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7 December 2022

How Sensation turned British art into big business

Twenty-five years ago, the Charles Saatchi-backed exhibition heralded a new era – one in which profit would reign supreme.

By Michael Prodger

In September 1997, Norman Rosenthal, the exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy of Art (RA), defended a controversial new display at the institution. “My own feeling,” he told the BBC’s Late Review, “is that it is a show for this moment in England’s history.” With hindsight, 25 years of it, he was right. “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” opened at the RA just four months after Tony Blair entered Downing Street and was part of a pop culture efflorescence that is now viewed as a shifting of national mood. By the time the exhibition’s three-month run finished on 28 December, it had been seen by nearly 300,000 visitors paying £7 a time.

Rosenthal’s historical moment was one where youth, media nous, disinhibition and self-confidence went a very long way. The Young British Artists (YBAs), a term first coined in 1992, were never a proper group or movement, nor was there such thing as YBA style but rather a shared attitude in which irreverence and shock were key traits for most of the participants.

A yoking together had already started in 1988, when Damien Hirst put together “Freeze”, an exhibition of the work of his friends, held in London’s Docklands. So, by the time of “Sensation”, many of the artists and artworks were already well known: by then both Hirst and Rachel Whiteread had won the Turner Prize, the Chapman brothers and Tracey Emin had had major solo shows, and the work of other artists in the Saatchi Collection had been shown to the curious at Charles Saatchi’s gallery on Boundary Road in north London. Nevertheless, when 116 works from the advertising panjandrum’s holdings were put together at the RA the uproar was instant and loud.

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On that same Late Review programme, aired on the opening day, Allison Pearson, looking rather pleased at her daring, declared “Sensation” to comprise “70 per cent cobblers”; Tony Parsons dismissed the 42 artists represented as “flogging Marcel Duchamp’s dead horse” in an exhibition “sponsored by a rich Tory moron”; while Tom Paulin offered a bizarre opinion about Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley, taken from the famous newspaper mugshot of the moors murderer and composed of a child’s handprints: “It’s quite clear the artist was sexually attracted to her.” The pundits were a small sample group, but enough to show that whatever “Sensation” was, it did not admit neutral judgement.

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The Hindley picture attracted most attention, with four Royal Academicians resigning in protest at its inclusion, while Winnie Johnson – the mother of Keith Bennett, a victim of Hindley and Ian Brady – the Daily Mail and Hindley herself from her prison cell all demanded that the painting be removed from the show. It was vandalised twice on the opening day, with ink and then eggs, and security guards at the RA were given a special dadaist call sign – “Alpha, Alpha, R, A, Y, Tango Tango” – in case of further episodes. 

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Harvey’s work was, however, just one of many contentious pieces, most of which are now familiar and comfortingly tame. Hirst showed his shark in formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (first exhibited in 1992); Emin displayed her tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (first exhibited in 1995); Marc Quinn included his self-portrait bust made from ten pints of his own frozen blood (first exhibited in 1991); Chris Ofili his elephant dung The Holy Virgin Mary (first exhibited in 1996); and the Chapman brothers their penis-nosed, anus-mouthed mannequin cluster Zygotic Acceleration (first exhibited in 1996). None were new works, but seen together they offered an unprecedented gathering of shocks and affronts.

The RA knew just what it was doing and warned its visitors to expect works “which some people may find distasteful. Parents should exercise their judgement in bringing their children to the exhibition. One gallery will not be open to those under the age of 18.” The caution was both due diligence and a huge tease: what could be more enticing than such delicious forbidden fruit?

During the exhibition’s run there was the rare sight of queues of people, desperate to see what the fuss was all about, winding out of the RA courtyard and into Piccadilly. Media outlets relished the furore and stoked it with copious pieces and crowd-pleasing headlines, such as the BBC’s announcement of “gory images of dismembered limbs and explicit pornography”. When the show moved on to Berlin and New York there was more controversy: Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York, without having seen the painting, called Ofili’s Virgin Mary “sick stuff” and threatened to withdraw the Brooklyn Museum’s $7m civic grant, saying: “You don’t have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else’s religion.”

All this from an exhibition that wasn’t meant to happen at all. It was only due to a gap in scheduling that the Royal Academy cast around for a show to tide it over until the New Year and Saatchi helpfully, and shrewdly, offered his own pictures. Despite the works belonging to a man who bought and sold art in bulk, and was therefore situated rather closer to the trade than non-commercial galleries are usually happy with, the RA swallowed its qualms and accepted his help. If the show boosted the prices of the works and the value of Saatchi’s collection as a whole, as it undoubtedly would, then that was no concern of theirs. The RA, after all, receives no public money and must pay its own way in life.

