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High Art LiteReview - High Art Lite
British Art in the 1990s
by Julian Stallabrass
Verso Books, 1999
Review by C. E. Emmer
May 14th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 20)

This book supplies something missing: substantial discussion of "new British art." This is the art that came to prominence with and around the almost infamous Damien Hirst. (If someone does not recognize Hirst's name, there is still a good chance they will recognize who is meant if they are told that he is the "shark guy" -- Hirst's most famous piece is a dead shark suspended in blue liquid in a white minimalist cube under the moniker "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.") There are other book-length treatments of the "Brit art" 'movement,' such as it is, but none that I've seen accomplishes what Stallabrass's book does: it takes the art seriously. And it does so without falling into histrionics or bombast, shrill critique, or, for that matter, the tabloid pontificating that fuels the very notoriety it presumes to destroy. The fact that Stallabrass takes his subject seriously allows him to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of most treatments of Brit art -- the useless and annoying posture of knowing cynicism on the one hand and the ingratiating chatter of fashion-magazine puff-piece writing on the other. This alone makes the appearance of High Art Lite a welcome relief. It is impassioned, but is not a screed; it does take its subject seriously but shines with wit. He does not simply stamp works and artists with approval or disapproval, but explains what it is he is evaluating and the evaluations themselves. There is an important difference between, on the one hand, simply declaring that a work or body of work is a failure, and, on the other, making clear, as he does, how and why it fails and how it could nonetheless capture so much attention, and so much gallery, museum, and column space. His explanations are not off-the-cuff, but the result of an honest effort to understand. Even if some readers may not agree with his analysis, they will have to admit that he has earnestly labored to provide answers to the questions this work raises. And, given that most books on the "new British art" do not even recognize that such questions can be raised, High Art Lite stands out markedly from the rest.

The book's Introduction (Ch. 1) opens with these words:

Once upon a time, not so long ago, some of us involved in the art world thought all would be well with contemporary art if only it were less elitist, if a little air could be admitted into the tight circle of our enthusiasm, if the public could be persuaded that the products of this world were not some con, dedicated to providing assorted posh types with an easy and entertaining living. For, aside from this glaring fault, some of the art seemed worthy of people's attention, being radical, serious, surprising, and having the potential to change those who saw it and thought about it. … In the 1990's, by contrast, this earnest pursuit has come to shine with some of the reflected glory of the fashion, film and music industries -- a bright if sometimes distant and minor satellite in the firmament of mass culture. … the artists have become a focus for curiosity as personalities, as stars. Yet now that contemporary British art has become quite popular -- it's hard to open a newspaper or magazine without running into the art and its attendant personalities -- the cultural utopia that some had hoped would unfold with wider participation has not come about (1-2).

And, this being said, Stallabrass proceeds -- over the course of the book -- to provide some answers as to why this sad situation came to be, and what exactly it is that makes it the disappointment it is.

The book's ten chapters shed light on every aspect of the "new British art": what exactly this "new British art" is, simultaneously introducing us to its main figures, or, rather, celebrities: Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Tracy Emin, and Gavin Turk (Ch. 2 -- others treated elsewhere include Richard Billingham, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Mat Collishaw, Gilbert and George, Marcus Harvey, Sarah Lucas, Martin Maloney, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili, Fiona Rae, and Sam Taylor-Wood); the special circumstances of its "artist curators and the 'alternative' scene" (Ch. 3); its generally anti-theoretical, or, as it almost always turns out, aggressively nihilistic stance, and its ambivalent (sometimes dishonest) relationship to criticism and conceptual art (Ch. 4); its goal of simultaneously selling to the high and low market, and therefore its exploitation of (and often dependence upon) tabloids, popular entertainment, and the topics of sex and death (Ch. 5); its place in new state-sponsored arts institutions (Ch 6); the powerful presence of Saatchi behind it and the show that brought his collection of "new British art" to the wider world, namely, the Sensation show at the Royal Academy (Ch. 7); the question of the "Britishness" of the "new British art" (Ch. 8); the comfortable place for "new British art" in art criticism which has lost its place (Ch. 9); and, finally, some musings on its ultimate value and the question of what possibilities art still has, returning to the basic question, What can art do? (Ch. 10). Even if one does not agree with Stallabrass's evaluations -- and, in general, I think he convinces --, his discussion offers much hearty food for thought. Indeed, in some ways writing a short review does not seem like the right response to the book; new kinds of artwork, another engaging book, a new search for inspiring and challenging art, or a series of perceptive articles might be more appropriate ways of answering its challenges and spurs to thought.

