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I See Red People
The Guggenheim Museum in New York will soon exhibit what might be the work of art of our, and all, time: an 18-carat solid gold toilet – not just an “installation” in the sense of an artistic work in a gallery, but also an actual installation: the functional golden toilet will be plumbed into the museum’s sewerage system and visitors will not just look at, but sit on it: people will be able to say they literally shat all over a work of art at the Guggenheim.
Italian artist Marurizio Cattelan’s golden toilet might be the most direct artistic questioning of human values since Piero Manzoni’s tin can of excrement – a real piece of shit art – or Duchamp’s Fountain, a urinal on its back on the museum floor (but you weren’t meant to piss all over that one). One wonders whether the artist will provide a stall in his installation, or whether lovers of modern art will be required to look out at the world as they sit and think, Rodin-like, the world also gazing back at them.
Like Damien Hirst’s cow, Tracey Emin’s unmade bed and Sarah Lucas’ penises, which sold for outrageously high prices, Cattelan’s solid gold, working toilet frames the question of our, and all, time: how can you allow a firetrucking gold toilet in the same world in which you have starving children?
But how many people will, when they do stand in front of – or sit upon – the golden toilet, wonder whether there isn’t another just like it on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Specifically the penthouse of Trump Towers.
Given the superabundance of gold leaf on the pillars we’ve all seen in the Trump living room on, “Lifestyles of the Rich & Cretinous”, it’s likely Trump thought of a golden toilet before Cattelan, but without an artistic imperative, only an intestinal one.
And the Donald’s own gold toilet is where art stops and history begins; even if it could be said that both the Trump and Cattelan toilets evoke a visceral reaction.
Watch any “period” television serial, from Rome through Wolf Hall to Downton Abbey, and you’ll see how mankind has always lived, since we have lived together in cities: a very small elite at the top; a more numerous, but by no means large, group scampering to serve their needs below them; and teeming unwashed hordes at the bottom. A millennium ago, those groups might have been: (i) the monarch & the nobility; (ii) the clergy and the skilled tradesmen; and (iii) the rabble. Half-a-century ago, group (ii) widened to include merchants and manufacturers; in our part of the world, group (iii) would have been the slaves. You see world history in a Bajan plantation.
Today, we know group (i) as the one per cent of the world’s population that owns half its wealth (some say up to 90 per cent of it) and group (ii) as the now more numerous – but still, relative to the world’s population, not large – group below them that does their bidding, just for a much better price. Group (iii) is made up of you and everyone you will meet in your lifetime, unless they sign an autograph for you, or you pay them a massive sum for not a lot of their time or service (which represents your own interaction with the intermediate group – of which I might myself be an intermittent member).
You could go back two millennia and it would be the same. The bulk of humanity has always laboured long, lived in squalour and died early so that a tiny group might live in splendid luxury, and play harps or murder foxes.
The greatest achievement of our race – the human race – has, however, come in our time: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. These are rights everyone has, not just the big shots. You can trace UDHR back to Magna Carta in 1215, up through the 18th Century American, French and Haitian Revolutions and US President Franklin Delaware Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, and forward to the 1959 UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child. In time, there will be a Declaration of LGBT Rights, because it will become impossible to deny, as all other hard-won rights have been.
Unless our progress is halted – which is what the one per cent always wants.
The conscious dismantling of our civilization was begun, in my lifetime, by two creatures of history who enjoyed, in their lifetimes, fame and adulation that history will turn into disgust and hatred: President Ronald Reagan, who allowed US banks & corporations to treat human beings like a line item in their profit-and-loss tables, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who really did believe she could run a nation like a kitchen, and who was directly responsible for beginning the dismantling of the British National Health system, the greatest daily demonstration of positive equality.
The one per cent has always used skullduggery, from religion through war to entertainment, to make us continue to work for them and against our own interests. Their greatest trick, though, was played in the USA after World War II, when, using movies and comic books, this century’s mirrors and beads, they persuaded childlike Americans that workers should not pursue rights that would make real improvements to the quality of their lives, but the impossible dream of joining the one per cent.
Attitudes to Bernie Sanders show how well the trick has worked. The one man who threatens the established order is branded “a socialist” – and fear does the rest. Even in the time of mass media and instant awareness, we’ve been duped into accepting our powerlessness without a fight.
BC Pires is a Communist feminist artist working on a platinum latrine called “the Bernie”