15 May 2013


K Foundation ad campaign, c. 1994

In regards to the prior post, the then/now conflating of Kulkarni's remarks perhaps beg for qualifications that might be obvious to some, not so to others. That being: The retro-ness of Oasis and the twofold retro- revival of the same thing some 15 years later being two different things, arising out of completely different cultural contexts. Mainly because Britpop carried with it the cultural baggage of a certain era that anything of the present moment lacks -- that being the whole "Cool Britannia" sensibility that began to emerge in the early half of the post-Thatcher 1990s and came to full blossom with Britpop champagne supernova or whatever.

I gather -- for those lucky enough to be there -- it was all a brief period of illumination, elation, etc.. "Heady times," as they say. And it was a sense of zeitgeist that didn't just involve music, but also seemed swept the cultural board as a whole -- art, design, advertising, fashion, film, even restauranteering. A new sense of assurance, vitality -- of relevance -- brought about and bolstered by a number of concurrent phenomena. Acid house and Madchester and the rave scene that followed, the emergence of a new generation of visual artists in the form of the YBA, etc. Add to all this the ascendence of so-called New Labour and all the ambiguity that surrounded it -- the speculative uncertainty about where its ideological core fell in relation to traditional Labour and conservatism, and just what (and who) was included under the newly-opened umbrella of Tony Blair and New Labour's "New Britain."

The sense of cultural self-awareness that accompanied "Cool Britannia" was in many ways focused on the present, but was still very mindful of the past; frequently casting looks over its shoulder to a prior belle époque -- that of the "Swinging London" days of the 1960s. Which (for some) begged certain questions about the pluralistic inclusiveness of a "New Britain." Hence the discussion of there being a reactionary and unrepresentative impulse in Britpop, its retro- sensibility deliberately eschewing certain cultural and societal aspects of the U.K. as it existed in the final years of the millennium. Thus the arc of Kaularni's original critique of Britpop (although he wasn't the only critic to take it task on that count at the time).

Which brings me to the two clips above, which I came across about a year or so ago. And certain elements of quaintness contained therein...

Each from roughly around 1993 and from the same program, both exhibiting a weird collision between the 1990s and 1960s. First, there's the American alt hip-hop duo New Kindgom doing their tune "Cheap Thrills," their dusted black-boho pastiche as backed by a neo-psychedelic lightshow (a herbal ode given the Purple Haze treatment) and some Brand New Heavies-type outfit. Note the crowd as the cameras pan around. Couldn't help but be amused when I first saw it. In the sidebar next to that clip, there was the other -- of actor Oliver Reed appearing on the same show around the same time. Another example of the two eras colliding; about which (in this instance) the less said the better.

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As I'm sure you've noticed from prior posts, I'm intrigued by the topic of "retromania." From a musical or general pop-culture perspective, it's something I've long been familiar with. But from the art-realm perspective, it's a bit of an alien sensibility.

Not that visual art isn't mindful of its own past, that it doesn't constantly bear in mind all that's been done before. Very much the opposite. The difference being that whenever art engages its own past, it does so with a deep sense of self-conscious anxiety and -- by extension -- and even deeper sense of irony. It's not so much an obsession with "originality" (okay, maybe to some extent it is) but rather an awareness of obsolescence and unrepeatability, especially in terms of the "speaking to its own time" matter is concerned. Meaning shifts, and with it so also changes its accompanying mediated syntax and form. You want to repeat what's been done before, then expect to be ignored, to fail, to live on the margins and be regarded as a joke, as someone who completely misunderstood what the whole thing was about.*

Or better yet, enter the artworld through the back door of forgery and fraud -- there's probably at least some money in that.

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Jake & Dinos Chapman, Ubermensch, 1995

But I wasn't in the thick of any of the above, having watched the whole "Cool Britannia" thing shape up from a distance; from another shore, taking it all in via second- and third-hand sources.

