Britain’s best-known generation of contemporary artists are still cherished as highly relevant in today’s art world – but are they still considered the enfants terrible of fine art?

The Young British Artists are defined on the Tate website as “a loose group of British artists who began to exhibit together in 1988 and who became known for their openness to materials and processes, shock tactics and entrepreneurial attitude.” The rise of the YBAs, which was fuelled by political and economic upheaval in Britain, runs parallel with the acceleration of hyper-capitalism, artist-curators and private art galleries, and lastly the recycling of controversial & subversive artistic practices which began as early as 1914, with Marcel Duchamp’s early readymades, Bottle Rack (1914) and Fountain (1917).

The YBAs emerged in the late 1980s, with the opening of an exhibition organised by Damien Hirst in a disused Port Authority building in Surrey Docks, south-east London. Featuring many of Hirst’s fellow students at Goldsmiths, Freeze, which ran from August 6th—September 29th 1988, signalled the emergence of what Julian Stallabrass terms ‘high art lite’. In his book High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s, Stallabrass offers a Marxist critique of the YBAs and suggests that the recession of the early 1980s was what enabled many YBAs to develop an entrepreneurial attitude to their work, and cause the tabloid controversy for which they are so well known. He also draws a link between mass culture and the YBAs: “To court a wider audience, high art lite took on an accessible veneer, building in references and forms that people without specialist knowledge would understand—and even sometimes, in its use of mass culture, incorporating material that those with specialist knowledge would generally not understand, having been too busy with their art-historical monographs and too snobbish to have allowed themselves an interest in pop music or soap opera.” This correlation between taste, media coverage of the YBAs and their involvement with high-profile art dealers such as Charles Saatchi, Nicholas Serota, Norman Rosenthal and Richard Shone (who were all in attendance at Freeze) is incredibly important. The fact that most of the well-known YBAs studied at Goldsmiths University, a prestigious British art school, received financial backing from corporate sources and yet participated in what Stallabrass calls “art-world slumming” through their cultivating of a low-culture aesthetic cannot be overlooked when considering how radical or subversive their work really was.

the work of these artists relates to new trends of cultural production in the time of late capitalism

Despite the representation of working class issues & aesthetics in much YBA work—the best example of which can be seen in the work of Richard Billingham, who used photography to document the lives of his parents, his alcoholic father Ray and his chain-smoking mother Elizabeth—such work does not serve to make any changes for the people it depicts, and in fact just illustrates abject poverty for middle-class gallery-goers to be shocked by. Were the YBAs’ attempts to bring art into the mainstream and challenge art world elitism successful, or was their work co-opted and bastardised by the establishment they rejected by exhibiting outside of the institution in urban areas?

The tendency of the Young British Artists in the 1990s to resort to shock tactics and re-articulating mass-media kitsch is nothing new; what is new is the entrepreneurial attitude and celebrity status of many YBAs. Through looking at the critical reception of the most notorious YBAs, as well as other art of the time, we can see how the work of these artists relates to new trends of cultural production in the time of late capitalism. Although there is no definitive standard or style of YBA artwork, what makes many of the YBAs’ use of found objects and their injection of mass culture into their work different to previous artists who have mobilised this method of creating work is the time at which the YBAs were working. Stallabrass notes that what many YBAs have in common is not style but the way their work was presented and curated: “The most striking innovation of high art lite has lain not so much in any single characteristic of the work itself as in how it has been shown. Artists put together their own exhibitions in buildings once used as warehouses or factories, side-stepping both the temporarily defunct apparatus of the private galleries and the public sector, which was not ready for what they had to say.”

it could be argued that the combination of the early 80s recession, the conservative Thatcher government and an increasingly globalised capitalist system all provided the YBAs with a unique opportunity to change the landscape of British art

Arguably, capitalism was at a much later stage in the late 1980s and 1990s than it was when Duchamp was producing his first readymades, and even later, with the Situationists in the 1960s, who embodied many tactics later employed by the YBAs such as détournement & the concept of the spectacle. Guy Debord defined the spectacle as “not a collection of images but a social relation among people mediated by images.” He argued that human relations have been replaced by relations between commodities, and that real life is no longer real, but merely a representation of the real mediated through consumer culture. The spectacle presents itself as real life, and distracts people from the fact that their lives are about acquiring commodities instead of actually living. Debord presented détournement, the re-purposing of images, phrases, slogans, texts and even physical spaces to say or do something other than what they were intended to, as a way of subverting the power of mass media and the society of the spectacle, calling it a “powerful cultural weapon in the service of a real class struggle.” Various works by YBAs, such as Sarah Lucas’ photocopies of sexist articles in tabloid newspapers Sod You Gits (1991) and Shine On (1991) could be considered to embody the ideas of the spectacle and détournement, in addition to the way in which YBA work was curated and presented in former industrial spaces, changing the context of those spaces.

