Thatcher’s Artists

Peter Wollen

  • Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection by Norman Rosenthal
    Thames and Hudson, 222 pp, £29.95, September 1997, ISBN 0 500 23752 2

Art catalogues have drifted away from being simple accessories to exhibitions and become instead strange hybrid forms somewhere between cultural studies primers and coffee-table books. They provide both an intellectual commentary, written by academics, journalists and art-world figures, and a comprehensive set of colour reproductions of the works in a show, taken by specialised photographers. From a practical point of view they are freebies for the press, commodities to be sold in the museum store and in the wider world, promotion tools for the museum and the artists and, perhaps most important of all, they endow exhibitions with a durable after-life in libraries, both private and public. The catalogue for Sensation, the show of works by young British artists from the Saatchi collection, currently on view at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, runs over two hundred pages, with more than a hundred colour plates, as well as a series of black and white portrait photographs of the artists taken by Johnnie Shand Kydd. It has five catalogue essays, several pages of artists’ biographies, a bibliography and, as the very last item in the book, a six-page checklist of the 110 works in the exhibition, with an apparatus of dates and dimensions. The cover design of the book is not drawn from the works on display in the show but was produced for the book by a design company. It is as vivid and arresting as the artworks documented inside, perhaps even more so.

The catalogue essays have been chosen strategically to give a multiple-perspective view of the exhibition. In his own Introduction, the show’s curator, Norman Rosenthal, who is the Royal Academy’s ‘secretary’ in charge of exhibitions, places Sensation in a very broad art historical context, making ambitious claims for the importance of the work and explaining his choice of title. Next, Richard Shone, an associate editor of the Burlington Magazine, perhaps best known for his scholarly work on the Bloomsbury Group, gives a detailed chronicle of the careers of the artists, whom he describes as loosely ‘entwined’ in a single history. He sees them, not so much as a ‘gang’, though that is how they are sometimes thought of, more as contributors to a loose art ‘scene’ with a complex pattern of interaction. Then Martin Maloney gives an insider view, writing as a painter whose own work is represented in the show, as well as a prolific art journalist (Art Forum, Flash Art etc). Brooks Adams is an American an journalist based in New York, who follows up with an outsider’s account, enthusiastically describing the works’ rather patchy reception in the United States. Finally, Lisa Jardine, an academic who doubles as an art journalist, writes in glowing terms about the historical role played by patrons in the formation of public taste, an encomium it would be difficult to read without remembering that all the work in this particular show was purchased or commissioned by Charles Saatchi. No doubt he will be pleased to be compared with Isabella d’Este.

If there is a serious theme running through these essays, it concerns the nature of the ‘modern’ and the ‘new’ as governing principles of 20th-century art. The underlying question is how British art in general, and the work in this show in particular, should be understood, given the imperative need for any art that wishes to reach a hegemonic position in the global art world to be perceived as ‘modern’ and ‘new’. Norman Rosenthal makes no bones about what is at issue here when he asks:

Can London become the unchallenged centre for the practice and presentation of contemporary art? In the past, Paris, New York and even Dusseldorf have been able aggressively to claim this role, by virtue of the density of activity in each city over considerable periods of time, with many artists, as well as collectors and galleries, contributing to the debate with originality and daring. If London could now claim such a position, that would be a first, and surely grounds for celebration.

Rosenthal’s own answer is both grandiosely sketchy and wildly euphoric. First he invokes the names of Géricault, Courbet and Manet, founding figures of Modernism, in order to remind us that their work was both new and shocking in its time – he backs this up by showing illustrations of Géricault’s Severed Limbs, Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (a closeup painting of a woman’s genitals privately commissioned from the artist by a rich connoisseur) and Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur I’herbe. He goes on to invoke Goya and Bosch in order to assert that ‘in time even such powerful images as these become assimilated, their impact diluted. Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos.’ In a way, I quite appreciate the stunning shamelessness of Rosenthal’s approach as he tries to fend off angry accusations that the work he is showing is obscene and distasteful by invoking the great shock-and-horror art hits of the past, but it does seem a bit simplistic to dissolve ethics into aesthetics with such peremptory brio.

