|by Mick Finch|
|Contemporary Visual Art Magazine (N°14), 1997.|
Paris has recently hosted two major shows surveying aspects of British art.A Century of British Sculpture at the Jeu de Paume last summer traced the history of an English-based avant-garde, placed under the unsteady umbrella of sculpture. Life/Live attempted to survey the most recent forms of so-called radical artistic practice to have emerged in Britain since the late-eighties. Central to the exhibition was a review of the artist-run spaces that have proliferated in London and other British cities over the last decade. But on another level, the exhibition singled out the work of particular artists who, having cut their teeth exhibiting in independent spaces, could now be described as mainstream. An older generation of artists including John Latham, David Medalla and Gustav Metzger were also represented, bringing to the selection a historical perspective and sense of tradition of practice. The implied tradition was broadly conceptual, and the majority of the work fell into the categories of installation, photo-based work, documents, video and film.
The exhibition's title, Life/Live, implies that the broad character of work shown is a type of realism. The catalogue reinforces this view, describing the 'abject' feeling that runs through the selection as an engagement with social, ephemeral and everyday issues. Much of the work consciously revisits 'radical' aspects of a historical avant-garde - especially that of the 1960s and 70s. Suzanne Pagé highlights one example of this in her preface to the catalogue, where she describes a Situationalist spirit as being at work within the British scene today. This observation is in many ways true. A preoccupation with cities and spectacle (the English equivalent to spectacle in this case being mass entertainment) was shared by the Situationalists, who were active between 1968 and 1972. What is not clear is how much the artists selected for Life/Live really share with Situationalist aims. That group was a highly politicised movement which described the phase of capitalism emerging in the 1960s in terms of a globalisation of consumer culture where spectacle or entertainment would be the mechanism to produce a public necessary to sustain consumerism. The Situationalists were in essence political activists who tried to act in defiance of the 'spectacularisation' of society because they saw that unless this mechanism of consumerism was opposed, 'revolution' was not viable. Guy Debord's writings were at the heart of Situationalist thinking and his book The Society of the Spectacle has had much influence on a younger generation of artists in the last few years. Similarities between Life/Live and the Situationalists may, however, be only skin-deep. The quote of Debord's which prefaces this article contains the dilemma that contemporary artists face if they wish to make 'radical' art.
The predominance of large-scale video, installation and photography in the exhibition directly addressed forms of spectacle. French critics have been quick to pinpoint the contradiction which lies unresolved in the Life/Liveartists' use of these media. Reviewing Life/Live for Art Press, Eric Troncy quoted an extract from the exhibition catalogue by Gregor Muir. Muir's observation epitomises a largely French critical perspective which has not exported to British shores: 'We are talking about a generation traumatised by the visual sensationalism of the entertainment industry. What I'm sensing of late is that artists have seized upon video as a means of forging a working relationship with the mass-media. This is borne out in the recent trend for video projections on a cinematic scale which acknowledge all the seductive qualities of cinema whilst revealing how certain artists are seduced by a moving image - that big - of their own making. More than anything, artists are seduced by the spectacle of video projection, often without questioning the fundamental principles of spectacles in terms of heavy-handed posturing.'
The underlying question in Muir's observation is what, if any, is the radical nature of an art form which uses the apparatus of spectacle? Political radicalism can be positioned on the left or right, but Debord states that anyvanguard using spectacular forms may find that its best intentions are 'offset by the reactionary element present in all spectacles'. This reactionary element is most certainly present in the British scene shown byLife/Live - the apolitical or anarchic gloss of the scene does little to conceal this fact. This reactionary element emerges as a product of the very public this art addresses
The 'Brit Pack' have become a media phenomenon which is quite unprecedented in the British scene (with perhaps the exception of the 'Tate Bricks' scandal many years back). What has changed drastically is that many Brit Pack artists have become media personalities like pop stars. Few readers of tabloid papers would have linked Carl Andre's name to the Tate Bricks, whereas Damien Hirst has become synonymous with sharks and divided cows. The power of Saatchi in this relationship is enormous. A Saatchi purchase legitimises work and types of artistic practice, acting as a bridge into museum spaces. it is also significant that the 'abject', or 'grunge', aesthetic at work in Brit Pack art has for many years been prevalent in advertising images. Embedded in fashion photography, pop videos and advertising is a grunge attitude which another generation would cynically describe as the aestheticisation of alienation - 'let's feel good about being down' (the blues were an even older phase of the same process). Art is mirroring marketing and vice-versa.
