THOU SHALT FIGHT CONFORMISM. The first of the 10 commandments by and for Gilbert & George. How the artist couple searches for the meaning of life and creates art for all in the process.
Walking around the city, passing all the streams of strangers, one often wonders, what are their lives like? What’s everybody thinking about? Probably the craziest things. Social media has made the weirdness of man’s interiority particularly apparent, but Gilbert & George have been plumbing those once-hidden depths since graduating from Central Saint Martins College and beginning to make work together in 1968.
They’ve dressed in matching suits ever since, and maintained a consistent image, while playing gleefully with the dissonance between how they first appear, as a pair of respectable-looking gentlemen, and the queer, punk, conservative, blasphemous inner lives they reveal themselves to have.
The art they were making didn’t fit with what everybody else was making
They felt like outsiders from the start. Homosexuality had only been decriminalised in Britain in 1967. The art they were making didn’t fit with what everybody else was making. “When we left Saint Martins,” they told curators Daniel Birnbaum and Hans Ulrich Obrist, “we realised that we were alone, and nobody could help us. … We didn’t fit in. And so this gave us the idea that we could be the artwork and walk the streets of London.” Neither had come from a city, they were new to the city, so they took to wandering around it; and in Swinging Sixties London, the whole idea of what a city could be was changing. Society was opening up again, and the streets were coming alive.
They still wander those streets today. For more than five decades now, on their daily walks, the pair have photographed found objects that catch their eye, like sensationalist local tabloids and gingko leaves, and obscene graffiti and posters on the walls, and vomit and shit on the ground, and gathered it all together into a portrait of London, British society, the world, and how mad and anarchic and life-affirming all of it is. “Nothing,” George has said, “happens in the world that doesn’t happen in the East End.” East London is chaos, and so is the world.
Gilbert & George in a sense pre-empted and embodied the anarchic spirit of “punk”. Which is to say they are anti-establishment: they’ve rejected the art world and make art for the people. They’re non-conformist: the first of their “Ten Commandments for Gilbert & George” (1995) is “THOU SHALT FIGHT CONFORMISM.” They value individual freedom greatly. They have a do-it-yourself approach, a loud, rowdy aesthetic, and love to provoke outrage and take pleasure in trolling audiences: “We want an art that is in your face: aggressive,” Gilbert once said. “We are confrontational.”
THOU SHALT FIGHT CONFORMISM.
In “Bum Holes”, from their series “The Naked Shit Pictures” (1994), they’re bent over pulling their arseholes open for us. Their “Fundamental Pictures” (1996) include closeups of piss and blood: of their own blood, which they first gathered by cutting themselves, and later by having a doctor let it from them. All this is very punk. In their statement “What Our Art Means” (1986) they wrote, “We want to spill our blood, brains and seed in our life-search for new meanings and purpose to give to life.” In other words, their punk approach is not a form of nihilism, but rather a search for meaning: they believe it might show us who we are, and what kind of a society we are part of. They are what we now call “chaotic good.” Here’s a fantastic passage from the interview with Birnbaum and Obrist:
Gilbert: In some way, when you see our work, it feels not like artwork but more like the turmoil of a person.
George: A life.
Gilbert: The turmoil of the life of a person: how to deal with your sexuality or behaviour, morality or politics. It’s not about art.
Their work is about human life itself. They encourage us to embrace our weird, complex, manic, churning natures. Artists, they suggest, should not make sense, should be full of contradictions: nobody should make sense. People don’t make sense! And it’s only by acknowledging this, by refusing to conform to the status quo, that they’ve found themselves able to speak to a greater audience and produce “Art for all.”
Chaos is just a higher form of order
Let’s go back to those walks. Since 1968, Gilbert & George have printed their photographs of the people, things and slogans they find as contact sheets, categorised them by subject and year, and placed them into their massive archive. Over time, with repetition and routine, they’ve said, a person can come to understand their subject matter deeply. Their subject is anarchic, yet their working method is disciplined. By bringing this rational, orderly Apollonian approach to the wild Dionysian anarchy of modern life, Gilbert & George are able to make order out of chaos: which is, in the end, just a higher form of order.