One thing that was interesting to watch develop from this side of the water was the YBA phenom. At first, in the earlier years of the decade, it seemed to exist more as a rumor than anything else. The occasional passing acknowledgment of Steve McQueen or Damien Hirst or whoever, but never in any sort of context that suggested it indicated something much more extensive or significant might be in the offing. Then eventually the 1995 "Brilliant!" exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It had somehow generated enough anticipatory buzz that a handful of East Coast critics went out of their way and flew to the upper midwest to review the thing. I remember the one that appear in the pages of Artforum at the time. I recall the author at least attempted to give it a fair shake, to engage with the work on hand; but in the end you sense an underlying reticent skepticism, a tacit assumption of "It's from England, after all...so how important can it really be?" Within a year or two, the matter of its importance was no longer a question.

Admittedly, that importance was mostly due to its international market presence, rather than to -- say -- its critical relevance. At the time, I appreciated it, if only for the way it shook a few things up. The NYC 1980s art bubble may have finally burst a few years earlier, but (it seemed) this had done little to deflate the sense of complacency and chauvinism that had accompanied it. In a way, the arrival of the YBA challenged that attitude of hegemonic smugness, blindsiding a number of self-reckoned authorities in such matters.**

Tracey Emin for Bombay Gin, c. 1998

Nine years later, and Artforum had to give it its historic due. In a special deluxe issue devoted to the legacy of Pop Art, writer Kate Bush (yes, that's her name) contributed an overview of the YBA place in the "Pop After Pop" continuum. In the article's latter stretch, Bush writes:

"Far from radically radically reconfiguring the relationship between high and low, argued Simon Ford and Anthony Davies in the essay 'Art Capital' (Art Monthly, Feb. 1998), YBA had been unwittingly hijacked by big business and government as a means to build brand through lifestyle marketing. Tony Blair, and before him, John Major, set out to relaunch Britain as youthful, entrepreneurial, cool, and creative: a desirable destination for tourists, wealth creators, and decision makers. YBA, along with Britpop, was key marketing device in the construction of that image. At the same time, the British economy was experiencing a booming consumer culture in the wake of the 1989-91 recession. The press, chasing advertisers, began to fill its pages with 'lifestyle' journalism rather than consumer-unfriendly news -- and natural self-publicists like Hirst and Emin were close at hand. Hirst's multifarious activities -- his music videos, his restaurants, his record covers, his product design -- appeared, for a moment, to signal a radical disruption of art`s specialized terrain. But when stores like Habitat and Selfridges recognized the consumer advantage in affiliating themselves with the new British art, the symbiosis between commerce and culture deepened until, as Simon Ford concluded, 'the art becomes inseparable from the products it is helping to sell -- the floor coverings and furnishings, the restaurants and clubs.' Rather than reflect on consumer society, as Pop art did, YBA became an aspect of it."

Yes, the maneuvering, self-branding and avant-entrepreneurial maneuvers of players like Hirst and Emin perfectly dovetail with the machinations of the larger mediated culture. Yes yes -- celebrityhood and all that, as made possible by the values of the moment. But then, in the next paragraph, there's the matter linking of quasi-celebrityhood with the lack of genuine criticism that accompanied the whole kit & kaboodle, as it boils down into the figure of Matthew Collings. Her ultimate point being: The art itself wields such a deeply "disabling" sense of irony, then what can a critic like Collings do but be dryly and perpetually "detached"? Fair enough. But Collings mostly fell into the role by circumstantial default. As an aspiring artist someone who'd written art criticism, hiss role as unofficial critic of the artistic zeitgeist happened more by circumstance than by choice, and his own inclinations -- as both a painter and a critic -- put him considerably out of steps with his peers and with the flavor of the moment. (Ambivalence was perhaps the best that one could muster towards the situation.) In a surprisingly candid interview with 3:AM from 2002 (cited by Bush in her article), Collings cleared the air about his own views on the what & how of it:

"When I’m being extreme, I’m capable of thinking that frankly the whole art scene is made up of a bunch of idiots. And I have no desire to get millions of ordinary people to queue up to look at that stuff. Why should they? It’s got nothing much to do with them. To suddenly expect it to be popular is asking the impossible. There really is very little in it for a mass audience and I think this mass audience it’s suddenly now got, knows that really. And they’re not really interested; they’re just along for the ride, for the nonsense. The mandarin people in charge of the Turner Prize, and the media people at Channel 4, and middle-class people who run the art columns on the broadsheets, all assume ordinary people must have this stuff explained to them -- but the motivations for doing that are completely bullshit. It’s for commercial reasons, to get the ratings up. [...]

