Young British Art's Ambiguous Legacy

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    "Freeze" Frame In 1988 some students from Goldsmiths College in London, led by a bullish and enterprising young art punk named Damien Hirst, filled an empty administrative building in that city's Docklands with their unproven art. Coolly titled "Freeze," the exhibition was not, despite its grunge appeal, exactly the garage-band equivalent of a posh gallery display. Intelligently curated, impeccably installed, flush with corporate and state sponsorship (it was funded in part by the London Docklands Development Corp.) and singularly devoted to attracting important artworld folk and reams of publicity, "Freeze" quickly became the paradigmatic hook on which, wittingly or not, alternative exhibitions the world over were pegged. "Once upon a time, not so long ago," Stallabrass begins, recounting the paleolithically provincial condition of pre-YBA in Britain, "some of us involved in the art world thought that all would be well with contemporary art if only it were less elitist, if a little air could be admitted into the tight circle of our enthusiasm, if the public could be persuaded that the products of this world were not some con, dedicated to providing assorted posh types with an easy and entertaining living."

    What Stallabrass and his friends couldn't conceive of before 1988 was that contemporary British art, long an oxymoron uttered archly by hip Germans and Americans, would not only become the darling of the international art media overnight, it would become fodder for lowbrow Yob publications like The Daily Mirror and The Star as well. "It's hard now to open a newspaper or magazine without running into the art and its attendant personalities," Stallabrass complains balefully, referring to the initial notoriety YBA parlayed into today's outrig

    Jake and Dinos Chapman, FUCKFACE TWIN, 1995 ht fame. Proving, once again, that critics should be especially careful what they wish for. Setting out to explain "how contemporary art in Britain successfully remade itself," Stallabrass charts a steady, well-argued course through the economics of the British art world. There's Margaret Thatcher's ruinous, laissez-faire cultural policies; the bursting of the Japanese bubble economy; the stock market plunge and the worldwide recession; the reorientation of the Tate Gallery's Turner prize toward younger artists; and Charles Saatchi's sale of his store of blue-chip U.S. art, followed by his newfound zeal for the work of youthful, spunky British lads and lassies. All these events, sandwiched portentously between 1980 and 1991, formed the tectonic crisis that led to the YBA's earthquake-like emergence onto the national and international art scenes.

    "The effect of recession on the British art scene," according to Stallabrass, "was to act as a force for creative destruction and modernisation." Out flew the Kristeva-quoting p.c. experts with professional titles after their names, in swaggered artists like Sam Taylor-Wood sporting t-shirts loudly proclaiming "Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank"; gone were out-of-touch museum and gallery curators, in came the Do It Yourself artist-curator-critic-dealer, a barbarian committed to wasting art world orthodoxies everywhere (modern, postmodern, corporate and socialistic) by forging alliances with the mass media and a wider, non-art public.

    "A tale of tough entrepreneurs braving the harsh circumstances of recession to produce an art fit for the bracing climate of the untrammelled free market," is how Julian Stallabrass paints YBA. So then, what's wrong with this, on the face of it, rather magnetic picture? Nearly everything, according to Stallabrass, beginning with the art, which the author pegs, not too ingeniously, after his book's title: High Art Lite. Allowing that much of the art produced in Britain today "does embody and respond to problems that are at the heart of the crisis in high art and its relation to the public," Stallabrass takes particular exception to Young Brit Art's cheeky, often brazenly telegenic punk face.

    Despite taking low subject matter like "violence, sex, child abuse, the British character, celebrity, gossip and obsession with itself" as content for high art, Stallabrass argues, the art of younger British artists insists, against a previous, left-listing artworld consensus, "that [it] has no social responsibility and no moral sense." Think of Marcus Harvey's portrait of child murderer Myra Hindley done in kiddie palm prints, the dung breast of Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, Jake and Dinos Chapman's androgynous tableaus of mannequin children sporting dicks and anuses for faces and mouths, Marc Quinn's cast of his head in a block of his own frozen blood; think, above all, of Damien Hirst's cut-up animals in formaldehyde, a particularly amoral and sensationalistic one-liner that has made Hirst nearly as famous as Jesus Christ. On the face of this evidence it might be easy to condemn, as the book's decidedly political author does, High Art Lite as "an art that looks like but is not quite art, that acts as a substitute for art." But that, certainly, would be to look at the evidence available with the selectiveness of a flat-earther.

    Young British Art is nothing today if not a phenomenon that has outstripped the work of its first exponents to describe an artistic trend bladder-full of fuck-off attitude and savvy Do It Yourself enterprise. Its range, inevitably one imagines, runs the gamut from the profoundly meaningful (the work of Gillian Wearing or Jenny Saville, say) to the deeply exploitative (Hirst and the Chapman brothers), reveling in an inventiveness and a variety that defies Stallabrass' overearnest attempt at political and politico-esthetic categorization. While its work is rarely engaging in that didactic 1930s professorial fashion Stallabrass still cherishes (a Marxist critic, Stallabrass is also a professor of history and theory of art at Oxford), a great deal of Young British Art is singularly devoted to bridging the gap between once recherche artistic pursuits and the philistine Cockney masses in a way no other Brit art has dared to do.

    But Stallabrass' real gripe with YBA in the abstract (and the argument at the end of the book indeed turns abstract to the point of inaccuracy) is that it has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations, garnering attention for the right and, just as often, the wrong reasons. With few resources at its disposal, YBA has repeatedly gone to the mass-media well, both provoking and manipulating responses from a press long disposed to treat artists as trite circus curiosities, tortured souls slogging toward elusive immortality or navel-gazing, hedonistic loons, too irresponsible and antisocial to get real jobs in a productive society. Instant celebrity has been the result for a number of the original "Freeze" crowd; unprecedented exposure and attention for art and artists of all kinds has been the flipside of the rich if often misspent media coin.

    Add to the equation the fact that the now maturing London scene has served as an excellent model for artists to take back artistic and curatorial terrain from stale, relativistic or (in Stallabrass' case) deterministic agendas, and you have by far the most significant phenomenon to have hit the international art world in the last decade. Would that the stodgy, drawing-room logic of Julian Stallabrass would see it that way. Instead, after the sort of incisive, follow-the-money dissection of YBA one expects from a sharp Marxist critic like Stallabrass, you get chapters of programmatic esthetic obtuseness and a set of super-general art-critical judgments that miss the mark by a long shot. But then again, I suppose it's hard hitting the target when you have blinders on.