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1997 The Young Burlington Acolytes

In 1997, the Young British Artists officially arrived at Burlington House, not for the Summer Exhibition but for Sensation, the provocatively titled exhibition organised with Charles Saatchi and Norman Rosenthal, open from September to December, and designed to showcase a new generation of artists who felt sure their “art seemed a fuck of a lot more exciting” than what had gone before them (Fig. 1).1 Challenge and offence was hard-wired into the work on display, which trashed just about every precious tenet of its host institution. Religion and the innocence of youth, but above all standards of taste, were on the chopping block. Predictably, the event was steeped in controversy. A parade of Daily Mail columnists declared the end of “British values” with apocalyptic fervour, mistaking revolution for what they found revolting.2 Despite internal tensions, all this was ultimately welcomed by the Academy and cued by regular nods to the history of the galleries it inhabited, including the Summer Exhibition.3

Explore the 1997 catalogue

What, then, was the nature of the exchange, transmission—cross-contamination even—that took place between the Academy and the range of incongruent artists featured: Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, The Chapman Brothers, and Marcus Harvey among them? How did these reviled young Turks, as they were characterised in the press, affect Reynolds’s ageing baby, and vice versa?

Sensation hardly brought a pedestalled institution low by subversive intent. Instead, it revealed the harmonies that existed between the Academy and the YBAs (Young British Artists). Both thrived off shocking their audiences. As this Chronicle shows, the Summer Exhibition’s history is defined by controversy: pictures of the year causing upheaval, artistic rivalries grabbing headlines, clashes in the tectonics of taste. These past “horrors” were often relatively muted when compared to The Chapman Brother’s dismembered manikins after Goya, but the tumult unleashed by Sensation gained much of its power through lifting the lid on a tradition of Academic scandal; it played on a stage built from over two centuries of shock tactics.

The Exhibition catalogue’s title page acknowledges this using a full bleed, black and white, inverted negative image of W.P. Frith’s Private View of the Royal Academy 1881 (1883) (Fig. 2). In 1997, Saatchi now filled Wilde’s shoes as arbiter of (anti-)taste, and rather than serene aesthetes gazing at the latest Alma-Tadema, Hirst’s Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) gawped back at its audience. Wilde and Saatchi both symbolise the artistic shifts of their respective 90s. Wilde was jailed and never lived to influence later historical moments, but in Saatchi’s case Sensation has become the imprisoning force, a high watermark blocking his continued influence.4 The comparison is also invited through one critic’s response in the aftermath of the Exhibition, that if earlier art “aspired to the condition of music, this art aspires to the condition of advertising […] a quick image, shocking, thought-provoking.”5 With Sensation, Saatchi delivered a Wildean inversion of cultural orthodoxy for the budding internet age.6 But unlike Wilde, he did so quietly, without outspoken interviews or publications. His impact was made through his product not his prose.

Peering further into the Exhibition catalogue, we glimpse Norman Rosenthal appearing to tread a careful path between his established duties as Exhibitions Secretary at the Academy and as a sincere advocate for the disruptive power of his unruly new crèche of YBAs. Through the rhetoric of imperialism, Rosenthal’s demand that: “artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos” collides with assurance that: “contemporary art is a club well worth joining”.7 In a single gesture, the avant-garde is suddenly transfigured into an enforced orthodoxy. Closer inspection reveals that, for Rosenthal, these two categories of outsider-agitators versus fusty establishmentarians are not clearly defined but utterly commensurate and co-mingling. Facilitating an act of what Adrian Lewis has called “institutional consecration”,8 Rosenthal asserted that: “What ever happens next, these artists can no more be written out of the art-history books than can the Pre-Raphaelites, the Vorticists, the Camden Town Group.”9 Continuing, he remembers how Damien Hirst personally drove him to Freeze, the 1988 exhibition organised by the artist and responsible for launching the careers of many figures shown in Sensation.10 In hosting these artists within an expanded field of new names a decade later, Rosenthal implies, it was simply high time the Academy made public and concrete subliminal bonds with a young, rebellious, London-centric network of artists that had been extant and growing for several years.

