Jonathan Meades

This history of the YBAs confirms their ahistoric arrogance and boundless incuriosity

This history of the YBAs confirms their ahistoric arrogance and boundless incuriosity
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Artrage by Elizabeth Fullerton.

Thames & Hudson. 288pp. £24.95

Thames & Hudson is no longer a publisher much associated with writing. You do not expect its books on art and applied art to be wrought with the brio and elegance of Susie Harries or Rosemary Hill, Crook or Summerson. Which is, perhaps, just as well because Elizabeth Fullerton's text is catastrophically clumsy. According to the author note she graduated from Oxford with a degree in modern languages: one must assume that English was not among them. She can just about parse a sentence but beyond that, nothing – save a perennially tin ear, a relentless tide of clichés (sea change, game changer, elitist hierarchy of the fusty art world, national treasure, iconic, hotbed of radicalism, zeitgeisty, alienated modern lives), yesterday's tired neologisms, a hundredweight of received ideas, unwitting mock heroism, ludicrously hyperbolic claims, a willingness to take some really rather stupid people at their own elevated estimate including the self-congratulatory collective of (once) Young British Artists or 'artists'. These people did everything  mob-handed. They were forever 'supporting' each other with cultish zeal. They conned in numbers. They graduated from Goldsmiths where they seem to have been brainwashed by Michael Craig-Martin and Richard Wentworth.

We are told that Angus Fairhurst was a 'towering intellect' but are not vouchsafed any example of the heights he is supposed to have attained. Liam Gillick is described as 'the group intellectual', which seems to mean little more than that the poor fellow is fluent in International Art English, the witless jargon which is the staple of such borderline literate magazines such as Frieze, ARTnews, Art Monthly etc. Exclusion awaits those in the art world who do not write or converse in this clumsy sociolect (as they would have it) which is as far from slang as can be. Slang, as its greatest scholar Jonathon Green has noted, is 'the poetry of the gutter'. Art English lacks all poetry. It is merely a prosy expression of self-importance, self-validation and a means of self-aggrandisement akin to that employed by corporate middle management with its eye on the rung above. One of Gillick's priceless contributions here is that 'We didn't sit around talking about El Greco... It's as if we started without any history.' And a 'gallerist' called Sadie Coles claims that before the 1988 Freeze exhibition the London art world was 'a very discreet gentleman's club'. The sometime Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones, created a dame for  laundering the emperor's new clothes and promoting rampant gimmickry, concurs: 'It was a desert.' Fullerton chips in with 'parochial'.

Where have these people been? They may not have been born but they can surely discover the names of the galleries which flourished in, say, the 1960s: Annely Juda, Kasmin, Redfern, Robert Fraser, Gimpel Fils, Crane Kalman. Or do they suppose that Blake, Caulfield, Jones, Hamilton, Hockney, Hoyland etc sold their work from camper vans beside the Bayswater Road railings? Every generation deludes itself to some degree that it is starting from zero but this one abjured all checks, succumbed to no doubts. It went above and beyond in its ahistoric arrogance and boundless incuriosity. It crassly believed that the 'commodification' of art, to which it would in time of course subscribe, was something new. They might have tried walking around Melbury Road at the western end of Kensington High Street or Tite Street or Hampstead where their Victorian precursors advertised their wealth in bricks and grand north-facing windows. It is due to her problems with English that Fullerton writes this sentence: 'Many (YBAs) considered art before 1945 as artefact.' Why 1945? What does 'artefact' mean in this context? I suspect it is Art English, broadly synonymous with redundant or 'irrelevant'. The more boneheaded YBAs'  mantra might be Pink Floyd's cretinous 'We Don't Need No Education'.

This contempt for learning and for the past may or may not have something to do with 'a sense in Britain of the twentieth century as a cultural failure, reflected in the sparse representaion of the period in the Tate's national collection.' Who is it that senses this? Is the 'cultural failure' Britain's alone or more widespread? The USSR's perhaps. Or France's. Does culture signify exclusively visual art? The multiple imprecisons are tiresome. As for the Tate: the problem lies with Nicholas Serota's surefooted leap on to any passing bandwagon and his curatocracy's sychophantic  bias towards mute installation, conceptual vacuity and grovelling shrines to the bogus prophet and teenagers' pin-up Marcel Duchamp. All this fol-de-rol is at the expense of rather better artists: Nevinson, Burra, Spencer, Lewis. Surefooted, yes - but also tardy. The juggernaut has almost passed by the time the great museums of state catch on.

