Of Hype and Hearsay
La scène artistique au Royaume-Uni en 1996
Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris,
October 1996January 1997
Speaking at a symposium on Terry Atkinson and conceptual art in March
1996, Seth Sieglaub noted that 25 years ago one might walk into a gallery
and remark, after a quick perusal of the work therein, that it was bad
work. In the present situation, Sieglaub continued, one's reaction
upon seeing "bad" work would more likely take the form of saying
the work was bad but that perhaps it was meant to be.1 In a different
context, Philip Hensher, discussing Liz Arnold's contribution to
the prestigious John Moores Exhibition commented:
"They were quite revolting pictures to look at, painted in flat,
clashing colours, and executed with a neatness which did nothing to mitigate
the limpness of the drawing. But those criteria are not relevant any longer.
Rather, the viewer must contemplate his own distaste at looking at a work
which gives so powerfully the impression of aiming at something which
it then fails to accomplish."2
Hensher is pointing out the current rhetorical stance expected of the
"ordinary" viewer and indeed the critic when considering contemporary
artworks, a position of consideration that is now, indeed, a well-established
orthodoxy of sorts. I say "of sorts" because the existence of
a certain insecurity of judgement is precisely the point being raised
by Hensher, and by Sieglaub too. No one, now, seems to be too sure of
what kind of response they should have regarding incompetent work. If
the act of incompetence is deliberate then the seeming inadequacy of execution
is mitigated. Certain examples of such deliberately clumsy work come to
mind. The work of Dada activists in the early years of the century are
a clear example of the refusal to conform to the assumed long-lasting
patterns of bourgeois taste. And in the 1980s Terry Atkinson made a series
of pictures in which the drawing was intentionally incompetent when read
against the established conventions of western art.3
There is plenty of evidence to support the view that Dada was an all-out
attack on bourgeois values; and Atkinson's titles, along with other
texts in which he refers to the "botched up" nature of the drawing,
make it clear that something that at first sight appears as incompetent
is in fact a carefully selected mode of approach.
But as regards the recent Paris exposition of contemporary work from Britain,
Life/Live, little evidence of deliberate incompetence was apparent. Much
of the work in the show was, rather, just badly made, clichéd,
trivial and (for my money) uninteresting. Whilst a small number of the
contributions to the exhibition were exceptions to the rule, by and large
little of the work on display could be favourably described. To place
this somewhat sweeping assertion in some perspective an extract from Thomas
Crow's recent book, The Rise of the Sixties might be of help. In
his introduction Crow remarks that:
"Ordinary viewers of today, hoping for coherence and beauty in their
imaginative experiences, confront instead works of art declared to exist
in arrangements of bare texts and unremarkable photographs, in industrial
fabrications revealing no evidence of the artist's hand, in mundane
commercial products merely transferred from shopping mall to gallery or
in ephemeral and confrontational performances in which mainstream moral
values are deliberately travestied."4
What Crow is referring to here and elsewhere in his introduction involves
an, as it were, conventional sense of outrage being expressed about and
around contemporary art. How can such rubbish or such so obviously non-art
concatenations of materials be taken seriously as art? These are the kind
of questions that are being raised, if implicitly, within the emotional
reactions of the uninformed viewer, who according to Crow's sketch,
are the victims of their own incomprehension. For obviously, to those
"in the know" such things as Crow describes are today well within
the established parameters of art. But what we have with Life/Live, and
indeed with a large proportion of the work that has fast become associated
with the "young British artist" myth is not another knowing
lesson in superficially "conceptual" practices modified by the
present generation of successful artists, nor is it a return to the confrontational
hammerings of Dada; what, rather, we have here is no parody or critique
or blushingly subtle re-presentation within the museum walls of "real
life" but, in fact, one hell of a mess.
