Goldsmiths and the Young British Artists

Goldsmiths and the Young British ArtistsDegree show at Goldsmiths University London



This week’s selection offers you a wide variety of pieces made by artists that studied at two of the most recognized art institutions of Europe of the late XXth century: Goldsmiths University and Central Saint Martins. Goldsmiths played a key role in the contemporary art scene of the late 1980s. During those years it acted as a catalyst of an artistic group called the Young British Artists (YBAs). These group of artists met during that decade in London and became internationally known as they took part in two ground-breaking exhibitions: Freeze (1988) and Sensation (1997). Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas are just some of the members this fluid group that was characterized - according to Tate - by their ‘openness to materials and processes, shock tactics and entrepreneurial attitude’.


The development of YBA occurred in the context of hyper-capitalism. Private art galleries were more popular in the UK and the figure of artist-curator was the common situation in the contemporary art scene. In 1988, Damien Hirst curated Freeze in a disused Port Authority building in south-east London. Hirst organized the show and included numerous works of his fellow students at Goldsmiths.  High-profile art dealers such as Charles Saatchi, Nicholas Serota, Norman Rosenthal and Richard Shon attended the show and would later get involved in many of the group’s activities. Art historian Julian Stallabrass criticized the YBA suggesting that the 80s economic recession was the reason that allowed many of them to take an entrepreneurial approach towards their creative processes. He also comments on the tight relationship of these artists with mass media as many of the pieces alluded to ‘accessible veneer, building in references and forms that people without specialist knowledge would understand.’ Hence, their subjects and techniques are postmodern as they succeeded in breaking the boundaries between high and low culture. However, their crude images have also been criticized for lacking artistic skills. 


The Young British Artists are particularly known for employing violent imagery like pornographic references with the aim of shocking large audiences. In many ways, Goldsmiths shaped their practices as the courses didn’t follow the classical structure of a B.A. Fine Art programme. Disciplines mixed this meaning there was no separation between drawing, photography, sculpture or painting. 


One of the pieces that perfectly conveys what the YBAs movement was all about is The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living (1991) by Damien Hirst. The artist placed a shark into a formaldehyde solution inside a glass, painted steel container. The tiger shark was suspended in that liquid and seems both dead and alive. Through this emblematic piece, Hirst aimed to explore the concept of death as well as the greatest fears of humans. The piece was commissioned by Charles Saatchi for the Young British Artists show in 1992 and was sold to collector Steven Cohen for eight million dollars. Despite this, The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living has also accessed the sphere of popular culture as it became a symbol for contemporary art and specifically for the YBAs modus operandi of shocking its audiences through their art.

Goldsmiths and the Young British ArtistsFreeze (1988) / Exhibit 'British Young Artists' curated by Charles Saatchi in 1992

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