Modern art in Britain used to be rather provincial. Not any more. Norman Rosenthal, who recalls visiting the Freeze exhibition a decade ago with Damien Hirst, says London is now a contenderby Norman Rosenthal / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
It is autumn 1997, nearly the end of the 20th century, and Sensation, an exhibition of new British art, arrives at the Royal Academy. Not all new British art, but a good and handsome cross-section of it, courtesy of its greatest single patron, Charles Saatchi. It is now almost a decade (a long time in the history of any art movement) since Freeze, that remarkably resonant exhibition conceived and organised by the young Damien Hirst and his mates in a warehouse in London’s Docklands. That was in the summer of 1988: 17 artists were represented in Freeze; nine of them are participating in Sensation. Some of the others remain prominent, although their works happen not to have been acquired by Saatchi, who collects according to his own taste. A few have disappeared from view. One thing is certain: the majority of artists in Freeze, along with others using similar strategies for making and mediating art, have come to dominate the British art scene. Moreover, many have made a considerable impact on both sides of the Atlantic and further afield. Whatever happens next, these artists can no more be written out of the art history books than can the Pre-Raphaelites, the Vorticists, the Camden Town Group-or, nearer our own day, the British Pop artists or the new sculptors of the 1960s and the 1970s, many of whom are still prominent.
Art arises out of previous art and recent generations serve as inspiration to new work, which none the less has very different, more contemporary concerns. But as far as international reputation is concerned, it appears that the latest new generation of British artists is having considerably more impact than its predecessors. British art, even since Henry Moore, has always appeared to itself and to the outside world to be a little behind, lacking the innovation that is central to modern art. It was for that reason tinged with a certain indefinable, if attractive, provinciality. This is clearly no longer the case. Or is it? Perhaps one of the questions this exhibition will answer is precisely that-whether art in Britain, never quite central to the European cultural experience, nor quite radical in terms of the great American art experiment that commenced with Jackson Pollock, can now hold its own as second to none. Can London become the unchallenged centre for contemporary art? In the past, Paris, New York and even D?sseldorf have been able to claim this role. If London could now claim such a position, that would be grounds for celebration.
Certainly, it can be a full-time job just to keep up with all the exhibitions of new art in London, as anyone who regularly looks at the art listings in Time Out can see. There are numerous commercial galleries and dozens of artist-run, non-commercial spaces that spring up and as rapidly close down, much like subculture dance clubs. In the East End of London for the most part, these spaces can be almost anywhere-abandoned warehouses, deserted factories, unlettable modern office developments, churches and even synagogues, in St James’s in the very heart of London or in the Docklands. A street map is vital for tracking down obscure addresses where art made with deadly serious intent is being presented. To follow the art scene this closely is both invigorating and depressing, and requires time and patience. Nothing is more frustrating than a long trek to a space to find it holds little of interest. But next time one will be compensated by the pleasure of genuine discovery. Many of the pieces by lesser known artists in this exhibition have been acquired in this way by Charles Saatchi, who has a patience and enthusiasm for contemporary art that is second to none.
The model for all this frenetic activity was Freeze. By the time the three-part show ended it was already a legend in insider circles. I managed to see it courtesy of the persistent young Hirst, who came to collect me early one morning in a rickety old car and drove me down to Docklands so that I might be back at the Royal Academy by 10:30am. Art is not just about creating a vision; it is also about imposing that vision on others. Hirst was as good and skilful a publicist for his art and that of his contemporaries as he was a maker of art himself. He certainly was not promoting himself as his generation’s most significant representative, as the media later claimed. Soon after Freeze, Rachel Whiteread was showing her ambitious sculpture Ghost at the Chisenhale Gallery in the East End. I had not heard of Whiteread at the time, but Hirst insisted that I see her work and drove me there too. I was greatly impressed with what I saw. There was at that time, and there happily continues to be, a great generosity of spirit among these artists, who not only exhibit together, but support each other in many other ways too. Thus was established a new subculture that became so widespread it could not fail to be noticed. Naturally, art schools played their parts. Goldsmiths’ in New Cross, southeast London, was to this generation what the Royal College was to Pop and Saint Martin’s School of Art was to the new conceptual art of the 1970s. But it is what happens to artists after they leave college that counts. Hirst’s strategy of self-promotion, fully grounded on the originality and strength of what was being made, quickly paid dividends.
