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Extract: 1997: The Future That Never Happened

By Richard Power Sayeed.

A man in his forties began throwing red and black ink at the painting. ‘You are all idiots to come and pay for this shit,’ he screamed at those standing near by. The canvas stood, leaning against the wall, more than twice his height, but he yanked its huge frame so that it fell to the ground with a great crash.

Another middle-aged man walked into the gallery, saw what was happening and then disappeared. When he returned several minutes later holding a box of eggs, two security guards, a couple of police officers and a curator were trying to wipe some of the ink off the painting before it dried. He opened the box and began throwing the eggs, perhaps somewhat anticlimactically, at the ink-splattered canvas.

The exhibition was Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, and the image that was being attacked was a painting by a young, largely unknown artist. It was made up of hundreds of small handprints, each of which had been produced with the mould of a four-year-old’s hand. Beneath the egg and ink, these palm prints formed a vast, looming and blurred recreation of a famous black-and-white police mugshot: the face of child killer Myra Hindley. This was challenging art made visible and mainstream, for Sensation was intended to make contemporary art truly popular in Britain. It was supposed to be the dawning of an age in which ordinary people – imagined to be a passive and conservative mass – would finally embrace experimentation, an epoch when culture would be freed from conventional assumptions and bourgeois good taste. The aim of making the avant-garde popular was potentially patronizing, but it was not necessarily a contradiction: it looked to a future in which the taste and ideology of the ‘masses’ were aligned with those of subversive intellectuals against the establishment.

Some Britons would remember this as a moment when radical artistic voices challenged mainstream culture, while others would dismiss the Sensation artists as troublemakers seeking attention. Most of these artists, even the most cynical among them, were trying to upset the world by communicating something important in a simple manner. Myra spoke of the horror of Hindley’s crimes and the power of her mass-mediated image, and it did so with striking efficiency, but that was part of why so many people hated it. The strategy of popularizing the avant-garde by making its messages blunt and widely available had failed, for the qualities that made their work so accessibly interpretable and so often reproduced were also those that made it so alienating. Similarly, the success that had brought these artists and their provocative ideas to the attention of the public served to make them look like members of the establishment. Those elements of this phenomenon that were supposed to create a new culture only reinforced the old one.

These young artists failed entirely to make the avant-garde popular, but they had been motivated by idealistic ambitions, as well as cynical ones, and these mixed in complex ways. The amoral perspective and blunt statements of another artist featured in Sensation, Damien Hirst, revealed simple existential truths: ‘Money is so important because so many people haven’t got any. It’s the key isn’t it – more important than languages – it’s the key to the world. It can save your life.’ The same lack of scruples, however, would allow him to earn an estimated £350 million in the two decades after Sensation. By the end of that period, he was going to be the proud owner of a £40 million mansion, rendered in the off-pink cream beloved of its creator, the great eighteenth-century architect John Nash. It surveyed London’s Regent’s Park on one side, and a generously sized garden on the other. Far beneath the lawn the artist would build an ‘iceberg’ basement big enough for both a 25-metre pool and wide studio spaces with double-height ceilings.

During the period in which Hirst amassed his wealth, contemporary art retreated from the front pages to its former position of irrelevance, but it returned there laden with immense financial value. Since Hirst and his generation made their foray into mainstream culture, the contemporary art market has grown by 1,370 percent, and its annual turnover is now $1.5 billion. The artists from Sensation whom we remember believed or claimed that they were exploiting money and fame for the sake of challenging the mainstream. Instead, they helped to create a market in which speculators buy and sell artworks expressing politically radical ideas, but for millions of dollars. Subversion serves as an advert for a cornucopia of investment products.

This book has told stories of radical groups, ideas and policies, and the way they had removed from them their demands for structural change, their attacks on state violence and on capitalism, in order to win mainstream visibility. The reign of Hirst and his contemporaries had a similar effect. It created an art market filled with works that profess to be critical, or even queer, feminist or anti-racist, but which are bent to the will of financial speculators. They are exhibited in their homes or, more likely, packed up in their warehouses, valuable yet meaningless.

Richard Power Sayeed is a writer and documentary maker based in London.  1997: The Future That Never Happened is his first book, and he has somehow managed to finish it without losing his love for the minutiae of nineties Britain.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 12th, 2017.