The relationship between capitalism, the art market and the art institution was very different in the decades preceding the 1980s and early 1990s; globalisation and multinational capitalism had not yet taken hold in ways recognised today. Although both Duchamp and the Situationists were making work at times of significant political tension, it could be argued that the combination of the early 80s recession, the conservative Thatcher government and an increasingly globalised capitalist system all provided the YBAs with a unique opportunity to change the landscape of British art, in terms of making it more accessible and more marketable, and providing empty buildings in run-down areas of London in which exhibitions could take place. A process of de-industrialisation and a decline in manufacturing in Britain began during the Thatcher years of 1979—1990 – statistics from the ONS and obtained by the Guardian newspaper indicate that “in 1970, manufacturing accounted for 20.57% of UK GDP. By 1979 that was down to 17.62% of GDP. By the time she left office, that decline had continued – albeit at a slightly slower pace, down to 15.18%. Now it is much lower, according to the ONS – down to 9.68% in 2010.” This decline in manufacturing and the subsequent abandonment of buildings in London’s docklands is what led to so many vacant industrial buildings in London being repurposed by the YBAs and their predecessors.

At a time when artists were receiving less and less state funding, the YBAs’ do-it-yourself mentality made that seem agreeable

The term ‘Young British Artists’ was first used in a May 1992 article, “British? Young? Invisible? w/ Attitude?” by Michael Corris in Artforum: “The conceptualization of a new generation of artists who are fixed in the ambered abundance of London is subject to a number of constraints that abrade and unsettle the normal logic of promotion and curatorial practice…The “new generation” of “young British artists” is a cultural phenomenon formed out of specific needs expressed primarily in terms of a presumed national culture. But even that celebratory discourse is subject to pressures brought to bear by historical responses to the collapse of British colonialism, its neocolonialist aftermath, and the prevailing consciousness of the subordination of the early-20th-century English avant-garde in painting and sculpture to the Continental avant-gardes, and, domestically, to the practice of literature.” Corris goes on to describe how the roots of postmodernist developments in art and literature, of which the YBAs are a part, lie “in the disillusionment felt by many Paris intellectuals in the aftermath of the great upheavals of 1968,” and “perfectly catches a mood of helplessness and apathy felt by many on the Left in the face of Thatcherism and the collapse of so-called ‘workers’ states.” The reference to national culture and its uncomfortable relationship to Britain’s colonial past here is worth noting; the first article in which the acronym “YBA” was coined, “Myth Making” by Simon Ford in the March 1996 issue of Art Monthly, points out that “a major claim for the yBa’s work is that it parodies a notion of tabloid Britishness” and that “by appealing to national pride the myth of the yBa seeks to instil in its audience a sense of national identity which is where the myth fades into ideology. This group has been utilised as cultural ambassadors representing and defining ‘British’ culture abroad.”

Ford describes the post-Thatcher move from welfare state to free market and suggests that YBAs were being used to ideologically justify this shift, their entrepreneurial qualities used to promote a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps attitude to wealth and power. At a time when artists were receiving less and less state funding, the YBAs’ do-it-yourself mentality made that seem agreeable. Julian Stallabrass, writing about Freeze, suggests that “such exhibitions were in part a response to the withdrawal of state grants to individual artists during the Thatcher years. They also evolved in reaction to the changing character of public art institutions in the same period.” Many artists sought private funding during this time because public funding for the arts was being cut — a combination of Tory anti-intellectualism and harsh recession. Freeze made possible a new type of exhibition which took place in an edgy urban setting, instead of within the art institution.

this subversion seem[s] watered-down, because of the approval of the establishment in its display

This emphasis on self-curation and seeking funding outside the traditional art institution is perhaps why the YBAs are known for being anti-establishment; however, Simon Ford goes on to write about art dealer Jay Jopling, a good friend of Damien Hirst’s and son of a Conservative MP who served as Minister for Agriculture in Margaret Thatcher’s government. Jopling is responsible for the founding of the original White Cube gallery in 1993, a space which has held exhibitions for both Hirst and Tracey Emin, as well as other notable YBAs such as Jake & Dinos Chapman and Gavin Turk. How radical can this art be considered when it is being mediated by someone from this type of social background, with the sort of cultural capital afforded by being the son of a member of Parliament? Can the work of the YBAs be considered radical, subversive or anti-establishment when it has always been a part of the establishment?

