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.
An absence, of course, need not in itself be aesthetically disabling. In contemplating the abyss that opened up after the rupture of modernism, writers like Beckett or Ashbery have produced masterpieces. Ashbery’s finest poems—among them, ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’—are moving meditations on the spiritual oddity and agony of a postmodern predicament, lines whose profundity is wrested from the absence of possibility of the profound. Many of the YBAs might agree that there is this kind of void, and indeed contend that it is the very object of their work. Emin’s celebrated unmade bed could be taken as the image of a condition in which only the literal detritus of the personal is now available as material for art. Hirst’s various animal experiments are virtually unmediated representations of the banal carnality of existence: what you see is what you get —mess, decomposition and death.
Plainly, however, there is a difference between commercial exploitation and aesthetic exploration of any experience, individual or collective. Stallabrass’s explanation of that is Marxist, but one does not have to accept it to concur with his analysis of the hype and trivia of HAL. His account centres on the peculiar predicament of the visual arts after the ordeal of deconstruction. ‘This critical dismantling’, he writes, ‘has been continuing for decades’, to the point where it is often ‘hard to know with what level of reference we are dealing: is a work referring to something else or itself, to rhetoric or reference, or to some still further recursion?’ Ever since Marcel Duchamp’s brilliantly knowing games, a persistent strand in the visual arts has been successive subversions of the art object, first as art and then as object. A Duchamp ready-made—urinal, hat stand, bottle rack—undermined every category of form or meaning with the satirical paradox: this is art because I, as artist, designate it as such, for display in a gallery—to ask for more is bad faith. But the gesture is unrepeatable, because a second urinal implies an appeal to precedent, inseparable from a reinstatement of meaning or form, since the subsequent piece now takes its place in a tradition—another realm of signification, to which the work refers. But this realm was what the original was created to exclude. In this sense, subversion reiterated subverts itself, returning the artist to square one.
Yet the example Duchamp set was too seductive to be relegated to a mere philosophical jest. The appeal of the conundrum he posed has continued, for nearly a century, to be irresistible. A significant part of the history of modernism has been, in effect, a game of snap played by compulsive liars, in which you win by trumping with the same cards while claiming they are absolutely different. The noisy adoration of novelty in the visual arts all too often functions to drown out the news of its absence. The Simpsons, not uncharacteristically, gets this just right. Homer’s catastrophically failed attempt to build a barbecue is spotted by an art dealer and exhibited in the local gallery. Thrilled by his success, Homer produces three similar works, only to suffer cruel rejection by critics who explain that the whole point of art is to do something completely different. He hadn’t been told about that. The HAL crowd are smarter than Homer, but not all that much.
Since the Impressionists, the idea of ‘modern art’ has been more or less synonymous with a capacity to affront conservative taste and shock conventional—or academic—opinion. So from the outset ‘high art lite’ was marketed for its in-your-face ability to disturb the viewer, initially by Jay Jopling of the White Cube gallery, and then with the exhibition of Charles Saatchi’s collection at the Royal Academy in 1997, under the slogan Sensation. Unwittingly, the title pin-points the one new element in the promotional strategy of HAL. Much of the material of the show, ostensibly calculated to outrage the tabloid press in Britain, was in fact parasitic on its own dreary pabulum—the staple diet of murders and monsters that has stupefied generations of sub-literate readers, and probably not a few of the more or less lumpen artists themselves. This is an art that needs the tabloids as much the tabloids need this art, in a closed circle in which provocation and indignation are equally fake, and depend on each other. The complicity between gutter and attic is virtually complete. In America, where tabloids matter less than pulpits, a slightly different variant went into play, as crowds flocked to the Brooklyn Museum to see an initially faltering show after Mayor Giuliani had expressed his abomination of the elephant-dung tears of Chris Ofili’s eye-pleasing Holy Virgin Mary, and Damien Hirst confessed he felt like withdrawing his work in protest, were it not for the importance of the New York art market.
Here, of course, have lain deeper kinds of collusion. Stallabrass outlines HAL’s dependence on the fortunes of one collector, Margaret Thatcher’s advertiser Charles Saatchi. Hit by the recession of 1991, and with an expensive divorce to pay for, Saatchi sold off his collection of ‘blue chip’ artists—Freud, Hodgkin, etc—and switched to bulk-buying the work of younger and cheaper ones. In selecting these, Stallabrass remarks, he displayed the sort of taste that might be expected of an advertising executive, with a penchant for ‘one-off shockers’, puns, waxworks (Lane, Turk, Hapaska, Isaacs, Mueck), animals (Hirst, Grünfeld) and the deep-freeze (Quinn, Finn-Kelcey, Simpson). The collaboration of the national art establishment was then crucial in passing off one man’s partialities as a panorama of the new British art. The Royal Academy and the Tate eagerly opened their doors, and soon Virginia Bottomley, then Heritage Secretary in Major’s Conservative Government, was hailing Brit-art as ‘the most exciting and innovatory in the world’, while an active and enthusiastic British Council promoted it globally. New Labour in turn lost no time in appropriating YBA into its brochures for all that was cool, creative and communitarian in modern Britain. Obviously, Blair would not know a Lane from a Lowry if he saw one: what mattered was not the product, much of which should have been obnoxious to the goody two-shoes tone of the regime, but the publicity it had earned. The importance of this it could understand, as a beneficiary of the Sun and Mail itself. Media réclame was everything, and in a laughable—or pathetic—contradiction between the rebel pretensions of HAL in the art world and its smiling reception in the political one, Damien Hirst was soon putting back champagne at Number Ten.
It is often said that the tie-ins of HAL to advertising or government have no more bearing on its quality as art than the role of bankers and princes in commissioning works of the Renaissance. Contemporary artists, indeed, are a good deal freer in what they can paint or construct with the money they earn than were those of the Cinquecento. Such arguments, however, do nothing to meet Stallabrass’s central contention—set out with a fine precision and backed by substantial research—that in this case, catering to the requirements of fashion, money and power is, in large measure, all that HAL amounts to. Thus Hirst—having established his name and notoriety with an out-size bestiary—switched to blandly decorative spot and spin paintings, to produce saleable items that the ‘ordinary’ collector could hang on his walls. Hirst, of course, would like to ironize himself out of any criticism of the vacuity of these works, once proposing as a title, ‘I sometimes feel I have nothing to say, I often want to communicate this’.