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Culture Wars: Dung ho

Holy Virgin Mary, the famous 'elephant dung painting' by Young British Artist Chris Ofili, scandalised New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani when it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year. Ofili had attached to this religious portrait the same balls of elephant dung that he sticks on the rest of his works - an initiative deemed by Mayor Giuliani to be highly offensive to the city's Roman Catholic minority. In the subsequent furore, some American critics sprang to Ofili's defence by claiming that elephant dung should not be considered blasphemous, since it is venerated by some African cultures.

But if scatological art has a tradition in any culture, it is in that of the Western world. Captain John Bourke's magisterial Scatologic Rites of All Nations (1891), for example, gives no reference to any special African reverence towards elephant droppings. But he does document how the excrement motif was introduced into the margins of Western culture via folk verse and art, which gradually became elevated into the satirical form. Bourke suggests that the famous pissing mannequin of Brussels is a forgotten local deity. In Barcelona, pottery compositions of the traditional Xmas crib scene include a squatting figure who is blatantly emptying his bowels.

Authors from Rabelais to Swift, and from de Sade to Bataille, enhanced the literary authority of popular Western scatology. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, caricaturist James Gilray filled his cartoons with the crapulent and incontinent. Aubrey Beardsley's long-suppressed Lysistrata print series contained references to the flatulent, at the end of the same century. But coprophilia in art has many more forms than crude satire. Dutch genre art aspired to negate the High Renaissance schools with its stark realism. Rembrandt made a number of fine etchings of people engaged in a basic human function. In the twentieth century, ordure in art came into its own. Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, Francis Bacon, Piero Manzoni, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Carolee Schneemann, Gilbert and George, Paul McCarthy, Hundertwasser, Andres Serrano and Helen Chadwick - they have all contributed different motifs to scatological art. David Hammons was making installations based on elephant dung back in the 1970s.

Not only is scatalogical art largely a Western phenomenon. Outside of New York's city-hall politics, it is not even particularly controversial. In the 1960s, wild-eyed performance artists like the notorious 'Aktionists' of Vienna provoked outrage when they drenched themselves and their audiences in buckets of sewage and offal. Now you can see happy clappy Continentals using cowpats for paint or carving turds on Channel 4's Eurotrash. And when Ofili's painting was aired in the Sensation exhibition at London's Royal Academy in 1998, if it got noticed at all, his trademark dung was regarded as quaint. Skid marks are no longer iconoclastic: like an Andrex advert, effluvial art is now good clean fun.

Aidan Campbell

Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000



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