in the morning and convince myself that what I’m doing is fun.
NH: On relative terms it’s probably more fun than other possible career paths.
DC: I dunno!
NH: That might be an essential problem with living, rather than with art or being an artist.
DC: Yeah, I’ve found that out, I think.
NH: Why did you want to do more Goya?
DC: Well, apart from the fact we said we’d do all of them! If nothing else we stick to what we know! [Laughs] No, the caprichos are very different from The Disasters of War, because they’re very odd. The Disasters of War are quite humane, aren’t they? There’s a real kind of purpose.
NH: There’s more of a veneer of moral justification on Goya’s part for drawing what he drew.
DC: Yeah, but with the caprichos, each one is kind of self-contained and has its own strange narrative.
JC: The thing about Goya is that he’s become the hero of enlightened, humanist art, in a way.
NH: All those things are always slightly exaggerated, aren’t they?
JC: Yeah, but if The Disasters of War has the value that it’s said to have, or it’s institutionally defended in such a way as to represent this ‘emergent’ pathos that humanity—
NH: —the bleeding conscience of the world—
JC: Yeah, the artist narrowed to psychology. The artist indebted to religious representations. But then if you look at some of the titles, or the things that Goya says about his subjects: ‘Wretched humanity, the fault is yours!’ and ‘Man lives to have the life sucked from him.’
NH: They’re pretty dark and unredeemable.
JC: Well they are really, really offensive! His work I think is more about man’s inhumanity to man than it is about evil. It’s an absolute elaboration of evil, of violence.
NH: This isn’t necessarily a particularly humanist age anymore, that humanist thing is petering out, or is going to peter out...
JC: How is it?
NH: Well there’s something quite inhuman about the importance of technology in culture, and its deep importance starts to affect people’s essential world-views. Beliefs in the essential soul of man, all those humanistic beliefs, and the special power of man, one of the core ideas of Enlightenment, are dissipating, even if it's due to environmentalism, which undercuts any kind of belief in human reason.
DC: No, I don’t know about that. I think ecology anxiety is the most anthropomorphic discourse going.
NH: James Lovelock’s a bit inhuman. It has an inhuman strand, an anti-human strand.
JC: I think it’s true to say that art and the humanities are definitely the last place where artists are still content to talk about identity, which is a really weird idea! I mean, if you think about philosophy and science, it’s true to say that humanism is giving way to things like swarm theory, connectivity theory.
NH: Which is just an extension of a, basically, materialist world-view.
JC: Yeah. The difference is that science has dispensed with point-of-view theory.
DC: Well, it hasn’t really, though, has it? I mean, you’re right talking about a very elite little pointy end of science. Science is still about, like ecology, and trying to keep the planet as it is. It’s only there because we want to hang on, we’re not ready to shuffle off, though maybe you’d be better off without us. It’s very self-serving.
JC: Yeah. There’s also this other thing, talking about technology, there’s something very metaphysical about this idea that there’s gonna be some sort of transversal cross-fade from humans to machines. The problem with that it would be ridiculous to say that machines wouldn’t inherit a relationship to humans, but in some sense there’s a mistake in thinking of machines as being the perfection of humans, because then you are talking about this Enlightenment teleology, this notion that the machine is the absolute embodiment of the success of the human form. There’s a vulgar mistake in assuming the difference between humans and machines is just a question of being hard or soft, organic and inorganic. Even the smallest biological system is a machine, and exhibits absolute machinic tendencies, so it’s not possible to even draw this evolutional, progressive model that says that machines will render humans obsolete, because of their sense of perfection. Yeah, these models are just simply the continuum of what’s biologically and electronically possible. Interestingly, if you think of all those sort of people like Deleuze and Guattari writing in the Sixties, people writing about this notion of complexity, this idea that you can have these macroscopic/microscopic views of human activity. If you have a microscopic view then you have a tendency towards existentialist accounts, i.e. that the individual has some kind of determinate volition over stuff, they have a sense of control, a nobility. If you have a macroscopic view, then you just see these little existential units as expressions of a much larger system. You can’t isolate one from the other, so my little existential outburst is only ever going to be the same as anyone else’s existential outburst, these are simply the characteristics of these organisms, to define their references as existentialist. An analogue of that would be to say that from our point of view, we’ve tried to make a macro-system by doubling the people who make the work, so that our work can’t ever be reducible to an existential utterance.
DC: Bloody clever, that was.