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.