The exhibition had also been scheduled to travel later to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra but that gallery proved rather more pernickety about the financial implications: when it learnt that the New York iteration of the show had been part sponsored by Saatchi himself ($160,000), his auction house of choice Christie’s ($50,000), and the artists’ own dealers ($10,000), it blanched at the prospect of being used to boost Saatchi’s investments further and withdrew.

At the RA itself, Rosenthal, who had a fractious relationship with many Royal Academicians, had to overcome plenty of internal opposition. Around 20 Academicians complained publicly about the decision to go ahead with the show and about its contents, some of them using the opportunity to discomfort the exhibitions secretary. Sir Philip Dowson, president of the RA, went into justificatory-exculpatory mode. At a press briefing he stressed that the decision to host the exhibition “followed the rigorous procedures of the Academy” and that it had been approved by its ruling council. Then he stressed the RA’s obligation “to show art of all kinds” and noted that the next show on the schedule was a don’t-scare-the-horses stately home and churches exhibition of “Art Treasures of England”.

[See also: How Eric Ravilious found the soul of England]

David Gordon, secretary of the RA, then addressed the Myra Hindley controversy: the picture, he said, “makes us think afresh about [her] crimes and her punishment, and our reactions”. He concluded with the hoary argument that “The Academy believes that the public, having seen for itself, should judge for itself. The Academy also believes in and welcomes discussion and debate.” A questionnaire, he said, would be available at the end of the galleries for the public to air their views. So that was all right then.

Saatchi’s professional PR skills came into play long before the exhibition opened, and a febrile expectancy was whipped up before the public was allowed in. The launch party was a carefully managed society event where cameras snapped the arriving guests – at least some of whom were connected to the art world. Meanwhile, microphones caught the pensées of the likes of Germaine Greer and Stephen Fry, the latter opining magisterially if formulaically – and inaccurately – that: “If art attracts the bourgeois then it must be wrong… it’s not for their comfort and solace, it’s not supposed to be understood, it’s not supposed to be liked, comfortable and easy. It’s supposed to be difficult and dark and dangerous.”

At least one of the artists found the party itself and the whole apparatus around the exhibition neither comfort nor solace. Gavin Turk was responsible for one of the more striking exhibits, Pop (1993), a life-size statue of a pistol-wielding Sid Vicious based on Andy Warhol’s prints of Elvis Presley. He turned up dressed as a tramp, in dirty and torn clothes and with strips of newspaper for shoes. “The art was being used to the wrong end,” he explained, “and actually it was somebody else’s party.”

Another YBA, Mat Collishaw, saw things differently: what linked many of the artists on show was that they were “working class, there was no family silver”, he said. “We also had an aversion to taking public money, a common practice with artists who can’t be bothered to make work that is sellable.” So they sold to the very wealthy instead, and as long as there was money sloshing around to buy their work, and money too for a bells-and-whistles party, then all was well.

It was Rosenthal who tried to give the exhibition a rather more elevated rationale. In his introductory essay to the catalogue, he stated that: “A visitor to this exhibition with an open mind and well-developed antennae for life will perceive an uncommonly clear mirror of contemporary problems and obsessions from the perspective of youth.” The exhibits, he claimed, were “memorable metaphors of many aspects of our times” and came up with a catholic list that included “love and sex or fashion and food, waste and plenty, boredom and excitement, violence and child abuse, disease, medicine and death, shelter and exposure, science and metamorphosis, simplicity and complexity”.Rosenthal, with the sunlit uplands firmly in his mind’s eye, then also wondered whether “Sensation” could help London become the global centre “for the practice and presentation of contemporary art” and thereby jettison the cultural cringe that had long marked British attitudes to the art of the Continent. Certainly, the German and American stagings of the exhibition helped give Hirst, Emin and a select few others a prominence they had not previously managed (even if at least a chunk of German gallery-goers agreed with the critic who found there was “no sensation about ‘Sensation’”).

