PRINT May 1997


the New Smoke

I’M TOLD BY Newsweek, Vogue, and Vanity Fair that I’m living in the “coolest” city in the world. This journalistic revamp of London makes me feel self-conscious, like being congratulated by a friend on the “terrific new” jacket that in fact I’ve been wearing for years. For me, London is still, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, “that old bitch gone in the teeth,” a city that, despite its ersatz finery, I love.

Vanity Fair’s March number describes a town catering mainly to people in their mid twenties with a lurch upward to the thirty-somethings—a public born for the most part in the 1960s, when London had its last big cultural facelift. VF contrasts the two eras, pitting Stones and Beatles against Oasis and Blur, Blow-Up and Darling against Trainspotting and Fever Pitch, Mary Quant and David Bailey against Patsy Kensit and Alexander McQueen. The London scene in the ’60s was pretty restricted, as Terence Conran has pointed out, centering mostly on the King’s Road, Chelsea, and parts of Notting Hill Gate; much of the rest of the city remained in a postwar time warp, whole areas being immune to visual and moral transgressions—for all the world as though they were still in an Ealing comedy (morphed, by the end of the decade, into a Joe Orton farce). Art did become fashionable again, although there’s no reference in VF’s ’60s résumé to the leather and lamé of Royal College Pop, to David Hockney’s coded graffiti or Bridget Riley’s eye-dazzlers, or to Richard Hamilton’s classic image of Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser handcuffed during their brief drug-bust martyrdom. For the ’90s, VF carries photos of our Damien in the Groucho Club (omitting to mention that he lives much of the time en famille, many rural miles from the capital of cool) and of our Rachel at a VF party, like a bemused mole whose tunneling has fetched it up at the River Cafe rather than the studio. Picture-bites of the dealer Jay Jopling and his father, and of the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, stand in for the rest of the yBa phenomenon.

If VF had wanted a more authentic spread of our cherished young things, it ought to have commissioned Johnnie Shand Kydd. At the Independent Art Space in March, Shand Kydd showed black-and-white photos recording somefamiliar faces at play—a Hello magazine feature on the fin de siècle, a Jennifer’s Diary of artful drunkenness. The photos had an air of seedy veracity, akin to John Deakin’s Soho snaps of the ’50s. Their already historical look only bears out many visitors’ comments that a scene, once documented, is over. Still, if anyone does want to know what Gary Hume or Adam Chodzko, Abigail Lane or Sarah Lucas, look like, these are the images to scrutinize. Plain or beautiful, alert or out cold, unaware or playing to the lens, the moods of the people in Shand Kydd’s take-it-or-leave-it prints range between aggression and blissful oblivion. His photographs are a slice of life to be mined by anthropologists of the future.

Two elements present in the photos but missing from the media’s encomia of London are violence and nostalgia. London has always taken its pleasures fearfully, going on the spree with an avid determination to stop the clock and hold mortality at arm’s length. It has never had a docile public; fun and violence are part of every binge. Brawls outside bars and pubs are as frequent today as they were around theaters like the Globe in Shakespeare’s time, when street fairs and unlicensed drinking generated violence of the kind you see now on club pavements come Saturday night. “No turn unstoned” was a favorite quip of rough music-hall audiences in the last century, when Bessie Bellwood could “wipe the bleedin’ floor” with her hecklers and Rudyard Kipling witnessed a man cut his own throat outside Gatti’s hall off the Strand. Retro music hall and dead comics are very much part of the coinage of current culture, their hard-won innocence more valued than their throw-back appeal. Gilbert & George were the first to pay homage, with their poignant rendition of Flanagan and Allen’s “Underneath the Arches.” More recently Mark Wallinger has paid tribute to the late comedian Tommy Cooper, of whom Damien Hirst can do a deadpan imitation. Violent Punch and Judy slapstick haunted Susan Hiller’s 1990 video An Entertainment, and only the other day Abigail Lane threw a huge art-world party, bidding guests to enjoy the fire-eating, sword-swallowing Great Stromboli, an elderly figure whose whole art, in its flowery masochism, took one back a hundred years.

Nostalgia is more elusive. It is boredom’s walker, a symptom of restlessness, the mark of a society that is not at ease with its present and attempts a future in terms of its past. In the ’60s and early ’70s, nostalgia played a bittersweet role, part of a not-too-serious lament for a way of life going or gone. Today there’s a yearning for some of the attack and élan that go with starting something new, but until that comes along we pass our time with sitcom repeats and gauzy, candlelit adaptations of Jane Austen, or try to recapture, in these postrecessional days, something of ’80s pizzazz. The past hangs heavy on our hands: filmmakers still flock for locations to South Coast resorts, as though such places—Worthing, Brighton, Hastings, with their demotic piers and promenades, their Art Deco sun shelters and marina cafés—retained in their history a truer British spirit than does the world of today. Many of our novelists wallow in any time but the present. Nostalgia promotes a kind of Carry on English–ness that is the despair of people whose binoculars are fixed on scenery beyond these shores. Among those who still actually read, new foreign literature gets a raw deal, in contrast to the ’80s, which saw a tremendous boom in translations of novels from, for example, Japan and Latin American countries. In the 1980s, the prestigious Booker Prize was given to several writers from outside Britain; in 1996, this literary award went to the resolutely British Last Orders, by Graham Swift (born London, 1949). New non-British art is often ignored or dismissed. Shows from abroad in contemporary galleries came thick and fast in the ’80s; we still have them, but they generate less interest and discussion. The international interest in British artists now in their thirties has made the fledgling generation take success for granted; com- placently grazing off the cachet of being young and British, they have lowered their sights to a circumscribed scene.

