Celebrity and Obscurity

Celebrity and Obscurity
For everything 2.4

Celebrity and Obscurity
Reading writing on British art in the nineties

Mark Hutchinson has been reading the following:
•Technique Anglaise: Current Trends in British Art (1991), Eds. Andrew Renton & Liam Gillick.
•Brilliant!: New Art from London (1995), Walker Art Center; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston.
•The Brit Pack: Contemporary British Art, the View from Abroad (1995), Cornerhouse Communiqué No.7, Patricia Bickers.
•Life/Live (1996), Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
•Blimey!: From Bohemia to Britpop: The London Artworld from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst (1997), Matthew Collings.
•Occupational Hazard: Critical Writing on Recent British Art (1998), Eds. Duncan McCorquodale; Naomi Siderfin; and Julian Stallabrass.
•Who’s Afraid of Red White & Blue?: attitudes to popular and mass culture, celebrity, alternative and critical practice and identity politics in recent British art (1998), Ed. David Burrows, Article Press, Birmingham.

28th March 1998.
Somewhere in deepest Birmingham…

John Russell of BANK (banging the table, holding his head, generally exasperated): … it is devalued if you say you are an alternative and I think we are an alternative. BANK is an alternative. The problem with most of the people in this room and the art your magazine promotes (gestures disparagingly to Patricia Bickers, referring to Art Monthly), is that art is a career and it’s now seen as clever and sophisticated to operate, to become an operator.

Patricia Bickers (agitated and righteous): Well I think that’s stated from a situation of complete ignorance! I don’t make my living from the magazine Art Monthly at all. It is a labour of love!

Simon Bedwell of BANK (spitting out words from a mouth full of wasps): Careers aren’t about money though, there’s reputations, there’s power…

Patricia Bickers (affronted and close to exploding): YOU WANT POWER TOO!



The trouble with books which are a survey, as with group shows and their catalogues, is that they impose a unity upon their subject matter. This has two moments. The first is that the different artists and works are made to seem to have something in common. The fact of a collection of certain things being placed together already implies a substantive reason for those things being together: just because they are.

Noam Chomsky has analysed how the structure of U.S. T.V. makes the construction of careful, oppositional argument impossible. The few minutes between commercial breaks (if nothing else) barely lets one state a case. It certainly does not let one back it up in any substantial way. So that, if one says something conforming to popular sentiment (eg. “the U.S. government is a benevolent international peace keeper”) one does not need to back it up because the majority of U.S. citizens think this anyway; whereas, saying something provocative (eg. “the U.S. government supports cruel, murderous tyrants in the interests of expanding U.S. wealth and power”) needs evidence, which in turn requires time that is not structurally allowed by the way the medium is. The survey, similarly, can only deal with each contribution fleetingly. It, too, favours recognition over evidence. Famililarity is good for business.

So the second moment is that the act of surveying eschews the need to be critical. This is to say that the nature of surveying is to report upon what is going on rather than to analyse it. Thus the surveyor, or surveyors, only need to claim to be up with what they are surveying, not necessarily to have any understanding of, or critical position towards it. According to the surveyor’s register, he or she can only be judged as to whether the survey is representative, or comprehensive, or whatever it claims to be; what it does not pretend to, is any account of the quality of the work. Dave Beech suggests that “the single most important shortfall of all the writing on yBa is its collective failure to attend to questions of its quality.”

The self image of the surveyor can easily be that of a neutral, quasi-bureaucrat: an organizer and enabler, who is merely putting together a representation of an extant bit of culture. That is, there is an implicit denial of responsibility for the quality of what is being collated because that judgement has, in a sense, always already happened: it has been deferred to precedence. It’s easy. The work to be done is practical, circumscribing looking at power relations between the selector and the work selected: and thus, also, the motivation of the selector and the theoretical, or artistic, standing of the work. The power to group, legitimates the grouping: a kind of fait accompli. As long as one doesn’t make too many outrageous inclusions or exclusions, contemporary boundaries are pretty flexible. All the more so, when the act of collating can lend kudos to the collator by making a show out of showing.