Of course, many of the artists would have made their name regardless – it would simply have taken longer. The majority of the YBAs, now all in late middle age, have gone on to sustain lucrative – and in the case of Hirst and Emin, Croesus-rich – careers, regardless of the quality of their work. Along the way they have shed their outsider status too: Rachel Whiteread had a major solo exhibition at Tate Britain in 2017; Sarah Lucas was Britain’s representative at the Venice Biennale in 2015; Chris Ofili won the Turner Prize in 1998, became a trustee of the Tate, and was awarded a CBE in 2017; Sam Taylor-Wood (now Taylor-Johnson) branched out into music videos and films – including directing the movie adaptation of the titillating Fifty Shades of Grey. Meanwhile, both Marc Quinn and Yinka Shonibare have made sculptures for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Many of the non-YBAs collected by Saatchi have done well for themselves too, artists such as Mark Wallinger and Glenn Brown. Their adroit paintings at “Sensation” – of a racehorse and an anthropomorphic Salvador Dalí respectively – showed that among all those installations oil on canvas still had a place in contemporary art. Not every artist, however, finessed the exposure of 1997 into continued recognition. For each limelight-hugger there is an Abigail Lane, Richard Patterson, Alain Miller, Jonathan Parsons or Hadrian Pigott – artists whose names and work are currency among a tight group of collectors but have modest public acknowledgement.

Having watched the value of his collection spike, Saatchi cashed in and sold the majority of the works – to make room for a new collection he said, although the money was undoubtedly handy. Hirst’s shark went to the American hedge-funder Steven Cohen for $8m ($12m in some accounts); Quinn’s blood head fetched a supposed £1.5m; Ofili’s Virgin Mary made £2.9m; while Harvey’s Hindley (for a supposed £100,000), Turk’s Pop (unknown price) and the Chapmans’ mannequins from the exhibition (£218,000) all went to the American commodities trader Frank Gallipoli. Emin’s tent was one of several Saatchi works destroyed in a fire at an art storage facility in 2004. Other works in “Sensation” have ended up in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Tate Modern, the Art Council Collection, and François Pinault’s swanky new gallery in Paris.These statement pieces have transcended their status as artworks and become signifiers of a cultural moment. It is possibly for that, rather than any inherent artistic substance, that they will be remembered in another 25 years. And many of the artists should be grateful, since the subsequent careers of a large chunk of the YBAs have been object lessons in the law of diminishing returns.

Hirst, for example, has garnered his millions, and added to them, by producing (or instructing his assistants to produce) vacuous gimcrackery – dot, spin and butterfly paintings for would-be fashionable walls, non fungible tokens (NFTs) of trees in blossom, and bombastic sculptures. His diamond-encrusted skull of 2007 may have been an in-joke in bad taste about the money-obsessed art world, but his claim that some schmuck paid £50m for it turned out to be just another example of his undoubted skill as a marketeer rather than as an artist: the piece was in fact still owned by Hirst himself, his dealer and an assortment of investors and was safely tucked away in storage. If Hirst’s early vitrines addressed in a novel way the old artistic themes of transience and death, his own merit as an artist died young and has proved impossible to bring back to life.

Emin has her supporters too but, in her post-“Sensation” work, the self-exposure of her tent and unmade bed (My Bed, 1998) slipped into solipsism, where it has remained. Her sploshy expressionist paintings, wobbly-line drawings and greetings-card slogans in neon light may vent the pain of being Tracey Emin, but as autonomous works it is hard to see them leaving much of a mark on the story of 21st-century art. Ditto the Chapman brothers, who continued their slap-in-the-face antics – doctoring authentic watercolours by Hitler and prints by Goya, more genitalia-faced models of children, crucifying Ronald McDonald – only to separate as a partnership within the last couple of years. And since 1995, Marcus Harvey has produced nothing to match the profundity and impact of Myra.

In contrast, other “Sensation” contributors – such as Jenny Saville, with her huge and frank pictures of the naked female body; Glenn Brown, with his unsettling paintings that pay a twisted homage to the old masters; and Ron Mueck with his hyper-real and perception-challenging human models – have shown that it was possible to outlive the rumpus and grow into artists of significance. 

“Sensation” was one of several renascences that occurred in 1997: Bill Clinton started his second term as president with the promise of a more equitable United States; Blair started his first as PM holding out the prospect of an ethical foreign policy; the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, it was widely thought, would usher in a kinder nation; the handover of Hong Kong was an act of faith in a respectful, treaty-abiding China. None of these shimmering futures lasted. And while “Sensation” was heralded as a tectonic moment in British art, the greatest shift it brought in reality was to the profiles – and bank balances – of the artists and their dealers.

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special