Burn, Burn, Burn

Whatever you think about the artists of the Young British Artist era--and there is much to consider, on account of their relentless and often cheerfully existential conceptual bent--it is not a good thing that many of their iconic pieces went up in smoke.

Early last week an East London warehouse fire blazed for two days before firefighters put it out, destroying about 100 works from the famous collection of Charles Saatchi (which, the New York Times noted in a clever pair of pairs of adjectives, the advertising mogul "lovingly and cannily built up," drawing heavily from the "influential and showy" YBA's, many of them of Sensation! and Freeze pedigree). Tracey Emin's Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (a tent patchworked with the names of those people, a surprisingly tender and slightly angry work) is among the destroyed, as is Hell, a series of tiny, grisly landscapes assembled in glass tanks and populated by 5,000 hand-cast and painted figures, by Jake and Dinos Chapman. Works by Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk, Chris Ofili, Martin Maloney, and Patrick Caulfield were also lost. Saatchi's collection was not the only one gutted; works from other collections were also incinerated, including paintings by abstract artist Patrick Heron, who died in 1999. The insurance toll has been estimated at £50 million.

There's a distressing amount of vagueness and passive voice involved in reporting this event--a disaster by any account. Then there's the analysis, which falls into roughly two camps: a kind of provincial "good riddance" glee, and doomy eulogistic pronouncements about the end of an era. Where the second seems a tad overstated (the word "tragedy," like the word "hero," means almost nothing these days), I am more concerned about the first, the dismissive, deep-seated dislike of conceptual art, the kind of thinking that manifests itself in an "it's not art if I have to think about it" attitude, the kind of inanity that tells us exactly why conceptual art is still important: because it leads us toward thoughtful relationships with objects whose meanings aren't easily, dopily accessible.

And while I haven't sufficiently digested this news to understand what it means for the future of art, I know this: It's never a plus for art to be destroyed, even if you hate it. And just because the object has disappeared, it doesn't mean the art is gone. Jonathan Jones, of the Guardian, put it nicely: "Art history," he said, "is full of phantom masterpieces."


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