TAKING A BEAD ON BRIT-ART
The nineties movement that acquired the acronym YBA—Young British Artists—led by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk, Rachel Whiteread and Marc Quinn, has been widely credited not only with putting UK output at the centre of the international art market, but bringing a new generation of viewers into galleries, and revitalizing public debate about the visual arts. Admirers have argued that these artists—wittily deriding decades of late modernist orthodoxy and more recent postmodern postures—have reconnected the fine arts to popular culture with new styles of narrative and direct human address. Critics, on the other hand, have alleged that the movement consists of little more than chic nihilism clad in the profitable outer-wear of high art. With some caveats, Julian Stallabrass is firmly in the latter camp, as the caustic title of his book suggests. High Art Lite is a sustained and withering assault—comprehensively illustrated, save for blanks where an artist’s agent has seen fit to protect his client’s images from comment—on the credentials of the YBA phenomenon. Lacking either intellectual rigour or social concern, this is a movement with a void at its centre. Though Stallabrass writes as a Marxist, here he finds himself in partial agreement with conservative critics like Brian Sewell, who also point to a gaping hole in this art, but who are more likely to define what is missing as tradition, spiritual weight, craft and aesthetic integrity.
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