CONTEMPORARY art depends on hype the way a vampire depends on fresh blood -- at least, that's often the perception. And hype, unfortunately, now obscures one of the art world's more fascinating recent events: the rise of London. Only five years ago, its academic traditions firmly entrenched, its contribution to twentieth-century art deemed modest by most history books, and its contemporary galleries decimated by the international recession in the art market, London was widely regarded as about the dreariest European capital for a young artist. Then the city went on an economic upswing, and its visual artists -- to the astonishment of art observers the world over -- were somehow swept to the crest of the wave. Today, in Britain and on the Continent, galleries showing British artists in their twenties and thirties draw unprecedented crowds of viewers, who are often of the same age. The city's East End has become so honeycombed with galleries and artists' studios that British journalists routinely cast it as the new Montmartre -- if not the new New York.
Perhaps it's not surprising that as news of this has crossed the Atlantic, the tendency has been to dismiss it. For one thing, New York's contemporary galleries greatly outnumber London's. For another, some of Britain's best- known artists have allowed themselves to be marketed here as what they seem to think America wants: a Barnumesque spectacular. In 1996 Damien Hirst had a heavily promoted SoHo debut that featured his showstopping trademark: sliced- up animals in vitrines. Last year the big hullabaloo came from the Chapman brothers, famed for their scandalizing mannequins of Siamese-twin children who sprout dildoes where their noses should be. Discussions are now under way for a New York museum to present works belonging to the adman Charles Saatchi, the pre-eminent collector of new British art, who displayed his holdings at London's Royal Academy last year under the rubric "Sensation."
In New York, art's leading edge is coming to be defined by such things as portraiture and a renewed interest in drawing and painting. Shock value and the attendant media hype are pretty old hat -- much of the reason that many American pundits now see the ascendance of British art, hot though it may be among private collectors, as a temporary market phenomenon.
Before dismissing London, however, it's worth considering several things. The new British art that tends to be widely promoted here is usually hawked by dealers who have commerce, rather than cultural enlightenment, in mind. But what seems most commercial is unlikely to convey what London has going for it: a genuine creative scene, galvanized by experimental artist- run shows and publicly funded one-time-only projects. More important, the London art world has accomplished something that its New York equivalent emphatically has not: getting ordinary people interested in what young artists are doing.
THE British public is legendarily hostile to the very notion of "contemporary" art: in 1976, when the Tate spent thousands of pounds of public money on 120 bricks -- an ultra-minimalist work by an American, Carl Andre -- it caused a national scandal. Yet today new British work, surrounded by controversy though it often is, tends to go over so well that when the national lottery announced last year that it would fund individual artists as well as building projects, few attempts were made to rouse indignation with the old rallying cry that all contemporary art is obscure and ipso facto elitist. Damien Hirst and his ilk are now household words to such an extent that the outgoing Conservative Party pointed to young artists as evidence of what Thatcherite entrepreneurialism had produced, and the new Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, wasted no time in trying to co-opt them. (Last year 10 Downing Street was rehung, to much fanfare, with new British abstract painting.) New art inspires such curiosity that it is commonly displayed in public places other than galleries and museums. Not just highfalutin clubs and restaurants but Habitat, the chain of mid-market home-furnishings stores, routinely devotes space to serious art exhibitions. There are even plans afoot to commission artists' installations for Selfridges, one of London's staider department stores. The current craze has prompted a reassessment of an art-historical tradition that has never been regarded as one of Europe's most original or glorious.
THINK pop art, and the image that springs to mind probably involves America, mass media, and larger-than-life celebrity Andy Warhol silk-screening a movie-screen-sized portrait of Jackie Kennedy or Marilyn Monroe. Yet it is a British critic, Lawrence Alloway, who is said to have coined the term "pop art," in the early 1950s, and a British artist, Richard Hamilton, who in 1956 made what is generally regarded as the first pop work: a small Surrealist collage called Just What Is It That Makes Today's Home So Different, So Appealing? It depicts a couple at home, scantily clad and surrounded by modest consumer goods, all of them culled from ads in magazines.
Alloway and Hamilton were both members of the Independent Group, an alliance of artists, architects, and critics who met in London throughout the early 1950s to discuss subjects that were newly in vogue, such as advertising imagery, science-fiction movies and comic books, American car design, and the sociology of London's working class. They also mounted several experimental shows, most of which promoted collaboration between fine arts such as painting and sculpture and applied arts such as architecture and graphic design.
Because of this collaboration -- and because Britain had recently laid the groundwork for the socialist welfare state -- some critics place early pop in the lineage of such left-leaning utopian art movements as Constructivism and the Bauhaus, which sought to integrate art and design and thus revolutionize everyday existence. Yet pop's great leap was to be pragmatic: rather than expecting artists to remake the world, it proposed that fine art should take a cue from life, by broadening its subject matter to include popular culture and directing itself to a wider audience.
The aim, Alloway wrote in the catalogue for the Independent Group's next-to-last show, in 1956, was to make art "as factual and far from ideal standards as the street outside." As for Hamilton's seminal collage, it was intended to be mass-produced, and was in fact distributed throughout London as the show's advertising poster. Held in a state-run gallery in the East End, the show was called "This Is Tomorrow." "[The show] believes that modern art can reach a wide public," the press release claimed, "if it is handled without too much solemnity."
Today the most noticeable characteristic of the art one sees in London is that much of it is endearingly unsolemn -- and obviously British. At least, that's what struck me a couple of years ago when, wandering through a London art fair, I happened upon a curiously mesmerizing video, by Lucy Gunning, called The Horse Impressionists. In it five women imitate horses, with varying degrees of seriousness. One, in a mackintosh, rears and whinnies in a London park; another neighs horrifically in a garage and then smiles sweetly into the camera. Some months later I was stunned to see the video decoded in an art magazine in an utterly poker-faced way as having to do with the "special" relationship between girls and horses, perfectionism, fetishism, idol worship, and other presumably universal female concerns. Perhaps. But one would have to be wearing blinders not to see the fetishism in question, whatever one makes of it, as especially English -- and funny. As Anthony Wilkinson, the dealer on the art-fair stand, pointed out, "It's like Monty Python."
I had a similar reaction watching several works by Gillian Wearing, another video artist. Video is probably Britain's most engaging contemporary art form; with the national strength in television, it's no wonder. Wearing, like her fellows, has sometimes been characterized as a new documentarian, ostensibly because she goes against the self-effacing, self- conscious English grain by turning the camera on herself. A better reason for the label might be that her videos, which echo everything from Victorian photography to modern television programs and ads, frequently star real people. Watching them, it's possible to believe that one will find out something interesting about the person -- or even oneself.