Richard Shone, a historian rather than a showman, and considerably more subtle and serious, poses a more sophisticated variant of the same question – ‘What does it mean to be “new” in Britain?’ – and then reformulates it by asking what the relationship might be between the ‘new’ and the ‘modern’, in the context of a culture such as Britain’s which lacked any strong tradition of Modernism in art until relatively recently. He sees the art assembled in Sensation not simply as ‘new’ but as marking the final and decisive moment of Britain’s entry into the world of international modernity, building on the ‘de-insularisation’ which took place during the Fifties, the breakthroughs of the Sixties and the steady advances of the Seventies and early Eighties. Rather than a meteor arriving out of the blue, the new generation of artists, who first came to public notice in 1988 with the Freeze show organised by Damien Hirst, were the beneficiaries of the hard work of the St Ives Group, the Independent Group, the Royal College Pop artists and so on, all of whom had successively edged British art into a position where it could at last compete in the world of international Modernism. The Freeze artists and their affiliates arrived at the right moment to reap the rewards of this long struggle – a struggle resisted by significant forces within British culture, many of them still fighting a rearguard action today. Of course, the rhetoric of ‘modernisation’ has a particular resonance in Britain now. Sensation, however, raises two important questions about what we really mean when we talk about ‘modernity’ in relation to the art world.

First, we have to ask ourselves whether Modernism is still a useful concept or whether it has become a period term like Baroque or Romanticism. In a way this question is implicit in Rosenthal’s invocation of Manet’s Olympia, widely regarded as a founding work of Modernism in the visual arts. Are we doomed to keep repeating the gesture of Olympia (new territory conquered, new taboos broken) or are we already living in a very different art world? Shone is much more specific than Rosenthal in picking out the artists (non-British) who were important to the Freeze generation. The names he mentions, especially Josef Beuys and Bruce Nauman, but also Robert Gober, Ashley Bickerton and Jeff Koons, certainly make sense when we look at much of the work on show in Sensation – although, naturally enough, everything that the Young British Artists (more affectionately known as YBAs) absorbed has been given a distinctive new twist. First and foremost, none of the artists mentioned as precursors are painters. What we are looking at in Sensation is the apparent victory of installation art, a victory which seems to be endorsed rather than undermined by the presence of so many paintings, flattened against the walls like a court retinue while powerful installations dominate the gallery space. Yet I soon found myself thinking that the work of these painters was the most fascinating element of the show: the demotion of painting, which began in the Sixties and was hastened by Conceptual Art, was now shown to have led, unexpectedly perhaps, to a compelling reformulation of its nature and role. Unceremoniously stripped of its central position in the visual arts, painting, it seems, is capable of making a comeback, of formulating radically new presuppositions and goals in a new context. The painting in Sensation is genuinely innovative. The installation works, on the other hand, fall into a much more predictable pattern, post-Beuys, post-Nauman and so on, just as they would do in parallel exhibitions in other cities.

Contrary to what I had expected, over a third of the artists represented in Sensation are painters. Moreover, there is a broad variety of types of painting on display, ranging, at first sight, from hyper-realism to minimalist abstraction. ‘At first sight’ because further attention often reveals more than meets the eye. Jason Martin’s monochrome paintings, for instance, are done with a single brush-stroke, leaving faint striations in the image. To achieve this effect, the catalogue informs us, Martin constructs a special brush for each painting, always the same width as the canvas. Damien Hirst’s coloured dots are not purely abstract either. They are taken from the pharmacological coding-system in which dots are used to indicate the properties of various drugs. Not only do they turn out to be textual paintings, cousin to Peter Davies’s painted list of the top one hundred all-time hit paintings: they effect a stealthy return to Hirst’s pre-occupation with the body and with disease and death. Keith Coventry’s white on white tribute to Malevich conceals portraits, painted in slightly different shades of white, representing Sir Norman Reid, (former) director of the Tate, and the Queen, to whom he is allegedly explaining modern art. At the other end of the scale, realist works range from Mark Wallinger’s hyper-realist racehorse pictures and Richard Patterson’s monumental painting of a tiny plastic model of a minotaur through to the ‘bad’ and faux-naif portraiture of Martin Maloney and James Rielly. Other painters adapt traditional Realist or Modernist styles to new subjects or, like Jenny Saville, introduce new stylistic mannerisms – extreme foreshortening and superimposed calligraphy. In fact, there is a rich range of strategies for reinventing painting in a post-Duchampian world.

