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BOOK: HIGH ART LITE: BRITISH ART IN THE 1990s by Julian Stallabrass (Verso, 2nd edition 2006)

I reviewed "High Art Light" for "Mute Magazine" when it was first published in 1999. While I found it flawed (and very seriously flawed in places), I hope it was clear that I nonetheless appreciated the seriousness with which Stallabrass approached his subject. There had been a dearth of critical debate on young British art, I had made my contributions, but few others did. Thus it was a pleasure to receive in the post today an unsolicited copy of the revised and expanded edition of "High Art Light". Let us return to my original review and then make a few additional comments. My review of the first edition read in part:

High art lite is the term Stallabrass uses to describe what more often (and less accurately) goes by the name of young British art. For Stallabrass, this is conceptualism with a pop content calculated to attract media attention and facilitate sales in the art market. Exhaustively listing my disagreements with High Art Lite isn't possible here, but some of the problems Stallabrass needs to address can be seen in the following passage about Sam Taylor-Wood: 'She fly-posted the Brick Lane area of London, an area where the population is largely Asian, with a picture of herself wearing a T-shirt bearing a swastika and the name of the symbol written in Sanskrit. While the swastika was the original kind, not the reversed version used by the Nazis, such niceties were lost on the inhabitants of the area, for the posters were swiftly defaced... To paste such a work up around Brick Lane which, though subject to a slow process of gentrification, is still the site of potentially murderous conflict between its Asian and white population, was... not perhaps effective enough to be dangerous but nevertheless frivolous and irresponsible.'

The problem of overt racist intimidation in the Brick Lane area has to a large extent been resolved not through gentrification, but by community self-defence against fascism. Here, as in other places, Stallabrass can be read as equating racism with the working class - although it seems unlikely this is something he consciously intends. In fact, the gentrification of Brick Lane may well have served to exacerbate the effects of the systematic discrimination suffered by the local Bangladeshi community in terms of both housing and jobs. While Stallabrass acknowledges what Eddie Chambers and others have to say about institutional racism in the art world, his readiness to assume that individual cultural workers are innocent of (what is often unconscious) bigotry, indicates he hasn't properly worked through the issues involved.

In the instance of Sam Taylor-Wood plastering Muslim homes and businesses with swastikas, Stallabrass should not presuppose that because her posters were defaced, those targeted missed the 'niceties' of the symbol being used in its Hindu form. Thousands of people died in Hindu/Muslim conflicts on the Indian subcontinent before Pakistan was established as an Islamic republic in 1947.  Eastern Pakistan broke away to become the separate state of Bangladesh in 1971. These events would have formed an important part of the background that shaped the reception of Taylor-Wood's 'art' among  Brick Lane's Sylheti speakers. Long-standing Hindu/Muslim conflicts mean that members of Brick Lane's Islamic community were likely to have had a more nuanced understanding of the Taylor-Wood piece under discussion than those who attend her private views. Likewise, it shouldn't be forgotten that high caste Hindus have been configured as 'Aryans' by fascist race theorists, while some of those consigned to the untouchable caste denounce the Hindu BJP as a Nazi political party. By not addressing the specificities of Brick Lane's Bangladeshi community, Stallabrass avoids making a critique of Taylor-Wood that might undermine his assumptions about the art world having less need to tackle the issue of racism than working class communities.

...Having set out to attack commodity culture, Stallabrass would have made a more effective critique if he'd stepped back from the art world.... While Stallabrass doesn't always succeed in shaking off the ideological baggage that comes with his background, he at least attempts to do so - and with the help of constructive criticism, he will hopefully work through some of the issues he urgently needs to address... Despite serious flaws in his thinking, Stallabrass puts a great deal of effort into dealing with art historical issues...

So as can be seen from this truncated version of my original review, I tried to balance criticism with praise. I was certainly pleased to see that in the revised version of his book Stallabrass has amended the particular passage I singled out for criticism and credited me in a footnote saying: "I am grateful to Stewart Home for pointing out the deficiencies in my original analysis of this work. See his article..." So credit where it is due, it isn't that usual for someone to use a footnote to acknowledge they've altered a revised edition of a book because someone else made valid criticism of it. The revised "High Art Lite" is definitely an improvement on the original; for example by including new material about the impact of some of the artists championed by Matthew Higgs on the decline of high art lite (i.e. Jeremey Deller, Martin Creed, Bob & Roberta Smith). I still have some disagreements with this book, but it remains the best starting point for debate about 90s art in London, a debate which in many ways still needs to take place.


Stewart Home with sex dummy photo by Julia King

Stewart Home (on your left) tells it like it is...