There are various reasons why nobody has previously written a history of that powerful explosion of creativity that shook British art in the 1990s and whose perpetrators have been saddled with the unusually ugly sobriquet of the Young British Artists, or, as the time-poor were apt to condense it, the YBAs. To this day, two decades after the YBAs fired their opening salvos, there are many in the art world who refuse to take them seriously and who assume that Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the Chapman brothers and the rest constitute a flash in the pan rather than an important art movement. Tate Modern, for instance, has never devoted a serious show to any of them.
Embarrassment has played a part for sure. The YBAs were so uncouth and slobbish that most self-respecting art commentators have been nervous of associating themselves with their antics. Gregor Muir gleefully remembers seeing Emin crawling on all fours through the Cologne art fair before finally finding a “corporate water feature” to vomit into. And Hirst’s favourite “penis prank” was to pull a bit of his testicles through a small hole in his trousers and ask passing women to help him remove the chewing gum that was stuck to him. Back in Cologne, Muir and Jake Chapman drank themselves into such an excitable state that they broke into the art fair at night and swapped around all the paintings before passing out in a shop window in full view of the passing Germans. Raphaelesque behaviour, it wasn’t.
When the YBAs appeared on the scene in the late 1980s, most of us art commentators still believed the sweet modernist illusion that art was a driving force of civilisation and that its chief task was to improve and enlighten us. Accepting the main YBA message – that art is there to goad us not improve us, to reflect the times that spawn it not to provide an escape route from them – has taken plenty of adapting.
But the chief reason, I suspect, why this brilliant and full-blooded assault on the art system (the most exhilarating art development of my lifetime) has been so roundly ignored by the encapsulators is that the witnesses who were there and who might have had something insightful to say about what was happening have forgotten most of the details. They were too drunk, too coked up, too busy scrounging up some rent, too out of work and squalor-happy to remember much about the glory days.
That is certainly true of Muir, the YBAs’ “embedded journalist”, a full-time hanger-on and part-time reviewer, whose pioneering presence in the East End of London and close proximity to the chief perpetrators might have made him an ideal witness had he managed to maintain any distance between himself and the artists. Alas, he couldn’t. And Lucky Kunst is as full of omissions as it is of admissions. Muir, now director of the art gallery Hauser & Wirth, was as keen in the late 1980s and 1990s to drink himself into a stupor as the Hirsts and the Emins and the resulting foggy memories have had to be padded out with feeble bits of DIY art criticism borrowed, you feel, from a stash of old Time Outs. As the book skips incoherently backwards and forwards through its tale, it never comes close to feeling authoritative. All of which would have constituted an insurmountable problem had this actually been what it says on the cover – the first history of the YBAs. But it isn’t.
What this is really is a piteous telling of Muir’s own story for which the surrounding YBAs provide a suitably atmospheric backdrop. He arrived in the Big Smoke in 1984 from the “windswept art deco town” of Saltdean, near Brighton, a birthright so loathsome that “to this day, I have yet to revisit the area where I grew up, haunted by the idea that one day I’ll be forced to return”. The book’s best passages evoke the terrible 1980s London that awaited him as he made his great escape, went to art college and embarked upon some picaresque adventures in poverty.
It was, he remembers, “a decade with bad breath”. Thatcher’s London, with its boarded-up terraces and thick fug of hopelessness, was a dangerous, rat-infested poverty trap, firmly rooted in its Victorian past. Visiting the appalling River Way in Greenwich, where Hirst had a flat in the early days, and where the Millennium Dome now stands, he found all the inhabitants out in the street “tinkering with their cars as though repairing fishing nets”. None of them could bear their own indoors.
Where all this becomes pertinent rather than self-pitying is in colouring in the grim social landscape from which the YBAs emerged. The class angers that triggered this emergence have never been properly understood for the simple reason that most art commentators come from somewhere very different. The divide between the Tate crowd and this crowd was positively Dickensian. Hirst, from Leeds, was the son of a single Irish mum and an unknown itinerant father. Emin’s dad was a Turkish Cypriot, and the neighbours in Margate regularly abused her mother as a “darkie-lover”. Sarah Lucas grew up in the Holloway Road and was a classic north London layabout with a huge mouth and a tiny education.
No cast list as dysfunctional as this had ever been ushered onto the stage of British art before. Nor was anyone actually ushering them onto the stage this time. The entire YBA phenomenon is presented here as an outrageous display of gate-crashing. Finding their own spaces, putting on their own shows, cobbling together home-made art from whatever was at hand in the local skip, making their own posters, deciding on their own subject matter, blagging their way into derelict properties, hunting down the free beer, the great unwashed had found a smuggler’s route into the art world.
Much of the book is spent describing the various horrors involved in surviving such penniless times. Moving early to Shoreditch, long before the loft-dwellers arrived in force, Muir thinks he sees a white cat crossing the road in front of him only to recognise, on a second look, a giant albino rat. At a fair organised by the ill-fated Joshua Compston, who died of an ether overdose in 1996, Hirst and Angus Fairhurst charge visitors 50p to inspect their spin-painted testicles. And make a packet out of it. Then there was the inventive installation artist who converted a Shoreditch toilet into a live-in studio and found he had nowhere to relieve himself. So he maintained a handy row of empty milk bottles by the door. On the subject of his own poverty, Muir proudly quotes Emin: “We were all really broke in those days, and then there was Gregor, who had nothing.”
But for all the profound impecuniousness remembered here so shakily, the final picture that emerges is a heartening one: an enclosed society of like-minded pals, working, sleeping, drinking together, decides to force a new working-class aesthetic onto the art world. And somehow manages it.