PRINT October 2004


Young British Art

Sixteen years separate “Freeze,” the legendary 1988 Damien Hirst–curated exhibition that gave birth to Young British Art, and Tate Britain’s recent “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” a show that signaled both the phenomenon’s institutional apotheosis and, for many, its creative swan song. A three-way collaboration between Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Angus Fairhurst, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was classic YBA: simple themes—sex, death, religion—dispatched in fairground style, and aesthetics ranging from miserablist to spectacular. Full of gaily colored fish, spooky animatronics, crucifixions, various sexual organs and body parts, large animals, and larger numbers of squashed or imprisoned insects and crowned by Hirst’s Pursuit of Oblivion, 2004, a crowd-pleasing, aqueous tribute to Francis Bacon’s innards-and-umbrella Painting of 1946, it’s an exhibition in which, as critic Adrian Searle lamented in The Guardian (Mar. 2, 2004), everything “shouts” and “everything that doesn’t dies or disappears.”

“Freeze” had followed on the heels of “New York Art Now” (1987–88), ad magnate and über-collector Charles Saatchi’s momentous two-part exhibition, which first brought Jeff Koons and the neo-geo generation to London and made a big impact on the young Damien Hirst. From Koons, Hirst learned the value of presentation as both an artistic and a promotional principle; his marketing of “Freeze” was arguably much more significant than his curatorial corralling of the exhibition’s sixteen Goldsmiths College student artists. “Freeze” anticipated a spate of do-it-yourself group shows staged in cheap, sprawling, ex-industrial spaces in recession-hit East London. Henry Bond and Sarah Lucas’s “East Country Yard Show” as well as Carl Freedman and Billee Sellman’s “Modern Medicine” and “Gambler,” all in 1990, were, with “Freeze,” the shows that fueled the myth of YBA as, paradoxically, both oppositional and entrepreneurial. In fact, YBA lingered only momentarily on the margins, soon to be eagerly embraced both by the institutions and by the market, as evidenced by Hirst’s precocious debut solo show at the age of twenty-six, at the ICA London in December 1991.

Nineteen ninety-two was a defining year in the YBA generation’s evolution into the dominant grouping within British art. When Frieze magazine launched in July 1991 with a Damien Hirst butterfly painting on the cover, and Artscribe, the journal that had dominated in the ’80s, closed in February 1992 with a Damien Hirst spot painting on its cover, it was clear that the baton had been passed. In March 1992, Hirst showed his infamous tiger-shark-in-a-tank, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, at the Saatchi Gallery, and this piece, accompanied by intensive media coverage, projected him for the first time beyond an art audience onto a public stage. The Turner Prize, whose purse had doubled under new sponsorship by the British television station Channel Four, shifted its generational focus. Anish Kapoor had won in 1991 at age thirty-seven. Seven years his junior, Grenville Davey won in 1992 (with Hirst short-listed) and was followed by then-thirty-year-old victors Rachel Whiteread in 1993, Damien Hirst in 1995, and Douglas Gordon in 1996.

Channel Four’s affiliation with the prize was a crucial factor in the dissemination of this new art to a broader public. The second crucial factor was Charles Saatchi’s sudden enthusiasm for collecting emerging British art. He laid out his goods in five exhibitions between March 1992 and December 1995: “Young British Artists” I, II, III, IV, and V. Saatchi’s title, remembers curator Gregor Muir, became abbreviated in the curatorial discussions leading to “General Release,” the British Council’s national survey for the 1995 Venice Biennale—and from then on entered the lexicon as “YBA.” In 1995 and 1996, as British group shows proliferated around the world—in Minneapolis, Venice, Houston, Copenhagen, Rome, Wolfsburg, Baden Baden, Sydney, Johannesburg, Melbourne, Paris, and Tokyo—the acronym was so widely applied that at moments it denoted no more than “young(ish)” and “making art in Britain.”

