“I gather — for those lucky enough to be there — it was all a brief period of illumination, elation, etc.. “Heady times,” as they say. And it was a sense of zeitgeist that didn’t just involve music, but also seemed swept the cultural board as a whole — art, design, advertising, fashion, film, even restauranteering. A new sense of assurance, vitality — of relevance — brought about and bolstered by a number of concurrent phenomena. Acid house and Madchester and the rave scene that followed, the emergence of a new generation of visual artists in the form of the YBA, etc. Add to all this the ascendence of so-called New Labour and all the ambiguity that surrounded it — the speculative uncertainty about where its ideological core fell in relation to traditional Labour and conservatism, and just what (and who) was included under the newly-opened umbrella of Tony Blair and New Labour’s “New Britain.”
“Far from radically reconfiguring the relationship between high and low, argued Simon Ford and Anthony Davies in their essay “Art Capital” (Art Monthly, Feb. 1998), YBA had been unwittingly hijacked by big business and government as a means to build brand through lifestyle marketing. Tony Blair, and before him John Major, set out to relaunch Britain as youthful, entrepreneurial, cool, and creative: a desirable destination for tourists, wealth creators, and decision makers. YBA, along with Britpop, was a key marketing device in the construction of that image. At the same time, the British economy was experiencing a booming consumer culture in the wake of the 1989-91 recession. The press, chasing advertisers, began to fill its pages with “lifestyle” journalism rather than consumer-unfriendly news-and natural self-publicists like Hirst and Emin were close at hand. Hirst`s multifarious activities-his music videos, his restaurants, his record covers, his product design-appeared, for a moment, to signal a radical disruption of art`s specialized terrain. But when stores like Habitat and Selfridges recognized the consumer advantage in affiliating themselves with the new British art, the symbiosis between commerce and culture deepened until, as Simon Ford concluded, “the art becomes inseparable from the products it is helping to sell-the floor coverings and furnishings, the restaurants and clubs.” Rather than reflect on consumer society, as Pop art did, YBA became an aspect of it.
As journalism embraced YBA, criticism abandoned it: Britart has no Bergers or Burgins to call its own. The art historian Julian Stallabrass, whose courageous book High Art Lite of 1999 remains the only detailed critical excavation of the period, argues that YBA itself is inimical to criticism because it refuses any cultural or intellectual responsibility. “Instead,” he writes of Sarah Lucas`s Sunday Sport pieces, “a pervasive and disabling irony becalms the work in a manner that is supposed, in conventional wisdom, to challenge the viewer but which in fact conveniently opens up demotic material to safe aesthetic delectation.”
“But the weird thing about it is that I either have never thought about it at all – making art popular — or else Ive positively hated the popularisation of contemporary art. When I’m being extreme, I’m capable of thinking that frankly the whole art scene is made up of a bunch of idiots. And I have no desire to get millions of ordinary people to queue up to look at that stuff. Why should they? It’s got nothing much to do with them. To suddenly expect it to be popular is asking the impossible. There really is very little in it for a mass audience and I think this mass audience it’s suddenly now got, knows that really. And they’re not really interested; they’re just along for the ride, for the nonsense. The mandarin people in charge of the Turner Prize, and the media people at Channel 4, and middle-class people who run the art columns on the broadsheets, all assume ordinary people must have this stuff explained to them — but the motivations for doing that are completely bullshit. It’s for commercial reasons, to get the ratings up.
“You could have said 50 years ago that the equivalent people in charge of modern and contemporary art packaged it for the masses because they thought it was good for them, or it would save society, or it was against fascism, or something. But now they don’t even pretend it’s out of decent motivations. It’s just for commercial reasons. In any case, I don’t care about any of that. But as I said, I only think those types of things when I’m being extreme.”
“Up until the crisis many of the financial institutions in Iceland played Medici-like patrons to artists—and used the artists’ image to promote their loans, overdrafts, savings and pension-plans in national ad-campaigns and carefully orchestrated media events, complete with oversized cheques, handshakes and photo-ops. Everybody (more or less) played along. There were sponsored squats for artists and a rubbing of shoulders with European jet-set elites—including the president’s wife, Dorrit Moussaieff and the Baroness Francesca von Habsburg—a considerable portion of the young art scene in Reykjavík had in this way direct access to some of the most powerful people in the European art scene. And the financial institutions—mainly Landsbanki Íslands—would throw petty alms at the starving artists, who proved more than willing to prostitute themselves (including me and my friends) for what was in all honesty a mere pittance.”
The rise of a new positivity and vitality in the arts and culture that’s riding on a cool Zeitgeist. The melding of art, literature, music, design and other forms of culture with politics, along with the embracing of musicians, artists, directors, novelists, other wonks, into political parties, or party representation (Björt Framtið = New Labour for example). The embracing of commercialised cultural lifestyles. The marketing of a nation’s cultural capital abroad by both the state and private interests. The lack of any decent cultural appraisal/criticism, etc, etc.
I know Iceland is the most post-modernist country in the world, but some of the parallels between “Inspired By Iceland” and “Cool Britannia” are so uncanny, I honestly think they’re trying to completely recreate the ’90s up here!