|Back to the old
There's a crisis in contemporary
art. The jump into the laissez faire joys of the popular and profane, propelled
by a surge of deceitful anti-intellectualism and pap travelogue art criticism,
has left a vacuum where once there was a proud reflective heart. As the
homogeneous products of years of economic selection and pruning in art
schools stumble forward, bereft of an understanding of what exactly the
conceptualism of neo is all about, those with memories long enough to remember
effective political action, critical discourse and radical art sharpen
their collective knifes ready for the innocent chipmunks of British Art.
A backlash is under way.
The powerful combination of boredom,
irritation and anger at the inane, self satisfied, distended head of British
Art has seen to that. The vapid marketing of an art purporting to celebrate
the popular, the everyday, has exhausted itself and its audience. This
rediscovery of the joys of nestling next to the glory of popular culture
has been marketed as conveniently side-stepping the traditional image of
art as elitist and socially exclusive. However the self serving belief
that deep rooted political, economic and social gulfs can be magically
vanished by popular gestures--'some techno music in a gallery'--is once again
crumbling. That we've been here before is perhaps all the more frightening.
Such transparent moves towards the popular were the easy crutch of many
a second rate curator and artist during those 'halcyon days of the sixties'.
As Robert Garnet has written, this tourist infatuation with the pleasures
of the popular is "the easiest and oldest move in the book".1
Similarly while reports of their
demise are no doubt over exaggerated, the architects of much of this hogwash,
the international super curators, are also finally starting to get some
flack. Bloated on the easy pickings of "a generation of artists, who have
largely disavowed their claims to authorship, who create a deliberately
dumb art that refuses to answer back, that can, therefore neatly be slotted
into any theme or group exhibition 'authored by a big name curator'"2,
their time is finally up. When artists renowned for whoring after any authority
start complaining about the stupidity of curators, you know something is
rotten in the belly of the beast.
However, accepting the reality and
need for some kind of developed critique of what passes as British Art
is one thing, but my troubling suspicion is that in the rush to expose
the phantasm of success this critique is slowly turning into a crusade
to roll back the advances that have been made. Separating out the strands
of interest from a morass of hype and confusion is obviously difficult.
Yes much 'yba' is laddish, puerile, ignorant and numbingly celebratory
of 'popular culture', but equally within this murky nebula much is of genuine
interest. My worry about the domino effect of a backlash is that in the
ferment of its reactionary zeal, it loses sight of facets of artists' work
which exist outside the hype.
One aspect of the backlash against
the gravy train of young British art has centred on its perceived laddishness.
With the media frenzy for art there has increasingly appeared to be a confluence
between the new lad, loaded with hedonistic virility, and the art word
doppleganger, pissed on Becks.
In a culture cancerously consumed
with misogynist contempt for women, over loaded with images of pubescent
'chicks' and where statistics of male violence are escalating, this celebration
of a masculinity of social irresponsibility, stupidity and ignorance has
none too surprisingly deeply angered many. For not only has the new lad
been held up as a paradigm of nineties masculinity, but perhaps more troubling
this cut-out has become the sanctioned template for 'successful' women
artists. The spectre of the female lad shouting 'bollocks' and flashing
her tits haunts much of the discussion about 'yba'.
In the recently published book 'Occupational
Hazard' Heidi Reitmaier succinctly articulates her own hostility at this
resurrected fake in a pointed critique of Sarah Lucas' work. For Reitmaier,
Lucas' constructed persona and coverage are all too familiar. Granted the
honourary position of being one of the boys, Lucas' transgressive acts
are then arrogantly 'rubber stamped' by male critics. Her work far from
being emancipatory, is for Reitmaier, all too easily assimilated, discussed
and categorised. As Reitmaier writes, the consequence of all this is to
"reduce the work to trite clichés which demand attention only because
of how loud one is shouting rather than what one is shouting about".3
This scenario is depressingly familiar.
From the Bloomsbury group to the abstract expressionists, artistic culture
has always tokenistically welcomed the "mannish female artist". When, as
Reitmaier writes, "Lucas is represented as a particular kind of person
and then fostered on all and sundry as the fait accompli of feminism, feminist
art and feminist art criticism"4,
you can hear generations of woman artists/writers howl in despair.
