The novelist, antique dealer and restaurateur Jeremy Cooper’s study of the principal yBas, that he mingled with and knew from the late 1980s and through the 1990s Growing Up: the Young British Artists at 50 (London: Prestel, 2013) manages to humanise this group of controversial practitioners, a warts-and-all portrait of what he calls the ‘Goldsmiths Group’. Written with empathy, it offsets the lurid, largely ignorant condemnation the Saatchi enfants terribles often received in the British tabloid press.
Growing Up is structured as a personal take enhanced by many previously unpublished photographs, wrapped round a core series of recent interviews with five out of the original sixteen who in 1988 put on the student show ‘Freeze’ at a disused dockland gym. Cooper sketches in the backgrounds of Gallaccio, Hume, Hirst, Landy and Lucas. Bad girl Lucas’s father was a milkman, Landy’s an Irish tunnel builder, while another yBa, Mark Wallinger, came from a family of fishmongers. Upward mobility is shown to be a major factor, as though the yBas might have appeared from nowhere and gatecrashed the art establishment, but in fact they were earthed amid pop excess by their working-class credentials. Not so in the tragic affair of impresario Joshua Compston however. Here Cooper was on the spot, being both Compston’s Shoreditch landlord, and the person who discovered his dead body in March 1996.
An archival selection of Compston ephemera and commissioned works by yBa friends was recently shown at Paul Stolper, London, and carried the delightfully wayward charge of those hyperactive years of “pre-fame freedom” in new British art. Founder of Factual Nonsense, a company that made art happen in the home, office and gallery, and organiser of several Fête Worse Than Death events, Guy Moberly’s’s photo of Hirst in clown gear, turning out spin paintings inside a wooden crate in Charlotte Rd is used as a frontispiece for Growing Up, and is completely apt. Hume and Turk incidentally made a hand painted coffin for Compston’s funeral.
Cooper’s interview with Gallaccio draws out key traits of this generation, ie their can-do attitude, network heavy approach, and reliance on each other. In Hirst’s case he has contributed catalogue essays to shows by other yBas and also bought many works of Lucas, in particular Perceval, 2006, a life size concrete shire horse. There is a generosity about it all, and a madness of course, as in Hirst’s mangled syllogism, quoted by Cooper, that “I’m nothing unless I make art. I’m a great geezer if I make art.” Landy’s résumé doesn’t quite fit with the dominant meme though, as his concerns have been more to do with High Street consumerism and a sort of gleeful barrow-boy elaboration of Gustav Metzger’s Auto-Destructive art manifesto. From the exhibition ‘Closing Down Sale’ at Karsten Schubert in 1992, through to ‘Scrapheap Services’, 1995, with its specially designed vulture logo, and ultimately ‘Art Bin’, 2010, Landy has revelled in the mechanics of shopping and waste disposal, a preoccupation which reached its apotheosis in ‘Break Down’, that along with Physical Impossibility and MyBed, deserves fin de siècle iconic status. Cooper dryly notes “that the completion of Break Down left him in tatters”.
Unfortunately in Growing Up Cooper fails to engage with ideas started by conceptual pioneer Kaprow, and developed further by Kuspit in The End of Art, 2004, specifically that art after the end of mimesis is a mutation aka ‘post-art’, since the yBas perfectly represent the full commercial rolling out of this Duchampian phenomenon. They were both responsible for dreaming up and marketing (or consigning straight to Sotheby’s in Hirst’s case) a range of one-liner, pop type products at best investigative, giddying and capable of inducing ecstasy, at worst meretricious, brazen and thoroughly narcissistic; yBa-ism itself, a loose movement of publicity courting, network savvy individuals that fore-grounded and capitalised on the thrill rather than the critical thought. So they encapsulate the way in Kuspit’s definition ‘post-art’ rests on “experiential marketing, that is the marketing of daily experience as aesthetic experience, which conflates and falsifies both”, the yBa a figure “haunted by the ambition of high art, even as he trashes it”.
Growing Up doesn’t purport to be a serious critique, and frankly is short on discursive insight; but where it does succeed is as a leisurely memoir, illustrated by many previously unseen photographs of the socialite yBas at ease, Cooper’s fondness for them as individuals shining through. So if you are looking for a high -brow character assassination of Emin, Hirst et al, along the lines of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, 1918, best look elsewhere.
Speaking of the ‘Goldsmiths group’ in an interview with Rosalind Ormiston, Cooper said he was “…irritated by the way their early days were written about”, and has gone some way towards rectifying their public image. Cooper re-makes them as ordinary, ie subject to self-doubt and anxiety. Taking this ontological approach works well, shrinking the distance between the reader and these colourful characters.