Britain’s artists have gone, but are we the poorer for it?


Tracey Emin is the first of her pack – the Young British Artists, as they once were – to complete the metamorphosis from enfant terrible to national treasure. Now 58, and having recently survived a nasty bout of bladder cancer, Emin has announced plans to set up an art school in her home town of Margate. She has bought a former bathhouse which will be converted into an art school, with 30 studios attached. Emin will also fund a life-drawing club for the public, so that “any kid in the area who wants to come in and learn to draw, can”.

It’s a great idea, and I hope it works. We need more artists. You used to see them everywhere when I was young. Front page of the tabloids, drunk on the telly, selling their pickled sharks and squalid beds for record-breaking sums. It seems hardly credible now – an old person’s tale from a vanished age – but there was a time when the most famous people in this country were artists.

Emin was one of them, of course, along with Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Rachel Whiteread, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Gary Hume, Chris Ofili, Sam Taylor-Johnson… there isn’t room to list them all.

They were household names, even in households without the slightest interest in art. Masterful self-promoters, they specialised in high-impact conceptual art: exploding sheds, self-portraits sculpted in blood, paintings made from elephant dung. The public – which is to say, the press – was both baffled and outraged, which is how they came to be so famous.

The YBAs were (still are) reviled by many as vacuous, over-hyped and politically suspect, not least because of their unseemly skill at making money. Their bumptiousness made them hard to love, but impossible to ignore. They were more like rock stars than artists, with their tongue-out punk style, their sex and drugs and splayed legs. Defying the laws of artistic misery, they seemed to be having at least as much fun as any of the Britpop stars with whom, arm in arm, they tumbled out of the Groucho club into another black Soho night.

It seems incredible now, almost miraculous, that within my own lifetime the British public paid so much attention to art and its makers. Who are the young British artists of today? Can you name a single one?

They do exist, but they’re not tabloid-famous. Barely even broadsheet-famous. Painting is the new, old thing. Not unreasonably, collectors have gone back to wanting art that they can put on their walls.

Sanity, you might say, has been restored. Conceptual art only ever appealed to a small circle of artists and collectors. Even the not-so-YBAs have tired of it: these days, Damian Hirst mostly does oil paintings of cherry blossoms. They are no worse than his £50 million diamond-encrusted skull.

Emin has always been an advocate of drawing. (Unlike many contemporary art schools, which no longer teach draughtsmanship.) Her Margate school might be just the place to produce a new generation of artists – better trained and more serious, perhaps, than her own.

But for sheer pointless fame, the YBAs may never be matched. All cultures have their celebrity passions. The Georgians had their poets, the Victorians their explorers. And for a brief, mad interlude at the end of the 20th century, we had our rock-star artists.


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