Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s, Verso, 1999
Who needs another book on young British art? From some of the reactions to Julian Stallabrass’ High Art Lite the answer seems to be: everyone except the general public, who are clearly quite happy with their new-found appreciation of contemporary art, and don’t need bewildering with the vengeful polemics of an isolated academic Marxist. It’s clear that Stallabrass’ book, with its Blimey!-esque lurid cover, catchy title and art-bookshop-to-coffee-table dimensions has provoked a degree of anxiety among the erstwhile apologists of yBa, who have responded to it with all the flailing panic of shepherds who have just noticed that strange sheep with the long snout and the ill-fitting fleece. So Adrian Searle warns his flock that High Art Light ‘might be mistaken for yet another breezy commentary on the last decade of hot Britart’, but that ‘the pop look disguises a dense, somewhat smug and holier-than-thou critique.’ Searle, a high priest of the church of breezy commentary, could never be accused of being smug, nor holier-than-thou towards his readership, much less of providing them with a critique. Even more hysterically, the Independent’s Richard Gott denounces Stallabrass for the heresy of pretending that there is anything better beyond the confines of the pen: ‘What Stallabrass condemns as ersatz is what most of today’s leading artists actually make…You may not like the today’s art, you may find it insubstantial, or lacking intellectual content, you may try to dismiss it as a capitalist conspiracy- but you have to recognise that this is the art of our era, the only show in town.’ And Artforum’s David Rimanelli, in an apoplectic diatribe so crassly stupid it’s hardly worth quoting, simply dismisses each of Stallabrass’ criticisms as if they were inconceivable affronts to the reputation of ‘the most startling artistic development in Britain during this century’, requiring no further argument or interrogation.
Like New Labour, the New Art Establishment that these writers represent is hyper- sensitive to the slightest criticism of its legitimacy and of the art it promotes. This is less due to the weight of criticism brought against it (which is minimal) than its own recognition of the superficial nature of its grasp on power, relying as it does on the fickle loyalty of the media to connect with a public that, as Stallabrass puts it, remains ‘intrigued but unsatisfied, puzzled at the work’s meaning and wanting explanations that are never vouchsafed.’(p11) High Art Lite’s main achievement lies its attempt to address directly the mainstream audience that has become essential to the New Art’s self-legitimation. But while this seems to work in terms of astute packaging and marketing, the critique offered leave a lot to be desired.
Stallabrass’ narrative will be familiar to interested readers, not simply for the fact that much of the material has previously appeared in specialist publications, but because the questions it raises are common to the more general critical discussion which has surrounded young British art throughout the latter half of the ‘90s. So the story starts with the last recession, and its consequences on the British art market, and how this impacted on the way in which artists went about presenting and promoting their work. It then goes on to describe the dual reorientation that occurred, on one hand towards the mass-media as an arena of presentation, and towards populist and mundane content on the other, and its consequences both in terms of it the ascendance of the artist-as-celebrity and the relative eclipse and attenuation of the meaning of the work itself. These questions are accessibly described and well supported through abundant primary references, but a frustrating feature of High Art Lite is its habit of limiting its broader insights within the bounds of specific thematic enquiries, so that important conclusions emerge only as a series of embryonic observations across a number of disparate chapters. This is a serious problem, because the combined analysis of the issues which the book tentatively approaches should naturally lead to a more profound critique of the state of our society and how that state its expressed in and through its culture.
Stallabrass’ biggest handicap is his reliance on a crudely mechanistic model of the relationship between art and its economic context, a model which forces him to obscure their more subtle interactions, and effectively isolates broader questions of ideology and economy from their local variations in the art world. This is most telling in his articulation of the dynamic between artists, the market, the media and its audience. We are told throughout that the reduced circumstances of the art market in the early ‘90s precipitated a courting of the mass media and its audience by dealers and artists alike, yet it is nowhere clear why the state of the art market should bear any influence on the qualitative decisions of artists or dealers. Stallabrass then hedges this in with a various other questions, such as a reaction to the defunct pseudo-humanist qualities of the dominant British art of the ‘eighties, and a general disillusion with the claims of post-modern high theory, and its de-radicalising institutional assimilation, tendencies which are only fully brought out by the recession’s force of ‘creative destruction and modernisation’. But this top-down model of economic precipitation, whilst superficially convincing, occludes the historical specificity of the moment which it pretends to address, and stops Stallabrass from fully addressing the complex of inter-dependencies which are at work; after all, there have been other recessions, and other kinds of art to emerge from them, with different relationships to the greater public. Most glaring is his inability to fully develop the implications of the cultural elite’s crisis of confidence, and how this in fact leads to its endorsement of the New Art, both commercially and culturally. For if in some indefinite way the New Art turned to the mass-media in the absence of the commercial market, this does not explain why its attentions should remain there when the market returned, and crucially, why the art world, whose tastes and preoccupations the market only ever reflects, should accept this profoundly altered state of affairs. This can only make sense if one understands the extent of the elite’s loss of confidence, not only in its authority to determine what is of quality culturally (and it’s concomitant obsession with ‘connecting’ with ‘the people’) but to inspire any positive vision of social progress whatsoever. Although this question is touched upon briefly, this is buried within a discussion about Sensation, in some vague terms about the ‘serious malady of capitalism’ (p215), and is divorced form a potentially more damning section on New Labour’s cultural policy of fostering a vague, socially inclusive and non-judgemental concept of ‘creativity’ (p189-195). Stallabrass’ problem lies with his inability to grasp how the ideological exhaustion of post-cold war capitalism can coexist with its relative economic stability (hence his over-reliance on economically determinist arguments), and how an art which is populist, as well as steeped in post-modern nihilism, can so readily be transformed into the official culture. This over-reliance on structural questions at the expense of broader ideological content restricts the conclusions that he draws; so in his discussion on the artist-as-media-effect, he fails to make the point that the attenuated, absent, failed and vulnerable subject is the only one admissible, not just in art but in mainstream culture more generally (which is why he wavers over the question of the subjective ‘authenticity’ of Tracy Emin). Further, his criticism of the New Art as ‘conceptual but not critical’, in that it refrains from any fixed meanings or interpretation, prefers to blame the media and art market, rather than address why anti-rational, anti-progress and relativistic attitudes have become dominant in all aspects of contemporary life, and how they might perhaps find their reflection in art.
It’s an old-fashioned term to use, but what High Art Lite lacks, like all vulgar materialism, is any sense of dialectic interplay between the economic reality of a society and how this is expressed in the various forms of its culture. By focusing on the minutiae of the artworld’s local historical and economic contexts, Stallabrass denies his readers anything other than a cynicism for the empty machinations of the market and mass-media, and obscures questions which apply not only to art but to the greater impasse of ideas which currently afflicts capitalist society. And whilst Stallabrass waits for an economic crisis (which will never come) to precipitate change, he leaves intact the truism of the degraded, abject human subject on which the capitalism of low expectations, and no alternatives, depends. In this, he has failed his intended audience, and allowed the apologists to reaffirm the affirmative, uncritical virtues of the New Art.
all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated