Friday 20 March 2009

Artists and hustlers

Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, by Gregor Muir (Aurum Press)

This book is billed as being the first history of the Young British Artists - the infamous YBAs - whose art and antics have shocked the public for the best part of a decade and a half. It’s a statement that promises much, but does the book deliver the goods? On one level, yes - and with gusto. Muir is described in the book’s blurb as being the YBA’s ‘embedded journalist’, as if he were a sort of war correspondent and, in a way, he was. Taking the military metaphor further, he avoids taking us on a forced march through the arid deserts of art theory, leading us instead on a blitzkrieg of bodies, booze and drugs.

Muir is the Hunter S Thompson of Hoxton hedonism, speeding us from one drunken art event to another. For instance: at the 1993 Cologne Art Fair, an event that brought the world’s leading contemporary galleries into one venue, he and other art hangers-on spent most evenings drinking at a sex bar called the Pink Panther, surrounded by prostitutes. One night, when Muir was in the company of painter Peter Doig, the barman ‘started screaming at us to fuck one of the sex workers or fuck off’. On another occasion at the Fair, a hungover Tracey Emin vomited into a corporate water feature opposite the Artforum stand.

When not partying, Muir is holed-up in tiny flats in Notting Hill or empty offices (being occupied as dwellings) in Shoreditch, while he tries to make it as an art journalist and - eventually - reach a degree of self-understanding (he grows older and wants to settle down). Amidst this hell-raising there’s a homely touch: we learn that artist Sarah Lucas, whose works include ‘Penis Nailed to a Board’ (an artwork based on a tabloid article concerning S&M sex) from 1992, was an Inspector Morse fan. But whilst the book has its fair share of hangovers which eventually clear-up, it leaves other questions queasily unresolved. For instance, what led Muir to follow the YBAs in the first place?

The former art student (Camberwell) relates how, whilst working in the Royal Academy’s bookshop, he was given an invite by a fellow worker to an exhibition featuring Damien Hirst’s fly piece ‘A Thousand Years’ from 1990. Muir realised that this work was going to make an impact and thus kick-started his desire to get involved with the YBAs, but there’s little more than that, other than a general feeling that he wanted to be on in the Next Big Thing, rather in the way that music biz A&R men do in the wake of some hitmaking recording phenomenon, the Beatles, say, or Punk. Muir - currently the director of Hauser and Wirth (London) which is described on the book’s cover as ‘one of the world’s leading contemporary art galleries’ - offers little in the way of evaluation of the YBAs’ work.

Writing of Dinos and Jake Chapman’s ‘The Disasters of War’ from 1993 (a re-enactment, using figurines, of Goya’s etchings depicting atrocities committed during the Spanish War of Independence in 1808), Muir remarks that in ‘repositioning Goya’s outrage and supplanting it with an innocuous collection of trivialised objects any moral purpose is rendered null and void’. But if that’s the case, all that the brothers leave us with is a collection of glorified scale models - seemingly plagiarising original works of art - and what, exactly, is the point of that? Muir mentions that the British in general were unenthusiastic about the YBAs work, but that comment could be applied to their view of almost all modern or contemporary art: outside the fashionable art world, British tastes remain conservative and no greetings card shop is going to go bust by stocking reproductions of ‘The Hay Wain’.

The Momart fire of 2004, in which much legendary YBA art such as Emin’s ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (1963-95)’ was destroyed is mentioned without reference to the way parts of the media reacted with a sense of joyful justice as if fraudulent works - and the reputations which had been built upon them - had got their comeuppance at last. The way this event is related with a bare minimum of commentary leads us to ask whether Muir considers the work of the YBAs to be so self-evidently good that it needs no defence: or is its commercial success justification enough without any reference to aesthetics?

Were the YBAs just out for adulation and money? This question doesn’t seem to enter Muir’s mind. But if it had he could have pointed out that, by the early years of the 20th century, the figure of the Bohemian artist who got establishment recognition - giving him fame and glory whilst giving his patrons a feeling of ‘street-cred’ superiority over their fellow members of the bourgeoisie - was a well-honed role-model. And Punk - in the form of Malcolm McLaren and his money-making escapades with the Sex Pistols during the 1970s - had given a more recent template for young guns on the make who wanted rebel status allied with financial success.

On the subject of Punk, it’s worth remembering that its leaders would, when the scene got too yobbish and mainstream, mutate into New Romantics. Muir doesn’t: writing of the YBAs’ contribution to the 1990s, he gives the impression that London’s (especially Soho’s) nightlife and style renaissance came in that decade. No it didn’t: it was the New Romantics who achieved this with eye-catching clothes, and the onenighter club scene allied with slick PR in the form of style magazines like The Face and i-D, which helped publicise its talented designers and singers.  Muir reminisces about Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery without mentioning that it was the New Romantic scene which brought the young fashion student from Melbourne to London in the early 1980s in the first place. Indeed, Bowery’s club Taboo would be the last big burst - an appropriate term: one of Bowery’s party-pieces was the onstage enema emission – of the New Romantics. It’s standard form to diss the 1980s - and, by extension, the New Romantics because of their existing concurrently with Mrs Thatcher’s reign, but, even so, this is not good enough.

The YBAs deserve mention both as artists and hustlers, for they make us think again about the purposes of art and the criteria for its assessment: are shock and money the only yardsticks by which the merit of any work of art can now be judged and, if so, does that alter art’s status as a form of spiritual solace or social commentary? If so, then that says a lot about the image that the 1990s has garnered for itself as a fluffy decade in contrast with the ‘Loadsamoney’ ethos of the preceding one. On these grounds, Muir’s book certainly merits a mention in dispatches, but it brings to mind the military maxim ‘time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’. The veterans of the YBA campaign - and the victories they achieved - still need much further probing

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