Peter York on Ads

Benylin: Pickle a cow, cure a cough and you too can be a YBA
Click to follow
The Independent Online

So what did the YBAs ever do for us? From the initial late 1980s hoo-ha about Damien Hirst and his little friends through to the RA Sensation exhibition and everything since, including the Young British Artists of that cohort becoming deeply collectable by young bankers, are we better as a nation? Are our lowish unemployment and interest rates, or the super-status of sterling attributable to the commercial drive of Charles Saatchi and the YBA's own dealer, the urbane yet modern Jay Jopling.

You could make a case for it. Contemporary art has always been a great engine of social mobility and, by extension, of regeneration. And the contemporary art market is wildly global, full of stealth-wealth people who say if it's Tuesday it must be Basel. And if you give more of those people the hots for London in 1996 on the grounds that they might sit next to, say, Gavin Turk at a dinner party, then you're halfway there.

You can see people limbering up to be nasty to be YBAs. Now they're breaking 40. Now they're well off. Now they're familiar brands and you can get a Hirst spot-painting print from the John Lewis art department in Welwyn Garden City.

Darling old Brian Sewell was having a go at Damien last week, bad-mouthing his collection at the Serpentine Gallery. But bitchy Brian was using two cruel old personal jabs.

Jab one says you were the new kid on the block once but you're not now. Sewell had established to his satisfaction, somehow, that no really young artist-type had the faintest knowledge of or respect for Lord Damien and his pals. As much influence as a bar of soap. And as for Damien's collection, well that was all deeply conventional for Brian. Tame. Banal. Something like that.

It's difficult being on that cusp in fashion. The point when you've had a fair few years where you're hot and in the money and then, stretching out ahead, more money still, but more competitors 15 years younger and the prospect of your cred, your personal redemption and vindication going up the chimney. Just like that. A tipping point, a blink. A however-did-we-take-him-seriously period when a sensibility suddenly looks just so wrong. Your original patron sells off your major work (did Charles Saatchi sell off his Hirsts as profit-taking or because they were going mouldy or what?)

I can't imagine Hirst anything but jaunty; it must be fun to have quite as many rooms as he's got in his giant Victorian country house. But it still sounds faintly 1970s pop star, and it can't be nice to be told you're not the influence you were.

I don't believe it, incidentally. It takes a while for things to work through in the real world and I think Damien and Tracey, Gavin and Sarah and all their friends have never been so embedded, meaning they're inside ordinary heads, altering the view out of the window.

And it'd be interesting to see just how much impact they've had on TV commercials over the past 15 years. There are bound to be sliced animals in tanks and artless collections of girl-stuff in charity ads, and other less obvious influences. The odd flayed muscle here and there. You remember someone said it'd just been taken from the medical model original and scaled up.

There's no question the latest Benylin commercial's straight down to Damien. You'll remember the Big Plastic medical man - its proper art name was Hymn. There it was at Tate Modern, a huge version of those opened-up pink plastic men you saw in medical supplies shops round Harley Street. Half the skin stripped off the face so you saw the muscles and eye sockets. And the chest and stomach opened up to show the organs.

Benylin's got a figure just like that, on a laboratory bench. Then he sneezes massively and starts talking about what's wrong with him. He takes his face off and keeps talking animatedly. Then he's taking out a slice of brain, so you can see right through to show the essentials seat of the ailment. The hypothalamus. "This blue bit here." It's the part that's normally rendered in uninspiring computer graphics in modest patent medicine advertising.

But Benylin's more effective than anything else over the counter, so they're saying; it brings your temperature down. The whole idea, says the excitable plasticated man, is to make you feel altogether more human. But down in deepest Bucks or Berks, how does that leave Damien feeling?