From the beginning Gilbert and George have always known what they were about. In fact they have always been keen to explain who they are and what exactly is the purpose and meaning of their art.
George Passmore was born in Plymouth in 1942, Gilbert Proesch was born in the Dolomites in Italy, in 1943. They met as students at St Martin’s School of Art, London in 1967, where they formed a partnership that has endured for more than four decades.
Their decision to work together (“two artists as one”) led to the publication of their first manifesto The Laws of Sculptors (1969) in Studio International, May 1970.
The manifesto is a short list of rules by which Gilbert and George have attempted to live their lives.
1. Always be smartly dressed, well groomed relaxed friendly polite and in complete control.
2. Make the world believe in you and to pay heavily for this privilege.
3. Never worry assess discuss or criticize but remain quiet respectful and calm.
4. The Lord chisels still, so don’t leave your bench for long.
Gilbert and George’s second manifesto Art For All (1970) was published in the same issue of Studio International, which gave a clear and succinct expression of their artistic ambitions:
We want Our Art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowlegde of art. The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing and dismissing the normal outsider. We say that puzzling, obscure and form-obsessed art is decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People.
Progress Through Friendship
Our Art is the friendship between the viewer and our pictures. Each picture speaks of a ‘Particular View’ which the viewer may consider in the light of his own life. The true function of Art is to bring about new understanding, progress and advancement. Every single person on Earth agrees that there is room for improvement.
Language For Meaning
We invented and we are constantly developing our own visual language. We want the most accessible modern form with which to create the most modern speaking visual pictures of our time. The art-material must be subservient to the meaning and purpose of the picture. Our reason for making pictures is to change people and not to congratulate them on being how they are.
The Life Forces
True Art comes from three main life-forces. They are: -
and THE SEX
In our life these forces are shaking and moving themselves into ever changing different arrangements. Each one of our pictures is a frozen representation of one of these ‘arrangements’.
When a human-being gets up in the morning and decides what to do and where to go he is finding his reason or excuse to continue living. We as artists have only that to do. We want to learn to respect and honour ‘the whole’. The content of mankind is our subject and our inspiration. We stand each day for good traditions and necessary changes. We want to find and accept all the good and bad in ourselves. Civilisation has always depended for advancement on the ‘giving person’. We want to spill our blood, brains and seed in our life-search for new meanings and purpose to give to life.
In 1995, Gilbert and George synthesized their manifestoes into a personal X Commandments:
I Thou shalt fight conformism
II Thou shalt be the messenger of freedoms
III Thou shalt make use of sex
IV Thou shalt reinvent life
V Thou shalt grab the soul
VI Thou shalt give thy love
VII Thou shalt create artificial art
VIII Thou shalt have a sense of purpose
IX Thou shalt not know exactly what thou dost, but thou shalt do it
X Thou shalt give something back
Gilbert and George’s art is often hashtagged for its shock value, but that does a great disservice to the artists and the work. What is important about Gilbert & George (and what I like about them) is their ability to engage the viewer with intelligent, beautiful, often funny, powerful and inspiring works of art. It is almost impossible to look at one of Gilbert & George’s monumental paintings and not have some response.
In this interview with former-BBC cultural pundit Mark Lawson, Gilbert and George talk about their ideas about art, their life experiences and their exhibition The Urethra Postcard Pictures from 2011.
Bonus: In 1993, Gilbert and George were among the first western artists allowed to exhibit in China. USC graduate, David Zilkha followed the artists during their visit to the country, where they were sending “a visual love letter to the people of China.”