Editorial Feature

What is the Significance of the Young British Artists?

Find out more about this 90s art movement and the people involved

The term Young British Artists (YBAs) is applied to a loose group of British artists who began to exhibit together in 1988, and became known for their openness to materials and processes, shock tactics, and entrepreneurial spirit.

The beginning of Young British Art kicked off with the exhibition Freeze, which was organised in 1988 by Damien Hirst, the most notorious of the YBAs. He was still a student at Goldsmiths College of Art in London and the show included the work of his fellow students, including Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst and Michael Landy—all of whom became leading artists associated with the YBA movement.

A Cheap and Ill-Fitting Gorilla Suit by Angus Fairhurst (From the collection of British Council)
The Consuming Paradox by Michael Landy (From the collection of Art Gallery of New South Wales) 

The teaching at Goldsmiths at the time played a significant role in the development of the movement. For some years, it had been encouraging new forms of creativity through its courses by abolishing the traditional separation of media into painting, sculpture, printmaking, and the like, and instead fostering a cross-discipline, multi-material approach. Irish-British artist Michael Craig-Martin was a teacher at the time and is credited as being one of the most influential figures for the YBAs.

The YBAs signified a new shift within the art world and the first use of the term "young British artists" to describe the work of Hirst and his peers was by Michael Corris in Artforum magazine in 1992. Four years later in 1996, the acronym "YBA’ was coined in Art Monthly magazine.

Picturing: Iron, Watch, Pliers, Safety Pin by Michael Craig-Martin (From the collection of British Council)

This label worked to the group’s advantage as it became a powerful part of their brand, and it allowed artists associated with it to use it as an easy marketing tool. British art in general during the 1990s was able to jump on this cool and trendy bandwagon.

The “can do” attitude of the YBAs was something they became known for, with Freeze being the first example of this entrepreneurial approach to showing their work. For the exhibition Hirst gained sponsorship from the London Docklands Development Corporation and the property development firm Olympia and York and through them secured the loan of the empty Port of London Authority Building in Surrey Docks in southeast London. The artist turned the warehouse into an exhibition space by installing lighting and painting the walls with the help of Fairhurst. Through the sponsorship and high production values, the 16-student exhibition felt fresh, new and exciting and led to a series of other ventures.

These included Pharmacy, a Notting Hill restaurant that opened in 1998 and was backed by Hirst, and The Shop, set up in an empty shop in east London by Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas where they could market their work.

Apotryptophanae by Damien Hirst (From the collection of British Council)
I Promise to Love You by Tracey Emin (From the collection of Times Square Arts)

Unlike traditional art movements, YBA art resists any particular style or approach. Rather the movement is marked by an openness towards materials and processes with which art can be made, as well as the form it takes. However, there are certain trends that can be picked out including the use of found objects that Hirst and Landy continue to do, and using imagery that was perceived as shocking or challenging, such as in Lucas and Emin’s work.

Some landmark pieces from the YBA movement gave the group a rebellious reputation and their activities highlighted a belief that they could get away with anything, which was viewed as both a positive and a negative at the time.

Psycho Slut by Tracey Emin (From the collection of Hayward Gallery)

The YBAs have received a lot of negative attention over the years, both for their final pieces and the materials used to create the work in the first place. For instance, Hirst’s continued use of preserved dead animals has continually irked many animal rights groups and got the media into a frenzy. In the past Hirst has used farm animals, sea creatures, winged creatures and a whole load of animal remains in his pieces. Reports recently stated that nearly one million animals have been sacrificed for Hirst’s art.

Similarly creating a media furore, though for a whole lot less compared to Hirst, is Tracey Emin. Her most iconic work is My Bed, conceived in 1998, which remains one of the most talked about contemporary pieces. The bed is presented in the state that Emin says it had been after languishing in it for several days after suffering a suicidal depression brought on by relationship difficulties. The bedsheets are stained with bodily secretions and the floor is strewn with condoms, underwear with menstrual blood stains and other everyday objects seen in a bedroom.

Eating a Banana (1990) by Sarah Lucas (From the collection of British Council)

The media coverage the YBAs received ultimately worked in the group's favor, despite the criticism. The sales the group generated sparked a small boom in the art market and as a result new galleries were established during this time such as White Cube, Sadie Coles HQ and Maureen Paley. The YBAs offered an alternative career path for British artists; previously artists were expected to do their time, produce work for years and do small group shows before achieving big solo exhibitions. Yet instead the YBA’s generated sales for large amounts of money very early in their careers, often straight out of art school.

Self-portrait with Fried Eggs (1996) by Sarah Lucas (From the collection of British Council)

Today, many of the original YBAs are in their 50s and 60s and they continue to create work that remains popular and manages to pull in top prices at auction. The themes, the openness to materials, and the uninhibited approach is still present from the originals and is also emulated by contemporary artists today.

House sculpture, Grove Road, Tower Hamlets, Greater London by Rachel Whiteread (From the collection of Historic England)
Four Feet in the Garden by Gary Hume (From the collection of Arts Council Collection) 

What’s most interesting is that a number of the YBAs are now a firm part of the art establishment they once distanced themselves from. For instance Emin, Gary Hume and Michael Landy have been elected as Royal Academicians (members of the Royal Academy of Art in London). And Chris Ofili, Rachel Whiteread and Hirst have all been awarded the Turner Prize (the UK’s biggest art prize), with others like Emin also having been nominated. What this demonstrates is the art world's acceptance of the YBAs as a defining part of British art and the influence it has had. It has encouraged students and burgeoning artists to curate and produce their own shows, experiment with techniques and materials and not wait to be picked up by a top London gallery.

No Woman, No Cry by Chris Ofili (From the collection of Tate Britain)
Water Tower by Rachel Whiteread (From the collection of Public Art Fund)
Little Whistler by Gary Hume (From the collection Bonnefanenmuseum)
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