Let's look at the factors that affect all art students at the moment, factors that play in the backs of their minds, perhaps in a similar way that museum shops play on your mind, simply because you have to enter and leave the museum via them - they frame your experience. Broad cultural influences are the unavoidable backdrops for students, both in the art schools where we spend our days and in the mass culture, of which we are a prime target: Douglas Coupland's character Dag from Generation X, said that he achieved no small thrill of power to think that most manufacturers of life-style accessories in the Western world considered him to be their most desirable target market. It is true that virtually all mainstream media is aimed at the magical 18-49 age range, and that the most frenetic of this media attention takes the 18-29 group as its target. But this 'honour' is a double-edged Wilkinson's Sword. We are supposedly monied but free of responsibilities, and so we are encouraged to conform to this stereotype by being free of the responsibilities of money - and to do so in air-cushioned soles and blue jeans. But maybe this is not such a visible influence, perhaps we don't really notice this attention so much due to its omnipresence, and because we have never really been conscious of living outside of the target range. However, I imagine we most certainly will notice when we slip out the other end of capitalism's Most Wanted group.
So if it's not the hip hype of media bombardment, then I guess the most visible cultural influence has to be the fact that the nineties has finally achieved a positive, productive zeitgeist. Somehow - who would have thought it? - we've stumbled across a milieu full of constructive possibilities. What combination of events could have produced this surprising situation?
The sixties. There, I said it. I didn't want to, but what could I do? It's the decade that never dies, just keeps coming over all retro: cool, uncool, cool, uncool. I wasn't even conceived in the sixties, and yet I still know more about it than I do the seventies. There's this whole generation who missed the utopia - and disaster - of the sixties, but all they've ever heard their whole lives from everyone, everywhere is how great it was. We've heard it, read it, and seen it, but never lived it. However, the belief that things can happen is spreading again; if our parents can do it, then we damn-well can too.
The eighties. Another ne'er-be-mentioned. That was when I grew up, and in those days there was something you could believe in, could trust in, aim for: money. But even that simple(minded) belief was lost in the darkest recesses of the deep recession. But all the ungodly shit that went on in the eighties, yes it's true that we're still up to our knees in it, though that's only because it's finally receded from our necklines.
However, the panic's over now because the worst has already happened, all that we're left with is this massive fall-out which, as it turns out, is the richest of pickings for artists. It may be a kind of cultural nuclear winter for everyone else, but it's definitely springtime for young artists. Why? Because in a way it's interesting to live in a country where the government is collapsing, where an entire ideology is failing, leaving only confusion. Without a centre, the collective consciousness has become a mass of undifferentiated peripheries. No one really knows what is of value since all values were levelled in the eighties. And with this, artists have suddenly discovered that they are as (un)important as everyone else. the situation that we find ourselves in is the interesting time when one thing has come to an end, but where that which will replace it has not yet arrived. (Perhaps this rich sense of collapse will be dissipated by the cocksure New Labour, which is worrying, since surely we all now understand that for 'New' we must read 'Not'.)
At the same time as the financial market's collapse, the overbearing influence of theory receded, simply because it went into orbit and finally became a discipline of its own. When it was claimed that artists made objects and critics made art, first year art students all over the land waved bye-bye to that particular spaceship. When the spaceship lands again then, sure, we'll all get on board, but until that time we're stuck here on Earth, more specifically the 'United' Kingdom, in my case Hackney, and it's kind of difficult to ignore that. There simply can't be any more space-cadets Out There than there are Here already. So it seems more interesting, more stimulating, to ground the theoretical in the everyday. Experience, and trying to make sense of it, has once again become the fundamental reference point. Not that theory has been forgotten; we're devouring it faster than ever, but its has dawned on us that to begin a piece by choosing a theoretical reading that the artwork must then deliver has reached such a level of complexity that it can only end in a paralysing stalemate. The reading has to be done by someone other than the maker, otherwise nothing will ever get made.
Perhaps it has always been true that young artists ground things in the everyday, perhaps it's just that they are now more visible than they ever were before. Art, it seems, is going the way of British pop: younger bands, higher praise, less time at the top. Everything is new and it's always the new-big-thing. Yeah, it leads to instant burn-out, but - as the editor of the NME once asked - who ever said it was about careers anyway? One problem of this, though, is that fashion then becomes the dictator as to how long an issue can be sustained in the public eye, so whatever progress can be made in an 'in' area, like multi-culturalism was, will be lost as soon as the issue is no longer 'fresh'. Fashion, by definition, can sustain nothing but itself, which means that as trends turn over faster, less will actually change - save for the packaging. Every generation will be the first generation, or as Tricky succinctly put it: 'Brand new, you're retro'.
As a comparison, this art/pop thing is hardly new, but recently the Brit Pop/Brit Pack phenomena has become rather hard to ignore. And it does enable us to look at a trend within another discipline which, at times, is fairly analogous to the visual arts. Certainly at the moment the coincidences are too strong to ignore, so let's take a look at one of the more interesting parallels, and that is the death of cool (by 'cool' here I mean 'distanced'). This was signalled in the pop-scene by the eventual triumph of Oasis over Blur, the underdogs finally taking the colours by indisputably succeeding in America in a way that Blur most definitely never will. The reason for this is that Blur are, essentially, a parochial band; their references, both musical and lyrical, are always sad English-urban in origin. They are, at heart, an eighties band: ultra-knowing, self-conscious, clever-clever. Oasis are a sixties band of course, they look and sound like The Beatles - a 'real' rock 'n' roll band. You don't expect ironic lyrics from them, and you most assuredly don't get them; their words are effectively nonsensical phonetic musical additions. With Oasis you don't stand outside of the music, you are engulfed in it. Blur were the band that the critics with a theoretical bent loved, though it seems that listeners have finally reached the pinnacle of detached coolness: they are actually bored. People want to be inside the music again, mixed up in it all - they want to Roll With It.
So, finally, what can we say? We have two extraordinary decades, the sixties and the eighties, combining to potent effect: one positive, one negative; one force-fed, one lived through. Intensive self-promotion has given way to a sense of fun, a lightness of touch - which is not to say that professionalism has disappeared, it's just that we've noticed that things don't have to be so bloody serious. There is a sense that things can actually happen, those famous fifteen minutes are back again and - hey! - it could be you. Essentially, it's a confidence thing; young British artists have heard that Young-British-Art is where it's at and, not surprisingly, they want to be there too. Conspiring circumstances have dropped this situation into our laps, handed us a baton on the run. We're yet to slow down long enough to discover if it's ticking.
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