Sensationalists: people who might convince us.

I have covid, and maybe some of that ‘brain fog’ so this may be foolish on all kinds of levels. But I want to write something about modern art and I have just watched Saatchi, Hirst, Emin & co on the tellybox.

Let’s start with a wee bit of credit. BBCiplayer Arts is a treasure trove; one which I dip into regularly, especially when that What’s On, Bruv? moment drops. (There’s always something on the iplayer).

More rank positivity: it’s my opinion that the overwhelming majority of artists (yup, even contemporary ones) work with a huge amount of integrity and even honour. They ask the Big Questions for us and almost without exception their work is deeper, better and more multi-layered than we perceive. Broadly, we chronically undervalue what they do.

Public understanding of and respect for modern art is generally an embarrassment, reflective of the stupidity and bigotry of (for example) The Daily Mail – which unsurprisingly features in the 3-part series.

Morons at the Mail, poor or tokenistic arts education and profound levels of ignorance have engineered a situation where we are a) visually illiterate b) suspicious and small-minded and c) too bloody lazy to stand in front of an artwork and let it do its job – beguile us, transport us, challenge us. This, for what it’s worth, is my context; the belief that art matters and that artists carry that privilege of being our conscience with courage and often a deep, deep, incorruptible honesty.

I’m happy to out myself as some kind of enthusiast rather than a bona fide expert. I watch and read about art and even Theories of Art. ( I know, weird). So Sensationalists, a series about Young British Artists/that London scene, whilst not necessarily being top of the list, was always going to get a look.

I found it relatively disappointing. The subtitle ‘Bad Girls and Boys of British Art’ maybe didn’t do us any favours. It wasn’t entirely cheap and headlinetastic but the casual clumping-together of two very different social phenomena – punk and the dance/rave scene – was just one example of rather lazy inference. Those warehouse parties were all bout loved-up escapism. Punk spat at the politics of the universe and the depravity and (yes!) immorality of capitalism/the Music Bizz.

I’m not sure if any of the YBA were punks. There was subversion, yes, of the laughable Arts Establishment and there was lots of punky mischief. And of course that whole being on the lash thing smacks of ‘edginess’. But the utterly central role of Saatchi and (some of) the artists’ complicity in both the rather shameless hedonism and ultimate gentrification of parts of East Landun do ask questions. Whilst respecting that right and even imperative for artists to ask those Big Questions, might we ask why much of the YBA cannon is apolitical? (Cue the arguments for it being ‘bigger than politics’)…

Hirst is a fascinating man. Perverse, savvy, brilliant and possibly lost. I may need to look harder at the whole of his output because it’s ver-ry easy to conclude that his obsession with the business of art is a joke that only needed telling once. I really don’t want to traduce him so let’s put on the record the signature contribution – telling, shocking, reverberating, truly powerful works of art. (You know which ones). Installations which announced something new and did transform a feebly necrophiliac industry. But, in the absence of a killer interview or similar, and with the sense of potential wankerdom looming largeish- Groucho Club Laddism, endless wealth-gathering – what are we to make of him?

My default position remains. That shark/those cattle were profound.

Sensationalists is okaay and I recommend you watch. Understand we need Popular Arts Coverage but I wanted and think the seismic lurch into scary, conceptual art required some elite-level voices. (They don’t have to, obvs) but many wonderful artists talk or write spectacularly about art, or their work.

A recent doc on Munch and Emin utterly vindicated the latter as a Serious Artist. Her real, human messiness and her cheapish, temporary East End Squat-zone Posse mischief rightly got an airing in the series but, interestingly, pretty much the only Brilliant Mind on display in Sensationalists was Jake Chapman. (I know – FUCKFACEs!)

Emin can talk. Chapman can plainly talk. Given the poor understanding abroad for the leap into Art of Ideas, we needed more articulate people. People who might convince us.

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