Many of these group exhibitions, such as “Life/Live” (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1996) or “Pictura Britannica” (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1997), painted a broad, cross-generational picture of contemporary art emanating from Britain. Richard Flood’s “Brilliant!” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1995 was the most precise summation of what might be dubbed “first”- and “second”-phase YBA; it included key figures from the original Goldsmiths/ “Freeze” contingent, as well as non-Goldsmiths artists who had by 1995 become central to YBA, such as Tracey Emin and Dinos and Jake Chapman. Confusingly, various artists—Rachel Whiteread, Liam Gillick, Anya Gallaccio, Tacita Dean, Glenn Brown, Steve McQueen, Darren Almond, Fiona Rae—have at different times been ushered under the umbrella of YBA without displaying any close artistic kinship to the sensibilities of a Hirst or an Emin. If YBA is to be located somewhere between a typically British “everyday” or kitchen-sink realism and a provocative sensationalism often iconographically related to the popular gothic and mediated aesthetically by the high-visual-impact strategies of advertising, then core YBA figures are Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Mat Collishaw, Angus Fairhurst, Michael Landy, Gary Hume, Marcus Harvey, Marc Quinn, Gavin Turk, Sam Taylor-Wood, and—although their complex, intellectual nihilism sets them apart—the Chapman brothers. Artists who have at times appeared to share some YBA characteristics include Gillian Wearing, Douglas Gordon, Chris Ofili, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, and Richard Billingham.

While Hirst learned his artistic presentation skills from Koons and Haim Steinbach (his aquariums and cabinets are on one level simply enlarged variations of their vitrines and shelves, respectively), he also recognized in Koons the value of a branded artistic identity (a notion reinforced by the careers of both Georg Baselitz and Gilbert & George, which Hirst observed firsthand working at Anthony d’Offay Gallery while in art school). This is explicit by 1996 when he describes, in Modern Painters, his spot and spin paintings as “almost like a logo as an idea of myself as an artist.” But where Koons—and, of course, Koons’s role model, Warhol—both critiqued and participated in the mass media’s construction of celebrity by using the media simultaneously as a central subject of his art and as a promotional vehicle, with Hirst, and later with Tracey Emin, no comparable conceptual interchange between the media and the art occurs. Instead, Hirst courted the media one-dimensionally to generate a cult of personality, while encouraging journalists to depict his artistic persona as (schizophrenically) alternative and avant-garde, as well as glamorous and aspirational. Hirst hagiographer Gordon Burn, for example, could write romantically of the millionaire, restaurant-owning pop-impresario artist in The Guardian as late as April 2000 that “he has always used drugs and drink as a way of isolating himself from banal experience and to bring him to something original or extraordinary in the moment that nobody else can see.”

Copious profiles, interviews, and articles on YBA’s leading players have featured frequently in the quality papers, while both broadsheets and tabloids have engaged in feeding frenzies over the reliably regular trail of demolitions, vandalisms, defacements, profligacies, and delinquencies that YBA has left in its wake. The press has been affronted by the extravagance of Rachel Whiteread’s House, 1993, in deprived borough Tower Hamlets—then horrified at its 1994 destruction by Hackney Council. Outraged by Marcus Harvey’s exploitation of ’60s child-killer Myra Hindley’s mug shot in his painting Myra, 1995—The Sport described the artist as a “young bastard” who was “swanning around Islington enjoying the toasts of artworld ponces and practically having a w*nk over the reaction to his painting”—then gleeful when it was spattered with India ink and half a dozen eggs, while on display in “Sensation.” The media has been entertained by Tracey Emin’s drunken histrionics on national television in 1997—then aghast at the state, not to mention the price, of My Bed, 1998. Contemptuous of Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize–winning Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off—then bemused by transvestite Essex potter Grayson Perry’s 2003 acceptance speech. But lest anyone be deceived that the British media’s interest in contemporary art stems from motives purer than the pressure to deliver a stream of fresh-faced Art Idols who can be counted on for a paragraph of crackling copy: Witness the savagery of its reaction to the Momart Leyton warehouse fire this May, in which hundreds of irreplaceable artworks—from seminal Patrick Heron paintings to the Chapmans’ extraordinary Hell, 1998–2000—were destroyed. Quality Sunday paper The Observer, shockingly typical in its taunting, described a “Bonfire of the Vanities” and deemed that, “What happened at Leyton was at worst a mishap, at best perhaps an overdue act of aesthetic cleansing. . . . Fire is reliably clean and purgative. Who needs criticism when cremation is an option?”

