Five years ago, Julian Stallabrass made his share of enemies in London's art scene with his book, High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s (Verso, 1999), an excoriation of the pop posturing beneath the yBa's punk exterior. "If Hirst's shark is a symbol of the [yBa] phenomenon," Stallabrass wrote, "it is because the creature can never be still, it must keep the water flowing over its gills or die -- as the artist himself put it, 'not moving forwards. . . just moving'."
In his more recent book, Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce (Tate, 2003), one of the first scholarly studies of web art, Stallabrass made a point of championing unconventional art made outside the gallery system. For Stallabrass, the internet is an ideal environment, a place where artists and thinkers can produce and share immaterial works that can be viewed as art, and which can be free of dealers and the agendas of state institutions and corporations.
Despite his interest in hip culture, Stallabrass often positions himself in opposition to it, or rather, in opposition to the economic interests that underlie it. As senior lecturer in art history at Londons eminent Courtauld Institute of Art, Stallabrass unsettles students reared on notions of the supremacy of taste of art-world pooh-bahs like Charles Saatchi. As a frequent contributor to broadsheets such as the Evening Standard and New Statesman, Stallabrass brings a Marxian approach to conservative commuters.
In his newest book, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (Oxford, 2004), Stallabrass continues his attack on the avant-garde affectations of the international art market. In popular myth, artists can act "like heroes in the movies, [able] to endow work and life with their own meanings," Stallabrass writes, while in truth "the economy of art closely resembles the economy of free capital" -- and consequently the artist is subservient to market pressures, rather than subverting them.
Ana Finel Honigman: What interests you about contemporary art?
Julian Stallabrass: My interest is in figuring out the system instead of focusing on individual practices. I was in New York recently at the Greater New York show and whenever there is a group show of younger artists like that, you tend to see a collectivity instead of individual artists. Despite the way the art world cultivates a myth of individuality, the tendency is to group artists together.
AFH: You are best known for criticizing certain art practices and trends, notably the "Young British Artists" phenomenon. What work do you actually respect or like?
JS: While there are obviously works and practices I admire more than others, that is no longer an uncomplicated question for me.
AFH: Is that question particularly complicated for you because of your expertise and interests, or do you think it would be equally complicated for any critic?
JS: Both. You always have an attachment for what brought you to the field in the first place, but I think, like many people, that the things that most intensely attract me are the things I can use.
AFH: You mean use as evidence for your arguments?
JS: Use in my own development, in thinking about ideas or enriching my own practice. But the question is complicated because I dont have the confidence, which many critics seem to, that my own predilections are of any particular interest to others. There is more general interest in thinking about the art world as a system, and in that analysis, individual esthetic judgments have little place.
AFH: You have been called a Marxist art critic. Are you comfortable with that term?
JS: No one feels comfortable with the term "Marxist," not even Marx. Taken as an intellectual tradition, Marxism is so rich and diverse that the description Marxist art critic" barely tells you more about someone than the description "liberal art critic."
AFH: So, how would you describe your methodological approach to art?
JS: I've certainly learned much from Benjamin, Adorno, and from reading Marx himself, and I think Marxist ways of thinking offer the most convincing analyses of capitalism and its cultural life. I am uncomfortable with the term art critic, since the job seems to mostly consist of producing types of publicity material in a language that its producers regard as elevated. I try to avoid doing that. Marxism should be, of course, not just a set of ideas but a synthesis of theory and practice that helps bring about social change, and that is where the real discomfort lies with the term "Marxist art critic."
AFH: What do you think of the charge that the kind of work you support in Art Incorporated is didactic and too tied-up in theory?
JS: I think that kind of critique of that art is usually made by very adept and sophisticated viewers who don't like to be told what to think.
AFH: Does it worry you to think that you might be seen as a cranky Hilton Kramer-like figure who always takes contrary stance against works that define contemporary art in the public imagination?
JS: Yes, it does, but I hope that it is clear that I criticize the work on very different grounds.
AFH: What is your opinion of the conservative art press?
JS: Just because someone writes for a conservative paper and has an apparatus of, for example, camp celebrity around them does not mean intelligent readers should dismiss everything they say. Part of the power of the right-wing populists' view of contemporary art is that they say certain truths that other critics ignore. I am glad to write occasionally for the Standard. As long as my editors don't censor my writing, then I am happy to put left-wing thinking before a few million evening commuters. The danger is not in critiquing contemporary practice but when one's positive program starts to become conservative, and you end up arguing for a return to modernist formalism or some other anachronism.
AFH: Do you consider yours an esthetic critique or are you mainly interested in analyzing the ideas behind the work?
JS: That is an interesting question; my stance in High Art Lite was a critique of complicity but also a lack of complexity. You are right that I never stated outright that I was critiquing the yBa esthetic but it was an implicit, and partly esthetic, objection to work so flat and even dumb.
AFH: Since so much yBa art is satire do you think you were seen after High Art Lite as just not getting the joke?
JS: I was seen as some absurd Ruskinian artist-critic who just didn't get it and the reactions to that book were quite violent. I expected there to be a certain amount of trouble but not as much as there was. Art-world condemnations were so strident they undermined themselves. Maybe I was naive but I was surprised that there were relatively few measured critiques worth answering -- mostly it was a parade of personal insults.
AFH: Do you feel that your arguments are still misunderstood?
JS: When that book came out, the yBas were riding the wave of fashion but once the shine came off the movement the book began to get more sympathetic attention.
AFH: Do you think the shine came off for the right reasons or did fashion just change?
JS: Partially the cycle of fashion and partially the reality that you can only play the young punk for so long, which is why so many of those artists have tried to make more serious work, work with more conventional art materials and have started to get critics to try and buttress their work in theoretic readings.
AFH: Wasn't critical complacency always part of your critique of that movement?
JS: Yes and often the results are quite ludicrous. Finding Lacanian voids in Sam Taylor-Wood is an unlikely project, I think.
AFH: Have you noticed differences between the way American and British artists relate to market pressures or discuss broader economic issues in their work?
JS: I think there is little difference these days between artists who are oriented to the market. The art schools in the U.K. now give professional training in career advancement, and artists approach the market with fully opened eyes. Since there is far more support of the arts in the U.K. at all levels of government, it creates a space for artists to pursue careers that are less dependent on market pressures. Their practices and ways of talking, geared to satisfying bureaucrats rather than buyers, at least in writing their grant applications, could not be more different than that of the artist who hopes to hook Saatchi.
AFH: Your books are very readable. Who is the audience you are trying to reach?
JS: It varies from book to book and piece to piece but as a matter of principle, I try to write without unnecessary academic jargon. I hold to the belief that there is a wider intellectual audience out there that can be engaged.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.