Reitmaier's assessment of the highly
restricted space created by the manufacture of a sanctioned template for
'transgressive' behaviour is spot on. Unfortunately I find her argument
loses much of its persuasiveness when the work of Cathy de Monchaux is
presented as a more expansive paradigm of what a nineties women artist
could be. It's in Reitmaier's championing of de Monchaux that the dangers
of a backlash against 'yba' become apparent. Far from critiquing the more
ridiculous rhetoric of funky, vulgar British art, we instead are presented
with what amounts to little more than a reactionary retreat.
In sighting de Monchaux as a corrective
to Lucas and all the 'Bad Girls', Reitmaier proposes that de Monchaux's
work "will purposefully disallow the reduction of the female and contemporary
artistic femininity to an essential Bad Girl Stance".5
However, I find it more likely that one limiting essentialist conception
of gender identity is simply replaced by another.
Fundamental to an appreciation of
de Monchaux's work is a belief in gender polarity. Reitmaier writes that
de Monchaux engages in a "subversion of spheres of male artistic technical
facility [that brings] to the fore the hierarchy between male artisan and
female crafts person".6
Now once upon a time this modernist hierarchy did exist, and lo it was
omnipotent. The trashing of 'female' craft skills by the testosterone fueled
mythology of 'masculine' technical prowess ruled the roost in many a sculpture
and painting department. Now, although they linger on in some art school
departments, such dinosaurs are nearly extinct. Artists today simply don't
share a belief in the kind of sex role theory7
that undermines the perceived success and frisson of de Monchaux's work.
Incompetence and technical mastery are traits which can be more uniformly
found across the artistic sphere. To repeat this idea only goes to further
entrench such essentialist gender positions.
Questions of skill and competence
are important in the construction of value in art, but I think what Reitmaier
misses is that in partly rejecting the titillation and shock tactics she
sees in Lucas' work, she ignores the formalist conservatism central to
de Monchaux's success. If in Reitmaier's argument assimilation is equated
with failure, then I think she has to acknowledge that de Monchaux, like
Rachel Whiteread, is also capable of being securely slotted into a dominant
paradigm for the very reason that in playing off 'masculine' technical
skills against 'feminine' craft skills, she keeps faith with a division
that maintains gender polarity in the art world.
I think Reitmaier has mistaken de
Monchaux's conservatism for radical resistance because, justifiably angered
and bored by the hyperbole of 'yba', she has jumped from a backlash position,
capable of critique, to a reactionary, knee jerk one. 'yba' is a spectacle
of consumption, market driven, over saturated (the use of the catch-all
brand name 'yba' tells you as much), and inevitably it is flatulent with
inane pronouncements and incestuous bed hopping. But Reitmaier, in offering
de Monchaux as a alternative to the excesses of contemporary British Art,
seems guilty of hankering after the kind of scrupulous shiny package of
ethical moral and artistic tidiness that was thrown up in the eighties
by critical postmodernists, then thrown out in the early nineties by the
reactionary backlash of 'yba' anti-intellectualism.
"There's nothing wrong with me, I'm
The pushing of Lucas and artists
like Tracy Emin and Gillian Wearing as the acceptable face of nineties
feminism is reductive. (Though no more than the similar championing of
artists like Mary Kelly in the eighties. The closures then on what was
legitimate behaviour for women are undoubtedly responsible for the bad
girl backlash.) Reitmaier's anger at the rubber stamping of Lucas' persona--"Why
on earth should a bunch of male artists and critics find themselves in
a position to grant license concerning just what an icon for women, or
a particular woman, should be?"9--is,
within a still male dominated art world, more than a little understandable!
But beyond this rubber stamping, appropriation and assimilation there are
aspects of Lucas' work which highlight why she is more than a shouting,
tit flashing ineffectual laddette.
Lucas' work has been popular and
much vaunted by male critics. Reitmaier is correct that the impetus for
much of this praise has partly, once again stemmed from the need by those
men with art world power to generate an illusory gleam of equality in a
masculine art world (looking at this years Turner prize, my cynical side
can't help but feel they're working their way through a list--a Scot, a
woman, a black). But running parallel with this, I can't help but feel
the championing of an artist like Lucas is also predicated on a frustration
amongst many artists, critics and visitors on not seeing questions of masculine
identity and sexuality articulated within art practice (obviously many
gay artists, writers and critics have pioneered mapping this terrain, helping
to destabilise gender certainties). That Lucas has affected a masculine
front, has played with its tropes, is possibly the reason her work is of
interest to men whose own sense of identity is as contradictory, confused
and volatile as has been ascribed to femininity.