The art world today functions globally. As a result, the same trends quickly come to the fore in exhibition spaces thousands of miles apart. I moved to Los Angeles in 1988, the year of the Freeze show, which I therefore missed, as I did most of what followed it. Yet the type of installation work shown in Sensation seemed fairly familiar to me, because shows in Los Angeles are not fundamentally different from shows in London. I found myself going round mentally, even sardonically, ticking off the points of comparison – Damien Hirst functions as a public figurehead for the group much as Mike Kelley does in LA; the Chapman brothers’ polymorphous perverse tableaux of mannequins are much like Paul MacCarthy’s; Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose make Gillian Wearing’s videos look rather sweet and innocent; LA ‘pathetic art’ is alive and feebly kicking in London; Hadrian Pigott’s instrument case inevitably calls to mind Michele Rollman’s instrument case; Lyle Ashton Harris finds a counterpart in Chris Ofili; Fiona Rae’s paintings even reminded me for a split second of Lari Pittman’s. And then, to go on in a slighdy different vein, doesn’t Goldsmith’s = CalArts and doesn’t Michael Craig Martin = Michael Asher, and therefore isn’t it only to be expected that Sensation = Helter Skelter and/or Scene of the Crime, to cite the two definitive exhibitions of new Los Angeles art. This is not to say that London simply duplicates Los Angeles or vice versa. We are confronted by a much more complex relationship than that. Globalisation compresses the art world, so that the same trends will appear in vastly different places, but each of them is given a distinctive local inflection. In this sense, there is nothing specifically British about ‘Young British Art’ any more than there is something specifically American about its Californian Southland counterpart. The specificity of each comes from the narrowly local rather than the broadly national aspects of the art.

That is why the attention which Richard Shone and Martin Maloney (as well as Johnnie Shand Kydd) pay to the micro-culture of the Freeze generation, to the urban mythology of Docklands and to the pose of East End laddishness, is directed straight to the heart of Sensation. Richard Shone mentions, as literary and cinematic parallels, Iain Sinclair and Derek Jarman – I imagine he is thinking of Jubilee and, perhaps, The Last of England – and goes on to make a telling comparison between the Chelsea and Notting Hill Gate ambience of Sixties Pop Art (Hockney in Powys Square, right where Performance was set) and the Rotherhithe setting of Damien Hirst’s Freeze show. In fact, Shone tells us, Freeze was funded in a vacated Port Authority building by the London Docklands Development Corporation, who were aware, presumably, of the leading role young artists have played in gentrification from the Sixties on, as recounted by Sharon Zukin in her classic study, Loft Living, which traces the connection between a burgeoning art scene, derelict industrial spaces and commercial redevelopment in New York’s SoHo. Here again, the logic of globalisation is at work – Canary Wharf and Freeze are not so unconnected as one might assume. Or, to put it another way, Charles Saatchi’s prospecting trips to the East End in search of art were not as alien to other aspects of his life as we might at first imagine. In fact, in art as in so many other things, the impact of Thatcher’s Big Bang has been felt only after her downfall, and not necessarily in the way she intended. The artists represented in Sensation were those formed in the Thatcher years. Their median age is 35. In 1988, the year of Freeze, they were in their mid-twenties, having lived all their adult life under Thatcherism. In a paradoxical way, we could look on Freeze as a kind of art-world Big Bang, necessary for giving Britain a significant role in the new global economy. ‘Paradoxical’ because the art associated with Freeze runs counter to both the élitist and the ‘family values’ traditions of Conservatism, dwelling instead on what Brooks Adams calls ‘the aesthetic of the Kitchen Sink’ with its ‘atmosphere of extreme, intensified and militant ordinariness – domestic difficulties and social trouble, everyday squalor and working-class grit’ as well as descending deep into ‘the realm of horror and the gothicgrotesque’ with works as lurid as those of the Chapman brothers, which are exhibited with public warnings that they might well offend unprepared viewers. It is as if Sensation exhibits both the high ground and the low ground of Thatcherism, both its global ambition and its domestic cruelty.