All claims to YBA subversion, propped up by their use of industrial buildings in ‘rough’ areas of London to display art in the late 1980s, cannot be taken seriously when almost a decade after Freeze many YBAs (including Damien Hirst, Marcus Harvey, Richard Billingham, and Sarah Lucas) appeared in a group exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. This move from exhibiting group shows in industrial buildings to exhibiting in one of the best-known art institutions in London represents the consumption of subversive material by the art institution. Sensation proved to be one of the most controversial YBA shows, particularly because of its inclusion of Myra by Marcus Harvey; a portrait of murderer Myra Hindley made up of young children’s handprints. Many newspapers ran articles decrying the inclusion of this painting in the exhibition, but this controversy is arguably neutralised and powerless when it takes place within an institution which profits from such subversion and notoriety. Even if works included in the exhibition are individually subversive or even anti-capitalist, the fact that all the works included in the Sensation exhibition were from the private collection of Charles Saatchi, a wealthy businessman and founder of an advertising company which was once one of the largest in the world, makes this subversion seem watered-down, because of the approval of the establishment in its display.

neoliberal economic policies… put working-class people at a disadvantage, but allowed the YBAs an opportunity to co-opt their struggle

Pierre Bourdieu, in his landmark book Distinction, a study of taste in French culture carried out between 1963-68, suggests that taste in art, music, film and food is dictated by a person’s class. Bourdieu suggests that people who have access to ‘cultural capital’ – non-financial assets which enable social mobility, such as higher education – are responsible for creating ideas of ‘good’ taste in society, as members of the dominant class. Bourdieu also noted the impact of financial & social capital on the tastes of the working class; their tastes and preferences were determined by their income, and were rejected and treated with disgust by people whose tastes conformed to the social norms of the time. “Tastes (i.e., manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes…Aesthetic intolerance can be terribly violent. Aversion to different life-styles is perhaps one of the strongest barriers between the classes; class endogamy is evidence of this. The most intolerable thing for those who regard themselves as the possessors of legitimate culture is the sacrilegious reuniting of tastes which taste dictates shall be separated.”

The work of many YBAs can no longer be seen as subversive (if it ever even was perceived that way outside of tabloid news articles) because it is a product of the social reproduction of taste by the dominant ruling classes – those with access to money and cultural capital, such as Charles Saatchi, Jay Jopling and many of the YBAs themselves, who are responsible for bringing this artwork into the mainstream and framing it as representative of British art and culture. Such work calls into question ideas of the authenticity of working-class culture but Stallabrass, writing about Richard Billingham’s work, argues that “there is an implied snobbery in this line of appreciation and, despite the artist’s proximity to his subjects, pastoral remains intact in Billingham’s work: connoisseurship is applied to the lives of those who have hold of some truth without knowing it, indeed as a condition of their not knowing it, for if they were considered to be aware, there would be nothing for the artist to add.” Such work sensationalises and appropriates the lived experiences of people who will likely never come into contact with the likes of Saatchi et al, or the work they endorse. The people depicted in Billingham’s photographs are living in poverty precisely because of neoliberal economic policies which put working-class people at a disadvantage, but allowed the YBAs an opportunity to co-opt their struggle.

Altogether, it is impossible to reconcile the YBAs’ patronising treatment of working-class culture with their institutional backing. The commodification of working-class British culture in much YBA work is incompatible with genuine class struggle and social change, because it is mediated through a system where only those with cultural capital get to decide what is subversive or ‘good’ art.

Image: Richard Billingham, Ray’s A Laugh

Bethany Goodwill has just completed the Contemporary MA at the University of Kent in Canterbury. They are currently looking for work in order to join the world of fully-functioning adults.

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