Unholy trinity

Art - Matthew Collings on why the older yBas still appeal to the higher class of philistine

Three artists - Sarah Lucas, 42, Damien Hirst, 40, and Angus Fairhurst, 38 - put this show together. Their ages are significant because these are the leading "yBas", or young British artists, whose global art careers took off 15 years ago. They've got to keep the yBa ball rolling even though the glamour of that scene is entirely predicated on fuck-you youthfulness.

The artists' ability to spin out endless metaphors is striking. Rather than profound, it is akin to the goony wordplay and exaggeration that stoners enjoy. Cigarettes equal death. The Crucifixion is about death. Therefore Jesus equals cigarettes. Pizza delivery flyers delivered through the front door are enlarged to become wallpaper. Over a colour-Xeroxed gigantic pizza lies a huge black spot. Ugh! It turns out to be made of real flies suspended in clear resin. Maybe pizza is communion bread. Why not? Flies live on death. Butterflies die quickly. Iron Butterfly is the name of the rock band whose 1968 album In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida provides the title for this show. It means "In the Garden of Eden". We are invited to think of sin and origins and the "point" of, well, everything. We become cokehead philosophers. An ape looks at his own reflection in a pond. It is about self-regard. Another ape regards his own dismembered arm. It is about the disintegrated self. A blue truck houses a wanking arm. Blue for boys! Jigsaw puzzle pieces line the floor of a vitrine. The puzzle of human existence! Spam becomes a metaphor for the human body, because Spam is meat. Actually, it's not entirely. Hang on, is Spam already a metaphor?

If the meanings aren't exactly meaningful, there is nevertheless enjoyment. Even where the silliest or most abject sights are to be found - a man wanking while sitting on a giant Spam sandwich; artificial genitalia visibly pulsating, as if they're real; a stillborn calf with six legs, which actually is real, suspended in formaldehyde - there is pleasure. It is to be found in playful creative contrasts of texture, colour and shape: the black and white of the calf against the light off-yellow of the floor; a sudden flash of blue provided by the nylon stockings on one of Lucas's Bunny sculptures; the lovely, almost Islamic patterning and pinkish colour of Hirst's butterfly wallpaper.

Lucas's Mary, a fire bucket and light bulbs making up a female form, is as good as anything she's ever done, mocking Picasso's welded-metal sculptures and, in its surprising elegance, actually rivalling Picasso. Virtually the same object was in a recent Lucas retrospective at Tate Modern, but what seems to be the same is really experimenting in a new way with the same elements. Although Hirst generally lacks Lucas's fine, light touch for making scruffy surfaces appear beautiful, he is better here than he has been for a few years - in fact, since his Gagosian Gallery show in New York in 2000, where he summarised all his previous ideas but with added decorative effects. Fairhurst is as hard to fathom as ever. His work looks good initially because the installation as a whole is laid out so well. Plus his ape gags are genuinely witty. But then his stubborn anti-aestheticism baffles. How is it supposed to entertain or engage? (The others, particularly Lucas, possess and are not afraid to flaunt old-fashioned modernist skills of making and arranging.)

Hirst dominates because he's the most compelling showman. Emptiness is his forte, but there is emptiness and emptiness. His religious exhibition at White Cube last year was like late baroque, overblown and indulgent. Here he's still interested in religion but back on his old good form; he's high baroque, and visually dazzling. That doesn't mean his "ideas" are ever anything but banal.

One of his works transcribes Francis Bacon's Painting 1946 (a kind of modern Crucifixion). Instead of the sides of beef and the black umbrella and the festooned flowers that Bacon painted, Hirst presents real sides of beef, a real umbrella and festooned strings of sausages, all in a water-filled vitrine with beautiful tropical fish thrown into the mix. The Bacon reference provides Hirst with a short cut to significance - the presence of "greatness". Actually, Bacon himself was a dubious significance merchant. His sides of beef in Painting 1946 are signifiers of classy "suffering". They drag in Rembrandt and Soutine, just as his self-consciously "rough" smudging of reds and blues into white drag in Monet.

An assembler of real objects rather than a painter, Hirst is a high stylist, like Bacon. And like Bacon he is hit-and-miss. If Hirst's beef had been pork, it might have been funny - Bacon, geddit? But Hirst is already funny enough, stamping INRI and his own initials on the beef and placing a brain in a frying pan to remind us of Hannibal Lecter and give us a clue that the sensibilities of the higher class of philistine are being catered for here.

"In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida: Angus Fairhurst, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas" is at Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8000) until 31 May

Matthew Collings is the author of Sarah Lucas (Tate Publishing)