The Young British Artists : How Money, Hype and Power Revamped Art in the 1990’s
By Andrew Bay, UK
It's only fair to acknowledge from the onset, that the 'Young British Artists' who dominated the art world over 30 years ago, would no longer be considered particularly young today. And as it turns out, most of them don't live in Great Britain anymore either. But it's also true, that their impact on the art world was enormous and that they went from being art world sensations, to becoming pop culture icons, who radically transformed contemporary art on a global scale.
Artists usually associated with the YBA movement, include in no particular order: Sarah Lucas, Matt Collinshaw, Gary Hume, Sam Taylor-Wood, Mark Wallinger, Rachel Whiteread, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst to name but a few. They came to preeminence in the mid 1990s in London, which was going through a sort of cultural effervescence reminiscent of the London of the Swinging Sixties. They were mainly trained at Goldsmiths and Royal College of Art. Goldsmiths in particular, was famous for its groundbreaking curricular methodologies which eschewed dividing art disciplines into separate categories, but instead, encouraged students to adopt a collaborative mixed media approach in their work. More than a common stylistic approach however, what defined the YBA's as an artistic movement, was their dynamism and resourcefulness. Unlike the generation that preceded them, they were driven and savvy enough not to wait for the Art world to come to them, but instead, started creating their own events and shows as young students. Their rise to fame coincided with the Brit Pop and Cool Britannia cultural juggernaut, which swept across Britain in the Summer of 1997.
Damien Hirst immediately stands out as the natural leader of the YBA pack. As a second year student at Goldsmiths College, he organised and fostered his first exhibition at the age of 23, in 1988. The show was entitled 'Freeze', and gathered such a big buzz that Charles Saatchi himself, the famous London advertising magnate and art curator, attended the opening night. Four years later, the Saatchi gallery exhibited most of these artists' works, in a 20,000 square foot factory in London. The show was simply called 'Young British Artists'. A brand new aesthetic was thus created: it was contemporary, original, and compelling. The artists fully understood the interplay between high and low culture and rapidly broke into the mainstream of public opinion and perception.
One of the most iconic artworks to emerge from that period was Hirst's 1991 infamous formaldehyde shark. Not many people would remember that the piece was humorously entitled: 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.' Although he was shortlisted that year, he only won the Turner Prize in 1995, in spite of considerable backlash from animal lovers and the press. Charles Saatchi decided to rapidly capitalize on the national exposure and coverage his artists were getting, building a media-savvy balance between art and commerce.
In 1997, Saatchi opened the exhibition which would firmly and conclusively establish the YBAs as household names in the art world, the media and public consciousness. 'Sensation' was a resounding success, with a record attendance of up to 300,000 visitors for the Royal Academy in London. The exhibition attracted unprecedented news and media coverage which rivalled with the daily headlines and the New Labour cabinet election. Saatchi and his artists had unexpectedly taken contemporary art from the confines of the academic world into mainstream culture. The vast amount of publicity garnered by the YBA's, helped to transform the Turner Prize into a significant cultural event. With all-time high attendances and star-studded ceremonies, the Prize gained enough momentum in just a few years, to convince private investors and public officials in London, that the time had come for the city to host its own contemporary art museum. And this was accomplished in the year 2000 with the opening of the Tate Modern on the London South Bank.
Yet again, this was an outstanding success for all concerned: the London art world, the media which secured a sparkling live TV broadcast for the opening night, and the 5000 guests who attended the show premiere and the glamorous after party. But this really was first and foremost an incredible achievement for the YBA's. Through sheer tenacity, creative talent and enthusiasm, these 16 art school graduates had literally changed the art world for the better, and made London into the art capital of the world. The event was a huge success which impact immediately translated into surprisingly high numbers of visitors in the following weeks for a contemporary art museum. The YBA's were now at the epicentre of the cultural zeitgeist, they were as famous and charismatic as pop stars, they were the talk of the town and everyone wanted to gravitate in their orbit.
By the mid 2000 however, the world had dramatically changed due to the ongoing Iraq War, and the economic crash of the dot.com bubble: the euphoria of the new millennium had but pretty much subsided. The YBA's went their separate ways, Charles Saatchi sold his galleries and the Internet Revolution started to create the new technologically-driven world we live in today. But this may be the reason why the influence of the work these artists produced during that brief period of time, has undeniably persisted through the years. Art students the world over, as well as the public at large, are still captivated by that movement, simply because the work still strongly resonates with our imagination and still carries a great deal of originality.
Their pioneering approach to the use of found objects as formal symbolism was groundbreaking. A collective ongoing receptiveness to new processes, to continually explore how art is made, and how it can be thought about, defined their pursuit.
Collectively, the YBAs used visual media comprehensively, fostering a renewed interest in print film and photography; they pushed the expressive character of the installation as a conceptual tool to new levels, and reinvigorated painting with a sense of urgency and exuberant vitality.