What’s It All About?

Tom Lubbock

  • Shark-Infested Waters: The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the Nineties by Sarah Kent
    Zwemmer, 270 pp, £19.95, November 1994, ISBN 0 302 00648 6
  • The Reviews that Caused the Rumpus, and Other Pieces by Brian Sewell
    Bloomsbury, 365 pp, £12.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 7475 1872 6

Last autumn, at the award ceremony of the 1994 Turner Prize, Charles Saatchi took the podium at the Tate Gallery. It was a very rare public appearance by Britain’s leading private collector of contemporary art. His words were awaited with interest. Since it opened to the public in 1985, the Saatchi collection in St John’s Wood has become a focus of what’s called the contemporary art debate. With every purchase, names are made and names are called. But Saatchi’s taste, his collecting policy, is eclectic and elusive. So much art, of so many kinds, has passed into and sometimes out of his hands: British, American, German, minimal, Neo-Expressionist, Neo-Geo, new object, photographic, installation, trad fig. Since 1992 he’s been prominently showcasing young British artists, the objects of much attention and controversy lately. Surely some kind of indicative statement might have been expected. And this is what (ìn part) he said: ‘I’m not sure what today’s young artists are putting in their porridge in the mornings, but it seems to be working. They are producing the most striking new art being made anywhere in the universe. And it seems every museum from Nebraska to Alaska is ringing up trying to organise shows of their work ... And if sometimes that work is tasteless and cynical and uncouth it’s because sometimes we all are.’

Porridge. The British art debate is no such thing. The Turner Prize, especially since 1991 when it has been geared towards younger artists, provides an annual flashpoint in a conflict where neither the arguments nor the battle-lines are clear. Shortly before the 1993 Prize, an actual dispute about contemporary art was staged at the Tate – defending, Michael Craig-Martin, leading light at Goldsmiths’ College; prosecuting, Hilton Kramer, editor of the New Criterion (it’s telling that there was no obvious British champion on this side). It was made a condition that the speakers should not address each other. Afterwards I went to look at Rachel Whiteread’s House by floodlight. A member of the public had joined the debate and smashed the floodlight in. On the night Whiteread won the Prize, the Bow Lib-Dems decided to knock House down. No argument there either.

Everyone knows what the issue is, broadly speaking. As Modern Painters magazine – leading voice in the campaign for real painting – put it in an editorial last year: ‘it is a dispute between adherents of all modes [of painting], up to and including Greenbergian abstraction, versus true believers in the conceptual revolution,’ the latter represented specifically by that new wave of porridge-eaters, sometimes called the Goldsmiths’ Generation, sometimes called ‘neo-conceptualists’, who first appeared at the very end of the Eighties. Some had come out of Goldsmiths’. Some were later bought by Saatchi. Some have been up for the Turner Prize. They’ve featured in many public exhibitions, in the papers, on TV. (There’s a sort of house mag, called Frieze.) Their emblematic figure is of course Damien Hirst.

They present a pretty clear target. They raise suspicions of a ‘programme’. Their work doesn’t look at all the same – it isn’t a visual thing – but it’s informed by a keen and knowing awareness of the art of the (recent) past, and of the ideas around it. Vocabularies, references, discourses are to hand and to be used. No patient, authentic struggling. They know the game. Many of these were artists consciously on the make, worldly about the art-world and its ways, who organised themselves, curated their own shows, got themselves noticed and taken up by dealers. By 1989, one of them could write with justified confidence of ‘a new trend in British art’. Not since the Pop explosion at the start of the Sixties has there been such a rapid and spectacular coup.

That’s what, for many, fills the category ‘contemporary art’ just now. On the other side, there’s no clear stable of real painters to oppose to them, but the general idea is that there are plenty of perfectly decent and interesting young limners around, if anyone paid attention. (Modern Painters offered a shortlist last year.) Of course, it’s a standard irony of controversies like this that heavy opposition only throws the enemy into the headlines. But the publicity isn’t founded only on shock or mockery. The press, pursuing new sensations quite neutrally, finds in Hirst a reliable hotshot: his Shark-in-a-Tank looks good in photos, and provides material for cartoons-and journalistic metaphors, which few new paintings can ever do.

