The Art of Noise

Article excerpt

It's not always easy to tell just what is real and what is bogus in the current art world. I say "art world", but there isn't just one; it's rather like London used to be, a collection of villages, a lot of little worlds, some of which run into others - glamorous, posh, down-at- heel. The art world I mean is the one that keeps getting written up in the broadsheets and magazines. The world that you would think revolved around Damien, the ageing enfant terrible of young British art.

David Hockney's recent appearance in London (the crowds, the paparazzi, the brouhaha around some brightly painted sunflowers) reminded us that the cult of stardom isn't new in the art world, and doesn't necessarily depend upon unconventional art. It depends upon personality, publicity and money. The public is astonished by the price of artworks, fascinated by the market in them, mystified by the processes of their sale and exchange. And the galleries at the top end of the market play on this, like shops pretending to be museums. Price and value are easily confused; and, if one seems to contradict the other, then it's easy to think that something very interesting is going on. Either you just don't get it, or someone's being conned.

What is undeniably real is that there's a lot of diverse and unpredictable art being made out there, not only in London, and a great deal of nonsense is being written about it - that it revolves around Damien, for instance. (Everybody in this world refers to everybody else by their forename; it's democratic and friendly, as in Tony Blair's cabinet, and it serves effectively as an excluder.) Crucially, it revolves not around individual artists so much as around curators, many of whom are themselves artists or critics, or who run public spaces and private galleries. This is a trend that Hirst did have a great deal to do with, as the sole curator of the ground-breaking Freeze, the now famous exhibition in 1988 which was put on in a disused building in Docklands. Such venues - warehouses, old factories, closed hospitals - have been a significant aspect of the trend: Thatcherism left many such places for transient occupation. But Freeze was remarkable in many ways. It was a student-organised show that didn't look like one - it was entirely professional. It featured work by a number of artists who were to become critically successful very quickly, and justly so: among them, Anya Gallacio, Simon Patterson, Richard Patterson, Mat Collishaw, Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas. All of them were friends of Hirst at Goldsmiths College. The show announced a decade of extraordinary success for Goldsmiths - not so much for creating a style as for an attitude. Art was important, but it didn't need to be po-faced, pompous or glum; it could take any number of forms, and whatever you made (or did) might count. A lot of old art - especially figurative painting and object sculpture - was called into question. Who was it for? What was it for? Minimal gestures and conceptual concerns were in. So was a diversity of media: photography, video, ready-made objects, installation, film. Art could be cool and ironically self-reflexive. It could be messy and personal. It could play games with the meanings of words and things and the systems by which things are classified. It could be non-referential, or irresolutely political. It was best if it was witty, disingenuous and ambiguous, hinting at the impossibility of knowing the true nature of things (whatever that might be) because that kind of ironic distance passed for reality in the murky later years of Conservative rule. The murk had much to do with the recession that followed Lawson's mid- Eighties boom. After a time of near-hysterical euphoria in the sale rooms, and a mushrooming of small commercial galleries promoting young painters, the art market fell into a deep depression. Galleries went out of business. The rise of the warehouse show, of an art of provocation and imaginatively aggressive promotion, was no coincidence in these circumstances. …