Some Aspects of "The New British Art": The "everyday" and "narrative objecthood"
by Alasdair Duncan
"If you want a quote about yBa you can say that I said it's a load of fucking bollocks."
It is more than slightly absurd to say, in the face of huge diversity, that there is something that might readily go under the heading of "The New British Art" (and furthermore there is an essay to be written on what is signified by that "The...").
However, there is a new type of art practice in Britain now, known to some under the unimaginative heading of "The New British Art" (TNBA) and practised largely by "young British artists" (yBas). In fact, to claim this art for Great Britain is spurious, given that it also occurs in numerous other countries, and the matter is further complicated by subdivision into new New British Art and the old New British Art and the fact that some new "young British Artists" make the old New British Art. This art (generally the new New British Art) has been characterised by its everydayness, that is, its down-to-earth use of motifs that are readily identifiable with the everyday lives and youth cultural milieu of the artists involved. This new art is often characterised by a "fuck you" attitude, a wilful dumbness which is readily explained by its refusal of the normative practices of the late '80s, with their sharp theoretical bent and high "proper art" finish (see also the old New British Art). This art has not been considered much in a rigorously critical manner to date, partly because a rejection by the artists of critical terms of reference has been wrongly mistaken by critical thinkers for a lack of critically available motive.
There is more in some of this art than a cultural backlash, leading merely to the adoption of a new subject matter. Some of the new art practices can be understood as operating in a way that is different to those art practices to which it is understood as a reaction.
In order to see precisely what "the everyday" might mean in this new practice, beyond the use of everyday motifs, it is necessary to consider the way in which the work is viewed:
The site of identification of much 80s practice was the image. For example Cindy Sherman's black and white photos of the late '70s are identifiable as photos of images, the recognised site of the colour works of the 80s are generally recognisable as images of photos, the recognised site of their identification as photos was in the image.
The site of the identification of a given work is a function of context - this working, for example, in the way that, for most viewers, painting as a site of symbolic value in, say, a Holbein painting has been superseded by painting as a site of mimetic virtuosity - specific paintings operating in a different type of conceptual space in each. The site of identification of much of the new art is the "everyday" object of the work, from which we identify the works as carrying narratives, but more of that later....
Art is a transformative status, and in the practices of the '80s this transformation tended to place art in a rarefied atmosphere which served to heighten viewers' alienation from the work - often a Duchampian hangover. The seminal works of Damien Hirst (an old young British artist making the old New British Art) also operate in this way, and he might thus be construed as a last breath for that type of "80s" practitioner, rather than top honcho of the young British artists (yBa). For example to see Hirst's shark piece ("the impossibility of death in the minds of the living") in the "flesh" did not offer an experience substantially different from viewing the piece in a magazine so that the site of identification would appear to be the same as Sherman's 80s photo-images. The shark made a spectacular image that operated merely as a cipher for his titled concept - a concept that referenced profound experience without offering it. The combination of an imagistic object merely referencing a concept of mortality (of all things), led to a work that was utterly divorced from the everyday of the viewer, let alone their own sense of mortality, and was for many, dead, or at least demanding a rather self-concious subtextual reading such as that it was a joke, or about Damien's art world positioning, or both, to become interesting.
Certain of TNBA has taken art's transformative content and claimed it on the side of everyday experience. So, whereas in Hirst's shark the transformation into art is effected by a commonly accepted breaking and distancing and from the continuum of "normality" and the "everyday", in these parts of TNBA the work operates by incorporating that transformation into the continuum of the conceptual space of their "normal everyday", which is in turn altered by that transformation. Whereas Hirst offers an attitudinalisation, TNBA offers attitude. It is notable that this change in the apparent modus operandum of the work accompanies, and has come through, the prevalence of "alternative spaces". These spaces have, after the commercial novelty of the Freeze show and its offspring, become associated with the undermining of the high modernist institutional otherness of the "white cube".
The obvious art-historical references concerning conceptual spacio-temporal siting of art stem from the theorising around Minimalism. In, for example, the debates between Michael Fried and Donald Judd there was a clear claim that metaphysically absolute ethical positions were being laid out. That apparently clear ethical positioning surrounding such theory was a function of the Modernist metaphysical claims from which art's current intellectual trends were born and which they seek to counter. In the conceptual space of the "everyday" there can be interpreted a retrograde Modernist ethical claim against the preceding art practices, and in favour of TNBA as a more "true" or "real" art. However the "true" or "real" of some of TNBA acts as a device to open up narrative structures which operate to bring the metaphysical veracity of such truth claims into question.
