Peter Suchin

myra by  Marcus Harvey

Sensation: Young British Artists form the Saatchi Collection Royal Academy, London, September - December, 1997

"Culture under conditions of developed capitalism displays both moments of negation and an ultimately overwhelming tendency towards accommodation." Thomas Crow [1]

One of the difficulties facing the would-be critic or assessor of Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection is the exhibition's deep complicity with what Paul Wood has termed "the increasingly institutionalised conditions of art's production and consumption.."[2] "Sensation", so the show's promotional leaflet informs us, "will celebrate the achievements of a generation of young British artists whose original and challenging work has received international acclaim." The sales pitch here and elsewhere comes thick and fast. Ideologically-framed expressions dominate the blurb and bluster. The title "Sensation" is itself a loaded term, as are, to different degrees, "celebrate", "achievements", "original", "challenging" and, I suppose, the phrase "international acclaim". Young British Artist is yet another marked expression. This kind of terminology transforms what is ostensibly a merely descriptive notice into a piece of propaganda. The words I have pointed up collectively suggest that the exhibition is of the utmost importance, the implication being that if you miss Sensation you will have missed something of great cultural merit. On the one hand originality is praised – the originality of the young British artist; on the other, the leaflet’s reader is 'coerced' into accepting that if they fail to visit the exhibition a certain damnation will befall them, that of not having been present at an as it were indispensable cultural event. No originality or self- determination here then. In a certain sense one is simply not free to ignore the exhibition because to do so would be to step outside an all-too-naturalised pattern of the consumption of culture. It would be to commit that most insistently negative of sins, the rejection of that nebulous yet nagging phantasm, fashion.
Of course no one is physically forcing you to go to the show. Yet the marketing of Sensation, of which the aforementioned leaflet is but a tiny part, has been something of a spectacle in itself. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that this is the phenomenon to which critics should give their most assiduous attention. During the 1990s so-called young British art has been pushed into the spotlight, dressed up, journalistically and institutionally, in an aura of importance. At the same time, and as a necessary part of the same long-term scheme of promotion, much artistic work which might have gained, in a different order of things, a greater level of visibility has been obscured. Conferral of value, of importance, requires as its counterpart a covering over of competing models of behaviour and practice. In a recent issue of Art Monthly, Patricia Bickers notes that:
“Within the capitalist system in which we all operate it is probably naive to suppose that the aesthetic value of an object can be separated from its economic value, but in the case of the Saatchi collection .. the need to maintain some critical distance between these two values is crucial .. It is only in the case of Charles Saatchi that one collector's personal 'take' on the art of his day has come for many to stand for a whole period, the gold standard against which all contemporary art practice is to be judged." [3]
This Warholian perception is important, but its implications are difficult to sort out. Just how does one prise apart these two values of the aesthetic and the economic? Is it possible to look beyond the narrow picture and definition of art as it is presented in Sensation and make a series of judgements about the work in that show that goes beyond the self-validating situation in which we currently reside? It has become a convention of the art world that the "blockbuster" show is but one normal part of the goings-on. Exhibitions are sold like items of clothing, films, cars records and whatever else. Over fifty years ago Adorno and Horkheimer closed their essay on the culture industry with a remark that retains more than a little pertinence today: "The triumph of advertising in the culture industry," they noted, "is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them." [4] If the RA's promotional leaflet points out that the work in Sensation has received "international acclaim" then this is merely a device employed as a kind of cattle-prod or carrot on a stick, just as are all the other bits of promotional blather attached to the show. Adorno and Horkheimer's observation describes the situation perfectly: that Sensation has obtained its emphatic presence on the contemporary cultural map through an excessive measure of mass marketing is something many reviews of the show have remarked upon, yet the journalists continue to churn out their (admittedly cynical) reviews and the 'punters' continue to queue.
The exhibition itself presents us with over a hundred works by some forty artists, the included material collectively forming a somewhat disparate display. It's a rag-bag of a presentation, a clutter of a collection with little coherence as a show. In the current issue of RA, much of which reads as a comical attempt to convince the sceptical viewer of the artistic legitimacy of Sensation's contents, the author of the 'Editorial', whilst writing, one presumes, without irony, offers what might easily be read as a criticism of the exhibition. "This is", runs the text, "..an art that has a sense of bombardment about it. An analogy might be of channel-hopping on TV, where one moment one is confronted by a news flash showing the latest horrors of war, the next the banality of TV commercials selling crisps and cornflakes, and the next the beauties of wildlife photography." [5] Unwittingly, this intended explication can be taken to be supportive of the view that much of the contents of this show proffers a model of practice which takes its aesthetic from advertising, from pop culture's all too normative - and normalising - discourse of 'instant' gratification and its related action of discarding after use.
