The phenomenal hype that has surrounded the new generation of British artists is no accident. It's the handiwork of veteran advertising man Charles Saatchi, who has used the millions he made in product peddling to acquire and promote art. As a... [more]
The phenomenal hype that has surrounded the new generation of British artists is no accident. It's the handiwork of veteran advertising man Charles Saatchi, who has used the millions he made in product peddling to acquire and promote art. As a collector, Saatchi clearly has an eye for the iconoclastic, the shocking, the new -- no sepia-toned old masters for him! The question remains, however, whether the art he promotes is more gimmick than substance, more in the mode of self-advertisement than of self-contemplation. Saatchi's sensation-causing shows tend to override any attempts to address this issue.
Before Saatchi played the ringmaster to the Young British Artists' circus, this band had been cultivating its bad boy image for a decade. Led by a young Damien Hirst, most of these artists graduated from London's Goldsmith College in the late 1980s. Though they do not share a unified set of techniques or theories, they do exhibit commonalities: namely, the desire to shock. They embrace a kind of popular "cattle-prod" concern, splaying wide the sacred, the saintly, and the taboo in the name of the outrageously subversive. For the likes of Damien Hirst, Ian Davenport, Gary Hume, Fiona Rae, Gillian Wearing, Marc Quinn, and the Chapman brothers (among others), public assumptions are in dire need of a wake-up call.
And behind the Britpack's shock tactics lies a canny understanding of pop culture. This is art that speaks to the populace -- not the stuff of abstract intellectualism, this kind of work screams its intent. It's professional wrestling employed in the service of Conceptual art, and it has indeed evoked visceral reactions amongst those who would otherwise never visit a museum. Critics have cried foul, suggesting that the Young British Artists are nothing more than a pre-packaged serving of hip nihilism served up to a spectacle-hungry public.
And the spectacle-hungry were surely sated when Saatchi presented his most famous Britpack offering, a show aptly called Sensation, in 1997. Critics and public alike focused on the most sound-byte-worthy works (though, in fact, many genres and styles were represented). The fiercest clamor arose around Hirst, who earned equal amounts of scorn and praise for his work with animal cadavers. One piece consisted of a tank of formaldehyde containing a perfectly bisected pig, which floated silently for all to inspect. Matt Collishaw, meanwhile, scandalized the crowd with his "Bullet Hole," which featured a close-up of a bullet in a human brain. Marcus Harvey showed his painting "Myra," a photo portrait of child-murderer Myra Hindley enhanced with acrylic paint. Though many regarded this stuff as merely shocking, the artists' credentials made it hard to dismiss their work. Several have won major awards from respected art institutions. The verdict -- gimmick or substance -- is still out.
When Sensation arrived in the United States, the controversy followed. Slated for a debut at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, it ran up against the conservative politics of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. At the center of the ruckus was a painting of the Virgin Mary that portrays her with African features and includes cutouts of buttocks from pornographic magazines and balls of elephant dung. The picture ignited a firestorm of protests, both for and against the art. Religious Christians attacked it as blasphemous; defenders of free speech opposed the attempt to censor it.
Despite the Mayor's threats, the show opened, and the noise attracted a lot more people than would otherwise have attended. Regardless of anyone's personal feelings about the art, Sensation was a success, at least as measured by notoriety. Whether the reputation of the Young British Artists will solidify over time, or, like a public relations ploy, vanish from memory as soon as it has achieved its purpose, remains to be seen. The only sure thing is that Charles Saatchi has succeeded in increasing the value of his collection several fold. [show less]