As to the London art world in general, yes, it’s busy, it has its stars, its Oscars and Bookers, its expectations from the National Lottery (whereby gambled millions go to museums and culture complexes), a Museum of Modern Art in the offing. Every now and again there’s a scruffy little scandal—the Robert Mapplethorpe show amputated of “offending material” at the Hayward Gallery, Sotheby’s tarnished over hanky-panky deals, the Royal Academy’s embezzling treasurer. Galleries come and go with new-diet frequency, refashioning our taste every fifteen minutes: Sadie Cole’s HQ in Soho and the Approach above a pub in the East End are two promising recent arrivals. There is even a faint generosity of spirit in the air, for we want to continue the momentum begun a decade ago. But it’s hard going: London still doesn’t have the necessary depth of collectors and reviewers. Although the former are certainly on the increase, Charles Saatchi remains the only name that can be placed among the great international bulk-buyers; later this year, selections from his eclectic holdings of young British art are going on show at the Royal Academy, a welcome but controversial venue. The show may well put the fat in the fire, but also some money in the Academy’s impoverished coffers.

As for art writers, there’s hardly one on the dailies and Sundays who isn’t mealy-mouthed, suspicious, or downright cynical. Having become, as Peter Schjeldahl once wrote, “after-dinner speakers at the victory party,” they have their hacks against the wall: how to maintain their earlier stance of indifference or downright abuse? How to praise when formerly they came to bury? You can be sure, though, that they won’t eat their words as the celebrations go on around them. You have the feeling they would rather be doing almost anything than looking at recent art, but they parade before us their hebdomadal degradation and cower in the shadow of ignorant arts editors. Tart listings make do for serious criticism. Weaned as I was on John Russell, Guy Brett, Lawrence Cowing, Nigel Gosling, and David Sylvester, that childhood can only seem a golden age.

It isn’t just the young who are neglected or dismissed. Take, for example, Michael Craig-Martin’s exhibition in February and March at Waddington. He showed brilliantly colored paintings of free-floating objects, works that continue his earlier themes and imagery yet find him in an unmistakably new phase. The show was justly popular and every painting was sold. But Mr. Ingleby of the Independent found nothing but what was on the surface (his problem surely?); Mr. Packer in the Financial Times, while acknowledging Craig-Martin’s yBa-godfather status, found the drawing lacking; and Mr. McEwen in the Sunday Telegraph condemned the show for its commercial appeal, as though it were morally reprehensible to sell. Meanwhile, in the same period as Craig-Martin’s show, these and other newspapers carried no less than eight reviews of a first novel (name and author now forgotten) that they nearly all judged to be entirely vin ordinaire. You can imagine how the younger artists fare, although, as all of them have grown up in an era of critical cynicism or neglect, their expectations are minimal.

There’s a lesson to be had, in this context, from an exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery (to May 26) called “Modern Art in Britain 1910-14.” Here, work by the British avant-garde of the pre-World War I years appears alongside work by Modernist masters from abroad that was shown in London at the time. Back then, art was abundantly reviewed in journals and newspapers, and though much of this writing now seems way off the mark, even ludicrous, a serious effort to understand pervades the quotations that add spice to the show’s catalogue. The abuse heaped on Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso quite matched the opprobrium that greeted Wyndham Lewis, Duncan Gram, David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, and the others. The Brian Sewells and Hilton Kramers of the period sharpened their knives and lobbed their ineffectual darts: Monet and John Singer Sargent were about as far as they would go along the highway of progressive art, and one Royal Academician suggested that an effigy of Roger Fry, who had organized London’s two great Post-Impressionist exhibitions, should be burned at the stake.

No such battering of the status quo is possible now. There are few heavyweight senior figures available for little acts of patricide and matricide, no public standards for artists to defile in a period of burgeoning confessional authenticities. Just staying abreast of all that’s on offer seems to be the stretch of most people’s ambition. At any given moment there’s a colossal amount to see; yards of tribal gossip to shred (Anthony d’Offay’s party panegyric on Kiki Smith is a current favorite); a merry-go-round of openings at fancy or obscure locations; and mandatory visits to Quo Vadis, the revamped old Soho restaurant, now under the aegis of Marco Pierre White, Jonathan Kennedy, and Damien Hirst, whose collection of young artists’ works hangs and stands in bar and dining room. The social side of London’s art world is the most conspicuous, the most easily digested for those who see it as part of the city’s new “cool” image. Certainly fresh social opportunities in a hang-out climate help take the edge off studio-bound days. It’s easy to forget, however, the low status accorded to “the artist” in Britain, how hackles of suspicion rise at the very mention of the term. But maybe this too is changing. Maybe among the sea of duplicitous politicians, saucy vicars, corrupt industrialists, and the rest who daily sleaze up the front page, artists, like good deeds in a naughty world, will come to form the only respectable (and second oldest) profession left.

Richard Shone lives in London and is an associate editor of The Burlington Magazine.