When ”Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection“ opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art earlier this year to a storm of front-page publicity and political brouhaha, my heart sank. Not on account of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s pathetic attempt to win over right-wing voters by attacking the ”sick“ art in the show, but because two years after it opened in London to similarly manufactured ”controversy,“ ”Sensation“ was again living up to its name, even though the only shocking thing about it is how stunningly mediocre, and genuinely uninteresting, most of the art in the exhibition is.
”Sensation“ is not an overview of the current British scene, which has its fair share of innovative and thoughtful artists, but represents the tastes of advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, whose ad campaign for Margaret Thatcher helped ensure her 1979 victory. An expert at media manipulation, Saatchi was credited by a number of London art-world insiders with having had a hand in generating the ruckus in New York, perhaps helping with the Brooklyn Museum‘s provocative publicity campaign for ”Sensation.“ In any event, all the fuss produced a predictably positive counter-spin: The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl, in reviewing the show, spoke of a ”British Invasion,“ comparing Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. And in an auction at Christie‘s last month, sales of Hirst’s art recorded all-time highs.
Yet Saatchi aside, several of the show‘s more celebrated YBAs (as these ”Young British Artists“ are generically known), including Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Jake and Dinos Chapman, have greatly furthered their careers by deftly manipulating the British media, attaining a degree of notoriety — and, ultimately, plain old fame — that artists have rarely achieved elsewhere. Occupying a place on the celebrity ladder between trendy designers and naughty rock stars, they have become nationally known figures, the subject of television profiles, magazine cover stories, lifestyle features, and even regular items in the gossip columns.
English writerJulian Stallabrass turns a critical eye on this phenomenon in High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s, which scrupulously records the way YBAs recast art as a part of the style and glamour industries. Pulling no punches, Stallabrass offers a withering critique of how their work — the ”high art lite“ of his title — moved, in the ’90s, from the margins to the mainstream by posing as rude, anarchic or provocatively brutal (notorious examples include the Chapmans‘ perversely sexualized mannequins and Marcus Harvey’s monumental portrait of a child murderer made from tiny handprints), when at its heart it is deeply conservative, aesthetically derivative and profoundly cynical, typically sharing the anti-intellectual bias of the mass media culture it rode to fame.
High Art Lite is most compelling when tracking specific case histories, particularly that of YBA poster boy and founding entrepreneur Damien Hirst, who has since graduated to creating a fashionable theme restaurant based on his own work and producing a pop anthem for the English World Cup team. As an artist, Hirst is best-known for presenting animals and fish in formaldehyde-filled tanks, but he soon became equally well-known in England for his loutish persona, enshrined by the hostile and mocking tone of the tabloid coverage he deliberately sought out as it made him appear to be an oppositional and radical figure.
Hirst‘s assistants, meanwhile, were busy churning out his ”conceptual“ spin canvases and polka-dot paintings; by 1999, Hirst had signed 300 of the latter, one of which sold at auction last year for more than $200,000. While his animal sculptures were promoted as dealing with the biggest of Big Issues, namely life and death, these works were impossible to market in terms of their content. Hirst’s best defense of the work was his yobbish retort: ”What the fuck is wrong with visual candy?“ Perhaps more to the point is a remark the artist made in 1990, quoted in High Art Lite, to the effect that he couldn‘t wait until he was in a position ”to make really bad art and get away with it.“
Stallabrass places this kind of cynicism, which he convincingly argues is endemic among YBAs, in a larger cultural context, citing it as a faux avant-garde attack on liberal ideals, as well as on art-world snobbishness. By making work that seems superficial or empty, a number of YBAs purport to be reflecting modern life as it really is; resistant to analysis or interpretation, their banal and instantly recognizeable motifs function like advertising cliches, offering nothing beyond their immediate impact.
While Stallabrass’ analysis is penetrating at the level of specific detail, he profoundly misjudges the importance of the international context in which the YBA phenomenon developed. Frequently, he mistakes more far-reaching developments as being particular to the United Kingdom, at one point noting that ”the accommodation between low subject matter and high style is a rather British matter.“ Obviously, the only British thing in that sentence is the use of the word ”rather.“ In another passage he identifies a ”trend in British high art lite to use material from mass culture, to present it but not to comment on it,“ as if this were an original twist, leaving you wondering if the 1980s work of artists such as Richard Prince and John Baldessari is utterly unknown to him.
The book‘s underlying thesis — that YBAs initially turned to the mass media as their chief arena in response to the recession of the early 1990s — is similarly flawed. Recession or no recession, England has never nourished an active contemporary art-collecting scene, and YBAs in the early 1990s self-consciously sought to produce work that could play in the international marketplace and exhibition circuit. Its British character, especially its nostalgic flaunting of working-class ”laddishness,“ was more about lifestyle branding than it was a response to tabloid culture. Designed to function as an export, it was aggressively promoted overseas by the British Council and marketed, as Stallabrass’ account notes, as part of a general re-branding of Britain itself as the new global home of cultural hipness, evident most recently in Tony Blair‘s unconvincing ”Cool Brittania“ campaign.
High Art Lite is also on occasion historically short-sighted. While bemoaning what he sees as a recent tendency for artists’ personality to overshadow their work, Stallabrass fails to cite the postwar background to this development. Yet ever since Hans Namuth‘s famous photos of Jackson Pollock, which appeared in Life magazine in the early 1950s and helped turn Pollock into the art world’s first media star, there have been numerous examples of approaches to art-making that put priority on the publicity still and the photo opportunity.
Compared to a figure like Andy Warhol, in other words — or earlier examples such as Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni — the YBAs are hardly breaking new ground in the hype department. But their rise to prominence is nevertheless an object lesson for an international art world that increasingly promotes itself as part of pop culture. Can fine art maintain its integrity even when marketed as a mass medium? Stallabrass, for his part, maintains that the YBAs attracted a popular audience only to betray it with their dumbed-down products, but I‘m not so sure their audience was ever all that innocent. Consider, after all, what may be the ultimate irony of the scandal-provoking artists in ”Sensation“: their acceptance by England’s conservatives. In 1997, the Tory Heritage Secretary described British contemporary art as ”the most exciting and innovatory in the world,“ probably the first time in history that a supposed avant-garde has received an official stamp of approval from a right-wing cabinet minister.
But then, maybe it was precisely this kind of conservative audience — including much of the art world, for all its neoliberal posturing — at which ”high art lite“ had always, even if unwittingly, been pitched.