A New Twist in the Long Tradition of the Grotesque

Marina Warner

  • High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s by Julian Stallabrass
    Verso, 342 pp, £22.00, December 1999, ISBN 1 85984 721 8
  • This is Modern Art by Matthew Collings
    Weidenfeld, 270 pp, £20.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 297 84292 7

The heavy in shirtsleeves on the door of the disused Strand tube station was working the phone to a reluctant client who had rented the premises for a rave that didn’t happen and now didn’t want to pay. The man’s job title was something like Manager of Decommissioned Underground Material and I had gone to see him with Michael Morris, one of the directors of Artangel, a company that puts on art events in different media in unusual places. He was trying to get permission to use the runnels and platforms for The Vertical Line, a performance piece devised by John Berger.

In Ways of Seeing, Berger presented on television for the first time an ideological analysis of art and aesthetics. One of the programmes juxtaposed pin-ups and centrefolds with Titians, in a powerful early assault on advertising. Thirty years later, Berger was still in compelling voice, a burly, gravelly oracle prowling in the dromos of the underground tunnels, as he took us down with him on an archaeological excavation of art, past the encaustic portraits on the mummies of Fayum, deeper down to the cave paintings of Chauvet. Art figured as a magical enactment: ‘Smell the bear!’ he commanded as he evoked in the darkness a prehistoric drawing. Then, describing the vitality of art made thousands of years ago, he marvelled: ‘In the beginning there was no fumbling.’

Julian Stallabrass, in his Verrine blast against Britart, combines the early Berger’s fierce critique of consumerist contamination with the later Berger’s sense of art’s high purpose: ‘It is often said of high art lite that it has a dark view of things,’ he writes, ‘and it does; the true depth of its cynicism, though, is not be found in its representation of suicides, or torture victims, or abused children, or in its multitude of corpses, but instead in all that it turns its back on, all that it leaves out when it comes to what art can be.’ As it pans the miasmic waters where the Chapman Brothers, Gavin Turk, Tracey Emin and of course Damien Hirst loom, High Art Lite finds the ark of art occupied, betrayed and shipwrecked. The principles that gave the avant-garde of the earlier part of the 20th century its energy and optimism have rebounded on themselves and collapsed: the use of popular material as an anti-élitist, anti-bourgeois strategy; the flouting of proprieties; the wilfully bad execution and recourse to deskilled methods; the spurning of the West End for Shoreditch and Hoxton – all the ‘alternative’ themes and media and sites and forms of attention have been emulsified into a phenomenon on which Tony Blair smiles.

Stallabrass follows the tracks of this social monster, which can be identified by what seems to be an infinitely elastic, numbing permissiveness, from mannikins of children with penises for noses and vulvae for mouths to used sanitary towels cast from an unmade bed. Stallabrass excoriates the artists’ nihilism, cynicism and tourist populism: he describes the ubiquity of urban decay, social ruination and personal degradation in their imagery as ‘urban pastoralism’, a late millennial equivalent of the rococo’s pleasure in swains and Bo-peeps frolicking in hayricks. ‘A pervasive and disabling irony becalms the work,’ he writes, ‘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.’ How indeed should one enjoy, in Aristotle’s phrase, ‘the figures of the most despicable animals, or of human corpses’?

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[*] Pimlico, 435 pp., £15, 6 April, 0 7126 6442 4.