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 <em>Verso, 342pp, £22</em>

ISBN 1859847218

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)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why arms sales are bad for Britain

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.