Artrageous: explaining the phenomenon of the 1990s BritArt enfants terribles

Date
20 May 2016
Reading Time
3 minute read

Back in the early 1990s, the British art world changed forever thanks to a band of bright young things that weren’t afraid of controversy, threw away the artworld rulebook and rewrote it in multimedia forms and tabloid headlines. Nearly 30 years on, and the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin remain some of the leading lights in contemporary British art. A new book from Thames & Hudson, Artrage details that blistering scene and looks at its place today. The publisher has kindly let us reprint an extract from the book below.

The art world functioned under a strictly prescribed code. Apart from rare stars like Julian Opie, who had been signed up by the Lisson Gallery after graduating from Goldsmiths, art students faced years of penury, supporting themselves through odd jobs before they could hope for a show at a private gallery. “Everyone was waiting in line, when do I get a show, do I have to wait till Howard Hodgkin dies?” remembers the critic Adrian Searle. Only once artists were established would a public institution take an interest in them, but without a gallery how to become established? It was a catch-22. “The idea of being a professional artist who was paid was somehow vulgar and wasn’t really even seen as possible in England,” says the Goldsmiths-trained artists Richard Patterson. “If you were going to be a successful artist, you just somehow had to miraculously be moneyed or something. The artist Jake Chapman concurs: “The concept of the young artists, the artist that was not some wizened old git scrubbing around in their kitchen sink, was not a thing that existed.”

That all changed in the summer of 1988 when a group of exceptionally talented, cocky and determined art students from Goldsmiths College, led by Damien Hirst, took matters into their own hands and staged the now legendary exhibition Freeze in a derelict warehouse in Docklands. It marked the vanguard of a revolution that was to smash down the elitist barriers around art, transform the national psyche and put British contemporary art on the international map. “It was an amazing moment. It was the biggest birth in British art in a way,” says Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy, who created the contentious Sensation exhibition there with the collector and adman Charles Saatchi in 1997.

That core group of 16 Freeze exhibits, inducing now well-known names such as Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas and Fiona Rae, quickly expanded to embrace artists from other London colleges such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk and Rachel Whiteread, as well as Scottish artists like Douglas Gordon, who were spearheading an alternative scene in Glasgow. Refusing to wait for establishment blessing, artists organised shows in their front rooms, squats, disused factories, vacant shops. “I don’t think anybody had any hopes for being involved in the grown-ups’ gallery system. That seemed to be sewn up,” says Dinos Chapman. “Nor did they want to join the system. It was too much fun outside it.”

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