Back in 1997, after the explosion of British shows abroad, and just when it seemed that YBA surely must have exhausted its appeal, Charles Saatchi’s “Sensation” at the Royal Academy whipped up yet another media storm to lodge the phenomenon seemingly ever more firmly into national public consciousness. Tracey Emin’s coming-of-age as the public’s favorite artist—her place in the nation’s affections secured by Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, 1995, the tent (destroyed in the Momart fire) appliquéd with dedications to her lovers, her brother, a grandmother, a teddy bear, and her aborted fetus—and new Saatchi finds like Ron Mueck and his uncanny Dead Dad, 1996–97, created added media value. The debacle over Harvey’s vandalized painting was matched in volume only by mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s loudly offended sensibilities on another side of the Atlantic, as the show arrived in Brooklyn in October 1999. But by 1998 even the Saatchi machine recognized that the media’s fascination could not be held forever, and there was a short-lived attempt to manufacture a new “movement” centered on the group of artists that Martin Maloney had gathered in South London at his apartment-cum-gallery Lost in Space. So-called New Neurotic Realists like Peter Davies, Dexter Dalwood, and Luke Gottelier substituted YBA’s highly produced spectacle for a homespun aesthetic, offbeat subjects, and a more modest demeanor, but without, unsurprisingly, garnering much attention from the mainstream press. The opening of the new Saatchi Gallery at County Hall in 2003 generated flurries of coverage, particularly when a whiff of competition was scented between Charles Saatchi and Nicholas Serota, the Tate director. But now that the space—hovering above the riverside’s hot-dog stands and amusement arcades—has evolved into a visitor attraction more akin to its neighbors the London Aquarium and Dalí Universe than to the cool and cultural Tate Modern, the media is relatively subdued.

Post-Momart, it is clear that the pact YBA forged with the press has been a Faustian one, but in its heyday, from 1992 onward, it was thrilling to behold the impact of Hirst’s media-management skills: British contemporary art appeared in a mass-cultural landscape for the first time since the ’60s, and Hirst was hailed as the new David Hockney. In order to make that transition into both press and popular consciousness, Hirst and his contemporaries cleverly nurtured their artistic image as avant-garde while jettisoning anything that smacked of theory or intentionality or critique—in particular the forbidding vocabulary and deconstructive impulses of ’80s art. Once their work was purged of inaccessible concept, they filled it with accessible imagery and approachable narratives. The popular commercial media, for instance, provided inspiration for Gillian Wearing’s early work influenced by ’70s reality television and Sarah Lucas’s appropriated tabloid spreads, but generally most YBAs (in common, it must be said, with most artists everywhere half a century after “This Is Tomorrow”) continued to reference both high and low, as though oblivious to any distinction between them. For the Chapmans, it’s Goya and, not or, the zombie flick; for Gary Hume, Fra Filippo Lippi and Kate Moss. Unlike Pop art proper, YBA’s interest has been in the debris of quotidian life, not the high end of modern consumerism. Where Richard Hamilton immortalized Mick Jagger’s transgressive cool, Hume gave us the eternally cheesy Radio One DJ Tony Blackburn. Where Warhol fixated on Campbell’s perfectly condensed brand, Lucas opted for shapeless Spam and messy doner kebabs. Emin’s sticky bed, Noble and Webster’s artfully piled rubbish, Landy’s shredded possessions, Billingham’s disheveled family life: YBA tends to be filled with the imagery of either an entropic everyday or—evidenced by the preponderance of serial killers, divided beings, mannequins, and limp flesh—an iconography drawn from popular gothic fiction and film. With an existential scheme split into simple antitheses of life and death, good and evil, pleasure and pain, YBA managed to titillate and fascinate a public unschooled in the finer points of cultural theory, without—and this was its “Brilliance!”—losing the interest of the art cognoscenti.

Did YBA, then, emerge as the first truly popular high art, an avant-garde that had found—judging by expanding museum audiences during the ’90s—its holy grail of mass appeal? And what does it mean to call YBA “popular”? Loved and admired by its public? Or simply, like any of today’s legion manufactured celebrity, hard to avoid in the press? Was it popular in that it coexisted with mass-market commercial entertainment or popular in the sense of striking a chord with the lives and concerns of ordinary people? Did it succeed in making, as Hirst set out to do back in 1991, “Art that everybody can believe in”? Art historian Thomas Crow, writing in these pages (Apr. 2003), describes YBA as something like Pop art in reverse: Where Pop art consists of high borrowing from low, YBA is fundamentally a low art, “more at home in an everyday media realm”—a low art that appropriates from high art, or, more precisely, from “that exotically fascinating category of commodities labeled ‘American Fine Art.’” Yet is it possible to argue that where artists like Koons and Steinbach took Pop to one logical conclusion by collapsing art object into commodity, the YBAs took it to a related conclusion by collapsing high art into popular art, rendering them equivalent rather than opposite and ultimately erasing notions of hierarchy between high and low?