There are those who would argue that such immoderate commodification is more than apt in a culture in which the legitimating ray of fashion falls upon a given incident, object or concern, freezes it as the entity of the moment, then moves on to outline some other precious specimen as the new object of 'studied' attention. But even if our culture is driven by capitalism's ceaseless seeking of the new, the proposition that contemporary art should echo the considerably entrenched trend relies, I think, upon an unimpressive, certainly somewhat dodgy 'logic'. It's a cynic's logic, a purportedly 'streetwise' point of view. The fatalism inherent in this overarching model of response may be normal but it has been made to be so. One might look to artists to dispute this newly orthodox aesthetic, hope that they will do this; for the present little that is genuinely disputatious occupies the agenda.
There is a sense of deja-vu to Sensation. Much of the work had been reproduced in the press long before the exhibition or shown at Saatchi's gallery in Boundary Road. Damien Hirst, whose fame often outweighs the gravity and grace carried by his work, comes out well in this context, some of his pieces looking far superior to much of the rest of the display. His A Thousand Years a microcosm comprising flies, maggots, a cows head and other components, all encased within a vast glass and steel vitrine is one of the exhibition's most outstanding works, making other inclusions (including some of Hirst's own) appear insubstantial by comparison. Rachel Whiteread's Ghost also stands out as complex and provocative, though not in the sense that Jake and Dinos Chapmans' sixth-form shock-horror melded mannequins might be thus described. They are like a schoolboy exercise in making 'shocking' art, a puerile paradox to be sure. Simon Patterson's quietly comical, transformed map of the London Underground is relegated to the entrance hall, and Mark Wallinger's video showing the artist at the base of an escalator is positioned above the stairs, both these placings being, one supposes, deliberately chosen to alignments, as if to show the public just how clever and thoughtful the RA staff are. (When I asked for press information on the day I visited the exhibition what was more obvious was certain employees' bad manners.) The similarity to Matisse of Gary Hume's My Aunt and I Agree might be deliberate; if so Hume's vastly overrated work is certainly nowhere near as subtle. Other pieces in Sensation are, by turns, ‘interesting’ or dull and predictable, but even if one accepts that individual artists sometimes contribute noteworthy pieces then this says nothing for the overall display, which is erratic at best, too clearly the taste of an advertising supremo with a rather expansive wallet.
The much discussed image of Myra Hindley produced by Marcus Harvey, involving a vastly scaled-up rendition of a police photograph of this convicted child murderer is strategically positioned in such a way as to make it visible at some considerable distance. The effect is visually convincing, the tiny fake hand prints accurately translating the notorious photograph of Hindley's face. Given the force of the media attention surrounding Harvey's picture, it is not difficult to believe that certain persons involved with the organisation of Sensation very much wanted the kind of publicity that Myra would produce. Norman Rosenthal's rather gushing essay in the catalogue, The Blood Must Continue To Flow, borders on the parodic, not least because of its ill-chosen title, one certainly in bad taste under the circumstances of showing a work referring to a convicted child murderer. [6] Around the time of Sensation's opening William Feaver of The Observer was called upon by the BBC to publicly attack Harvey's work, whilst other critics carefully declined to act as agents for the defence. What was entirely lacking in all the media fuss about this picture was any intelligent discussion of its historical or cultural resonances. The work was repeatedly described as a painting of Hindley, thus neglecting the important point that it was a painting of a photograph of Hindley. Given that only a few weeks before the launch of Sensation the media were engaged in a detailed debate about the role of photography in relation to the death of the Princess of Wales, such an omission is by no means unimportant. Furthermore, Warhol and Richter, two earlier painters of images connected with violent death (Warhol's Most Wanted Men amongst others and Richter's 18. Oktober 1977 paintings, based upon police photographs of the Baader-Meinhof group's alleged collective suicide), these two artists, notwithstanding their use of already-loaded photographs in order to make their works, did not, as far as I know, even get a mention. [7] This omission indicates the shallowness of the debate around Sensation, encouraging one in the belief that the focus of attention has as its basis an ambience of shock and forced controversy, rather than any kind of serious or scholarly interest in the role and position of contemporary art today. The closer one approached the surface of Myra the more difficult it was to read what was depicted therein. This direct echo of Richter's blurred images of the Baader-Meinhof group might well be inadvertent - I do not know - but in any case slyly suggests that the closer one gets to the surface of things, the less one actually learns about the constitution of the killer, and about our own relation to her crudely iconic status.
Perhaps Harvey's Myra can act as a metaphor for Sensation as a whole: superficially disturbing yet unproductively ambiguous, seemingly serious yet laden with all the intellectual and critical rigour of a miserably glib advertising campaign. Ultimately one cannot commit oneself to investing in Sensation, since whatever one does find within it worthy of one's attention is tainted, by a systematic yet frenzied reductionism, "the surrender of the academy", as Thomas Crow would have it, "to the philistine demands of the modern marketplace".[8]

© Peter Sucin 1997

1. Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture Yale University Press, 1996, p37
2. Paul Wood, Refusing to Die", Art-Language New Series No.2 June 1997, p26
3. Patricia BickersSense and Sensation Art Monthly No 211 November 1997, p3
4. Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception in Adorno and Horkhiemer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso, 1979 p167 5. Editorial (unsigned) RA No 56 Autumn 1997, p8
6. Norman Rosenthal, The Blood Must Continue to Flow, in Norman Rosenthal et al, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, Thames and Hudson, 1997 7. For a discussion of Warhol's photography-based images of death and disaster see Hal Foster,Death in America , October no 75, Winter 1996. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh's Divided Memory and Post-traditional Identity: Gerhard Richter's Work of Mourning. can also be found in the same issue of October. See also the essays on photography and painting contained in Gertrud Koch et al, Gerhard Richter, Editions Dis Voir, 1995