THE 1990s IN REVIEW: What the 90s mean to...

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The Independent Culture
J G BALLARD (writer)

I think the arrival on the scene of Alex Garland and Will Self was an encouraging sign. They're both highly talented and will go on to great things.

David Cronenberg's film of my book Crash was a landmark as the first serious pornographic film. It exposed the hypocrisy of the British political establishment. There have been some good British films - Trainspotting was a stunning success.

The greatest cultural event of the decade was the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, certainly in terms of its architectural importance.


People get sillier at the end of centuries, and that's what's happened in the 1990s. It's a very shallow period, emotions are trivialised - there are no huge ambitions in literature.

I'm against conceptual art. Art to me means skill; you have to be able to admire the dexterity and see the difficulty in it. But there have been some marvellous exhibitions. Monet is to my mind the least interesting Impressionist, but it's wonderful that people queue all night to go and see his work.

Television has been declining steadily, and the television play has disappeared. Young writers no longer wish to write for TV and write for the theatre instead, so there are good new playwrights like Conor McPherson. Richard Eyre's regime at the National Theatre was a great achievement. The National is humming now.

GEORGE WALDEN (writer and journalist)

There's only been one significant cultural event in the 1990s - The Simpsons. If you're talking about quality, it's obvious that the quality of popular culture can be extremely high. The Simpsons is certainly superior to any Nineties British novel.

American popular culture is generally higher in quality and more mature than our own, which is provincial and wrapped up in itself. We're hamstrung by all our social and moral concerns, and our culture has been left behind by our politics, in which the old opposites of left and right have been dissolved. British culture is benighted by its small-c conservatism. There have been no excellent British films compared to America - where is the British Short Cuts?

CRISTINA ODONE (deputy editor, New Statesman)

One big thing is the way in which men have been seen crying in public. It all started with Gazza, then Clinton and Mandelson - a wonderful cultural symbol of a new role for men. There's a sense of greater openness, the rise of the touchy-feely society and confessional culture.

As for real cultural landmarks, Pulp Fiction surely stands out as a film that set new rules, in terms of its anarchy and moral chaos, and in its stylised depiction of violence. The 1990s are significant as the decade when Hollywood conquered all.

In art, Antony Gormley's Angel of the North really impressed me. It is a pure construct of a yearning for the spiritual, yet in concrete form. That sense of searching and yearning is what really characterises the 1990s.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF (historian and biographer)

I'm sceptical about this whole project. In 10 years we'll read something like this and wonder who these lunatics were who thought they had any way of knowing what was important about the 1990s.

However, for me, the most important cultural development of the last 50 years, let alone of the whole decade, has been world music.

Our very musical boundaries have been overturned by fantastic artists from beyond our own hemisphere, such as Cesaria Evora, the Cape Verdean singer, and the Cuban musicians in Wim Wenders's 1998 film Buena Vista Social Club. They prove how utterly bankrupt Western rock music has become.


WHITEHOUSE (veteran TV standards campaigner)

We're no longer very rich in culture. There's too much aiming to be different, to create sensations, and not enough aiming for beauty. I see a growing tendency in the arts towards what is vulgar and crude.

The cultural side of broadcasting in the 1990s has been very bare. The programmes that enthuse me are nature programmes that show us situations and creatures we'd never normally see. I don't think there's a great richness in television drama any more. I feel very sorry for people who depend upon daily soaps for fulfilment. The soap opera is terribly adolescent, the sign of great cultural immaturity. If our culture is to be judged by our soap operas, then heaven help us.

TOM PAULIN (poet and critic)

Nineties culture is about stress, solipsism and anxiety. If the 1980s was the "me" decade, the 1990s has been the "me, me" decade. It's the age of PR, management-speak, junk mail, e-mail, faxes. I recently went to see Declan Donnellan's production of Antigone, and although I'm a great admirer of his work, there was no application of Antigone to Britain in 1999 - and it's a play in which you really have to address society. I concluded that ours is a Teflon culture, where nothing sticks.

Maybe I'm just pessimistic, dreary and middle-aged, but it's hard to get a sense of what Jack Yeats would call "the living ginger" of our culture. Actually, I celebrate the British journalist as a cultural force. Literary and political journalism is a part of living culture, its central fire, and where its strength lies.

TESSA BLACKSTONE (Education and Employment Minister)

Irreverence has dominated the arts. There's also a willingness to look at difficult themes in a more direct way. Sometimes you find both these things joined together: in the film world, this has been characterised by Trainspotting, which was one of the best British films of the 1990s. It ridiculed all sorts of things, but it also dealt with searing social issues. Ballet is my real passion, and I thought Kenneth MacMillan's last work The Judas Tree was of enduring interest and importance. In theatre, I'd pick out Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.

There can of course be a danger with irreverence when it goes too far. The works selected for this year's Turner Prize take irreverence to the end of the line, beyond the point of meaningful and lasting art.

