Mention Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin or Chris Ofili to the bystander outside art and not only is the name known, but perhaps also a striking image: Hirst, shark; Emin, bed; and Ofili, dung. Only the media could have fuelled this recent transformation of popular knowledge. But has new awareness been gained at the expense of content and purpose in the work the public sees?
The thrust of Julian Stallabrass's provocative book is that behind this brand identity of each artist, and many others who emerged from art schools like Goldsmiths, lurks not much else of real consequence. Discarding the usual heading of Young British artists, Stallabrass constructs the spectre of High Art Lite, the low-calorie substitute for what real artists make. Irreverent but accessible, the new tendency looks like an avant-garde but, he warns, appearance may be deceptive. With no consistent theoretical basis or moral sense, their efforts lack depth and direction, posing only dilemmas to their audience as they appropriate popular culture while dancing to money's tune.
Writing with pace and verve, Stallabrass targets likely sources of the impoverishment he detects. A recurring theme is the recession of the early 1990s. When the balloon of an over-inflated art market spectacularly burst, dealers and collectors found a cheap alternative to the expensive blue-chip art that no one was buying. They turned to the recent graduates who had come to attention through the shows they put together themselves in redundant industrial buildings. Naturally, the scene shifts to Charles Saatchi. Hit financially by business and personal problems, he sells a raft of older artists and discovers that with the younger bloods he can "buy cheap and pay late". His influence concerns Stallabrass: while his habit of bulk buying generates copycat tactics among artists keen to catch his eye and his cheque book, have his well-timed disposals also skewed the market to his taste?
Stallabrass's analysis is often indignant, sensing a conspiracy against the good name of art. He parallels the ascent of "lite" with the rise of the service culture in post-industrial Britain. A unique commodity in a world of intangibles, art got tangled up with businesses, such as advertising, that prefer "puffery over content". As their work left the intellectual realm for the lifestyle pages, the complicit artists became celebrities, and in the modern dialogue between media and celebrity, the point of celebrity is to market products.
Without doubt it is time to explore critic-ally any gap between the image and reality of the art phenomenon of the past decade. The weakness of this book, however, is the narrowness of Stallabrass's perspective, especially about what art responsibly can be. Though he draws in dozens of artists with conceptually little in common - and by no means all consumers of demotic material - few match up to his tough expectations. They are either not sufficiently serious or engaged, or their ambiguity and vagueness defy a social reading of their work. He is on surer territory when getting his teeth well into notorious cases, like the sensation surrounding Marcus Harvey's painting Myra . Fundamental questions emerge and Stallabrass is at his best in the calm compilation of the issues.
The author, then, suspects that the art world plays with moral issues like a cat teasing a mouse. He writes crustily about the "sophisticated intellectual and cultural game" being played on the hallowed turf of art theory. But Fiona Rae is refreshingly candid when she admits: "I'm just totally unfussy about where my information comes from. It doesn't matter if it's Vermeer or the Spice Girls."
The attraction of recent art has been its reluctance to conform. Not being hidebound to theory has given artists freedom to reach out, especially to other disciplines. These positive developments, added to the excitement of the past decade, are leading somewhere for both artists and the new audiences they have attracted. Within another 20 years, many of the personalities under discussion will be passing from critical view, but the outlook for the best is not as bleak as Stallabrass forecasts.
Had he relied less on secondary printed sources and more on getting to grips with individual works, Stallabrass might have modified his conclusions. Keeping this distance from the scene was not necessarily an advantage. As it is, he leans heavily on statements and press interviews. Sadly he has not heeded his own fair warning that artists can be "singularly unhelpful informants".
Martin Holman is a freelance writer and curator.
High Art Lite
Author - Julian Stallabrass
ISBN - 1 85984 721 8
Publisher - Verso
Price - £22.00
Pages - 342