The recently appointed director of Tate Modern, one Frances Morris, has the gall to say that 'We don't any longer have a hierarchy where painting is at the top.' Thereby consigning centuries of endeavour to the bin. What daring! How groovy! But consigning it rather late in the day. Such drivel was in the air forty years ago at the time of Carl Andre's dimwitted Equivalent VIII and Mary Kelly's slightly more interesting Post-Partum Document. To those who inhabit Morris's hermetic bubble it's doubtless a welcome statement of the bleeding obvious, an article of faith. To the majority outside the fluidly incestuous carousel of 'gallerists', 'critics' (PRs in all but name), 'artists', collectors, patrons and groupies her frivolous pronouncement sounds like clerical treason, a careless abnegation of responsibility and a philistine boast. Artrage comes plastered with endoresements from members of the art establishment who would, of course, never dream of considering themselves the establishment. These people are evidently parti pris. They are blessed with an embarrassingly excitable and near infantile turn of phrase. The mildest reaction of any sentient person who lacks some sort of stake in the bubble is that of wincing contempt at the anaesthetised juvenilia of the now middle-aged. The two worlds do not overlap.

Just as Art Began In 1988 so, in the next decade, did it become 'more mainstream'. Fullerton's frail evidence for this is the number of provincial galleries built with National Lottery funding: the Baltic beside the Tyne, the New Gallery in Walsall, the Turner in Margate, the Jerwood in Hastings, the Lowry on Salford Quays, First Site at Colchester. They tend to architectural extravagence. There is not even enough third rate art to fill them – which is just as well since the last thing egomaniacal architects are interested in are displays which might compromise the integrity of their masterpieces. These lumps of tectonic bling  are accompanied by unprovable, laughably mendacious claims of art's ability to effect 'regeneration': according to the former Mancunian Kunst-Gauleiter Alex Poots 'You can never have too much culture.'

The Lowry actually provides a valuable social service in the way that McDonald's does: it is a well heated, comfortable drop-in centre for the aged. Essex folklore holds that most of the visitors who pass through First Site's doors do so only to use the toilets. This too is a commendable service but whether it signifies what the author intends by mainstream is moot. She further cites the Frieze Art Fair (homophone, not Freeze) as a manifestation of this chimerical mainstream tendency. But by the time that market began as an annual event in 2003 the YBAs were already a withered force and its star turns were mostly ascetic European installation operatives and earnest American conceptualists: doubly dry – Peter Blake wondered recently 'What's happened to all the drunken artists?'

Three decades on, we are almost as far distant from the original Freeze exhibition of 1988 as it was distant from This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel in 1956 when pop art made its debut and Richard Hamilton's 'Just what is it that makes today's home so different so appealing?', intended as ephemeral (but they all say that), entered the canon overnight. The YBSs' debt to such disparate artists as Hamilton, Bridget Riley, Stuart Brisley and Philip King is immeasurable. Without them they would not have existed. Such is the  continuum of influence or theft, that much YBA work has increasingly come to look like BritPop Mark 2. A broken continuum, it omits, inter alia, Patrick Caulfield, Duggie Fields and Tony Cragg (all too polished), and Kitaj, McLean and Blake (all too intense). Intensity and polish do not accord with the deafening detachment (endlessly, wrongly, tiresomely referred to as irony) which was just about the only common characteristic of the several idioms and media the YBAs worked in. They are forever condemned by their paucity of reference, and by the Goldsmiths conception of history which is so straitened that it is damaging. Has any student of that college ever been enjoined to read beyond Guy Debord and the Situationists, Adorno, the Frankfurt School's critical theory and saint Walter Benjamin? These are not useful foundations for making any art other than art about art.

Far from attaining the mainstream the footsoldiers of the group disappeared into dank rivulets and up winterbournes where the only other people were YBAs. YBA talks to YBA. They conducted lengthy, prolix conversations with each other but had necessarily forgotten them by the morning. The lucky world could have listened in. YBAs controversially lurch about the Dungeness shore. YBAs controversially fall down in the Groucho. YBAs controversially fuck in doorways. YBAs controversially neck bottles of vodka in Whitstable. YBAs hamfistedly video YBAs controversially throwing up. But the lucky world had moved on.

Meanwhile the officer class, the big names, stayed in view and pursued an utterly conventional carreer path from ragged rebel starving to death of syphilis in a cold water garret to a civil partnership with Croesus. Some enjoyed  a glorious ascension. Damien Hirst, with the assistance of armies of accountants, tax consultants, studio assistants, fabricators and the singular taxidermist Emily Mayer, had become the richest artist (or art impresario) in the world. So he claims, anyway. The 'gallerist' Jay Jopling is fabulously wealthy. But his fortune is his former client Hirst's spare change, which must be galling. Tracey Emin is such a friend of fully accredited major celebrities that she is now a fully accredited major celebrity in her own right. Mark Wallinger  thinks of himself as the heir to Stubbs even though the astute consider him the heir to Munnings. Marcus Harvey and the Chapman brothers are still box office even if they are losing their power to shock.

But Glenn Brown is having to struggle to distinguish between 'appropriation' and plagiarism. Charles Saatchi's enthusiasm for the artists he had helped create and whom he had supported has diminished. As his artists deserted him Karsten Schubert's gallery went for a burton, half a million pounds in debt: he became an agent. And Angus Fairhurst hanged himself near Rannoch Moor. He had failed in the endeavours most vital to a YBA. His work was neither the visual assault that Hirst prescribed, nor was it a morally dodgy jape. He forgot to be controversial. Further, he wasn't much of a self-publicist.