The result? Jake & Dinos Chapman, Tracy Emin, Marcus Harvey, Mona Hatoum, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas, Chris Ofili, Richard Patterson, Marc Quinn, Fiona Rae, Jenny Saville, Yinka Shonibare, Rachel Whiteread. A selection of artists from the exhibition now reads like a roll call of some of today’s most significant British (and in some cases, international) artists. Twenty years on, most have formed a willing herd comprehensively “gathered into the fold”, with Emin, Saville, Shonibare, Hume, Landy, Rae, and Wearing—all now RAs. In exchange, the Academy briefly became energised, continuing a wave of front-page controversy beginning with Kitaj’s protestations in the Summer Exhibitions of 1996 and 1997. With total visitors reaching 300,000, Sensation gave the Academy a right to claim unparalleled pulling power in the arms race of blockbuster London exhibitions, which provided its financial life-blood. The outrage it provoked also demands categorisation as an historic art-quake on a par with Roger Fry’s two post-impressionist exhibitions in 1910 and 1912, or the Victoria and Albert Museum’s post-war showing of Picasso and Matisse. Yet just the following year, John McEwan would be tearing his hair out as the 1998 Summer Exhibition returned with “soulless repetition, cloying clichés and boiled banalities” seemingly “fixed in a mid-1960s timewarp”.11 The ship Academia held its course, while the Sensation exhibitors became canonised.

Although clearly Sensation did not launch these already maturing careers into the public eye—since the inaugural Young British Artists show in 1992, half a decade of Saatchi promotions had made sure of that—it undoubtedly gave them an exposure or patina unique to such an established platform. The YBAs fleetingly exposed the progressive influence the Academy is able to wield, but their shock quickly lost its power and, as Jenny Saville prophesied, grew to be the new academic “blue-chip” stock-in-trade.12 Proving that sometimes the first word should be the last, William Feaver observed in his initial review for The Observer that: “[a]s each new generation comes of age, it becomes academic. Sensational news. Vive the latest.”13

  1. Damian Hirst in Richard Cork, “Everyone’s Story is So Different: Myth and Reality in the YBA/Saatchi Decade”, in Dick Price and Jonathan Barnbrook, Young British Art: The Saatchi Decade (London: Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1999), 19.↩︎

  2. Anthony Daniels, “The Royal Academy is Degrading Us All. It Should Not Forget Many Talented Artists Served Adolf Hitler”, The Daily Mail, 17 September 1997, 8.↩︎

  3. I am grateful to Richard Shone for his comments and criticisms on an initial draft of this article.↩︎

  4. Saatchi’s struggle to recreate the impact of Sensation and to free himself from its legacy is mapped by his international exhibitions of the last two decades. See Ben Lewis, “Charles Saatchi: The Man who Invented Art”, The Observer, 10 July 2011,↩︎

  5. Adrian Lewis, “The Logic of Organized Sensations”, The Art Book 5, no. 2 (March 1998): 5–6.↩︎

  6. The blank text design by Jonathan Barnbrook and Jason Beard for the monster volume Young British Art: The Saatchi Decade makes clear the movement’s connection with the aesthetics of computing.↩︎

  7. Norman Rosenthal, “The Blood Must Continue to Flow”, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, exhibition catalogue (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1997), 11.↩︎

  8. Lewis, “The Logic of Organized Sensations”, 5–6.↩︎

  9. Rosenthal, “The Blood Must Continue to Flow”, 8.↩︎

  10. Rosenthal, “The Blood Must Continue to Flow”, 9.↩︎

  11. John McEwan, “Groundhog Day Rolls Around Again”, The Sunday Telegraph, 7 June 1998, 10.↩︎

  12. “I suppose Sensation might be seen in the future as the moment when certain young artists joined the establishment, and became blue-chip.” Jenny Saville in Cork, “Everyone’s Story is So Different”, 21.↩︎

  13. William Feaver, “Myra, Myra on the Wall …”, The Observer, 21 September 1997, Royal Academy Archive Sensation Media Coverage, 224.↩︎

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Explore the 1997 catalogue