Children, it seems, find it hard to understand the ontological status of stuffed animals: ‘is it alive or is it dead?’ Mortality is of course one of art’s traditional Big Subjects, coolly invoked and illustrated in Damien Hirst’s famous work The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, in which a pickled shark is eternally suspended in a formaldehyde-filled vitrine. The child’s naïve grasp of the paradox of taxidermal preservation is given concrete form in this visually impressive spectacle. Hirst’s shark, so well-suited to caricature in tabloid cartoons and visual quotation in advertising, has come to function as a symbol of the shocking work characteristic of a whole generation of artists. And, appropriately enough, the shark is the first thing you would have seen after walking through the doors of Sensation, the exhibition of Young British Art in the collection of Charles Saatchi, recently held at the Royal Academy of Arts.footnote1 The shark, it seems, has been domesticated. Stamped with the approval of the Establishment (it’s art!) and honoured by record numbers of exhibition visitors (it’s popular!), it can now triumphantly slink back to the Saatchi archives as representative of a new(ish) kind of art; an art which is unashamedly commercial, media-friendly, pleasurable and which boasts a wide audience.
There is, of course, a wide variety of artistic practice in Britain; under the fabricated rubric of young British art (hereafter yBa) there are divisions and differences both ideological and aesthetic, making it difficult to gain much of a critical foothold. Even within Sensation there were significant differences. The perhaps unfortunate effect of this exhibition, however, was to vitiate those differences as the work was presented as the achievement of a generation upon which Charles Saatchi’s authority confers a spurious unity. Unsurprisingly, it was the loudest voices that dominated.footnote2 And the criticism that has gathered and is still gathering around ‘the new art’ has made it its business to focus on certain issues: in particular the role of theory, the ‘great divide’ of high and low culture, and the formation of identity, so that something of a consensus is forming about on what ground the battle, such as it is, might be fought.
Is it alive or is it dead? is also a question worth asking about a cultural phenomenon. yBa has promoted itself—with considerable assistance from the media, and the delighted complicity of New Labour as well as the art world—as a vibrant and exciting indicator of the nation’s cultural health, a high-art companion to the equally-hyped media invention of Britpop, along with the successes of a new wave of British fashion designers, British restaurateurs, British films and British actors. The economic causes of the boom in British art and its undeniable saleability in the hands of those such as Saatchi—who as the main dealer-collector is by far the most prominent mint-man—have been much discussed and well-documented.footnote3 Yet it is more than financial investment or even media attention that gives life to art, and, as Hirst’s shark indicates, the static appearance of life does not guarantee its existence.
The Victorian explorer and naturalist Charles Waterton invented a technique of animal preservation which involved skinning the animal and then, as the skin dried, modelling it so that the resulting specimen was hollow. Waterton was a tireless promoter of his method and claimed that it produced not only a highly realistic and long-lasting specimen, but also—handily—a light one, making the natural history museum curator’s job much easier as he could carry, say, a couple of tigers at once, one on each shoulder. Waterton’s taxidermic principle was much admired for ‘the Promethean fire which it enables a skilful operator to infuse into lifeless and flaccid remains.’footnote4 This process can, perhaps, function as a concrete metaphor for much of the yBa where the skin of former art is puffed up to give it a semblance of life: predictably the result, while visually impressive, is light.
Most critics, both pro- and anti-, agree that yBa represents a recycling of past artistic practice; a slightly farcical repetition of history. Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures echo Bruce Nauman’s casting of the space under a chair. Hirst’s objects suspended in vitrines recall Jeff Koons; Sarah Lucas’s ‘ready-mades’ seem to redo Marcel Duchamp. For its detractors, this recycling is a cynical strategy of art-making, adding nothing to the past art it feeds upon, but sucking it dry of political content and aesthetic integrity. Often the vacuum created by this recycling of form is filled with motifs and references drawn from the categories of the everyday, or the realm of popular culture. Gary Hume’s work, for example, seems to belong to a venerable tradition of modernist flat field painting. On closer inspection, the four apparently abstract panels of his Dolphin Painting No. IV represent institutional doors: a mundane referent creeps into the ‘pure’ aesthetic. For the enthusiastic supporters of yBa, the injection of the everyday into the methods and forms of conceptual and minimalist art gives the work of these artists a ‘radicality of content, not radicality of form’.footnote5 Scene critics