RICHARD EYRE (theatre director, formerly of National Theatre)

The emergence of Robert Lepage and Tony Kushner, two outstanding talents, is a sign of hope. They use the theatre in an ambitious way, so that it's not only to do with spectacle. One of the most surprising things about theatre in the 1990s is the consistency of older writers such as Tom Stoppard and Alan Bennett, who continue to write well.

It has been a good decade for poetry, which is a sign of people fighting back against the commodification of the world. The more we are overwhelmed by mass communications, the more point the arts have in reminding us of our humanity. There have been some good novels and a widespread discontent with the blockbuster movie. We've also seen the return of figurative art.


In music, John Tavener is getting better and better. The best play I have seen in the decade is probably Conor McPherson's The Weir. As far as documentaries go, Michael Apted's 42 Up has to be the event of the millennium.

In the 1990s there has been a complete lack of ideological debate. In its place we have money, corporations and love stories. On the other hand, we are more obsessed with all things cultural, which has to be a good thing.

There are more books being published than 10 years ago - more of everything, which makes it much harder to be original. The 1990s have seen the recycling of everything. Endless recycling, which is what Don DeLillo's Underworld is all about. I did like Underworld, but found it enormously difficult to read. It was wrecked by the scale of its own ambition.

GERRY ROBINSON (chairman of Arts Council)

There's no doubt that there's a vibrant artistic spirit in Britain today. We've seen very innovative work in sculpture in particular, with the works of Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, and Anish Kapoor. It's extraordinary how much more is written about the visual arts than a decade ago. There's something to be said for the idea that our young visual artists are more like pop stars these days.

In the theatre, the work of Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn at the National has been a huge success. Another feature of the 1990s has been the way in which people have gone from the UK and broken into Hollywood, giving it an artistic twist. Stephen Daldry from the Royal Court, for example, has done some very successful producing abroad.

JONATHAN KENT (artistic director, Almeida Theatre)

The fact that we can build something as beautiful and ambitious as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao at the end of such a blighted century gives me hope for the human race.

Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters was the most remarkable flowering of his genius at the end of his life. It was published just before I began to work with him on Phedre, and I was swept away in the great landslide of his language.

All creativity is a contract with the future, but building something, or publishing a collection of poetry, is particularly hopeful - and lasting. The beauty of a theatrical production, however, lies in its evanescence. It echoes human existence by lasting only a single moment, existing in memory. It's a momentary connection between the performer and the audience.

WILL SELF (writer)

Film has become an entirely decadent medium, debauched by its own capacity to suspend disbelief in its audience. Popular music, in line with the diminuendo of the baby boom, has relapsed into total decadence: an unholy mish-mash of commercially driven productions, which bear no genuine relation to either social revolution or any recognisable youth movement. Food, design and other even more tenuous crafts have come to supersede the genuine arts as the repository of cultural aspiration.

This was the decade that set out with the threat of being "more caring", yet which has collapsed into being an exaggerated extrapolation of the worst characteristics of the 1980s. Decadence - literally as well as metaphorically. Get you behind me, you damned, matt-black spot!

ROY FOSTER (Irish historian )

History writing over the last decade reflected the abandonment of the big idea that explains everything. It therefore became experimental, anecdotal and somewhat biographical. Narrative history itself developed in a new way through Norman Davies's books on Europe (including Britain), which experimented with post-modern techniques of assemblage.

The 1990s saw an astonishing flowering of Irish theatre. Sebastian Barry in particular helped to give it an international authority and influence on a scale that it had not seen since the early days of the Abbey Theatre, 100 years ago.

For Ireland, the 1990s will be seen as the breakthrough decade in terms of economic success, international profile and cultural influence. Ireland became fashionable.

JEFF SMITH (head of music, BBC Radio 1)

Over the last 10 years, much has happened in music. I think it has been a good decade. We started off at the nadir of the Soul II Soul sound. Stock, Aitken and Waterman still dominated the pop world. British involvement with music in Ibiza actually began in the late 1980s, with DJs Pete Tong and Danny Rampling, even though it was not until the mid- 1990s that Ibiza became an important cultural influence in the UK.

What has really characterised the Nineties is the crossing-over of musical genres. Even Britpop, led by Blur, Oasis and Suede, took many of its influences from the American grunge of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. It's certainly a melting pot, which means - thankfully - there's no clear way forward in terms of a music policy for 2000.


While Britain has seen an explosion of art, America has taken 20 steps back. Mayor Giuliani's objection to the "Sensation" exhibition has set a really bad precedent in America. I was recently in Pittsburgh and was told by one gallery that they wouldn't show any works featuring nudity - that's a large part of the history of art out of the window, then.

Art in the 1990s has become a lot more headline-grabbing. In any case, we forget that even an artist such as David Hockney was, at the beginning, unsettling for a lot of people. There's always a dichotomy between art as something on a pedestal, and as something that speaks directly to people.