I danced to a decadent drum. An impressive study of the Brit-Art scene prompts Will Self to relive his drunken nights out with a group of over-hyped cartoonists masquerading as serious artists
High Art Lite
Julian Stallabrass Verso, 342pp, £22
The Groucho Club in Soho, with its dormer windows, outsize television screen replaying sport and its overgrown, overstoned adolescents, is like some teenager's Elysium. On many an inebriated occasion, I have entered the snooker room of the club only to find myself confronted by a plastic version of a blue English Heritage plaque, the kind found on buildings where the famous have either lived or worked. This pseudo-plaque reads "Borough of Kensington/ Gavin Turk/ Sculptor/ Worked Here/ 1989-1991". The original was Turk's sole submission for his Royal College degree show (the degree was not awarded), and subsequently, when he was signed by a private gallery, it became available in a limited edition.
Whether through inebriation, ire or innate criticality, I've always found myself compelled to open the nearest window and throw the thing out. Not, you understand, that I've anything against Turk himself; in fact, I once lent him a woolly. In Julian Stallabrass's fine, critical tour d'horizon of the British art scene in the 1990s, Turk is one of the nihilistic, personality-obsessed, conceptual sculptors who gets the lightest of drubbings. Stallabrass finds Turk's waxworks of himself in various guises (as Sid Vicious, as a homeless man), and his negligible artefacts posing as useless commodities, to have at least the virtue of being honestly silly - unlike the more portentous works of his peers, such as Marc Quinn and the acknowledged avatar of the scene, the pop singer and restaurateur, Damien Hirst.
Stallabrass's coinage "High Art Lite" says all you might need to know about the artistic tendency that has, at various times, been labelled as "Young British Artists", "the New Conceptualism", or, put more simply - and economically - "the Saatchi Collection". It captures perfectly the marriage between opportunism, commercialism and nihilism, which made it possible for Hirst, the curator of the 1989 exhibition Freeze (regarded by all as the seminal moment, the locus classicus of the movement), to move in eight short years from living in a council flat in Brixton, while staging an alternative degree show in a derelict, East End factory, to being the seigneur of a Devon estate and the co-owner of a Notting Hill hang-out for tarnished trustafarians.
Not that I've anything against Hirst personally, you understand. Indeed, at the launch of his book I Want to Spend the Rest of my Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now (which Stallabrass characterises as "extravagantly banal"), I found myself driven - could it have been inebriation, ire or innate criticality? - to pick the chunky conceptualist up in my arms and stroll around the gathering, while cooing to him "you're so-o tiny Damien, and so-o cuddly . . . " Needless to say, Hirst is not the kind of artist who'll accept the loan of a woolly.
Yup, I've had Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst gouch out on my sofa; I've traded lagers and insults with Tracey Emin; I've linked arms with the Chapmans; and on more than one occasion returned to Angela Bullock's fifth-floor loft in Whitechapel to jig away the night with the whole giddy rondo of the "lite art" crowd. Wouldn't you? Artists, being untrammelled by the solipsism, fantasising and outright envy of the literary world, make for far more entertaining companions than writers - many of whom seem to have leather elbow patches sewn on to their very cerebella. The group shows the common background in the art schools, the very spaciousness of the atelier, and the very laxness of the working practices - all made for camaraderie + bonhomie = scene. (And how much easier to get up in the morning with a savage hangover and drip Dulux on a board, or put a kebab on a table, than parse a proper sentence.) There was never a crowd for partying like it was 1999 than this lot. They had it all: the cachet of anti-Thatcher anger; the decadence of the fin de siecle; the wit of a surrealistic lager advertisement, all shaken up and spurted over the British public in a splurging forth of "fuck-you" philistinism.
But now that the real friends have drunk their champagne, what real pain remains for sham friends? What did it all add up to anyway? (And "did" is the operative word here; as Stallabrass, good Marxist that he is, acknowledges, only a savage recession can save most of these artists now from real, rather than feigned, taedium vitae.) What was it all for? In dry, measured prose, mercifully devoid of the pseudo-theoretical cant which has, in the past, constituted so much serious art criticism, Stallabrass carefully unlimbers the pop gun of high art lite from the carriage of history and investigates whether it can fire anything other than a small flag with "bang" blazoned on it.
Stallabrass - like me - has individual pieces that he wishes saved from the scrap heap. He favours the paintings of Fiona Rae and the video installations of Gillian Wearing - I incline more to Hirst's vitrine-enclosed animals and Quinn's extruded forms of the artist's own body. But I cannot help but endorse his analysis of the high art lite tendency - and "tendency" it was - as almost wholly eaten up by its abject willingness to be fucked up by the 1990s cult of celebrity; fucked over by the 1990s boom in consumerism; fucked sideways by its adoption of the styles and modes of popular culture; and fucked to buggery by its co-option by Chris Smith and the new Labourite idiotology.
In getting the drop on this most ironic of art tendencies, it's richly ironic that it should be the observations of George Walden, mini-maverick and quondam-rightist, that, as quoted by Stallabrass, bring down the curtain most effectively on this fag-end era: "Some of [high art lite] is capable of affording entertainment or distraction, but if those are the criteria, in terms of wit, intelligence, originality, social commentary or philosophical undertones, it rarely rises to the level of the most accomplished American television shows, such as The Simpsons."
Walden makes explicit what I had always - as I rubbed the rotten rheum from my eyes after another night on the tiles with the artists themselves - suspected about much of this work: that at its best it raised the cartoon to the level of high art; and at its worst it did the reverse: that its finest practitioners were really great cartoonists - at least as good as John Glashan, or Matt Groenig. In a pertinent, diacritical chapter of this work, Stallabrass surveys the paucity of art criticism in turn-of-the-century Britain, and adumbrates the observation made by Walden. All of which put me in mind of a lengthy, self-debunking gag told by the cartoonist Jules Feiffer on a television documentary, when asked to describe the difference between a great artist and a great cartoonist. Feiffer describes at great and detailed length the life of the great artist, minutely detailing his daily routine; the ministering of his dutiful wife; the caressing of his pliant mistress; his avid acolytes; his travailing dealers; his compliant critics. At the end of this ten-minute paean to the life of the great artist, Feiffer fixes the viewer with a wearily witty eye and says: "That's not what the life of a great cartoonist is like."
So, the high-art-lite tendency may not have acquired a great, high cultural critic in the shape of Stallabrass. But with his fusty, stolid, Marxian analyses, his unfussy prose and his measured discursiveness, they've got the critic they deserve - as cartoonists. This, taken together with a handsomely produced, beautifully stitched and resplendently illustrated (save for where a couple of tetchy cartoonists have denied permission for the replication of their works) book, makes High Art Lite a must for anyone who danced to the decadent drum of techno trivialising. And I did - Lord knows I did.
Will Self is completing a new novel, "How the Dead Live" (Bloomsbury)