Certainly one response which is appropriate to High Art Lite is to hunt down a friend to read an especially telling passage out loud, for the book is well-written, greatly enjoyable, and, more often than not, spot on. Take for example his evaluation of Louisa Buck's book on the "new British art," Moving Targets (put out by the Tate Gallery in 1997):

An art often gets the literature it deserves, and this publicist's art, as it is drawn into the mainstream has in this respect been exemplary. Louisa Buck's recent book, Moving Targets, which is meant as a user's guide to the current scene, actually does tell you everything you need to know, though not it quite the way that she intends. With its relentlessly upbeat tone, the book is a digest of the current hype, never missing the opportunity to deploy some journalistic chestnut, and as one reads more and more of it, the suspicion grows that the hype is all there is (218).

These remarks struck a special chord for me because, when I had read Moving Targets myself earlier on, my own notes included these observations:

Her bubbly prose exhibits an unrelentingly cheerful and chirpy attitude toward whatever it discusses. … Buck's book is not necessarily a bad place to begin, simply because, whatever its faults, it does offer thumbnail sketches of most everyone involved … even the fabricators (a group almost never touched upon). … Nonetheless, given her often extremely grating pep-rally writing style, even reading short passages of her book can be excruciating, leaving the reader feeling irritated and, furthermore, insulted.

Stallabrass's remarks on Matthew Collings's 1997 book on new British art, Blimey! From Bohemia to Britpop, are just as accurate and just as telling. Anyone familiar with the art world, I suspect, will also find herself shaking her head in agreement as she reads High Art Lite. Given that such things are so rarely expressed (especially not at book-length!), the feeling one has seeing them in High Art Lite is not bored familiarity, but a one of release, or triumph, in seeing that they have finally found expression. Another indicator of Stallabrass's attitude and sense of humor can be gleaned from the empty white rectangles that appear from time to time in his book. Stallabrass's answer to the galleries which refused to let him show his readers the works under discussion was to provide white boxes containing the words, "Permission to reproduce denied," in the place of the missing illustration. If nothing else, they certainly testify to the fact that his is an independent voice. For the time being, that is a rarity.

And then there is Stallabrass's term, "high art lite." "High art lite" is not just the title of the work, but also the general name he gives to "the new British art" ("young British art," "Brit art," "yBas,"etc.). At first, Stallabrass's labeling the new British art in this way could come off as snotty or arrogant. Indeed, it is initially confusing when he explains that this obviously proscriptive term "has the virtue of being descriptive"! It become clear soon enough, however, that by "descriptive" he means that his term, as opposed to "new British art" (and all the other common names one sees), indicates what the work referred to is, as opposed to a phrase which merely labels, or indeed, advertises it (besides which, Stallabrass reminds us, "new British art" only has a limited newness, isn't always by British artists, etc.). As he puts it, his term refers to "an art that looks like but is not quite art, that acts as a substitute for art. The term "high art lite" also suggests that the phenomenon is not confined to Britain, though the particular form that it has taken here will be the focus of the book" (2). Nonetheless, the use of such an obviously loaded word might seem to preclude any objectivity on the author's part. A number of things should be said on this point.

First, it should not be forgotten that the art in question has been backed by a great amount of money and a marketing effort of great power, if not arrogance. Stallabrass is working, in some way, to counter that machine. Second, though in the end I do not think his term indicates snottiness (rather, I would say it shows his conviction), it has to be admitted that his term serves as a counterbalance to the unmitigated snottiness of much, if not most, of the new British art crowd. (Stallabrass points out, too, that the distinction between art and artist is harder to wield as a defense in the case of artists who insistently make their own identity and celebrity a part of their work.) Finally, there are certainly works by the new British art group or their close associates that he can appreciate. But one can also ask, Is a purely "descriptive" treatment of this artwork (assuming it were possible) something we should want? Given that much of its P.R. material pretends to be objective, hearing about the same work from a principled opponent serves to balance the scales and allows for an evaluation with fewer blinders. Much less does High Art Lite suffer from a lack of objectivity than that it gains all the more from having a stance in the first place. His is not a mostly rhetorical reaction (for that, one could think of, say, the New York Post's dependable superficiality, sloganeering, and forced alliteration in its treatment of new art) but a questioning and critical position supported by detailed considerations of every aspect of the various contexts -- of history, of criticism, of marketing, of academic background -- in which the works find their meaning.