In France a 'public' of this type does not exist. The French simply do not have a tabloid media which shocks its readership by sensationalising what is passing for art in 'high culture'. Perhaps weary after more than one hundred and fifty years of épater les bourgeois, the French simply accept that avant-gardism seeks shock effects. The lack of a highly 'mediatised' visual art scene in France is probably due to the fact that there is just no audience for it. The lack of a powerful advertising mogul/art collector in Paris is also noticeable. So why are the French, institutionally, spending so much time and money surveying the current British scene?
One cynical explanation refers to the election victory of the right wing RPR party under Jacques Chirac, who is keen to transform the French economy by means similar to those of the Thatcherite agenda of the 1980s. So far his attempts to do this have met with considerable public opposition, but nevertheless he has been cutting funding in various public-sector fields: the arts in France have been a prime and easy target. There is a feeling in France that the massive state funding of the arts does not parallel the success and the quality of work made by its artists. One French artist I met at the Life/Live opening simply said that he felt the exhibition was a signal to the French artistic community, showing how it should operate under free market conditions. if public money dries up, French artists will have to take their chances. The privatisation of French culture will perhaps prompt its artists and administrators to examine the British art scene as a model of how the artist functions as entrepreneur. This reveals a view of the contradiction bound up within the 'Brit Pack' avant-gardist posture which Debord identified long ago. Without its media gloss and glamour, the Brit Pack appears to some Gallic audiences as a group of cultural entrepreneurs running independent spaces which mirror the institutional structure of the 'official' art world. To be an 'outsider' and in the vanguard is a tactical position which always has its eye on insider structures.
Another French artist I spoke to, who practises as an installation artist, lamented the British scene's lack of any real intellectual, critical, theoretical or political ground. He gave me a critical essay, by a British group called Poster Art, entitled 'They're All Going Down'. The essay gives an account of the Brit Pack as being simply the products of a right-wing, free-marketeering enterprise culture. They indicate one of the major problems of British criticism when it deals with the contemporary scene: 'There is almost no criticism. Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell is held up as a kind of ultimate old fart bogeyman, tainting any negative criticism with the same old fart's brush. it is only recently that the media has come to grips with contemporary art at all, so there is a total lack of historical context. The writers who are scared of becoming Brian Sewell retreat into fawning description.'
Negative criticism of the Brit Pack on its home soil tends to be as reactionary as the art it is rallying against. Sewell is the extreme of this. Since the mid-eighties, after the School of London hype, there has been inertia. Critics tends to challenge the contemporary scene on the grounds that it is 'non-art', asserting in their defence the 'true' art values which are invariably species of humanistic painting and sculpture. The political gulf between the Brit Pack and the Fogeys seems about as wide as that between Thatcher, who was 'not for turning', and Major in his 'back to basics' phase.
There is, however, a body of criticism, theory and history that is not being mobilised in the face of the Brit Pack phenomenon. The space available in this article does not permit an extensive exploration of this, but it is worth mentioning some other non-Fogey examples of what the negative end of the polemical response to Brit Pack art might be. One only has to examine the discussions in the 1960s and 70s for support. Art and Language practised within the context of the international conceptual avant-garde, but came to question that practice - mainly as it seemed to serve the very system that it set out to oppose. This started to become clear in the late 1960s - particularly after the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, which in 1969 became known as the seminal survey exhibition of conceptualist art. Philip Morris sponsored the event, and a statement by the president of the company was printed in the ICA catalogue. Although it is a short text, it still makes interesting reading and proves that, even during the heady days of the sixties, corporate capitalism was quick to identify itself with avant-garde practice. Progressive aspects in the arts could, by association, benefit the progressive ideology of business interests:
'The works assembled for this exhibit have been grouped together under the heading new art. We at Philip Morris feel it is appropriate that we participate in bringing these works to the attention of the public, for there is a key element in this new art which has its counterpart in the business world. That element is innovation - without which it would be impossible for progress to be made in any segment of society.'
For this reason groups like Art and Language became resolutely anti-avant-garde in their position, and more and more absorbed in a Marxist-based critical framework. interestingly, this suspicion of an avant-garde stance involves a deep but critical reading of Clement Greenberg's writings, particularly his essay 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' of 1939. The art and social historian T. J. Clark, in an essay titled 'Clement Greenberg's Theory of Art', discusses kitsch in a way which seems to sum up the mechanisms powering Brit Pack art today:
'Kitsch is the sign of a bourgeoisie contriving to lose its identity ... It is an art and a culture of instant assimilation, of abject reconciliation to the everyday, of avoidance of difficulty, pretence at indifference, equality before the image of capital.'
Michael Finch is a British artist working in France.
Life/Live was at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, October 1996 - January 1997, and continues at the Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon, until 21 April 1997