Lucky Kunst


There are plenty of reasons why readers in the Japanese art world might want to read Gregor Muir’s Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art (Aurum 2009), a lurid, fast paced, charming, and often fascinating story of the Young British Artists (YBAs). The mighty rise of Hirst, Emin and co, the emergence of the Turner Prize, and the return of London as a global cool cultural capital, is a constant reference point in Japan. Artists, writers and policy makers alike are constantly thinking about it as a guide to what goes on here. From the clear echoes of Freeze and the YBAs in the glorious Roentgen era in Oomori (Ikeuchi, Anomaly and all that), through the rise of Takashi Murakami – who, as we see in this book, took so many of his best moves from Damien Hirst – to the constant reference to “Cool Britannia” in the attempts to use culture and the arts as a way of reviving Tokyo as a global city, it’s a story that everyone has bought, swallowed and believed wholesale in Japan. Now they can read all about it from Gregor Muir, a writer and curator who was on the inside of all the social networks and events that drove a bunch a poverty stricken but hard-drinking Goldsmiths college art students to global fame and fortune – carrying the London economy and housing market (it says here) along with it for the ride.

The rise of the YBAs achieved two basic things that the global art world has since taken to heart. Firstly, it showed it was OK to be blatantly provincial. YBAs were marketed as British, and celebrated a loutish, in your face, determinedly ignorant British street culture that was anti-elitist, anti-American, and wrapped itself in a Union Jack flag. No matter that as the movement attracted foreign artists back to London, they too could become branded “British”. It was a provincial celebration, every bit as located in one place as the Showa 40 nen kai guys refusing to speak English in Tokyo; it is also why “China”, “India” or “Young Japanese art” shows still live on so powerfully as a way to present international art. Second, it cemented the idea that art was the new rock and roll, and that to be successful as artist, you just have to party hard. Hanging out with pop stars, playing social networks, sleeping with your classmates, and above all drinking as much as possible whenever possible, was the way to make an art scene, crack the media, and lift everyone up to fame. I saw this thinking going on, for example, at the opening party for Tokyo 101 Art Fair in 2008. YJA hope and excitement was in the air. The YBAs are the dominant art myth for the current younger generation in Japan.

The difference with London in the late 80s/early 90s was that it really worked. London was a depressing, backwater kind of place in the late 70s and 80s, off the world art map. The YBAs came out of nowhere, and made contemporary art sexy, provocative and ultimately dead cool. In doing so, they did their bit to rescue London from its doldrums, and put it back on the global radar. Gregor Muir tells the story as his own picaresque adventure: lurching from bar to private club to art fair, as he drinks his way into a career in the art world alongside the plotting of Damien Hirst, the random violence of the Chapman Brothers, the sweet homemade shop aesthetics of Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin, the smooth commercial moves of Jay Jopling, the self destruction of Joshua Compston. The book is narrated as a coming of age story: a wide eyed, nostalgic look at a London you will wish you were part of, even while wondering if half the myths it is setting up were really true. There are plenty of good stories along the way. How Damien Hirst came up with the idea for his spin paintings while dressed as a clown an art fete in the East End, selling the paintings with Angus Fairhurst for £1 (and an extra 50p for a look at the pink spots painted on their balls); how Muir, Jake Chapman and assorted others trashed the opening of some American “friends” in London while in search of more booze at the gallery; how Mark Quinn’s self portrait in blood nearly melted in the car while being delivered to its first showing. You get a sense of how their ideas and their success were rooted in constantly pumping their social networks, as much as individual self-belief. How also Damien Hirst was moving away from the pack at an early stage with his business strategies, while Tracey Emin quickly became consumed by the fame game. The story ends appropriately enough with much of Charles Saatchi’s collection of YBAs going up in smoke at the big East End fire in 2004 at the warehouse where he stored their works. It also ends with most of the lucky kunst in question becoming rich and internationally famous. (You’ll need to ask a Brit to explain this street smart word play about the title; it’s another one of the books many provincialisms). Meanwhile, Gregor Muir, who has just been a poverty stricken hanger on and drinking friend for most of his more famous buddies, becomes a famous international curator and gallerist (he today runs the London gallery of Hauser and Wirth, who represent Martin Creed among others).

Muir was a failure as an artist, and – on the evidence of this book – not much better as a writer, even though his career ascended through the pages of Frieze and smart YBA catalogues. The book has an uncertain tone: veering from boorish pub talk, to a rather wistful lyricism, jumping from one chapter to the next with abrupt non-sequiturs that suggest the kind of attention deficit disorder that usually goes along with all the alcohol and (eventually) drugs being consumed. This may be the fault of the editors, pitching the book to a trashy, airport lounge audience. Still, it’s a good read if you are on the move and not looking for any serious explanation of how and why YBAs really became successful, or whether the art they made will really endure. Muir did have a good eye for key works: I am with him as he captures the feeling upon seeing Hirst’s “A Thousand Years”, or Sarah Lucas’s “Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab” for the first time in a pristine white cube space. And he was a great sponge: not only living off the artists (as he freely admits) for much of the 90s, but also in the other sense, as a personality who absorbed everyone and everything that was going on around with good natured openness and faithful recall.

Much better analyses of the YBAs have been written. Julian Stallabrass’s High Art Lite, for instance, is a much more enlightening explanation of how and why the YBAs succeeded in hijacking commercial strategies and the dynamics of the media to their own ends, transforming the art world into what it became in the late 1990s: a lurid, money and sensation obsessed playground for vapid, cynical, egomaniac artists, the line that goes Warhol-Koons-Hirst-Murakami... But to read their story as a naïve celebration from the inside is still a unique experience. It is so much more fun to think that it was the sex, drugs and rock and roll that made the YBAs rather than cunning, ruthlessness or (dare we mention it?) intelligence. Since it explains very little about where the ideas came from or how they worked, it also helps further mythologise the artists and their “genius” in ways they are doubtlessly delighted by. The real key to their success though was “performance”: that great British art of bullshitting. No matter how little there is behind the “front” you put up, “larging” it will get you where you want to be. It is this self-belief, this total conviction that they were the “in” crowd and they had to be at the epicentre of something important, that lay behind the YBAs success. It is also the one thing that is most lacking in the Japanese art world today: where a miserable lack of self-belief, painful modesty, and an exaggerated perception that something much cooler is, of course, going on in London, New York, Beijing or wherever, continues to relegate the Japanese art scene to the second division.

In the meantime, Muir’s sure fire smash hit book will keep the myths about “cool Britannia” and London in the 1990s rolling for quite a while longer. How he or any of the YBAs got away with their dumbed down antics and fake proletariat moves will continue to mystify, though. The London of the 90s they helped create was the London where everyone was having a good time, pop band Blur were cockneys, Tony Blair was a socialist, and all a bunch of nice middle class art students had to do to be the next David Hockney was “smoke some fags, play some pool, and pretend they never went to school”. Jarvis Cocker – who also appears partying hard throughout the book – already wrote these words and the essential story of the YBAs in 1995 with his song “Common People”. Muir might himself have gone to a comprehensive school, but he helped pave the way for the return of Eton schoolboys and Roedean schoolgirls to every position of cultural, social and political power in Britain. Lucky for some.







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