It was in the post-war section of the gallery that you could really sense the nihilism beginning to creep into Western Culture. A series of hastily drawn sketches from the 1920s depicted several naked men, all of whom appeared to have severed their penis in a fit of existential anguish. ‘What the hell is it for?’ they seemed to be saying as their severed member sat forlornly on the couch beside them. I had enjoyed Claude Monet’s ‘Waterlillies’ in the previous room, but for me this rather spoiled my visit to the Tate Modern. St Augustine writing in the 5th century had said that his own genitalia were ‘shameful parts’ that had to be covered ‘because they excite themselves just as they like, in opposition to the mind which is their master’; but even he never went so far as to cut them off.
Deciding to remove myself from this sorry scene, I saw that other patrons were meandering through a separate doorway towards another exhibit. Having followed them I peered through the darkness within and started in horror. The room was pitch black save for a series of white screens. Upon these were projected the moving image of a man who was predictably naked, save for an animal mask. Having dressed in this peculiar manner he appeared to be leaping into the air at regular intervals while fondling himself with a paint brush. Perhaps feeling that this wasn’t disturbing enough, he had decided to augment his performance with wild cries and animal grunts.
I looked down in curiosity down to see what this ‘piece’ was titled. The sign simply read ‘room with projectors’. It seemed a bit of an understatement; a bit like describing Ingres’s ‘Turkish Bath’ – a seething mass of voluptuous naked women - as ‘Room with enormous red carpet’.
Worse was to follow. The sole exhibit in the enormous downstairs area was a bizarre scene in which a giant spider had evidently chained a selection of second hand books to metal bunk beds. No explanation was given for why the arachnid had chosen to do this. Had he felt peckish and concocted an elaborate scheme to tempt bookish types into his lair?. Had he simply felt lonely and decided to throw a literary slumber party for all who would accept the invitation?. Why was the spider watching footage of yet another naked man scrambling frantically over a rocky landscape?. No answers seemed forthcoming. Perhaps this was meant to solicit an ‘individual response’ from the spectators but the best I could summon were four letter words.
It was here that I began to long for the delights of a bucolic classical landscape. No doubt these things find themselves out of favour these days because they are not ‘avant guarde’ or ‘autobiographical’ enough. Perhaps the sight of a band of rosy cheeked cherubs playfully attempting to steal wolf cubs from their mother will tell you less about the human condition than a scene of genital hari kiri, but at least I could go to see them in an Art Gallery without feeling mentally disturbed.