Far from radically reconfiguring the relationship between high and low, argued Simon Ford and Anthony Davies in their essay “Art Capital” (Art Monthly, Feb. 1998), YBA had been unwittingly hijacked by big business and government as a means to build brand through lifestyle marketing. Tony Blair, and before him John Major, set out to relaunch Britain as youthful, entrepreneurial, cool, and creative: a desirable destination for tourists, wealth creators, and decision makers. YBA, along with Britpop, was a key marketing device in the construction of that image. At the same time, the British economy was experiencing a booming consumer culture in the wake of the 1989–91 recession. The press, chasing advertisers, began to fill its pages with “lifestyle” journalism rather than consumer-unfriendly news—and natural self-publicists like Hirst and Emin were close at hand. Hirst’s multifarious activities—his music videos, his restaurants, his record covers, his product design—appeared, for a moment, to signal a radical disruption of art’s specialized terrain. But when stores like Habitat and Selfridges recognized the consumer advantage in affiliating themselves with the new British art, the symbiosis between commerce and culture deepened until, as Simon Ford concluded, “the art becomes inseparable from the products it is helping to sell—the floor coverings and furnishings, the restaurants and clubs.” Rather than reflect on consumer society, as Pop art did, YBA became an aspect of it.

As journalism embraced YBA, criticism abandoned it: Britart has no Bergers or Burgins to call its own. The art historian Julian Stallabrass, whose courageous book High Art Lite of 1999 remains the only detailed critical excavation of the period, argues that YBA itself is inimical to criticism because it refuses any cultural or intellectual responsibility. “Instead,” he writes of Sarah Lucas’s Sunday Sport pieces, “a pervasive and disabling irony becalms the work in a manner that is supposed, in conventional wisdom, to challenge the viewer but which in fact conveniently opens up demotic material to safe aesthetic delectation.” Indeed, the writing most closely identified with YBA exercised a related form of intellectual disavowal en route to becoming one of the best-selling contemporary-art books ever. Matthew Collings’s Blimey! From Bohemia to Britpop (1997) is a subjective, satirical commentary, written with the epigrammatic fluency of a good journalist and couched in a tone of slightly bored detachment. Juiced up with anecdotes, gossip, and opinion, Blimey! flaunts a breezy, irreverent style that can be, by turns, just like the art: absorbing, accessible, and outrageous—or utterly, embarrassingly banal. Collings invented the perfect voice to complement YBA: He makes an impact without (crucially) ever appearing to try too hard. The absence of any critical agenda in his writing is, according to Collings, a willful response to an age in which the avant-garde is “an official one and therefore a pseudo one.” Ironically, given that he is more than any- one identified with the dumbing down of art discourse, Collings is at heart a Greenbergian formalist who believes that “populism and art are not meant to go together.” Stallabrass, on the contrary, would like to believe that art can be popular—in the sense of accessible to all—and yet still contribute to a morally and intellectually ameliorative culture. In High Art Lite he concludes that in trying to sustain the difficult balancing act of appealing concurrently to the art world and to a mass audience, YBA ultimately fails at both. Culturally aimless, it is an art that ends up mimicking an idea of art. In 1997, when Stallabrass locked horns with another Marxist, John Roberts, over YBA in the pages of Art Monthly magazine, their debate stalled around vexed definitions of populism and popular culture. Roberts, uniquely among critical theorists, has defended YBA’s populism as being somehow politically efficacious. He has praised YBA’s nonelitist appeal and has tried to account for it by positively recuperating the term “philistine” (which he later qualifies as an abstract position, rather than an inherent quality): “The philistine is the revenge of the proletarian non-specialist spectator on postmodernism’s abstractly bodied theorist of pleasure.” The artists—so his argument goes—are working-class “bad” girls and boys who refuse to distance themselves from the “proletarian” energies and “alienated” pleasures of popular culture. In annexing the common, rude, and entertaining elements of working-class popular culture to their art, the YBAs produce work that resonates meaningfully with that culture. Roberts’s argument is often dense and convoluted and, Stallabrass objected, potentially offensive in its identification of YBA’s strategies of vulgarity and profanity with working-class culture itself—as well as excessively idealistic for imagining a collective popular culture to exist detached from powerful commercial interest in some ideology-free zone. Whichever side of this particular argument one supports, it remains the case that criticism has yet to finish its account of Young British Art and its reception, has yet to parse the important things this curious phenomenon has to tell us about the shifting relationship between high art, mass culture, and a new audience for art at the twentieth century’s end.

Kate Bush is an editorial director of Phaidon Press and a frequent contributor to Artforum.