PRINT March 2000


Julian Stallabrass's High Art Life

IN HIGH ART LITE, Julian Stallabrass, a teacher at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing, Oxford University, proffers a critical analysis of the emergence of the New British Art during the ’90s. That he is on the faculty of a school named for the author of Modern Painters, Unto This Last, and Praeterita seems fitting. For though his book comes under the imprimatur of a left-leaning press with some stain of contemporary critical cachet, Stallabrass is utterly without sympathy for the messy, rowdy, juvenile phenomenon he attempts to put in what he deems its proper little you-should-be-ashamed-of-yourself place. What’s more, if Stallabrass falls short of the perfervid, messianic zeal Ruskin exercised in the aesthetic religion, he still carries on as a worn but staunch believer in the social responsibility of art to educate and transform its public.

Stallabrass’s book covers several themes in its overview of the most startling artistic development in Britain during this century. Chapters 2–5 would chart the course of the contemporary, somehow prefab art star as celebrity (“Famous for Being Famous”); as entrepreneurial P.T. Barnums of an appropriately dubious “alternative” scene (“Artist-Curators and the ‘Alternative Scene’”); as cynical purveyors of anti-intellectual postures destined to play in the debased British press (“Dumb and Dumber?”); and, continuing the Beavis and Butt-head angle, as cheap vaudevillians engaged in a rather pathetic contest to beat pop culture at its own game (“That’s Entertainment”). These sections are followed by a discursion into the supposed collusion of state-subsidized prizes like the Turner, certain influential galleries like White Cube, and, of course, Charles Saatchi, in his dual role as the largest collector of the new art and as a kind of ghost dealer. High Art Lite concludes with chapters on the “Britishness of British Art” (taking its cue from Nikolaus Pevsner’s 1964 The Englishness of English Art) and some rather droopy observations, reeking of schadenfreude, concerning the alleged decline of art criticism. It’s too bad Stallabrass didn’t find a (better?) editor for his jeremiad, because from chapter to chapter I could discern no really cogently marshaled argument anywhere, just the endlessly and not especially imaginatively regurgitated bits about the art being all bad but successful because money and the press and some uppity bad boys and girls have played their parts to the hilt.

Is it enough to say that Stallabrass’s very tone is prima facie evidence of how bad this book is? He complains that the New British Art, which he dubs (with an altogether deluded sense of his own cleverness) High Art Lite, is “an art that looks like but is not quite art, that acts as a substitute for art.” (Sorry, Julian, but why don’t you take the time to tell us what you regard as real art?) Beyond the few paragraphs of undergraduate-level, Kant-and-the-Aesthetic lucubration are a thousand years of boring paragraphs about the wickedness of Saatchi, the wickedness of irresponsible, boosterish critics, the wickedness of the GNP, etc.

But wait, there’s more: These terrible new scalawag doodles “appeal to an international market”; the Americans and Japanese may be involved in this one. “But, most of all, there was a turning away from the inward-looking concerns of the art world to new subjects, especially to those which might appeal to the mass media.” Oh dear, the Ben Nicholson market just took a dive. The art—whatever it is, good, bad, lousy, mercantile, you won’t learn here—is in collusion with the evil machinery of magazines, television, celebrity . . . you know, everything that’s bad, that doesn’t lift up the working classes, that doesn’t with petty genteel rectitude take its tea from honorably chipped and ugly cups; its “accessible veneer” abets the conspiracy to “play well in the press.” The artists themselves are scarcely human, as their “identities . . . are media constructs” (Julian’s Not-the-Ecstasy-of-Communication crescendo). Despite the “media construct” line, Stallabrass doesn’t go in for critical theory in his references; he does cite, however, just about every drib and drab of journalistic offal ever to appear on YBA, as if to prove he’s really done his research.

“Contemporary British art as a whole is a much richer, more complex and diverse landscape than the popular heights of high art lite would imply,” Dr. Pangloss tells us. Stallabrass seems to show some sympathy for what might quaintly be called “institutional critique,” at least on the basis of his distant approval of the collective BANK and some projects of Angela Bulloch, maybe even Gillian Wearing (though that gets uncomfortably near the demon market). Incredibly, he praises Michael Landy’s installation Closing Down Sale, 1992, asserting, “Only rarely does contemporary art take money or the market as its subject matter, and few of the artists commented upon the conditions of their own creation.” Of course, any tolerable survey of twentieth-century art will tell you otherwise. How can someone be so sickeningly ill-informed?

The most singular effect of this pseudo-professional screed is the way it can transform someone (like me) who has at best an attenuated relationship with the New British Art into a wannabe best friend of everyone who was in “Freeze.” Death to fustian British academic Marxists. Take me to the Groucho Club.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum and currently critic in residence at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.


Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite (New York: Verso, 1999), 352 pages.