In another way, the legacy of Thatcherism can be seen in the works’ affinity with advertising art – its liking for images which grab the viewer instantly rather than calling for contemplative appreciation. This convergence of fine art with advertising art is clearly visible in the work of Damien Hirst and, indeed, he is quite frank about it. In an interview in the September issue of Dazed and Confused, he discussed his debt to advertising with endearing candour. It is worth citing at length because I doubt there is much of a crossover readership between Dazed and Confused and the LRB.

When I think about it, my whole understanding of art has been based on images. I spent more time in the art library and watching TV than ever I did in galleries. I used to go into the art library and say to myself: ‘I wish I could be like these guys; these are the guys, these are the dons.’ Sitting there, looking at 5x4 images of paintings, that was the world that I grew up in. At the same time, though, I spent a hell of a lot of time talking about commercials when I was at art school, conversations like, ‘My God, did you see the Coalite advert where the dog kisses the cat and then the cat kisses the mouse? Fantastic!’ That’s the one that Tony Kaye did a few years back where the theme tune plays [singing] ‘Will you still love me tomorrow?’ just a brilliant advert. I didn’t realise at the time, but that was where the real art was coming from – the rest of it was in the art library going: ‘Shit, I wish I could understand all this stuff.’ In retrospect, my work was always a fusion of the two.

By a particularly telling coincidence, the same issue of Dazed and Confused contained a two-page advertising spread, featuring two unclothed models photographed from just below the breasts upwards. One is having a medical patch attached to the base of her neck by two rubber-gloved hands; the other is wiping away a trailing tear from low on her cheek with her left hand, which has painted quadricolour nails and bears the word LOVE printed out on her four fingers. The first image has a text superimposed which reads ‘AVP/anti-virus perfume/ALION United Aliens London’. The text on the second reads MRP/mood responsive polish/United Aliens’. I was intrigued and baffled by these adverts until I read an item in the Independent’s ‘Eye on London’ supplement, explaining that these ads were the work of a collective formed by Roberto Henrichson, a director working in fashion advertising, who had formed an ‘art collective’ with the idea of exhibiting in a gallery, but then, prompted by Dazed and Confused, realised there was more mileage in producing simulated ads for non-existent products. As Henrichson observed, ‘in fashion we are always producing things we don’t need.’ There are apparently more ads to come – for Instant Aura Crystals and a Mind De-Programming Chip. The Independent introduces the project as a hoax, but of course that is exactly how a lot of innovative art has been described. It is plain that advertising as a form of image-making and innovative fine art are converging. Another symptomatic figure here is Tony Kaye, the top-flight advertising artist whose Coalite commercial so impressed Hirst. Kaye has moved energetically into the art world proper, masterminding works with all the punch of adverts but directed towards noncommercial goals – in his best known work, a homeless person was designated as an artobject, another sought to break down the taboos around Aids, another attacked the Museum of Modern Art in New York for accepting sponsorship from tobacco interests. Basically, Kaye has used his advertising flair to promote issues and causes rather than commodities, even attacking commercialism itself, in a classic case of setting a thief to catch a thief.