The structure of Life/Live is perhaps its most interesting aspect, unless
your concern is that of analysing how pictures of particular artistic
moments are constructed by the managers of culture. A reading of both
the catalogue and the show reveals some contradictions. Life/Live, Susan
Pagé records in her catalogue essay,
"Marks a new stage in our European survey, which, from Germany to
Holland, Belgium, the Czech Republic and beyond, aims to capture the spirit
of contemporary art at its most vital and urgent. This is reflected in
the title-cum-manifesto of this look at a scene that is both effervescent
and down to earth, impelled by a determination to get to grips with the
thick of life - the everyday, society, existence - but also to survive,
to which end it has developed a remarkably inventive and open range of
Pagé's praising of the British "scene" is to be
expected; after all, she was hardly going to suggest that nothing much
was going on in the UK in a catalogue for a large survey show funded in
part by the British Council and on display for three months in a prestigious
Paris Museum. But the seeming inability or deliberate refusal to make
a distinction between the "scene" and the actual work selected
for the show is one of the contradictions - and an important one - to
which I above refer. Reviewing Life/Live in Art Monthly Andrew Wilson
"Discussion of British art has recently been subject to a largely
ill-informed, journalistic hyperbole that treats the "scene"
almost as if it is the art rather than just its less interesting by product
...In such a situation, content, meaning, the reinvention of life, political
or social purpose, a concern with the artificial or the very complexity
of artistic practice is neither here nor there. The decor and props of
the "scene" - the gossip, the parties, the mayhem ...are
In his substantial analysis of the myth of the "young British artist"
Simon Ford has similarly raised the issue of the promotion of select aspects
of contemporary British art.6 Carefully tearing to tatters the characteristic
claims that have been made for the so called "yBa" "scene",
Ford offers a number of examples of the ideological utterances whose existence
effects the actual framing of the "scene". He discusses, for
example, Andrew Renton's influential anthology of 1991, Technique
Anglais. Writing in that book
"Andrew Renton said that a "certain kind of irresponsibility
seems to me to be a very key concept that brings all these people together,
aesthetically." Although such a heterogeneous body of work should
be difficult to categorise the seemingly effortless way that it has been
categorised is not surprising; myth suppresses heterogeneity by co-option:
the yBa is confident, ambitious, irresponsible, accessible and heterogeneous."7
And Ford continues:
"One strategy for countering the myth would be to provide social
and financial information about the relationships between artists, editors,
dealers, and collectors involved with the yBa. This project was offered
but ultimately dismissed by Liam Gillick...The manufacture and nurturing
of the myth are more productive than the phenomenology of facts, figures,
and social relationships."
In his article Ford does not examine in any conventional sense the works
produced by any of the artists to which he refers. Indeed his concern
is a Bourdieu-like account of the practices and institutions of those
institutions whose status and power allows them to confer value upon whatever
it is that is actually going on in the UK at the present time. As the
lines from Wilson quoted above make clear, to give one's attention
to the ostensible products produced from within the "scene"
itself looks a somewhat secondary concern in a context that is, one feels,
largely an artificial fabrication, a structure constructed of hype and
hearsay. This linguistic "picture" has at its central core notions
of a nation called "Britain" and, attached to this, an essentialist
claim about the Britishness of British art.8 Even though Life/Live was
not entirely a display of "young British artists" the ghost
of that designation haunted the Paris show, bringing with it the holy
spirit of confirmation, the sign of an "authenticity" and "seriousness"
which was pretty difficult to detect during an actual visit to the exhibition.