The narrative motifs and structural devices that emerge from an art that is experienced as occupying a conceptual space and time that is continuous with familiar "everyday" non-art space and time are, of their nature, narratives of the sort that occur from the "everyday" lives of the artists.
Tracey Emin, for example, makes works typical of this type of TNBA. Whilst reading from her book of autobiographical stories around America she was accompanied by a chair, a family heirloom, the chair had been covered by Emin in patchwork and stitched phrases about Emin and her situation. There is also a photo of Emin sitting in a chair in the Arizona Desert reading a book. The site of identification of the chair, the book, the readings and the photo are all the same: they are "everyday" "narrative objects"; their site of identification is experienced as being in the spacio-temporal site of the everyday, and that siting confers on them a status of "objecthood" which whilst it does not signify tangibility, or the metaphysical context of Minimalist "objects", does suggest something of their dumb, given, qualities.
The documentary photograph and video are very common in TNBA. The documentary photo, like video, is in the tradition of narrative forms that are highlighted as media; the document of the documentary photo is highlighted through years of critique, and video reveals itself in its technical poverty and home use image in a way that ever-seductive film cannot.
The literary narratives of Emin's texts are obvious, however her objects all offer narrative structures which whilst they are not all elaborated like her stories, remaining implicit, are equally strongly felt. Narrative painting works in the same way; offering a still moment of subject matter and implying the temporal stream of a narrative. The implicit narratives of Emin's works, like the explicit ones, are about Emin's world but are also about the making of her work in that world.
When Tracey Emin reads her stories there is a strong stylistic sense that they may be fictional, a sense that clashes with the claims that the stories are true, and the feasibility of the stories themselves. The world of Emin's literary narratives is one in which the fictionality or reality of the stories are entirely undecidable. In effecting this undecidability through the device of style, a device which is omnipresent in narrative constructions, Emin's stories can be read as a primer for reading the narrative structures and narratives which are implicit in the work. As the style of Emin's texts problematises our reading of them as "true", so the style and attitude of her works problematises the truth claims of the narratives of their construction and its world. In this way Emin and her world, whilst remaining "everyday", are neither clearly non-fictional nor fictional. The type of narrative that leaves a question mark over the truth claims of its subject via a questioning of the truth claims of its devices is a typical strategy in TNBA. Furthermore, in siting this clash in the everyday the category of fictionality is problematised in a way much more radical than the subject matter of a Postmodern narrative painting, or a Cindy Sherman photo.
The problematistaion of truth claims and their other was a dominant theme in the Postmodern of the art practices that TNBA is understood as being a reaction to. It is thus not without irony that TNBA can be read as engaging with similar problematics.
The explicit theoretical construction of Postmodernism is part of the package of '80s art practice that TNBA rejected because of the distancing that such theory effected between the work, the practitioner and the viewer. The '80s artist was able to claim a radical critique of modernist metaphysical truth claims using theoretical devices such as the Platonic "simulacra" that effectively highlighted the image content of work, whilst at the same time effectively leaving the artists themselves untouched by those critiques such that they could partake in the high modernist model of the of the autonomous romantic artist hero, without serious question. Most practitioners of TNBA are unlikely (in the extreme) to view their practice in such explicitly theoretical terms, indeed the heading of the yBa has become rather obnoxious, to paraphrase her, Tracey Emin said of it "if you want a quote about yBa's you can say I said it's a load of fucking bollocks", but this antagonism may be understood as a function of their practical engagement in those terms; that the artists definitely don't theorise, but act out what was previously theorised.
Of course what I have described is something towards a theory of only a small part of new British art practice. What is poignant in this type of practice is the opening up and extension of ways of thinking about the world that for theoretical and art historical reasons had become unusable, and the application of tiring "Postmodern" problems to those themes such that an apparent dead end situation has suddenly become open to all sorts of fresh activity. This description should not be taken for die-hard advocacy on the part of this writer of a practice the implications of which are not entirely clear, and the execution of which, like all practices, is hugely variable in quality and effect. For example, the raising and distancing alienation effected by previous art may be taken by viewers as formative of that art as art, thus leaving a question over the viability of a practice that doesn't alienate in this way (in as much as it doesn't). Rather this text is proposed as an initial statement of a way of understanding this new practice that has not been widely considered, and which may be of some use in offering more thoroughly elaborated discussions.