The plethora of books on 'masculinities'
is evidence enough that there is widespread academic interest in the topic.
While admittedly many of these books are nothing more than conservative
attacks on feminism ('off to the woods men, those viragos will never sap
my life-force') many reveal that today, probably more than any other time
in the last century, the certainties of male identity are crumbling. As
Lynne Segal in her book 'Slow Motion' remarks: "the evidence for the increasing
intellectual, emotional and physical impoverishment of men today is startling".10
While of course any such pronouncement of a crisis in 'masculinity' have
to be placed against what Segal calls "the great contradiction of our time
[namely that] as the twentieth century draws to a close, men appear to
be emerging as the threatened sex; even as they remain, everywhere the
threatening sex, as well"11,
it's hard to escape the feeling, that finally what Homi Bhabha has called
"the prosthetic reality"12
of 'masculinity' is being dragged into the spotlight.
Integral to this "prosthetic reality"
and to the contradiction Segal pinpoints, is the symbolic weight that 'masculinity'
has ascribed to it. As Segal remarks it is precisely "because 'manhood'
still has the symbolic weight denied to 'womanhood' that men's apparent
failings loom so large--to men themselves and to those around them."13
It's this symbolic weight which has largely been left unexamined within
artistic culture. The insecurities, contradictions and ambiguities of masculinity
rarely surface within heterosexual, western art in the twentieth century
because as in other social spheres "to speak of masculinity in general,
sui generis, must be avoided at all costs".14
Lucas' acting out of 'laddish' stereotypically
'male' behaviour can at least be recommended for attempting to look into
this "symbolic weight". In works such as 'Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab' and
'Au Naturel' the experience of a feminine voice articulating and representing
the brutish reality of misogyny, rooted in a direct social experience,
secures the work a power lacking in the more abstract, formalist work of
artists like de Monchaux and Helen Chadwick. Similarly in many of her photoworks,
Lucas' swaggering laddish front confuses the notion that such behaviour
is the property of purely men.
Oscillating between gendered roles,
her work thus goes some way towards blurring any simplistic notions of
the polar, binary nature(s) of 'masculinity' and 'femininity'. Instead
of the kind of space de Monchaux offers where the supposedly secure identities
of male and female are ping-ponged between, Lucas' works create a space
where a kind of gender vertigo is experienced.
Central to the disputes that have
raged over 'yba' is a struggle over what is the best methodology for artists
to pursue. In the polarised climate of the art world, where one scene is
replaced by another, the struggle in the nineties has dominantly been represented
as existing between those lining up behind a wholesale embrace of theory
and those preferring a practice stemming from lived experience. Lucas'
engagement is, unlike say de Monchaux or other previous overtly feminist
artists like Helen Chadwick, as equally grounded in the contingencies and
vicissitudes of the everyday as it is the world of theory. Lucas has referred
to this as working in the space between the ideal and the actual, testing
the veracity of theory in the realities of the everyday.
It's no doubt indicative of the
artworld that a woman is one of the first to look into the more disturbing
and difficult areas of masculinity. Probing the darker recesses of the
male psyche have of course been familiar turf for artists in other mediums.
Scorsese's trilogy of films, 'Mean Streets', 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging
Bull'; Donald Cammell's 'Performance'; and Beat Takeshi's 'Sonatine', all
cover similar ground, frequently in an infinitely more complex manner.
In such films there is a deeper consciousness of how labour, power and
desire overlap and interconnect in the genesis of 'masculinities'. Of course
the professional hubris endemic in the artworld, ensures the idea that
artists in other mediums have already covered the ground is left as a scotoma.
That art might actually be seriously lagging behind other mediums with
regard to such questions as gender, is something little discussed (except
as proof, for connoisseurs and conservatives, that it should stick to what
Other less well known artists like
Chad McCail, Deborah Holland and Dave Beech15,
similarly engage with questions of identity in ways which moves their practices
beyond the theoretically illustrative work of the eighties. In Deborah
Holland's work there is a similar play with the gestures and guises of
both masculinity and femininity. Whether she's acting out the classic 'lads'
act of assertion, flashing your arse--mooning, or trying on the glamour
of a high priestess of celluloid, her work simultaneously uses glossy,
seductive attractiveness to 'suck' the viewer into a space where "gender
vertigo" disrupts traditional divisions. Chad McCail's drawings and paintings
construct narratives which detail instances of infant libidinal desires
being suffocated and chastised within the regulatory spaces, such as the
home and school. In his scrupulously well drawn storyboards, children can
be found looking up their mothers skirts, while adult hands probe the trousers
of small children. In detailed worlds which capture all the paraphernalia
of childhood, the complex, contradictory elements in the construction of
identity reveal themselves.
