Discover art for sale. Buy and sell prints & editions online by the Young British Artists. The YBAs were a notorious group of artists who exhibited together in 1980s Britain and shocked public and art world alike.
The Young British Artists (or YBAs) were a group of artists who started exhibiting together in the late 1980s and quickly gained notoriety for their original and often shocking art, as well as their provocative behaviour. Despite the controversy around them, artists like Damien Hirst went on to win the prestigious Turner Prize, while Tracey Emin is now a Royal Academician. The YBAs have been credited with revitalising interest in British art in the 1990s.
British art in the late 1980s moved into a unique and exciting era of art and exhibition making headed up by the YBAs (Young British Artists). Often cited as a catalyst to this new period in Britain is Damien Hirst’s exhibition Freeze, organised in 1988, when the famed artist was still a student at Goldsmiths College of Art. Freeze brought together the work of Hirst’s contemporaries at Goldsmiths like Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst and Muchael Landy, all of whom are now considered to be some of the most distinguished of the YBAs.
The socio-economic situation in London at the time, drastically different from that in New York and West Berlin, meant that artists reacted to the challenging circumstances with ‘vigour and optimism.’ The YBAs achieved their early success by exhibiting in cheap warehouses and industrial wastelands. Additionally, Goldsmiths College of Art was integral to the YBA movement. This creative, art school environment, headed by the teacher Michael Craig-Martin, encouraged many artists to disrupt stale traditions of art making.
The YBAs can be characterised by their confrontational artworks, as well as their entrepreneurial spirit. The willingness of artists like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas to shock viewers with sometimes violent and pornographic imagery is partly why they shot to fame so quickly. Scathing tabloid press coverage of the YBAs in the UK meant that many people came to know their work, thus contributing to their success.
Marketing and money-making ventures were a key part of the YBAs ambitions and unique approach. Hirst backed a restaurant called ‘The Pharmacy’ that opened in Notting Hill in 1988, and in East London, Emin and Lucas set up ‘The Shop,’ an empty shop used to market their work. The YBAs reacted against the traditional pathway of an artist in the UK, where the expected trajectory was to spend years creating work and putting on small group shows before achieving solo success. Instead, with the help of Charles Saatchi, the YBAs were very early on in their careers and straight out of art school when they began to sell their work for huge amounts of money. Saatchi first encountered the likes of Hirst and Lucas at Freeze, and thereafter decided to use his significant financial power to back British art over German and American works he had promoted previously.
The most famous YBAs include figures like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Jenny Saville, Yinka Shonibare and Rachel Whiteread. These artists have achieved celebrity status both within and outside the artworld and work across dynamic themes from contemporary and pop culture, identity politics, feminism, racism, morality, memory, class, and social critique.
Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin have made a name for themselves through their use of shock tactics in their art making, often appearing out of place within the context of the art gallery. Contrastingly, YBAs like Yinka Shonibare, have risen to fame through their explicit exploration of pressing political subjects; Shonibare highlighting issues like colonialism and post-colonialism in the context of globalisation.
The YBAs worked across a variety of different media and art forms, encapsulating their postmodernist sensibility in the movement’s lack of coherence. Indeed, Goldsmith’s tutor, Michael Craig-Martin, encouraged this variation, believing that creative difference was key to the development of art as a serious pursuit.
What brought this group of artists together was their challenge to traditional definitions of art, blurring the boundaries between drawing, painting, sculpture and rejecting fine art materials. Also key to the YBAs was their capacity to shock viewers and the use of found-objects, largely influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the ‘readymade’. Installation, drawing and self-portraiture featured prominently in the YBAs works, notably marked by a flexible approach towards the materials and processes used. While Damien Hirst has preserved dead animals and recreated a lifesize pharmacy, Tracey Emin has exhibited her own bed as a work of art.
Many of the original YBAs, who are now in their fifties, continue to create compelling work today, whilst also engaging with pop culture and audiences beyond the artworld.
Damien Hirst’s celebrity status has allowed him to pursue many varying projects into the 2020s and he often announces new projects through his Instagram page. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Hirst dedicated a new rainbow artwork to the NHS, using the iconography of the rainbow as a symbol of hope. Hirst in 2021 also designed the cover for Drake’s sixth studio album, Certified Love Boy.
Much work created by the YBAs continues to be hugely popular and frequently reach high prices at auction. Hirst’s work in particular is highly profitable, with his net worth estimated at between $400 million and $1 billion as of July 2015. It is indeed this entrepreneurial mindset that sets the YBAs apart from many other artists in Britain from the last 30 years.
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