The battle isn’t principally between artists, but between critics and curators, and the battle-lines are not too clearly drawn. You can make lists. In favour of ‘contemporary art’: Nicholas Serota (at the Tate), Charles Saatchi, Sarah Kent (Time Out), Richard Dorment (Daily Telegraph, oddly enough). Against: Modern Painters, Brian Sewell (Evening Standard), Giles Auty (Spectator), Glynn Williams (at the RCA) and any number of Johnsonian or Waugh-like commentators who throw themselves into the breach on wet afternoons. But it’s no neat line-up. Auty is too reactionary for practically everyone. Serota pleases all of the people at one time or another. Saatchi’s taste is bizarrely catholic. Both Sewell and Kent can spring the odd surprise. Modern Painters offers one ne plus ultra – Greenbergian abstraction – but not everyone on their ‘side’ would go along with that. And do the acceptable ‘modes’ go right back to Lascaux?

It’s the ‘real painting’ tendency that makes the argumentative going in this confrontation. The ‘contemporary art’ lobby can sometimes be goaded into a response or a counter-attack, but mostly their case is assumed. They shrug in bewilderment: ‘Do we seriously have to go over this old ground yet again?’ They make blankly positive assertions – ‘this is what is happening now’; or talk of ‘cultural fascism’; they say that the critic’s duty is to be positive and informative. And despite Po-Mo doubts about Progress, an appeal to the irreversible advance of history – ‘Christ, it’s as if Du-champ and Pop never happened!’ – usually proves unavoidable.

But the case of real painting isn’t too clear either. What is ‘the cause’ of painting, as such? Granted, in art you can never say what you want, before you see it. And if those young hopeful painters listed don’t in fact give much cause for passionate celebration? (‘But the art-schools just aren’t teaching them now, you can’t be choosy.’) So the argument moves beyond questions of individual merit, and onto the offensive. It’s not just that most Neo-Conceptualists happen to be inferior to most painters; the ‘conceptual revolution’ is inherently no good. You must back painting whatever, because the other thing is wrong at root. And what are the roots of the objection? Some firm aesthetic lines would have to be drawn. They seldom are. Is the problem in the use of found objects and readymades per se? The loss of handiwork? Some of the Goldsmiths’ Generation are painters; at least they use painting, knowingly: does that count them out? Where does it all go wrong?

The crucial point is that this isn’t a struggle over the true course of art in the abstract. It never is. It’s over public institutions: about what’s taught in art schools, promoted abroad, what gets bought by public collections, exhibited in public galleries and put up for public prizes. And the prosecution’s energies come from a perception that the art they’re against is now in, and the art they’re for is out. If it wasn’t for what the Hayward and the Serpentine show, what the Tate and the Arts Council collect and the British Council sends to Biennales, what’s shortlisted for the Turner Prize, no ‘conspiracy’ in little magazines and private galleries would matter. The Saatchi Gallery, just because it seems so influential in these areas, has acquired a quasi-public status.

True, the ‘contemporary art’ camp can be extremely touchy too. There was outrage in 1991, when a student at the relatively conservative RCA was refused his degree for not doing anything his teachers considered proper work. His degree show was an empty studio with a simulacrum of a GLC Blue Plaque on the wall, inscribed ‘Gavin Turk, Sculptor, Worked Here.’ But Turk did fine. He joined the gang. His work is now in the Saatchi Collection. Yet further confirmation of the whole worrying trend – and for the conservatives this was a development that came at exactly the wrong moment.

For much of the Eighties it looked as if British painting was on the up. A School of London had been vaguely but vigorously identified, and compared in importance to the New York School of the Forties and Fifties. The personnel weren’t new (Bacon, Freud, Auerbach, Kitaj et al), but the identification was, and such identifications are almost everything: in art everyone thinks in history-book chapter headings. At the same time, a group of young figurative artists emerged from Glasgow (Curry, Howson, Campbell, Conroy) and commanded headlines. And these two groups could be co-ordinated with an array of other individual painters, some new, some long-striving, into a resurgence.

The turning point was 1990. The first major signal that things might be moving another way was the British Art Show 1990. This five-yearly exhibition was, by convention, a broad and pluralistic survey of current British art. The 1985 version had included a bit of everything, all ages and genres, and had duly acknowledged a revival of figuration. In 1990 it was very different. The selection was not ‘representative’. No artist over forty was chosen; most were around thirty; only a few were much heard of outside the art press. Not that the show made the careers of all its artists by any means; it wasn’t Goldsmiths’-dominated; and the curators were careful to say they detected no overall tendencies. But it staked a claim. This was British art now, and no hand-on-heart painting of any kind was included, which meant – provocatively for a show which opened at the start of the year in Glasgow – that the New Glasgow Boys were, to a lad, left out. In the summer the British Art Show arrived in London. In the meantime, Peter Fuller had died in a car crash.

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