Cunt Scum belongs to a series of twenty-six works known as The Dirty Words Pictures, which Gilbert and George created in 1977. They follow the format established in the preceding Red Morning series, to which Red Morning Trouble (Tate T07155) belongs. This consists of abutting photographic images mounted in narrow, black metal frames, arranged in a grid. Each work in the Dirty Words series is a composition made up of photographs the artists took of each other, obscene graffiti and east London street scenes. The graffiti words, from which the work’s title is derived, are placed at the top of the work. The artists have explained: ‘by putting the word along the top, then something vertical down both sides, it looked like a door. A door of hell. We found much of the grafitti in doorways ... We became interested to know what makes a person do that.’ (Quoted in Ratcliff, p.XXVII.) Cunt Scum consists of sixteen panels arranged in rows of four. The crudely written words ‘cunt’ and ‘scum’ appear at the top and bottom of the work respectively. The individual letters of ‘cunt’ each occupy one panel across the top of the work. ‘Scum’ occupies two panels, two letters on each. It is centrally placed in the bottom row of panels, framed by photographs of the artists’ head and shoulders, seen from the side looking downwards. The central rows of panels depict street scenes viewed from varying distances. Busy streets full of indistinct figures contrast with a view of an empty road, a multitude of faces in a crowd, down and outs sitting on the pavement holding mugs of tea or soup, a policeman seen in profile, a close-up of a black man whose face disappears into black shadow behind him and a view of skyscrapers in the City of London. The work is signed on the bottom right panel.
Gilbert and George moved into a house in Fournier Street, Spitalfields in the late 1960s. On the eastern edge of the City, this area was traditionally home to London’s immigrant communities, beginning with French Huguenot refugees in the eighteenth century (the period when the Fournier Street houses were built). In the twentieth century the area, which had first hosted a Jewish community, was populated by Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who still inhabit the area. In the late 1970s the mixed-race community was targeted for attack by the National Front (the white nationalist organisation founded in 1967 in opposition to multi-racialism and immigration in Britain). The graffiti, people and most of the street scenes in the Dirty Words Pictures were photographed in this area. The photographs of the artists were taken inside their home. Placing themselves in the compositions, usually looking down (out of pity, compassion or shame?), Gilbert and George have created an ambiguous and uneasy set of hierarchies. In contrast to the images of people and street scenes, which have the appearance of snapshots, the photographs of the artists, usually taken against a dark background, are studied and dramatic. Neatly groomed in their buttoned-up jackets, Gilbert and George would appear to personify the establishment city gentleman, whose life, albeit geographically close, is a far remove from the grime, chaos, despair and degeneracy found by the artists on the streets of East London. However, by placing images of themselves either side of the word ‘scum’ at the bottom of Cunt Scum, Gilbert and George seem to be placing themselves on a level with ‘scum’ and even identifying with it.
Personal identification with abject areas of society is an early current in the artists’ work. Their first photo-piece was a Magazine Sculpture, depicting ‘George the Cunt’ and ‘Gilbert the Shit’. It was made in colour in 1969 and published in Studio International (May 1970, pp.218-21) the following year in black and white, with the ‘dirty’ words censored. Their famous performance, finally titled The Singing Sculptures and first performed in 1969 while they were sculpture students at St Martin’s School of Art (later Central St Martin’s School of Art and Design) in central London, consists of acting out the lyrics to the Hardy and Hudson version of Flanagan and Allan’s popular English music hall tune of the 1920s, Underneath the Arches, a song about tramps. As a homosexual couple in the 1960s and 70s, before the loosening up of sexual mores known as the sexual revolution, Gilbert and George had good reason to identify with alienated members of society. Exposure of their sexuality, seen through an abstracted city, became an overt theme in their later work. In 1977 Punk was born in Britain, manifesting its spirit of angry rebellion with body piercings, leather and rubber clothes decorated with studs, safety pins and swastikas, obscenities and racism. Gilbert and George captured the spirit of the time in a way which still seems relevant today.
Danilo Eccher, Gilbert and George, exhibition catalogue, Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Bologna 1996, pp.97, 109-10, reproduced p.105
Carter Ratcliff, Gilbert and George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, London 1986, pp.XXVI-XXVII, reproduced (colour) p.110
Michael Bracewell, Lisa G. Corrin, Glbert and George: The Dirty Words Pictures, 1977, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 2002, reproduced p.45