On weekends at the Tate Gallery, long queues of pretty young, pretty cool people would form before two tall glass cases arranged to make a narrow corridor. Each case contained one half of a cow which had been split lengthways from nose to tail, and the queue was for the privilege of walking between them to closely examine the innards. This, and a calf similarly treated, which formed the work Mother and Child, Divided, were Damien Hirst’s contribution to the 1995 Turner Prize exhibition—as it had been to the Venice Biennale two years earlier. If a point of the work was to make people behave in this way, then it would have been a good joke; but there are reasons to think that it was rather more earnest than this.footnote1
The Turner Prize is a hype-generating exercise for the Tate and the contemporary art world, an annual award to British artists under the age of fifty for particular exhibitions or other contributions to the art scene; unlike the Booker, it is more the endorsement of a reputation than an individual work, so its temporal aspect is something of a fiction. Hirst was awarded the Prize, not for the works displayed, but for various exhibitions in the us and Germany, and for his curatorship of the Serpentine Gallery exhibition, Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away. . .Hirst and the Prize were made for each other, for both are devoted above all to publicity. Yet, when he was nominated in 1992, Hirst failed to win; in the interim, something significant may have shifted on the British art scene.
Bringing corpses into the gallery has made Hirst famous: his most well-known work is simply the body of a shark displayed in a large tank of formaldehyde, coupled with the title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living—and various ruminants have received similar treatment. Grandiose claims are made about this work, both by Hirst himself, who never ceases talking about life and death, and by its promoters. For Virginia Button, one of the Tate’s curators, ‘brutally honest and confrontational, he draws attention to the paranoiac denial of death that permeates our culture’, and the Prize jury, too, praised the ‘thoughtfulness of his approach’ and noted that his work continued the long tradition of art which ‘deals with the issues of life and death’.footnote2 But, aside
Yet the work is also spectacular and attention-seeking. In one of Hirst’s most striking pieces, canvases were hung with chrysalises in a closed room; the butterflies, hatched, fed off sugared water, flew, bred and died—some squashed by art lovers. In a separate room, their bodies were painted into the bright colours of other canvases. The installation was called In and Out of Love (1991) and it was symptomatic of many of the recent developments on the British art scene. Non-art objects, or beings, are brought into contact with traditional fine-art materials and modes of display—the gallery and, more important, the vernissage. Titles are flip, often borrowed from films or songs. Such works face Janus-like in two directions at once, but each face looks out upon a different world. They are both easily affecting and coolly ironic, approaching the viewer with a knowing grin, and commenting simultaneously on the world from which their objects are taken and the art world’s deadly, money-spinning appropriation of these objects.
Hirst is only the most celebrated member of a new wave in British art which has succeeded in gaining international attention and widening the audience for contemporary art. They were formed as the once confident and affluent private art market transformed itself following the recession from 1989 onwards. Galleries closed or scaled down their activities, while some began to turn away from the work of highly expensive international stars to young—and much cheaper—home-grown talent. Artists often found themselves with large stocks of unsaleable objects and nowhere to show them: many ceased making permanent fine-art objects—there was a revival of performance work and of transient installations—and others made less conventional ones. Artists also became their own curators, making shows for themselves and their acquaintances in the numerous industrial spaces emptied out by the recession.footnote4 But, most of all, there was a turning away from the inward-looking concerns of the art world to new subjects, especially to those which might appeal to the mass media. This tendency was no avant garde, for it had no coherent programme, and no mission except success. It was a rapidly changing scene where works and reputations were driven by fashion and publicity from venue to venue, courting the growing museum and gallery-going audience. If Hirst’s shark is a symbol of the phenomenon, it is because the creature can never be still—it must keep the water flowing over its gills—or die: as the artist himself put it, ‘not moving forwards. . .just moving’.footnote5
This courting of controversy and publicity was cloaked with an all-knowing irony. The artists generally had good formal education, being put through sophisticated fine-art courses which informed them about ‘Theory’ and the history of the avant garde. They also learned of the debilitating situation of high art in this country, besieged by philistinism and constantly having to defend its most fundamental tenets—not that any of this had mattered when it was a world unto itself awash with money. A facile postmodernism was the foundation of this art, one which took no principle seriously, which did not separate high from mass culture and which, given this relativism, accepted the system just as it was, and sought only to exploit the chances that change opened up. This new art would be quite as dreadful as the philistines said it was, obscene, trivial, soiled with bodily fluids, and exhibiting a fuck-you attitude, but this time deliberately so—it would use their energy and their power in the mass media against them.
But the new British art was not generally seen like this, certainly not at first—indeed, if it was to be effective, it could not be. So the defenders of traditional art played their role, fulminating against this shocking, publicly supported non-art. The most infamous of these is Brian Sewell, the critic of the Evening Standard who enlivens the homeward journey of London’s commuters with tales of those crazy art-world folks. His anthology of reviews, An Alphabet of Villains, bears a mock-up of Sewell’s severed bust immersed in a Hirst-style tank. At the other extreme, the defenders of radical contemporary art were earnest in the new wave’s support. Their claims were often quite as ridiculous as those of the conservatives.