:: Article

For The Love of God (or How Not To Be a YBA)

By Ewan Morrison.

I was there, I saw it. I saw Damon Albarn schmooze with Tony Blair, I saw Damien Hirst on a magazine cover against the British flag. I saw the great, old, dead empire try to rise again and proclaim the Young British Artists proudly as its own. To be honest I wasn’t quite there. I was, usually, a good few hundred feet away but I witnessed many of my friends, enemies and drinking buddies become YBA stars, and, in retrospect, I am glad that I dropped out. All the hysteria was too much for my paranoid self and all very confusing; I took to my bed for several years in the early 90s as the media proclaimed a renaissance in British Art and so am glad not to have suffered the complex burden of being a success of any kind. I have, however, in my time of, sometimes partially successful, attempts at working in the media learned much from failure and so now would like to put forward my tentative tips for artistic success.

Unfortunately, it has taken me 15 years to get to this point of clarity and everyone now says that the YBA are over. Such is my bad timing. Saatchi, too seems to have lost touch and is now having to make a reality TV show to find the next generation, while all around him art buyers are flogging their YBA stuff at rock-bottom recession prices and going back to the old certainties of long dead fifties geniuses like Francis Bacon (whose paintings do look remarkably like bacon – some clever self-branding technique perhaps, well ahead of its time). It is always, in market terms, better to invest in dead artists as their works have a finite number and so ‘value’, and living artists have an annoying tendency to keep producing new works, thus devaluing their existent artworks.

Anyway, I hope these tips may be of help to those struggling young artists who want to have a go at being a success before the window of opportunity closes, forever. This proposed new movement should possibly be called the EYBA, Even Younger British Artists, or the OBA – Older British Artist (but that sounds a bit like OBE, and no doubt some of the YBAs will yet get an OBE – Lady Emin, Sir Hirst etc.)


1. Abandon conventional Artist’s materials. It felt like a revolution back in Art School in the 90s, and we made a point of defying the previous generation with their adherence to these things called canvas and metal (that poor old welder called Anthony Caro). All the YBAs went back to Duchamp and his exhibiting of a urinal as an artwork in itself. The object trouvé. It was kind of punk, Dada, kind of Warhol. Some of these YBA objects were harder to resource than others: while Sarah Lucas made art out of her used stockings and some fried eggs, and Tracey Emin exhibited her own bed (with some minor alterations for dramatic effect – see used condoms and an empty vodka bottle), others such as Hirst had to import large dead fish at great cost (which was, of course, later reimbursed).

2. Throw shapes and don’t talk about art. I studied at Goldsmiths and Glasgow School of Art at the time and there was nothing more un-cool than calling oneself an artist and talking about art (like being a punk and calling yourself a Punk). Whereas good-old Francis Bacon and his peers got into fisty-cuffs (albeit rather camp fisticuffs) about the nature of human existence and the role of the self-punishing, self-loathing visionary of the human condition, YBAs tended to talk about football, NWA and fashion. Some saw this as ironic, but the truth was they did actually like football, Niggaz With Attitude and fashion and, for that matter, football fashions. Almost everyone in the YBA was wearing Man Utd. tops or Partick Thistle t-shirts and Adidas Kicks were de rigueur, some nod to working class culture and black street fashion, ironic, of course for an artistic middle class white elite, but this was the way. There were also some attempts at dancing like rap stars and ‘throwing shapes’ but I shall not mention names. NWA were big with the YBA, although I only ever met two real ‘Black’ YBAs.)

3. Call your Art your ‘Work.’ As in ‘This is my work.’ ‘Would you like to come back to my studio to see my work’ etc. A rather odd choice of words, since most of the YBA went from signing-on to making gob-smacking amounts of dosh, overnight, without having to do the stop-gap which most of us have to which is called working for a living. The choice of words here signifies a calling for life, a life project, and comes from some remnant ideology that was taught to these young artists in art schools by largely Marxist-feminist tutors who fetishised the idea of Art as a form of proletarian self-expression. ‘Workers of the world unite.’ Again this thing called irony, which was at first a way to survive and look clever, then a burden on the YBAs as soon as they started getting rich and the world around them got stupid.

4. Be open to selling out. Although this has to be renamed ‘playing with the media’ or ‘subverting dominant modes of expression’. There are only a few notable exceptions who have doggedly pursued their own passions and created works both intimate (Gillian Wearing) and obsessive compulsive (Douglas Gordon), but on the whole the YBAs have been very good at courting tabloid controversy, while their Marxist-Feminist tutors must have called it ‘exposing – slash – exploring The Society of the Spectacle’. Actually the idea of selling out is based upon the idea of having an ideal to start with, or at least some artistic project that was bigger than your own ego, and so it does not really fit here, as most YBAs started out in the late and post Thatcher years suffering from this, then emergent, egoism that has since become a way of life for us all. They are not to blame for appearing on the pages of Harpers & Queen in states of undress, as actually what many might be seen as co-option and selling out was actually, apparently, a very clever ‘strategy’ to expose the workings of the media. I actually did sell out and scraped a living in TV, making arts programmes. It wasn’t much fun, and no-one found it ironic and after ten years I was still in debt. Silly me.

