Norman Rosenthal’s Sensation essay (catalogue excerpt) (1997)
The following is an excerpt from the essay in the catalogue that accompanied the landmark media coverage-generating exhibition Sensation (18 September - 28 December 1997).
Text by Royal Academy of Arts, London
Extracts from the introductory essay to the catalogue by Norman Rosenthal.
What is so new about the art in Sensation? The answer lies in this generation of artists’ totally new and radical attitude to realism, or rather to reality and real life itself.
The great art movements of the century were made up from artists producing work that the public neither wanted nor expected but were forced to swallow because they raised issues of modernity that could not be avoided. Who is not made to feel uncomfortable by the unknown, whether in art or anything else? It is natural and easy to fall in love with what is preconceived as being right and proper, good or beautiful but the chief task of new art is to disturb that sense of comfort.
A visitor to this exhibition with an open mind and well developed antennae for life will perceive an uncommonly clear mirror of contemporary problems and obsessions from the perspective of youth. Presented with both seriousness and humour (often black) and in an extraordinary diversity of material and approaches, both traditional and unexpected, these works serve as memorable metaphors of many aspects of our times. Some of these aspects are shocking and can be all too easily swept under the metaphorical carpet in our endless search for that illusive thing called beauty.
The art gallery is a public place where we cannot easily keep our thoughts and blushed embarrassment to ourselves, unlike the darkness of the theatre or cinema or the privacy of reading. Visual artists have, for this very reason, a peculiar ability and, therefore, responsibility to draw attention to that elusive thing we call reality, which may, when fused with fantasy and personal obsession, bring forth something which may be recognised as art.
In this exhibition we can witness and engage with metaphors of sensations, positive and negative, that remind us of the big issues of our time, often of all time: love and sex or fashion and food, waste and plenty, boredom and excitement, violence and child abuse, disease, medicine and death, shelter and exposure, science and metamorphosis, simplicity and complexity.
The visitor will also see work which is meant to unsettle us as we look together with our chance neighbour in the gallery at things normally seen in private. It has always been the job of the artist to conquer territory that has hitherto been taboo.
Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos. The strange, the mysterious, the freakish, the fantasy of science, the abnormality of the normal and the normality of the abnormal: all of these are celebrated through the creativity of young British artists.
As far as international reputation is concerned, it appears that this latest generation of artists is having considerably more impact than its predecessors and perhaps one of the questions this exhibition will answer is whether art in Britain, never quite central to the European cultural experience nor quite radical in terms of the great American art experiment, can now hold its own as second to none. Can London become the unchallenged centre for the practice and presentation of contemporary art? If London could claim that position it would surely be a first and grounds for celebration.
Art must first be conceived, second executed and third presented to the public. With Sensation, the Royal Academy continues its role as a platform for the art of all ages, ancient and modem. We aim to enable the public to see and judge for themselves an exhibition of the work of some of the leading contemporary artists in the world today.