Legacies of the YBAs? Chapter 2: Money and Marketability – Louis Newby

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Money and Marketability

Aside from their ability to shock, the other defining feature of the YBA’s work and the BritArt era in general was huge amounts of profit these artists were able to make. Art was beginning to be approached to as a business, a means to make money, and this had a huge influence on the work produced. The YBA’s artwork started to adopt motifs, which ensured their work would be recognized, cementing their ‘brand’ within the global art industry. Whilst it is questionable as to whether this has had noticeable effect on the style and aesthetic of British art today, there is no doubt that the YBA’s financial success would have influenced their approach to art work and its distribution.

The origins of their business savvy approach to art can be traced back to their time at Goldsmiths. Studying art at university in the start of the 1990’s was far from being filled with optimism; British art had been fairly stagnant for a number of years and the artistic industries had been neglected due to the deep economic recession. After 12 years of Conservative power, most young students had become disillusioned with the government and were hoping for change. Artists such as Damien Hirst were therefore looking to create work that would be marketable and financially successful. In order to do so he needed to develop a motif throughout his work that would be both original and relatively shocking. Since his childhood Hirst had been fascinated with death, and wanted to find away to encapsulate death in a clean and aesthetically pleasing way. In 1990 this was achieved; ‘A Thousand Years’ was Hirst’s first work to include his famous vitrines. The vitrine contained two compartments, in one fly larvae hatched and were drawn into the second compartment by the scent of a severed and bleeding cows head, after which they then moved on to an Insect-O-Cutor where they ultimately met their fate. The presentation of such a short underwhelming life cycle makes a poignant comment on the transient nature of life and the all-encompassing force of death. Considered widely as Hirst’s greatest and most powerful piece of work, he continued to adopt the vitrines in order to emulate its success and cement his brand as a businessman. This lead to Hirst’s most infamous work and probably the most iconic piece of contemporary art made to this day. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ 1992, or ‘the shark’ as it is more commonly known, pretty much defined the YBA era, encapsulating every nuance of British art produced at that time; a shocking conceptual installation emphasising the theme of life and death, costing a lot of money to produce and even more to buy, $12,000,000 to be exact. Having made over $300,000,000 throughout his career it would seem natural that his profitability has influenced British artists today to create branded and expensive pieces of work with constant themes and motifs, however it would appear that is not the case. Whilst today the majority of artists maintain their certain style, this is only to be expected. For instance graphic artist Joe Webb’s work since his appearance in 2011 has remained relatively similar in style over the last 3 years; however there has been a sense of progression. His collage pieces have changed in both compositions and media, from his earlier standard portraits of couples to more recent more narrative works such as ‘International Response’ 2014. To further emphasise this point Webb has recently experimented with the medium of gifs, a contemporary medium that has been relatively untouched within the realm of fine art. It may seem obvious that artists grow and develop their own styles over time, however I feel this is not the case with many of the YBA’s such as Hirst and Lucas who appeared over the BritArt decade to produce conceptually and aesthetically similar pieces of work throughout the era.

This stagnancy of marketable ideas throughout the YBA era can almost certainly be pinned down on the revolutionary and unique way contemporary art was beginning to be distributed and exhibited in the early 1990’s. Whilst the decade was to see a huge revolution in the style of work produced, it also saw the rise of two colossal figureheads of the contemporary art market and more specifically, the YBA generation. In 1993, a young art dealer by the name of Jay Jopling opened The White Cube, a small room in Duke Street; it was at the time one of the only commercial galleries to exhibit solely contemporary artists in London. However this was not the only divergence from the norm, whilst most traditional commercial galleries at the time only permitted perspective buyers to observe their work, the White Cube was open to the public, allowing greater exposure for the artists exhibiting there. Due to timing and location, Jopling formed a connection with many of the YBA’s and the White Cube was becoming famed for its one person YBA shows, such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Marc Quinn. The White Cube provided the YBA’s a platform to exhibit their work in both a commercial and public atmosphere, which meant they could develop their work to increase both critical praise and financial success. However since the heyday of the YBA’s, The White Cube has moved and expanded with galleries in Masons Yard, Bermondsey and even Hong-Kong and its focus on young British talent has dwindled with greater emphasis on the international, and more specifically the ever expanding Chinese art scene, for instance currently in the White Cubes London galleries, the work of two young conceptual Chinese artists, He Xiangyu and Liu Wei are being exhibited. It could therefore be argued that with lesser opportunities than the YBA generation, British artists today haven’t the chance of developing financially successful and marketable work, and therefore the branded aspect of the BritArt era has been lost.

Yet, whilst Jopling and The White Cube no longer focuses as heavily on young British talent, Charles Saatchi has remained constant in discovering and sharing young gifted domestic artists since the early 1990’s. Saatchi played a colossal role in marketing and sharing the work of the YBA’s, and in the case of Damien Hirst, he even provided him with the funds and means to produce his first vitrine works such as ‘The Physical Impossibility…’. Saatchi’s involvement with the YBA’s can be embodied by the ‘Sensation’ exhibition, which many consider as the pinnacle of the YBA era. The exhibition at the Royal Academy was solely from Saatchi’s personal collection, containing works by nearly all the YBAs including Lucas, Hume, Hirst and the Chapman Brothers. Due to the shocking nature of much of the work, ‘Sensation’ had caused a media frenzy and quickly became the biggest, most talked about exhibition of the decade with much of the controversy being stemmed from one sole piece, ‘Myra’ 1995 by YBA Marcus Harvey is a portrait of the child killer Myra Hindley made out of hundreds of copies of a child’s handprint. The uproar from child protection charities only aided Saatchi in sharing his collection and therefore increasing the value of all the work involved in the exhibition. Whilst today, Saatchi’s collections haven’t made waves to the extent of his YBA shows, Saatchi has continued to support and endorse todays young British artists who appear regularly within all his collections, however a current exhibition entitled ‘New Order: British Art Today’ focuses (as the name suggests) solely on up and coming British artists, including work from previously discussed artists such as Dominic From Luton and Jodie Carey. Even though Saatchi’s exhibiting of these artists has allowed to them to be exposed to the public market, one can get the sense that there isn’t the same level as individual exposure that YBA’s such as Lucas and Hirst faced. Without this celebrity status artists today can’t create a public image to the same extent of their predecessors and it therefore comes to no surprise that today’s British art has lost that sense of cult-status and self-importance. Nevertheless this is no way a bad thing, it would seem that today the emphasis has returned to the art itself as opposed to the celebrity of the artist. British art has now turned away from this relatively superficial and profitable aspect that the YBA’s, and dealers such as Saatchi and Jopling held with great importance in the 1990’s.

Income will always be a concern for artists just as it is for any individual, however the last part of this discussion helps to illuminate how today, artists have taken steps away from creating purely profitable artistic products. The YBAs emphasis on lucrativeness was out of necessity and with the help of business savvy individuals such as Saatchi and Jopling, they managed to create an industry upon their public image in which their artwork was product. Today this is not the case, and the art industry has returned to more humble sensibilities with the art as opposed to the huge price tags in the forefront.

By Louis Newby


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