The View from Here
The Cure, Damien Hirst and beyond: the evolution of the British cultural landscape
Not far from the village of Fittleworth, in southern England, beyond a lane almost hidden from the road, there lies a succession of three Bible-black ponds – each lined with a bank of buttercup-strewn lawn, dotted with lilies of fuchsia pink and alabaster white, and all overlooked by an escarpment of tall poplar trees, the silvery leaves of which are tremulous and shimmering in even the gentlest breeze. It is a place direct from pre-Raphaelite imaginings of Arthurian romance and Shakespearian fable; a place reputed to have inspired Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor (Op. 85) in 1919; a place moreover completely deserted when I found myself sitting there not so long ago, somewhere that seems not simply unconcerned with, but somehow wholly antithetical to, the concerns of contemporary art.
After days of rain the sun shone hot from a cloudless sky; beside the sudden splash of jumping fish, the only sounds were the sleepy, abbreviated drone of insects underneath an uninterrupted score of birdsong. I sat on a small rustic bench, in the moss-green shade beneath a chestnut tree, and pondered both the idyllic scene before me, and the landscape, in my memory, of the 20 years that lay behind. Twenty years! Enough time for cultural fashion to dance to myriad different tunes; enough time for arteries to harden, or the margins to become the mainstream, or promising reputations to burst into rapturous flower. I gently turned to mentally reverse the ornate date controller on the handles of my time machine – location 1991.
Of course, the pond and the lilies and the poplars remained the same; different dragonflies darted between the bracken fronds or hovered above the water’s still surface; other fish leapt, a long-dead chorus of songbirds sang, but little else had changed. I must, however, have made a miscalculation, for rising in my mind’s ear, in a sudden, bombastic, overwhelming crescendo of organ chords, hung here and there with the sweeping glass-icicle tinkle of sleigh bells, were the unmistakable opening bars of The Cure’s album Disintegration – which was released in the early summer of 1989.
As pop premonition, Robert Smith’s lyrics, his voice so plaintive and weary, could not have been more fitting to describe a view of the frantic, complex, relentless drive in cultural production between 1991 and 2011. So many thoughts and so much creativity. Muffled yet heartfelt, doubled with echo, as awkward as a smear of red lipstick across a grown man’s mouth, Robert intoned, ‘and it’s all running out like it’s the end of the world, you said’. But exactly! That was how the last 20 years had felt – running out like it’s the end of the world. And why? For us Time Travellers, dropping in on the news report of a major British art prize and hearing that ‘cultural archaeology’ was the winner’s chosen medium, there is the constant awareness of a climate grown unnaturally humid and a mutant ecology well in place; likewise burned on our memory is Derek Jarman’s pronouncement that it feels as though the bomb has gone off in our heads already. But this most recent sense of time (and culture) running out – or, indeed, having run out – was altogether more somnambulant and dream-like: closer to a night in the museum than T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land of 1922.
There had been hints in the middle years of the 1980s: big paintings from Scotland, depicting hopelessly romantic young men, hopelessly lost in rich allegorical landscapes, their blue eyes vacant and their arms full of air. And then the world of contemporary art as we know it today (and have known it since the pilot issue of frieze) was inaugurated it seems by the ‘Freeze’ exhibition, curated by the young Damien Hirst, back in the summer of 1988. Hirst himself, wild genius, would grow to assume many roles within the culture, one of which might be labelled ‘Art’s Undertaker’ – from a job description originally written by Marcel Duchamp, and edited by Andy Warhol. What better Trinity to oversee the end of the world, as Hirst, in September 2008, sold gold and platinum updates of pre-Christian artefacts to billionaires, on the very eve of the worst financial collapse since the 1920s? And speaking of mythic artefacts, we might find a mirror for the two decades that lie behind us (and perhaps the two that lie ahead) in the period defined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers as the ‘Axial Age’ of 800 to 200 bce in his book The Origin and Goal of History (1949). He observed that during this period of axis there was the simultaneous rise, despite the absence of any inter-communication between them, of many different but equally revolutionary schools of religious and philosophical thinking – the purpose of all of which, however, was the quest for human meaning. These included Platonism, Christianity and Buddhism.
Casting a glance over the last 20 years, it could seem as though contemporary art and culture has been engaged in a similar quest for meaning – auditioning various messiahs, calling others back for a second reading, test-driving new creeds, and indulging in various homeopathic moments of apostasy. By the light of a reddening sun we harvest the fruits of an Axial Age, when the search has been on for a new paradigm – something that really holds weight when it’s all running out like it’s the end of the world …
In the 1967 British film Bedazzled, written by Peter Cook, the Devil is played by Cook himself as a Pop age dandy, dressed in a sharp black suit, satin-lined half cape and small octagonal tinted glasses. Having been outwitted by God for the right to re-ascend to Heaven, Lucifer Son of the Morning stands on the pavement outside a Wimpy Bar in suburban London and rails against the Almighty. Having previously admitted that his last satanic success was to create advertising, the Unholy One now pledges to cover God’s Earth with so much crap, plastic and pollution that He will wish that He had never made it. You might feel that the Prince of Darkness was about to unleash Postmodernism – less as an evil than as a powerful hallucinogen, suggesting a protracted end of days, the long-term effects of which are with us still. The resultant lucid dreams have reinvented the Gothic in contemporary art: acutely heightened romanticism, sepulchral stillness, artful grotesque, aesthetic eeriness, febrile eroticism, occasional hysteria, random violence, a connoisseurship of quotation and a picturesque sense of history, all in the face of increasing technology and geo-political dystopia. And meanwhile the axial search for new meaning goes on. Might there one day be a new Picasso? Or is the question now meaningless?
And so the sun sinks low behind the silver-leaved poplar trees; and the green shade thickens to dusk; and the fish leap.
A selection of Michael Bracewell’s writings on art will be published by Ridinghouse, London, later this year.
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.