Stallabrass's title and term, "high art lite," however, immediately raises an important question. If the new British art is high art lite, then what does Stallabrass propose art to be instead? What does he believe art is when it is not "lite"? Or what is it supposed to be? The answer to these questions is two-tiered. First, though Stallabrass does not lay out a detailed statement of what he takes art or fine art to be, let alone a manifesto for future artists, he has clear ideas about, if not what art is, then what it could or should be. Over the course of the book, a number of detours and asides give examples of works that he sees as embodying the better side of what art can realize. Some of the artists he finds promising or successful (whether associated with the new British art crowd or not) include Rachel Whiteread, Tomoko Takahashi, Christine Borland, Gillian Wearing, Keith Piper, Michael Landy, Fiona Banner, and the Bank artists' collective. (It is telling that discussions of Rachel Whiteread often disassociate her from the new British art crowd precisely because her work is seen as possessing some quality.) From this list alone it is clear that Stallabrass's book cannot be reduced to mere reaction or undifferentiated negativism. One thing is for sure: Stallabrass believes that, whether art needs to be critical or not, it can certainly do more than pretend to radical critique while nihilistically embracing a market that that depends on the very absence of that critique.

And, whatever one makes of Stallabrass's own idea of art, it has to be remembered that his term "high art lite" is also a response to the image the new British art projects of itself, namely, that it has taken over the helm of the avant-garde. "High art lite" only makes sense as a name for new British art because, Stallabrass underscores, new British art comes packaged and sold as high art. Therefore, it could justifiably be said in Stallabrass's defense that his term rests less on a positive program of art than a meticulous negation of new British art's own implication that it is the cutting edge of fine art, and that it leaves the rest -- the old, the stuffy, the elitist, the idealist, the formerly new, the once-revolutionary, the now obsolete art -- behind.

It would be hard to give Julian Stallabrass's High Art Lite a higher recommendation. In a prose marked by conviction, wit, and reason, he probes, weighs, investigates, and offers answers to all the important questions that new British art raises. On the face of it, it may seem that an art so flashy would not merit such serious consideration -- but what Stallabrass reveals is just this, that only the surface glitter of Brit art suffices for a superficial consideration. Such superficial treatments, he convincingly argues, are just the sort of treatment its promoters needed to hide behind.

            In a recent article in the Los Angeles art magazine, Cakewalk, on the decline in art criticism ("In Defense of Artforum"), Lane Relyea points to the fact that a single issue of the Artforum from the good old days -- namely, the June 1967 issue, which fetches upwards of $200 on Ebay -- could serve as the basis for an entire graduate seminar. (That single issue, he reminds us, contained inter alia seminal pieces such as Michael Fried's "Art and Objecthood" and Robert Morris's "Notes on Sculpture.") Pick up a recent issue, he challenges, and "[t]ry building a single cogent conversation" around it. "Hence the typical refrain: the old Artforum was a magazine you read, while today's Artforum is a magazine you only look at." But he contends that this move from substantial critical pieces to short notices and CD reviews, though undeniable, is merely a reflection of the present state of the arts. He concludes: "Artforum is still hugely consequential … [and] has experienced one its biggest jumps in overall print run… We kid ourselves by thinking that Artforum has failed to remain adequate to the scene around it … Artforum is perfectly adequate. It's precisely the magazine we currently deserve. Artforum gets it just right."

            Stallabrass responds to the question that Relyea's ambivalent term "adequate" suggests: Is unreflective reflection the only option we have? Stallabrass' answer is a heartfelt "No." It may be that the present art world encourages work that benefits only from puff-pieces (as we have seen, he is well aware that art can get the press it deserves), but his own book is a concrete example for his contention that such a correspondence is not all that can be said and that there are other, more engaging, more substantial -- and, in the end, more hopeful -- possibilities for engaging with today's art.

 

© 2003 C. E. Emmer

 

C. E. Emmer, visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Miami University (Oxford, OH)


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