The seeming practicality of selection tends to perpetuate the powerful interests of consensus and stability. Slavoj Zizek has pointed out how ideology can be a necessary misreresentation primarily for the speaker, rather than for his or her audience. For example, after the 1848 in France, the Party of Order expressly supported Republicanism, whilst secretly rooting for restoration:

“The paradox, however, was that the truth of their activity resided in the external form they privately mocked and despised: this republican form was not a mere semblance beneath which the royalist desire lurked – it was rather the secret clinging to Royalism which enabled them to fulfil their actual historical function, to implement the bourgeois republican law and order.” 

It’s not quite of the same historical weight (and isn’t so paradoxical), but the curators claim to neutrality, qua surveyor of extant cultural goods (and even being engaged in a labour of love) needs to misrepresent to the author, rather than to his or her audience, a position of both dependence and power within the power structures of the consumption of art. The express innocence of the surveyor is a mask to the power implicit in the act of selection: a refusal to acknowledge the self-interest involved in the act of inclusion and exclusion.

Blimey! is written in an extraordinary voice: deferential, self-effacing, soft and sweet as candyfloss, it reads like the diary of a particularly intelligent and articulate twelve year old. No doubt it is an ironic voice. But irony is another dramatic device which defies criticism: the premise of irony is knowingness, a consensus as to what is to be taken seriously. It is difficult to criticize someone who is knowingly not saying what they mean.

Blimey! does have its moments, mostly when it’s taking the piss out of art world clichés – stuff we can laugh at because we all know it already (that’s what irony is all about). For the most part, though, the ingratiating tone combined with fragmentary content defy any reason as to why some stuff is in and some out. It’s a book of spectacle and persuasion – a bit like advertizing. At one point he constructs bits of an orrery, according to established reputations, with Damien, familiarly, at the centre. Of course, Collings takes neither blame nor credit for constructing the extant reputations and therefore the place in his orrery of his stars. But, of course, consensus’s are consolidated by this attitude of non-responsibility. For a book which is an historical survey, it is radically, mind-bogglingly, a-historical.

The consensus has taken a while to build up through the nineties. In Technique Anglaise, in 1991, Damien Hirst and freeze were already well established, centre stage. But the feeling you get reading Technique Anglaise is of an attempt to forge a unity: to pull together different artists – to make them part of the same thing. The title, in itself, implies something of a shared methodology and a national characteristic to the work. At least the tone here is problematic, rather than uncritically celebratory. The introductory discussion worries about whether the British art scene will survive the recession. This discussion of the connection between art production and the broader economy goes missing in the middle of the decade , with the celebratory and promotional tones of Brilliant and The Brit. Pack. The power of Saatchi is acknowledged (of course, uncritically) by Collings in Blimey! but a serious discussion only re-appears in Occupational Hazard (of the publications discussed here). 

For example, in this book, Robert Garnett draws a distinction between the freeze and post-freeze generations (at least partially) in terms of the different state of the art economy in the late eighties boom and the nineties recession. The ambitious, scene- sharp, careerism of the freeze generation was not so readily sustained in the collapsed art market of the early 1990’s. The economically enforced D.I.Y. approach necessarily opened up issues of the domestic, everyday and popular: “Claiming to be undermining ‘the scopic regimes of modernity’ from within the confines of the pristine spaces of transnational postmodernism was one thing; reading the same claims on a press release of an exhibition by unknown artists in a disused shop-front in Shoreditch seemed slightly embarrassing.” And Naomi Siderfin writes about the sheer number of artists currently practising and the decreasing opportunities to make any money out of it, either by selling work or, more critically, through teaching, where cuts in the education budgets have hit hard. So, “the majority of fine art graduates (and post-graduates) in Britain are finally levelled by the Department of Social Security.”

The fact that the British art scene has thus flourished through the recession and in face of economic neglect, brings out the historical irony of the doubt expressed in Technique Anglaise, although this sentence now sounds prophetic: “economic recession will undoubtedly shape the way art is circulated.” It can even be argued that it is in some ways because of this poverty, and the certainty that things aint going to change, that the British art scene has been so diverse and vibrant. This is what Naomi Siderfin, in effect, ends up saying in Occupational Hazard, despite emphasising the ‘bleak landscape’ of economic hardship for the vast majority of British artists.

