Friday Book: The class acts of a classless art

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The Independent Culture


MODERNITY IN British art is probably most conspicuous in pop music, visual art and design. Unlike in literature, theatre or even film, the heavy hand of Victorianism is hardly in sight. During the post-war years, the dictates of taste in these more modern arts have been eclipsed by the pursuit of style. If this sometimes results in work that seems trite, there is no denying that much also seems genuinely new. Vision - a sleek coffee-table book with lots of pictures interspersed with essays - celebrates this aspect of British creativity.

The terms "British" and "creativity" have not always combined easily; the tired tread of Empire and the culture it produced took care of that. England - without the assistance of Scotland, Ireland and Wales - starts to look stranded in cultural terms. Embarrassed by art, chippy about intellectual pursuits, England alone was prone to cower in the face of European sophistication or American boldness, then to invite in whatever it could incorporate.

David Sylvester, in his piece "A New-Found Land", discusses a conflict of influences on British art in the Fifties: "the history of the city over the second half of this century is epitomised by the steady replacement of bistrots by hamburger bars. That is to say, a wine culture has been ousted by the Coke culture." Even then, British art, in practice, was not exactly home-grown.

It is some indication of how times have moved when definitions based on geography or origins seem almost irrelevant. They still have currency and consequences in real life, but in art anything can happen. If British art seems in a particularly fertile phase lately it is because "British" now embraces much of the rest of the world.

"British" rather than English art has been boosted by multi-culturalism and virtually invented by practitioners of no fixed class. The cover of Vision - the Union Flag coloured in bright pastels, rather than the old red, white and blue - seems to represent the diversity of influence that British art has drawn on, turned over, and made into something new.

British art is now made by Anish Kapoor, Zaha Hadid and Bjork, as well as by Howard Hodgkin and the Chapman brothers. Whatever the sources for its current vitality, it does not have much to do with an Academy, or tradition, but to the fact that Britain as such had never had a strong aesthetic backbone. So practitioners have had to invent one, or at least knock something together from mixed sources. An air of spontaneity and punch-drunk courage is one of British art's most appealing features.

Damien Hirst has said that art is about the object, not about the idea of the object. Vision is good to artists in this respect: the pictures of their work are allowed to speak for themselves, accompanied by short commentaries. The essays - including contributions from David Hockney, Melvyn Bragg and Michael Craig-Martin - are informative rather than argumentative, which makes a restful change from the worked-up levels of contention generated in discussions of art elsewhere in the media.

While art movements are not really a British thing, it's possible to discern significant differences in perspective as you flick through the decades. There's a stern and bloke-led perspective in the Fifties, following the Festival of Britain and its dogged promotion of "useful" arts. This brightens up from the 1967 section onwards, with the gooey emanations of hippies and the appearance of women - mainly as sex objects. Mary Quant is evidently the only woman artist at this stage.

Style hardens in the mid-Eighties, with Norman Foster's glass-skinned buildings, and the stained-glass paintings of Gilbert & George. In the Nineties, everything scatters. Although the Sensation exhibition was perceived as having an agenda, there is really nothing that makes a Jenny Saville painting and Damien Hirst's sheep in a tank similar except that they happened to feature in the same show at the same time.

When British art works, it is usually the result of an easy combination of high and low art undertaken by artists who understand both. Something like The Face, described in Vision as "punk meets Dada and Constructivism", could probably only have happened here first. Hardly any of the work featured in Vision is difficult on the eye. It could prompt any amount of interpretation or explanation, but it does not really require it.

In the Sixties, pop music and TV were British art's strongest cards. In the Nineties, Britart as a separate phenomenon has come into its own. A nation supposedly of shopkeepers has turned into a nation of curators and creators. Whether this is down to a new open-mindedness or smart marketing is anyone's guess, but an aged and sometimes over-nostalgic country is much the better for it.

The reviewer's book `Britart' will appear next year from Serpent's Tail; her novel `Do What You Want'-- an arts-world satire - is published by Pulp Books