According to Michael Archer: "It is true to say that one problem
with showcase exhibitions is that they ultimately overvalue Britishness
as a criterion of authenticity."9 And, as Ford again points out:
"By appealing to national pride the myth of the yBa seeks to instil
in its audience a sense of national identity which is where myth fades
into ideology. This group has been utilised as cultural ambassadors representing
and defining "British" culture abroad." It is promoted
as entrepreneurial, opportunist, confident, resourceful, independent and
non-political, representing Britain in full "enterprise culture"
In other words, the attributes ascribed to the yBa are precisely those
values reiterated in the media by British politicians wishing to convince
the public (including representatives of foreign business) that Britain
has returned to a 1960s-style economic boom.11 The thriving British "scene"
thus turns out to be a literal materialisation of Conservative values,
wearing the mask of an oblique (but of course uncritical) rebelliousness - or
is it just a novelty of forms? Laurence Bossé and Hans-Ulrich Obrist,
the show's curators, begin their catalogue essay by remarking on:
"The unique vitality of today's British scene, the stirrings
of which were first perceived in the late 1980s..."12
I mentioned the structure of Life/Live as being one of its most praiseworthy
features. Sixteen artists were given individual mini-shows within the
overall display, this being complemented by the contributions of eight
mainly artist-run spaces, a video room showing the work of nine artists,
and a "kiosk" area in which were displayed copies of twenty
contemporary art and theory journals. These latter included Mute, Art
Monthly, Variant, Circa, Everything and Frieze, the artist-run spaces
had among them presentations by Locus+, Transmission, City Racing and
BANK, videos were contributed by Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst, Leigh
Bowery and Sarah Lucas amongst others, and the artists given individual
spaces included Mat Collinshaw, Douglas Gordon, John Latham, Sam Taylor-Wood,
Gillian Wearing, Gustav Metzger, the Chapman Brothers and Gilbert and
Most of the artists shown in Life/Live were probably in their 20's
or 30's. Four older artists, Gilbert and George, Latham, David Medalla
and Metzger were included as "father figures" for the younger
contributors, ostensibly because the socially-concerned nature of the
senior artists' practices gave them avant-garde status with respect
to a "scene" that, as the title of the show proposed, looks
directly towards everyday life as subject matter and general frame of
reference. Gilbert and George have long proclaimed that it is their intention
to transform life through art. I've never understood why this means
that everything they make has to consist of rigidly figurative imagery - many
abstract artists, Mondrian and Malevich, to name but two - have expressed
similar commitment to cultural transformation. But this supposedly straightforward
(yet ridiculously simple) connection between "figuration" and
the everyday ran through much of Life/Live.
But this love of quotidian was one of the reasons why Life/Live was such
a tedious exhibition. The blunt presentation of poorly-produced pieces
negated the possibility of transformation. Much of the show was about
as well-made as a lazy 1st year fine art student's end of semester
exhibition, cobbled together in a few hours or less - or that's
what it looked like. It didn't appear so badly put together by choice,
to make a point or transgress established convention: it simply looked
pathetic. This isn't to say that it really had to be well crafted
because it was "top quality" work; rather, it should have appeared
convincing - and this is what much of Life/Live did not appear, on
whatever terms one could muster. When one encountered the politically
complex and technically sophisticated productions presented by Locus+ - works
by Stefan Gec, Gregory Green, Cornelia Hesse-Honegger and Paul Wong - one
experienced a kind of shock: the shock of realising that much of the rest
of this "blockbuster" show was as rubbishy as one had initially
considered it to be. BANK's gathering of papiér maché
zombies looked rather tame amongst a panoply of exhibits equally crude
in their construction, though in some contexts their work has at least
had the virtue of attempting some kind of critique.
One often hears how young artists working today have attitude. "When
Attitudes Become Form" was the title of a large show of conceptual
work held in Berne and London in 1969. Today, nearly 30 years on, it is
attitude, and seeming little else that has become the most prominent "form"
constituting the work, just so much guff and bluff masquerading as an
ever so fashionable avant-garde.
1. The symposium was held at Norwich School of Art & Design on Wednesday
20th March, 1996, to accompany Terry Atkinson's exhibition, "Histories
Biographies Collaborations 1958 to 1996".
2. Philip Hensher, "Bad Art," Modern Painters. Vol. 9, No. 4,
1996 p. 83. Quotation of this passage should not be read as implying a
general agreement with claims made in Hensher's text.
3. See Terry Atkinson, Work 1977-83, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1983.
4. Thomas Crow, The Rise of the Sixties, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996.
5. Andrew Wilson, Life v Art, Art Monthly, No. 194, March 1996.
6. Simon Ford, Myth Making, Art Monthly, No. 194, March 1996.
7. Ford, p 5.
8. On this point see Stewart Home, The Art Of Chauvinism in Britain and
France, Everything, No. 19, 1996. It is interesting that only ten years
ago Matthew Collings and Stuart Morgan were suggesting that there was
no such thing as a coherent entity called "British art". see
their discussion "True Brit An Enquiry into National Character",
Artscribe, no. 61, Jan/Feb 1987.
9. Michael Archer, No Politics Please We're British, Art Monthly
No. 194 March 1996, p 12.
10. Ford, p. 5.
11. The dealer Jay Jopling, very much associated with the yBa "phenomena"
is, as Ford mentions (p.7) the son of a Conservative MP.
12. Life/Live La scène artistique au Royaume-Uni en 1996. Vol.
1, p 13. Susan Pagé's remarks quoted above are from the same
source (p. 8).