In essence we are confronted by a world in which the boundaries between gallery art, media, advertising, digital imaging, fashion, film, graphics and display have begun to dissolve. The ‘society of the spectacle’, as Guy Debord dubbed it in the Sixties, has engulfed every facet of visual communication. At the same time, the speed and scope of communication have intensified so that images of every type are disseminated much more rapidly, both within what remain of specific national cultures and globally, across the old cultural frontiers. The traditional idea of‘Modernism’, which Rosenthal and Shone both invoke, has to be looked at carefully in the context of the new globalised visual culture. The beginnings of its impact on the art world can clearly be seen in the Sixties, with the arrival of Pop Art. Warhol followed the example of Pierre Cardin and quickly moved to situate himself as a kind of brand-name or designer label, which could be attached to gallery art, film, rock music, light shows and books, eventually extending the ‘franchise’ to include magazines, Polaroid photographs, TV talk shows and other appearances. In his Dazed and Confused interview, Damien Hirst talks about his interest in designing billboards and his interviewer asks him about Jenny Holzer’s politically pointed maxims on electronic information boards, which he briskly dismisses. In fact, the most interesting examples of billboard art come from the immediate aftermath of Conceptual Art, in the late Sixties and on into the Seventies, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Victor Burgin, Les Levine and others used billboards for work which blended fine art with political propaganda. By dethroning painting, Conceptual Art opened the gates to a range of other media, not simply text and installation, but also video, audio, photography, signage, post-cards, rubber-stamps, maps, fish-tanks, landscaping, architecture and so on. Simultaneously with Pop Art and Conceptual Art, the rise of performance, intersecting with other forms, further broadened the scope of the visual arts. By now the after-effects of Conceptualism are loosely gathered together under the vague title of‘Concept Art’ or ‘Neo-Conceptualism’, meaning, in effect, that the value of the work lies in the artist’s underlying concept, rather than the hands-on creation of the finished product which, more often than not, is produced by a team of assistants or fabricators.

Soon after visiting Sensation at the Royal Academy, I went to the Donald Judd show at the Lisson Gallery to get an antidote of stripped-down minimalism, nothing but cubes and rectangles, sheets of aluminium and plexiglass. While I was there, I bought the June issue of Art-Language, New Series Number 2, another crossover problem perhaps. I was struck by a paragraph in an essay by Paul Wood. Written in typically condensed Art-Language style, it reads as follows:

First: clearly Modernism, in the form in which it had been dominantly conceived in the postwar period, did enter a terminal crisis in the late Sixties. Second: two of the main artistic trajectories which have emerged out of the break-up of canonical Modernism have achieved their distinct identity through a suspension of Modernism’s central preoccupation. The most visible practices of artistic Post-Modernism have bracketed the central Modernist commitment to the aesthetic to produce an art of explicit political commitment, on the one hand, and on the other, an art addressed to the commodity and its spectacularisation. It may not be going too far to view this as the delayed victory of those Constructivist and Dada tendencies which earlier challenged Modernism as part of what proved to be the historically premature revolution of the early 20th century. Shorn of the revolutionary projectivity, such Post-Modernism forms the suitable partner for the managerial-capltalism-as-nature which defines the late century. If this is so, then the real Academy of the present time is upon us.

I have four things to add to this. 1) Wood was uncannily perceptive in alluding to the Academy; 2) as noted above, the return to painting is a necessary counter-balance to the art of the spectacle; 3) this does not mean a failed attempt to revive a defunct Modernist tradition, let alone return to the clichés of the Academy’s summer show; 4) it means reinventing painting to incorporate the subversive new strategies of Conceptual Art, thus undercutting both the Realist and Modernist traditions, whose epic struggle has now lost its meaning.

It doesn’t matter whether Norman Rosenthal was thinking about box-office when he launched Sensation on the Royal Academy, or the labour-saving simplicity of bringing a show lock, stock and barrel down from Saatchi’s warehouse in St John’s Wood, or even the chauvinistic thrill the YBAs could bring to British hearts. His show is significant because it has provided us with a chance to take stock of the complex context in which art is made today. His exhibition exposes a cross-section, not unlike Damien Hirst’s cross-sections of animal carcasses, enabling us to look into the contemporary London art world from new angles and meditate on its past and its future. It does not need to be justified by reference back to Bosch or Goya, or the D’Este court or even to Francis Bacon or David Hockney. It stands on its own feet as a marker of the tension felt in the art world between the legacy of a lost Modernism and the ascendant culture of the spectacle, the transformed and triumphal forces of everything which Clement Greenberg dismissed as kitsch. The new world order is in the ascendant and the art world cannot possibly insulate itself from it. What I took away from the Royal Academy exhibition was a sense that British art is caught between two incompatible wishes. The first, more challenging, is the wish to reassess the Modernist tradition, to reincorporate elements of it as a corrective to the new Post-Modern visual culture, sometimes with a sense of irony, sometimes out of respect, sometimes as the basis for a critique. The second, of course, is the wish to use the art world as a stepping-stone into the even more glamorous world of the media, to throw oneself headlong into the seductive new world of celebrity, commercialism and sensation.