The counter-culture fights on

So the party is over, and the celebrities have been counted. Tate Modern's opening gala at London's Bankside, inaugurated by the Queen, reported live on television by the king of telly art, Matthew Collings, and - so the rumours persist - attended by desperadoes willing to pay a grand for the privilege, is consigned to art history. Today, finally, Tate Modern is open to the non-paying public.

The Queen was not targeted at her ribbon-snipping by anarchists, as breathless newspaper reports had warned. It has emerged though, that had the group Movement Against the Monarchy conducted a protest, it might have been masterminded by Ian Bone. Mr Bone is notorious for his group Class War and its eponymous magazine, which responded to the economic boom of the Eighties by exhorting us to kill a yuppie.

But no yuppies died in this latest volley of empty anarchist threats. Instead the only consequence was that a mother-of-five protesting against élitist art (seemingly on the usual grounds - that it doesn't include her) was moved on somewhat insensitively by the police.

Pauline Wilson-Copp had parked her broken-mirror-mosaiced Ford Capri in the forecourt of the gallery on Monday, clamped it, and announced that she wasn't leaving. She planned to stay for four days, she said, in "an unofficial attempt to get the cosy world of establishment art to change gear and rev its ideas up". Her protest, she claimed, had the support of Damien Hirst, which nicely served to further subvert the idea that she was subverting anything.

According to Mrs Wilson-Copp, the police surrounded her while she was asleep, removed her clothes and forcibly ejected her from the car. The car has been taken to a secure location until Mrs Wilson-Copp can arrange recovery. Mrs Wilson-Copp, however, was not taken to a safe location. Instead she was left on the street, and found her own way to her son's home, soaked, shocked, and weeping, at four o'clock in the morning.

Poor Mrs Wilson-Copp. Nevertheless, you have to hand it to her. She has at least brought an element of messy disorder to a cultural event that appears almost too good to be true in its glossy, sleek and ordered perfection.

Pity that she chose a Ford Capri to make a statement about her talent though. Young British Art has been there and done that, Mrs Wilson-Copp. Where were you when Sarah Lucas had her first show under the dealership of Sadie Coles? Her show, The Law, featured a beat-up Ford Capri with hydraulic pumps under its rear carriage, a big boy-racer humping away at its own dubious desirability.

It's so damned hard to be truly original these days, isn't it? You know that the avant-garde is over when the Queen comes to launch the cathedral of cool.

How different it all looked back in 1994, when summer sun shone down on Hoxton Square's second Fête Worse Than Death. Already, there were young British Artists stationing themselves in the London square's environs, with one of the most entrepreneurially-minded of them ambitious for Hoxton to become "a buzzing centre of business and the arts". It was as part of this drive that 25-year-old Joshua Compston had organised the Fêtes Worse Than Death, take-offs of the traditional country fete, with artists manning the free drugs tombola, photographers inviting you to stick your head in a seaside-style hole to become a Frieze magazine cover star, and Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst making and flogging spin paintings at a quid a time. At the time, it all seemed very avant-garde

Two years later, Compston died after taking the anaesthetic Halothane while drunk. There were those who suggested that Compston's death would be the catalyst which unveiled the self-destructive, drug-fuelled truth about the up-and-coming scene. But the truth was that Compston was simply not as significant a figure as he believed himself to be.

While he was hosting his second fête, another artistic entrepreneur had come up with his own improbable and daring wheeze. Nicholas Serota had alighted in his search for a second gallery space for the Tate, on the Bankside Power Station. As artists busily appropriated old industrial spaces on one side of the river, the most audacious appropriation of all had begun. Contemporary art is now the centre of our cultural identity.

Many people remain confused about how this could possibly have happened, and not just those who simply don't "understand modern art". To a lot of observers there is an irony involved in the seemingly bohemian and rebellious lifestyles of the leading artists and the embracing of Saatchi, of restaurant owning, or of shop opening. Further, there is suspicion about the commerciality of the enterprise - the closeness to popular culture, the invocation of advertising and the ruthless use of public relations.

Julian Stallabras published a recent book, High Art Lite, in which he complained about these sorts of dichotomies, and declared himself to be "taking on the art-world as a whole, showing how it is thoroughly entangled with the society, its economy and politics".

This, he believes, makes for bad art, but he misses how the creation of the community of artists is their pivotal work. The loosely affiliated group is Ballardian in its style, and manages to bring all of the contradictions of the modern, even future, world into its community. Readers of Ballard's last novel, Cocaine Nights, were introduced to an artistic community on the Costa Del Sol, whose retired inhabitants had everything consumer capitalism could offer, but were oddly moribund, until the arrival of a maverick figure.

He reawakened their creativity by reintroducing elements that they had purportedly moved to their closed community to get away from. As drugs, petty crime, sex and rebellion were reintroduced to the community, so did the inhabitant awake and become creative. The Spanish authorities left them alone, unaware that any crime was taking place at all, marvelling at the health of the community, and happy to take credit for policing it so effectively.

Now obviously the comparisons between a fictional retirement community on the Costa Del Sol and London EC2 are limited. But Ballard's contention - that creativity needs chaos - is valid. The British artists who are so fêted today, have embraced all that entrepreneurial Thatcherism had to offer, but have also maintained a counter-cultural social existence. They have made that contradiction in terms - a post-Thatcherite crypto-alternative community. As such, as Ballard decrees, they are stimulated into intense creativity. It's the contrast that whips up the creative tension, and the knitting of the group which keeps them unassailable.

The establishment - Tony Blair et al - embraces them, rather in the manner of the Spanish police. Burnished by association with the now rather long in the tooth Young British Artists, it would rather not know too much about their un-New Labour lawlessness. When Tony Blair talks of zero tolerance to drugs, he doesn't mean zero tolerance to Damien Hirst, even though the world he wants to make is antithetical to the world in which Damien Hirsts could thrive.

As for Pauline Wilson-Copp, her protest is just the kind of thing that is needed to keep the art establishment looking edgy. It isn't in the least difficult to believe that Damien Hirst may have backed her in her protest. He knows better than anyone that a little bad behaviour is just the thing to keep everybody on their toes.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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