Dave Beech has attracted a certain
amount of vilification for his most recent work. It's perhaps none too
surprising that his acting out of classic tabloid male fantasies have been
taken as revealing his own desires (the combination of the rabid thirst
for autobiography, with a dose of North London ignorance and snobbery about
a Warrington male have seen to that). Finding images of a man sitting in
bed supposedly after a three in the bed romp, or lasciviously looking up
a woman's skirt, those artworld ostriches with their head in the sand have
dumbly accused him of misogyny. This is instructive; when artists like
Beech attempt to draw attention to the very "prosthetic reality" of masculinity
Homi Bhabha pinpointed, the reaction is often one which prefers to deny
the existence of such fantasies. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Such
'vulgar', 'brutish' fantasies don't sit too well in our increasingly bureaucratic
and responsible artistic culture. Failing to fall into line, to rationalise,
control and regulate the darker matter of identity (this censorious climate
is reminiscent of the chastising of women in the feminist movement who
refused to dump their enjoyment in fashion), his playing out of wayward,
insensitive fantasies dents the notion that such incorrect behaviour can
It's been rather too common to talk
about masculinity as an homogeneous entity to simply equate masculinity
with male dominance. The violence endemic in hegemonic masculine culture,
the strenuous steering away from anything which might smack of weakness
or inferiority, is frequently spoken about as something which both sits
relatively easily with the majority of men and is empirically true. It's
alarming how often essentialist conceptions of male identity rear their
head, how some characteristics are regarded as 'naturally' belonging to
men. However, beyond all the bogus flagwaving about 'yba', 'Cool Britannia'
etc., artists like Holland, Beech, McCail and Lucas have engaged with questions
of gender and sexuality in a nexus where the pleasures and pains of the
everyday, the popular, intersect with those of theory, in practices which
go some way to destabilising such certainties. If a backlash evolves into
a reactionary u-turn, the possibilities opened up in the last five years
for a more expansive discussion of questions of identity will be jettisoned.
I'd rather not go back to the old school.
1 Robert Garnett (1998) 'Britpopism
and the Populist Gesture'. Published in Occupational Hazard, p. 24, published
by Black Dog publishing.
2 Ibid. p. 20.
3 Heidi Reitmaier (1998) What are
you Looking At? Moi?. Published in Occupational Hazard, p. 118. Black Dog
4 Ibid. p. 122
5 Ibid. p. 125
6 Ibid. p. 126
7 Bob Connell describes sex role
theory as being "linked to a structure defined by biological difference,
the dichotomy of male and female--not to a structure defined by social relations.
This leads to catergoricalism, the reduction of gender to two homogeneous
categories, betrayed by the persistent blurring of sex differences with
sex roles. Sex roles are defined as reciprocal; polarisation is a necessary
part of the concept". 'Masculinities', p. 26, published Polity 1995.
8 Chas in Donald Cammell/Nicholas
9 Heidi Reitmaier, What are you
looking at. Moi?, published in Occupational Hazard, p. 122.
10 Lynne Segal, Slow Motion Changing
Masculinties Changing Men, published 1990 Virago. Introduction p. 2.
11 Ibid. Introduction p. 1. Some
quick statistics illustrate this. In Britain 96.2 % of all major companies
are controlled by men. Globally 90 % of all political representatives are
men. Concurrently of course, as a consequence of global and national economic
restructuring, men's unemployment is rapidly growing, in Britain male unemployment
outstrips that of women. The incumbent effects on those men denied access
to the "symbolic weight" of masculinity i.e. breadwinners, find themselves
suffering higher than average ill health and depression. The suicide rate
amongst young men is particularly indicative of this.
12 Homi Bhabha, Are You a Man or
a Mouse? quoted in Lynne Segal Slow Motion published by Virago 1990. p.
13 Ibid. p. 2
14 Ibid. p. 22
15 All of these artists have or
will be exhibiting at the Collective Gallery, Edinburgh.