Young Gods? I don’t think so!

Currently showing in London is a retrospective of the artists group BANK, formed in the early 90’s by fellow students on the Goldsmiths Fine Art MA. Motivated by a kind of anarchic anti-elitism, their first strategy was to have a group show without labels, so that viewers would not be able to tell which artist had made which work. Of course, anyone in the know could easily recognise the authorship of individual works, but the group soon developed a more sophisticated collectivity. One of BANK’s most interesting activities was their ‘Fax-Bak’ service, which returned gallery press releases to the sender, with corrections for grammar, design, and art-comprehension, and a final grade (eg ‘1/10: meaningless and cliched – well done!’). This service was a useful corrective to the prevailing hubris in the art world of the 90’s, and I wish I still had the fax that so annoyed my then West End gallerist (it would be some recompense for the £10,000 he still owes me) but faxes, like decades, fade away…

However, I was reminded again of those bygone days by the Saatchi-esque title of another current London show, Young Gods. Presenting work by recent graduates of London art colleges, the show is jointly presented at the Griffin Gallery, owned by Col Art, makers of Winsor and Newton art materials, and sponsors of the current UAL showcase exhibition Future Map. The Griffin Gallery has a history of interesting shows by young and emerging artists (and be sure to check out ‘Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changing‘ opening 27 March, which will feature pairings of works by teachers and ex-students from London colleges including Camberwell and Wimbledon). In fact, these shows are so interesting that the contemporary artists exhibiting really don’t need the wanna-be-yBa title of ‘Young Gods’.

But what really gives me deja-vu is the Young Gods catalogue essay, which tells us that ‘it’s often said that the arts have taken the place of religion as the source of the spiritual in people’s lives.’ Yes indeed, ‘art as the new religion’ is a rather tired cliche (although this is the first time I have heard it claimed that art is the source of the spiritual) but where this notion comes from, and what it might actually mean, is seldom discussed. I’ve written about the 19th Century Theosophical roots of this theory, its profound effect on 20th Century Modernism, and its ongoing influence today, in ‘Concerning the word ‘spiritual’ in art’, concluding that ‘Art is not the new religion; religion is – or should be – the new religion. What art is – or could be – remains (thank God) an open question.’

Rather than being seduced into the pantheon of the marvelous, young artists today need to be wary of such attempts to tell them what their work is about, and how it operates in the world, and therefore what their lives are about. That is, they need to be as critical in their approach to questions of spirituality as they are towards questions of art.