Technique Anglaise was full of museum sized work: the freeze warehouse was a do-it-yourself (that is, make-do) museum space. As such it couldn’t have been less alternative, nor further away from the do-it-yourself attitude of a shop-front in Shoreditch, for example: and this is not so much an anti-museum gesture, either, just a non-museum space for non-museum like work. But the freeze warehouse was a mark of the (professional) aspirations of that Goldsmith’s generation: a career in prestige middle-sized dry goods. These are not the aspirations, on the whole, of a lot of the subsequent generation of artists, who could not, and can not, afford (in both literal and metaphoric senses of the word) such lofty ambition. The turn to improvized, collective, alternative and domestic spaces to show art has thus practical and economic roots, which are, perhaps, more important than theoretical ones. This can be seen in the work as well: the use of small domestic materials, popular culture, amateurism, triviality, domesticity, drawing and so on and so on, are born of a lack of interest in museum sized galleries, which is something different from (but indebted to, perhaps) the political vehemence of the critique of the white-cube of seventies conceptualism.

So then, economic necessity, amongst other things, has helped to make more artists making and showing more work in more spaces of a greater variety than ever before. Matthew Arnatt argues that this situation has led to a lack of critical criteria, so that “to fail at all, shows of contemporary art have to fail catastrophically.” But I disagree with his idea that the sheer range of contemporary art has led to a banal equivalence of tastes. To me, it seems like an historical irony that as the range of the periphery has increased, the hegemony of the centre seems to become more secure and harder to penetrate. 

Certainly, the publications from 1995-1997 (Brilliant; The Brit Pack; Live/Life; Blimey!) show a remarkable consensus of core names with very little deviance or variety. Of course, there is economic pressure here, too. As Naomi Siderfin points out, for example, ‘Sensation’ at the R.A. last year was advertized as a sample of ‘yBa’ and not as the Saatchi collection. And Time Out devoted special coverage to the show: the same Time Out where Sarah Kent runs the art section, when she’s not writing catalogue essays for Saatchi.

The marketing label‘yBa’ is long since passé. But the entrenchment of the artists at the centre seems as strong as ever. The more recent books (Occupational Hazard; Who’s Afraid of Red White & Blue?), however, are attempts at diverse, conflicting or alternative narratives. Mark Wallinger, for example, spells out his eighties, in contrast to some: the Falkland’s War; the Miner’s Strike; Greenham Common Peace Camps; and Ragean’s chauvinistic xenophobia. Whereas:

“for those somewhat younger or with narrower hindsight, the 80’s conjure something different. An age of opportunity, advantageous property deals, distressed jeans and Wham! The age of the entrepreneur, asset-stripping, privatisation, business built on hot air and recreational drugs. Advertizing became hip. Freeze was paradigmatic of the 1980’s and for many artists caught up in that moment they have never ended. They are the first generation of artists to demand a lifestyle. Lofty ideals are for, well, ideal loft spaces in Clerkenwell. Man the barricades, I demand to be a restaurateur.”

Occupation Hazard and Who’s Afraid of Red White and Blue? are not surveys: both are conceived as interventions in the consensus, in order to make space for critical debate and reflection. Both hold a tension between attacking the shallowness, blatant self-promotion, greed, excess, smugness and shininess of the yBa centre, on the one hand; and explaining the complexity and diversity of debates and work outside this centre. Because they are collections of essays, the quality varies. But this form is consistent with the objectives of these collections: it demonstrates a lack of unity rather than trying to impose one. 

A problem is that those at the centre, and certainly the media, do not make the differentiation between the centre and the periphery. Media celebrities seem to be born, immaculate, into the world. But the vast majority of artists in Britain are not being bought by Saatchi (some even have no interest in selling to him; and some who do are as obscure as those who don’t) are not getting media coverage; are making fuck-all money out of it. But a lot of interesting work is going on, nonetheless: are working in obscurity.

What remains to be written is an account of the vitality and diversity of the obscure periphery that moves beyond the economic determinism of Robert Garnett, Naomi Siderfin, et al. Whatever truth these accounts contain, the danger is that they might reiterate the mythic connection between artistic creativity and poverty. Where they are insufficient, and what I think is needed, is an explanation of the particular shared qualities of this work and the sense of shared interests amongst those participants away from the dizzying heights of celebrity.