New British art scene in rude and robust health

I'M LOOKING at a bone china plate, hand-decorated with scenes of women in semi- undress, while candlesticks are modelled on the curvaceous female bottom. The tableware collection, Since Eve Ate Apples, Much Depends On Dinner, is the work of artist Sun Ae Kim, and pays homage to 18th- and 19th-century figurines. Think Adam and Eve meets The Rake's Progress.

"I am from South Korea, which is a more conservative society when it comes to sex," she explains. "But I also wanted to show the English humour in it."

Welcome to the "New Rude", from the classic epithet, implying vigorous, robust and cartoon saucy. And we Brits have an honourable tradition of rudeness in art that dates back to Chaucer and runs right through to 1950s seaside postcards, Carry On films and Beryl Cook paintings.

Hide Ad

Rude Britannia, a new show of comic art, opens at Tate Britain tomorrow, with a whole section devoted to the bawdy. Contributors include artist Sarah Lucas, cartoonists Steve Bell and Gerald Scarfe, comedy writer Harry Hill and the boys from Viz magazine.

As curator Martin Myrone explains: "Rude in this context means art that's set out to be disrespectful, irreverent or cheeky – whether socially, politically, artistically or sexually – from 18th-century satirical prints through to contemporary sculpture and video."

Across the city, Sam Roddick, of sex emporium Coco de Mer, is updating the 18th-century grands salons which combined entertainment, music and debauchery. At her shop in Knightsbridge this month she is holding salons entitled Lessons in the Art of Loving, with themes such as Sensual Touch and Tease and Please Yourself.

"Rudeness is a huge tradition within English culture. It's that intersection between filth, intellectual debate, politics and humour," she argues.

To advertise the salons, Roddick has chosen vintage photos of couples at play so we see proper flesh, rumpled bottoms and luxuriant pubic hair.

But rudeness isn't just about nudity; it can mean absurd, taboo-breaking and visionary, says Myrone. "The idea that there is a distinct British sense of humour, which is essentially irreverent and libertarian, has a very long history – it has helped shaped our ideas of Britishness."

Hide Ad

We have a reputation for home-brewed surrealism, from Lewis Carroll to Monty Python. But it often has a political edge: "Artists interested in feminist and gay iconography often use rudeness as a way of undermining more conventional ideas about sexuality," says Myrone. Tracey Emin and her masturbating female figures or Sarah Lucas's Chicken Knickers are not passive views of female eroticism, but also make you laugh out loud.

What sets British bawdiness apart for Roddick is that it's so innovative, whether it's a woman opening Britain's first sex shop (in the 18th century), or the designer who invented a machine that could spank 40 people at a time. "That is a ridiculous thing," she hoots. "But at the same time it's very creative."

Hide Ad

Of course, whether you consider an image innocent smut or borderline pornographic is often down to personal taste. Me, I love the outsize ceramic nipple tassels made by artist Nicola Malkin. Sidestepping the polite conventions of studio pottery, she delves into the world of fantasy and kitsch from a female perspective.

It was women who were glued to the antics of Lady Gaga in her video for Telephone. We loved the way she had hijacked lesbian film imagery. It made us laugh. Men were less happy – they found it too knowing, too provocative. Unsurprisingly, they can't cope with Samantha in Sex and the City 2 either.

But that's the fascination of the new rudeness. Where some see subversion, others see Benny Hill-style antics.

Myrone says: "Our exhibition will show both sides of the story – you will be able to judge for yourself what's rude and what's political."

• Rude Britannia: British Comic Art opens tomorrow at Tate Britain, London.

• For further information, visit