5. Be prepared to be deeply misunderstood and to nod silently, as if that was what you meant all along by a certain art work. It has never ceased to amaze me how the many dead animals by Hirst are commented on as some ‘contemplation of mortality and our frail human condition.’ Douglas Gordon does seem genuinely troubled by such issues and such comments would be worthy when looking at his work, but as for Hirst, the whole human-mortality-business has no doubt become a burden on the man. Perhaps he never set out to comment on these things at all but the old-school-art-criticism-speak had to make him the new Francis Bacon. He is also compared to Rembrandt in his ‘use of animal corpses’. As Hirst could move with ease from animal death as medium to spinning paintings with dripping paint to displays of modern medication in cabinets, it really must be questioned whether he is obsessed with mortality or actually consolidating a lucrative business for himself on some fundamental misunderstanding over the phrase ‘getting a life’. His most recent tabloid-worthy work ‘For the love of God’ : a diamond encrusted skull, sold for £125 million has made me pity the man’s success even more. While some see it as a metaphor for how human existence has been reduced to the spectacle of wealth, I fear there may be some very human plea from the artist beneath all the many interpretations. Is he not saying: ‘For the love of God, I give you an image of depravity, of the reduction of a corpse to cash and still you want more’? Imagine his horror on finding that, yes, they did want more and wanted to give him multiple millions for expressing his hatred of art world pretensions. Again, the tragic burden of trying to be serious and being seen as ironic – of trying to make a very sad statement and have people throw money at you.

6. Be prepared to say goodbye to your closest friends. When you are a YBA success, one of the most horrific things is the Almost-Made-Its, the friends that exhibited in the same warehouse shows as you in 1992, that somehow never got picked up by the galleries, that now do a bit of teaching or work on state-subsidised community outreach arts projects, or have escaped from the modern world to plant veggies in their own poo. These horrible encounters with these poor suffering fellows; having to listen to them talk about how they’ve ‘found their level’ teaching under-tens the joy of finger painting while you both know that painting was excruciatingly uncool in art school and their lives have become somewhat tragic, and you know they would murder, even you, to be where you are. They are many in number, about 90% of all graduates, and although you can talk about the old days and how you both stage dived at a gig by Blur, and that time you got wasted on Co-codamol, you dread that moment when they ask if they can have your apartment in Paris for a month as they are going through a painful divorce and just need some time to rediscover the roots of their art (sorry ‘work’). These people might also have had partners you shagged in the past, the YBA art scene being somewhat incestuous. They may have had children, that might even be yours.

7. Drop your friends, discreetly, from mailing lists and party lists, as you move on. As a one-time fellow student of Douglas Gordon, I was once very proud to be one of the five hundred names in his ongoing project to document all of the people he could remember. One of its manifestations being on permanent installation at the Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh – a very large wall full of names, rather like the Vietnam memorial. I have come to see the subsequent omission of my name as either an indication of Gordon’s progress through the art world and the necessary amnesia of old associates or as a critique of my own desire to be canonised within art history. Or perhaps he rubbed me out because I was a total jerk. I would however, vain as it seems, like to end up on his next wall of names, as a testament to the fact that the entire YBA generation is fast becoming history.

8. Get other people to make your art for you. It was just so deeply uncool to be seen as an artist that stood before a canvas or a sheet of blank paper and actually ‘made things’ – so in the work of Hirst, Deller and Borland et al., other people were hired to carry out the actual physical lifting and placing. Technicians, resourcers of certain objects, buyers of dead animals, etc. The problem was that this became an almost totalitarian system; that making art with your own hands was so frowned upon that artists had to start telling fibs about how certain artworks actually came about. I know of a very successful artist that tells fibs about two pieces of ‘found video footage’ that he actually filmed himself, so ashamed he must have been of being caught in the act of actually trying to ‘express himself.’

9. Pity your tutors. You must tolerate their envy, or hide your compassion from them, as they ask you to buy one last round at the bar and you resist the urge to tell them that it’s really a pain in the ass being such a success because you spend all your time touring internationally and haven’t really had any time to make any new artwork in years. They will not take such news at all well – they who have not made any new ‘work’ in thirty years because they were too busy doing bureaucratic paperwork and raising families and helping you through art school. It is best not to buy them too much to drink or to loan them money, they will only hate you more for it.

10. Know that actually one day you might like to, and have the guts to, make art in the simplest most honest way possible. There may still be a certain nostalgia in the mind of the successful YBA – to go back to the start of it all again. To be a first year art student, amazed at the possibilities of that much-damned thing called self-expression – to be free again of the burden of making art, which deconstructs this and that, and of having your self hollowed out as the cameras surround you. There were moments, really there were, before the media hysteria when Tracey Emin’s tent with names of former lovers, actually moved you and you caught yourself thinking – yes, this is sad but it truly expresses how we are products of our culture, and it is really a cry for help. And moments on witnessing Gillian Wearing dancing alone in a shopping mall, when you thought, goddamn it, it’s a pathetic gesture but, really how many times have I felt like doing something stupid and irreverent – even though no-one will know or care, as they walk past and continue shopping. Moments too on witnessing a David Shrigley. I recall, and it still haunts me, seeing a single photograph in his graduation show; of a cardboard box in the midst of a post-industrial wasteland, and on it he had written in marker pen ‘Community Centre.’ It made me laugh, it made me weep. It still does. There was a heart to the YBA, much hidden, an angry passionate heart amidst much confusion, and I hope that with its brand name collapse the many artists who came up under its spotlight will, after they have lost a vast amount of money (what with the recession and all) go back to making art in a very simple way, without all the silly hype. So that one day in the future, we may look back at the excesses and successes of the YBA phenomenon and say ‘For the love of God.’

Ewan Morrison is the author of the novels, Swung, Distance, Menage and the collection of short stories, The Last Book You Read. Menage (July 2009, Jonathan Cape) is about three nihilistic young YBA artists whose ménage a trois becomes the subject of their scandalously successful art, a process that nearly kills one of them. A kind of Withnail and I meets My Fair Lady.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 26th, 2009.