This was, of course, not the first time that artists had taken the initiative of self-promotion, not waiting for critics, collectors, dealers or museum curators (they least of all) to secure them their first step on the ladder to immortality. Art first must be conceived, second executed and third presented to a public, however small, before it stands a chance of entering the vernacular. In France in the 19th century, G?ricault, Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists were all enterprising artists imposing themselves on an unwilling audience. The same is true of the great art movements of this century. They were made up of artists producing work that the public neither wanted nor expected, but was forced to swallow because it raised issues of modernity that could not be avoided. That reluctant audience included critics and collectors, and even older artists, who inevitably felt their own pre-eminence threatened. Who, after all, is not made to feel uncomfortable by the unknown in art? It is natural and easy to fall in love with what is thought to be right and proper, good or beautiful. We now all love the Impressionists because we have come to know them and feel comfortable with them. But the task of new art is to disturb that sense of comfort.
What is so new about the art in Sensation? Why has this art had such a public resonance, unparalleled in this country since the arrival of the Pop generation, many of whom are now distinguished members of the Royal Academy? The answer lies in this generation’s new and radical attitude to realism, or rather to reality and real life itself. They combine this with a complex knowledge of recent art developments in Britain and abroad, which they ambitiously wish to challenge and extend. A visitor to this exhibition with an open mind will perceive an uncommonly clear mirror of contemporary obsessions. Presented with both seriousness and humour (often black), and in an extraordinary diversity of materials and approaches, these works serve as memorable metaphors for many problems of our times, some of which are shocking. But why were Manet’s Olympia and the D?jeuner sur l’herbe such an outrage to contemporaries? Because by taking themes and compositions that had acquired the respectability of tradition-in his case from the Renaissance-Manet drew attention to contemporary problems. He did so with refinement, but also with naked sensation every bit as attention-grabbing as that of his contemporary novelists or political commentators.
The art gallery is a public place where we cannot as easily keep our thoughts and blushing embarrassment to ourselves as in the darkness of the theatre or cinema, or the privacy of reading. Visual artists have a peculiar ability-and therefore, whether they like it or not, a responsibility-to draw attention to that elusive thing we call reality, which may, when fused with fantasy and personal obsession, bring forth something that can be recognised as art. In this exhibition we can witness and engage with metaphors of sensations, positive and negative, that remind us of the big issues of our time, often of all time: love and sex, fashion and food, waste and plenty, boredom and excitement, child abuse and violence, disease, medicine and death, shelter and exposure, science and metamorphosis, simplicity and complexity. The art of our century has confronted its audience with a series of dislocations that are meant to be enjoyable and, in equal measure, to jolt us out of complacency. In our times all ways of making art, old and new, are legitimate. Painting and sculpture as traditionally understood are as valid as installation, performance and high-tech methods of producing images to lodge in our minds. No one looking at this exhibition could possibly claim that painting is dead.
It has always been the aim of artists to conquer territory that hitherto had been taboo. Goya made art out of the horror of war; his etchings have not lost their ability to shock. Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights has retained its power to make us conscious of our suppressed desires. But in time even such powerful images as these become assimilated, their impact diluted. The greatest images are those that invoke both reality and sensation. Today the young mind and eye continue to seek revelation and self-knowledge. In this exhibition we have the chance to feel and empathise with many of our current obsessions. Our five senses come into play-touch, taste, sight, sound and smell. Equally, here are meditations on time, space, colour and form, the timeless concerns of art. The greater part of this art has been brought together by a single patron and collector, Charles Saatchi, who recognises through art the fundamental absurdities of existence and yet sees it as imperative that the creative life should continue. The danger, as always with new approaches to art, is that it descends into production without imagination. The blood must continue to flow. Sensation must not represent an end. Instead it must show that contemporary art is a club well worth joining. Sensation
Royal Academy of Arts, London
Until 28th December 1997