Obviously it’s economic values that rule now. Celebrity is a trivia side-product of them, in that it’s a popular sign of success. Success has become our main cultural value. We know clearly what it is. Of course art can have aspects of anything but what makes it worth having is what’s soulful, serious and important. The last things you want it to be are sexy and celebrity-driven, or daft and amusing. And those are the only things people want art to be at the moment. [...]

[But] what we’ve so far seen will be as nothing – what we’ve seen is a very rough sketch of what’s to come. It’s going to be streamlined, fake, goo, pseudo-art that’ll lie on the land for years and years. That’s my vision of it. I think the only hope for anything creative or genuinely expressive, is that there has to be some sort of cultural underground. Because if something is only in the spotlight or striving to be in it, then inevitably it’ll be hollow. [...]

We really are too depraved and idiotic as a society now for art. Actually that was my joke theme for that last Turner Prize programme, straightforwardly declaring difficulty out and Madonna and celebrities in. But in the future that will be reality not a joke. Maybe we’ll all get more interested in the past. Rather than just nostalgia, we’ll develop a serious fascination with real museums, and we’ll treat Tate Modern as a branch of entertainment, which it essentially is. [...]

In terms of avant-gardism – well, avant-gardism doesn’t work now, because the avant-garde we have is an official one and therefore a pseudo one. You can’t be against the system if you are the system. You can’t be ahead of the system if you only exist because of the system, to serve it, that is – the system is 'avant' of you."

Collings's first book was 1997's Blimey!, his survey of the YBA. The books begins at Quo Vadis, the age-old Soho restaurant that'd recently been bought and tranformed by Damien Hirst. It ends in the Prado with the question of "Quo Vadis?" ("Where are you/we going?"), as Collings contemplating the paintings of Valesquez and Francisco Goya's "black" period. Somewhere in the in-between portion of the book, he lists all the important galleries of London -- Waddington, Lisson, Interim, etc. -- which have served as the major conduits of the YBA boom. The London gallery circuit would turn up again (perhaps in the same book, or one of later ones), in the context of a project by a particular YBA-gen artist (I forget which). With the aid of an electrical engineer, the artist in question managed to re-route all the phone connections for the gallery district, making it so that whenever anyone in a particular gallery placed an outgoing call it would ring no further than at another phone at another gallery on the same block. File under: closed circuit, cross-filed under: inside joke.

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Gavin Turk, Pop, 1993

On the topic of criticism: One thing I recall from the mid-90s was when Frieze magazine began turning up in U.S. bookstores. It was a welcome new arrival. The writing and criticism in the thing was significantly different from what commonly passed for art-writing at the time -- more fluid and directly engaged, refreshingly uncluttered by all the self-conscious, quasi-theoretic drivel. I briefly had a subscription. Taking a course under critic Jerry Saltz sometime about early 1997, he cited the magazine in class one day, and beamed: "Whole new breed of art writing!" Or so it was for a time. But by 1999, the thing read like any other art magazine.

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* I suppose the same applies with literature, as well; although taking different forms.

** The runaway train of the 1980s NYC art scene and the rise of the YBA, had one link, however --Charles Saatchi. Or, more precisely, the money that Charles Saatchi put into each by way of his collecting and investments. Saatchi played a huge role in the NYC scene in the late '80s (enough so be considered a prime "factor" in the market); but in and around of the time of the "Freeze" warehouse exhibition in London, began to divert more and more of his dollars toward the work of emerging British artists.

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