Waldemar Januszczak offers this brilliant analysis of the YBA through a review of a fragment history of the movement that is “as full of omissions as it is admissions:”
The YBAs were so uncouth and slobbish that most self-respecting art commentators have been nervous of associating themselves with their antics. Gregor Muir gleefully remembers seeing Emin crawling on all fours through the Cologne art fair before finally finding a “corporate water feature” to vomit into. And Hirst’s favourite “penis prank” was to pull a bit of his testicles through a small hole in his trousers and ask passing women to help him remove the chewing gum that was stuck to him. Back in Cologne, Muir and Jake Chapman drank themselves into such an excitable state that they broke into the art fair at night and swapped around all the paintings before passing out in a shop window in full view of the passing Germans. Raphaelesque behaviour, it wasn’t. [ . . . ]
But the chief reason, I suspect, why this brilliant and full-blooded assault on the art system (the most exhilarating art development of my lifetime) has been so roundly ignored by the encapsulators is that the witnesses who were there and who might have had something insightful to say about what was happening have forgotten most of the details. They were too drunk, too coked up, too busy scrounging up some rent, too out of work and squalor-happy to remember much about the glory days. [ . . . ]
Where all this becomes pertinent rather than self-pitying is in colouring in the grim social landscape from which the YBAs emerged. The class angers that triggered this emergence have never been properly understood for the simple reason that most art commentators come from somewhere very different. The divide between the Tate crowd and this crowd was positively Dickensian. Hirst, from Leeds, was the son of a single Irish mum and an unknown itinerant father. Emin’s dad was a Turkish Cypriot, and the neighbours in Margate regularly abused her mother as a “darkie-lover”. Sarah Lucas grew up in the Holloway Road and was a classic north London layabout with a huge mouth and a tiny education.
No cast list as dysfunctional as this had ever been ushered onto the stage of British art before. Nor was anyone actually ushering them onto the stage this time. The entire YBA phenomenon is presented here as an outrageous display of gate-crashing. Finding their own spaces, putting on their own shows, cobbling together home-made art from whatever was at hand in the local skip, making their own posters, deciding on their own subject matter, blagging their way into derelict properties, hunting down the free beer, the great unwashed had found a smuggler’s route into the art world. [ . . . ]
But for all the profound impecuniousness remembered here so shakily, the final picture that emerges is a heartening one: an enclosed society of like-minded pals, working, sleeping, drinking together, decides to force a new working-class aesthetic onto the art world. And somehow manages it.
Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art by Gregor Muir (Times of London)