As Damien Hirst's retrospective at Tate Modern opens to the public, Stewart Pringle reflects on the role of the shocking in art and the sharp end of Cool Britannia.
1995 opened and closed with two great explosions in the centre of Britain’s artistic scene. In January, Sarah Kane’s first play, Blasted opened upstairs at the Royal Court, and in November the judges of the Turner Prize finally relented and gave the award to Damien Hirst, the culmination of a steady climb to the peak of notoriety and fame. Both events were greeted with horror and outrage by the press, the Daily Mail described Blasted as a ‘feast of filth’ (Michael Billington was embarrassingly dismissive in The Guardian), while the Daily Telegraph decried Hirst’s win as ‘an odious and disgusting scandal’.
Five years later, Kane and Hirst were widely considered to be the pre-eminent artists in two loosely grouped ‘movements’ which defined British theatre and art in the 1990s. In-Yer-Face Theatre, exemplified by Kane, by Philip Ridley, by Anthony Neilson and Mark Ravenhill and the Young British Artists: Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin the like, were two loosely-formed ‘movements’, named by the press rather than the artists involved. The press was to have a major role to play in the story of both trends, they were to ensure that a single feature of the work the artists and writers produced, all of whom were young, many of whom were brilliant, would stand out above all others: their power to shock and offend. 1995 is a long time ago, and Damien Hirst has shifted from cause celebre to a chief ambassador of London’s Cultural Olympiad, his major retrospective in Tate Modern towering over all other exhibitions this summer. Philip Ridley is enjoying a spectacular renaissance, with acclaimed revivals of The Pitchfork Disney and Mercury Fur opening barely a month apart, his new play Shivered at the Southwark Playhouse and 2011’s Tender Napalm returning to London in triumph, he has rarely been more talked about. It seems as good a time as any to consider where these artists and these movements emerged from, where they have crossed over and where they have taken British theatre and art.
The YBA’s and In-Yer-Face Theatre were the sharp-end of Cool Britannia, a post-Thatcher rebranding of once-stuffy Britain as culturally credible and fashionably progressive. In reality its aesthetics were mainly a quasi-nationalistic regurgitation of the ‘swinging’ London of the 1960’s, swaying to the rhythms of insipid Brit-Pop and the Spice Girls. At its fringes, however, there was an undercurrent of violence and self-destruction in Cool Britannia. Traces of heroin chic clung to it, whether through the Gallagher brothers’ well-publicised coke-fuelled rampages or the ubiquity of Kate Moss’s sunken eyes. There was violence in the cinema too, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) saw British film-making reach a new level of explicitness: shocking imagery set to a super-cool soundtrack and kinetic, bravura editing. The most shocking images of all were played out within the galleries and the theatres, where sex, death, violence and degradation were colliding in new work which left critics reeling and thrust visual art and British playwriting to the centre of the cultural spotlight.
The use of shocking themes, language and imagery was nothing new in either the theatre or the visual arts. Production’s such as David Mamet’s Oleanna, directed by Harold Pinter in 1992, had created considerable controversy: there was an existing tradition of theatre willing to push the boundaries of acceptable taste. Similarly there had been shocking art before Hirst and the Chapman brothers: COUM Transmissions even flirted with similar levels of press outrage with their 1976 show Prostitution at the ICA, which eventually saw them denounced as ‘wreckers of civilisation’ in the House of Commons.
Shock had been done before, there was something game-changing in the way the YBA’s and In-Yer-Face Theatre created it. As Aleks Sierz notes in his excellent study of shock theatre, one of the major achievements of the In-Yer-Face writers was their securing of a place of centrality to the British writer, as their youth and controversial subject matters ensured that they became the focus of press attention. Hirst achieved the same ends as unofficial standard bearer of the YBA’s, ensuring them a level of notoriety and celebrity hitherto unprecedented in British conceptual art.