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The Resistible Rise of Young British Art

By Max Dunbar.

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Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, Gregor Muir, Aurum 2010 

The first thing that strikes you about Lucky Kunst is Gregor Muir’s strength as a descriptive reporter. Effortlessly he calls up time and place. This is Muir on mid-eighties London:

In the winter of 1985 I took a bus to go and visit one of my tutors in his East End studio, a journey that would take me across the Thames and through the City of London. I climbed up to the top deck and took a seat. It was packed with people tugging away on cigarettes, and the dense cloud of smoke was beginning to leave brown nicotine droplets on the ceiling. As our bus lurched through the City of London I peered up at the NatWest tower. The only real skyscraper in London, it seemed eerily tall, and glittered in the late afternoon sunshine. I wished there were more like it.

Thatcher’s grim metropolis hardly seemed the conditions in which good art could flourish. Britain has never loved its creatives. Subsidies are hard to find, success dependent on connection and patronage. Yet in this silence something did rise. By the late nineties, the names of the Young British Artists were as envied and established as those of star footballers, their work changing hands for millions, the principal players weaving drunkenly in Gucci suits from televised awards ceremonies to the Groucho Club.

Everyone knows what to say about installation art. In The Cappuccino Years, her jaundiced take on Cool Britannia, Sue Townsend has her provincial diarist, Adrian Mole, casually piss into a gallery urinal, unaware that it is in fact a highly priced contemporary work. The tabloid jokes, heavy with jealousy and philistinism, barrel out every year on the announcement of the Turner Prize. My five-year-old could do that: ho ho ho.

In fact there was some good in the YBA phenomenon. In the pale and bruised light of the early nineties recession, artist Gillian Wearing went out onto the streets with a stack of paper and marker pens. People would be approached at random and asked to write their secret thoughts and hold them up for Wearing’s camera. She got more responses than you would expect. One of the photos in the resulting project showed a businessman holding up a sign reading ‘I’M DESPERATE’. Wearing told Muir the background:

I literally had to chase him down the street. He only had time for one photograph and what he scrawled down was really spontaneous. I think he was actually shocked by what he had written, which suggests it must have been true. Then he got a bit angry, handed back the piece of paper, and stormed off.

And yet the anti-intellectual response of the Daily Mail contained a kernel of truth. Wearing’s thoughtful and inventive work was soon eclipsed by a man who embodied the swaggering, stupid mess that YBA became. Damien Hirst’s first lines in the book are: ‘I fooking hate art!’ In the same para, Muir reveals that the great man’s party trick consisted of inserting a cigarette into his foreskin. Hirst’s art, in its immaturity and morbidity, was an extension of his nature. With its tiresome focus on blood, rot and decay, a Hirst installation displays the unimaginative cruelty of a child poking a dead dog with a stick. Muir compares Hirst, and the Chapman brothers, to the Viennese Actionists, which gives me the opportunity to quote Houellebecq: ‘Actionists like Nitsch, Muehl and Schwarzkögler had conducted animal sacrifices in public. They would rip out an animal’s organs and viscera and spread them in front of an audience of cretins’. 1990s Britain was a nation of cretins. 

YBA was special because working-class artists from outside London were getting real money and recognition. The grants system allowed the talented poor to fight their way through prestigious art colleges. Muir: ‘The last working-class blip was working its way through higher education before the tide would be stemmed with student loans and other charges.’ Graduates had no money and little state support, but the solidarity of the class of ’87 allowed its members to keep working and creating through the hard times and they should be given credit for that.

Yet although the main players had Northern roots (often emphasised at tedious length) they did little to change the structures of an art world that still relies on the whims and fancies of a few rich buyers. Sarah Lucas, a tough, chain-smoking tomboy from the rough part of London, created a piece called Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, a work of erotic art made with the food in question. Muir’s portrayal of Lucas is no-nonsense and worldly-wise. Yet one paragraph captures the ultimate deference to power of the YBAs.

Rooted in misogynist slurs and foul-mouthed slang, Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab would later be snapped up by Charles Saatchi, who rolled up one day just as Lucas bit into a doughnut and a dollop of jam rolled down her jacket.

Similarly, Damien Hirst’s dead shark (that Robert Hughes called ‘nature’ for those who have no conception of nature, in whose life nature plays no real part except as a shallow emblem’) went to a hedge fund manager for £12m. For all their bravado, the Young British Artists were working-class jesters, dancing for coins at the court of King Charles.

Not that you have to like conceptual stuff to enjoy Muir’s book, which is a wealth of description and anecdote. Muir’s status throughout the 1990s was that of a trusted observer, the man in the crowd who knocks back the free wine and speaks little. His role as ligger allows him to be fascinated but never servile. He takes us from crash to boom to crash, and you can’t help but wonder what will come next, now that the swaggering young men have passed into age and irrelevance. This diamond-encrusted skull will not smile again.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 6th, 2010.