3 Feb

The object or assembly of objects is repulsive but banal and, at first it seems artless; there’s a filthy, stained, decrepit mattress folded in half against a wall. Into the upright half are inserted together two grapefruits. In front of these lies a bucket. Adjacent to this another three pieces of fruit, two oranges and a cucumber. This is Au Naturel, 1994 by Sarah Lucas.

Lucas, along with Damien Hirst, is part of an art movement known as the yBa’s. The Young British Artists. The movement, so a cursory inquiry into the meaning of the nomenclature will reveal, is nothing of the kind. There is no cohesive aesthetic stance or ideological viewpoint viz directions in Art that one finds with the Neoclassical painters, the pre-Raphelite Brotherhood, the Impressionists or the Surrealists. There isn’t even the stylistic unity apparent in the work of the Carravaggisti. The name says it all but not much: we are young, we are British and we are artists. It is a collective noun born of simple demographic facts with no more philosophical polemic attached to it than of any other similar grouping: middle-Aged engineers from Iowa, elderly soldiers from the Caucasus.

Why then the name? By the 1970s the age of the movement appeared well and truly dead and only the dealers were nostalgic for the days of this ready-made marketing tool. During the 1980s when painting began its arduous sortie for the reacquisition of status within the art world the term ‘Neo-Expressionist’ was coined to describe large paintings of bold chunky color with child-like (or childish) drafting. The term was global and classified Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente and Davida Allen. But, unlike the passionate non-compromise of German associations like The Blue Rider group, these new expressionists were probably united by nothing except a market for large canvas coupled (possibly)with the degradation of the tradition wherein artists learned to draw. Don’t mistake me, I like the work by these aforementioned, some of it. But I didn’t take it seriously as a movement.

The yBa’s were totally hip to this. They knew that the only function of the movement was to pool talent, create hype and sell product. This was the Malcolm McClaren approach to art. Reduce it to a cynical formula and make lots of money. And they did. Where the Renaissance had the Medici, the yBa’s had Charles Saatchi. Saatchi strove for status thru art as many a rich person has done and the absence of taste or depth was no object. After all such things are merely constructs of an outmoded culture perpetuated by the nefarious Dead White Males. Art is what I say it is. And so Mr Saatchi has got himself a building and filled it with art. A monument to the yBa’s.

Mr Saatchi appears to think himself a visionary collector, a prophetic patron seeing the future before the human herd catches on. Alas he is merely an orthodox latecomer hitching one last ride on the bandwagon of the 20th century avant-garde before the wheels fall off. Or perhaps he is more intelligent and sinister than that. A trader in Conceptual Art, rightly called Con Art, he pays a million for this crap, onsells it at a profit and thereby cons the rich and the ignorant out of their dough as they rush in to buy the latest thing.

The original avant-garde – think of Matisse and Picasso at the centre of this as Raphael and Michelangelo were at the centre of Renaissance Art – were attempting to serve a tradition by breaking with it. The tradition – that of painting and drawing – had been dominated some centuries by the requirements of photographic realism. Having both nailed this technique down so well as to make it a mere matter of formula and born witness to the birth of chemical photography the more astute artists saw the need to start again, to reconfront what it was they were doing and to strip away the illusions of so many centuries of illusionary science in aid of illusion-making. Whereas the pre-Raphelites had returned to Botticelli, that is before Raphael had perfected painting, Picasso and Matisse went back before the ancient Greeks. Before the Egyptians, back to Africa.

The results were shocking. And the mainstream denied for a long time that they qualified as art at all. But by the 1970s, just as the energy that created it petered out, the very institutions that once rejected and were rejected by the avant-garde now took it to be the new orthodox standard – the very definition of art. And this definition was that art can be anything as long as it shocks and is rejected. Robert Hughes concludes The Shock of the New by observing the cycle of Western centuries that begin with radical outsiders who innovate and close when the innovations have become the basis for the new cultural legislation. Charles Saatchi is not breaking with tradition he is following it. He probably thinks himself the new Peggy Guggenheim whereas he’s more like Lord Caversham.

Sarah Lucas too is following the tradition. Her subject (object?) is the nude. All of the work I’ve seen from her is ‘the nude’, somehow. But the art world requires objects and images that are ‘not art’ because if they seem too much like art then they are, ha ha, not art. Oh well. Still I take her seriously. Here we are at the beginning of the third millennium and an advertising guru patronizes an artist whose subject is the nude. The nude, the central motif of Western art and its tradition; exhalted by Greeks and Romans, draped over and rarefied by a thousand years of Christendom, made rosy, repressed, uncovered and scrutinized for 25 centuries…

Art always expresses the age. And the attitude to the human body has always been well-expressed by it in the Western tradition:


“Au Naturel”, 1994
Sarah Lucan (b. 1962)

What does our age thereby express?


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