Essay: The Last Great Era of Low Self-Esteem

1980's London was dirty and depressing. A new generation of artists reacted to the mood of the time by screwing with cultural hierarchies, decoding and recoding cultural material until it was no longer clear on which side they stood.

1985. Standing on the street in Camberwell, South London, eating a doner kebab. Leaning against a boarded-up shopfront. Holding the bready pouch of meat close to my face, I will not lower my arms. It is freezing cold. A thin cotton light blue Harrington jacket fails to break the wind. If the speed of consumption can match the biting cold they might cancel each other out. Don’t let the arms fall. Keep eating and try and gain enough energy to walk the remaining distance home.

Time to hunch against the wind and march down the Peckham Road. What’s wrong with my arms? They are brittle and swing stiffly at my sides. Nineteen-eighties London. The destruction of society. The loss of work. The “right” to buy. Rebranding and lobby renovations. Crap. Hurry down the street. Abandoned and empty. Mystery shops, “and sons”, “and co.”, “and partners”.

2018. I need to remind myself that Margaret Thatcher was in power from May 1979 to November 1990. From one month after my fifteenth birthday until I was twenty-six years and seven months old. What does this kind of lived trauma do to a young artist? And what might we learn from this in the time of Trump, who got into his stride in the 80s, and Sebastian Kurz, who was born in the middle of them? The depressing social disaster of the 1980s in Britain exists in the near future for others. Wilfully ignorant politicians had “social” positions shaped by their own limited “visions”, defined by their own histories, their own ugly domestic structures, and their own imagined national pride. A full-throated support for “values” underscored the Thatcherite destruction of various social contracts. Society was sent to the market.

1985. Shitty, dirty London. Asset stripping: turning the postwar social project of publicly owned assets into publicly traded slush. Language ripping relationships apart. Passengers becoming customers. Police brutality. Fighting miners. Fighting Brixton. Fighting Toxteth. SPG – the Special Patrol Group. Cruising South London. No Schengen, no freedom of movement, no single currency: surely this was a Brexiteer’s utopia? It was a rabid free-for-all for those with something; a big betrayal for those who would be left with nothing. It was the moment when Britain refined its ongoing confusion of morals and ethics: moralising statements combined with unethical actions. Highflown hypocrisy masking the emergence of the contemporary flow of capital from poor to rich.

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall

The 80s was the last period when low self-esteem was a normative response to authority. Anyone who said a phrase such as “you can be anyone you want to be” would have been dismissed as a narcissistic moron. The way my generation approached it was as follows: “You cannot be anyone you want to be but you can not become the anyone they want you to be.” There is an important point to this inversion. It is essentially critical. If you cannot be anyone you want to be, you can refuse to turn yourself into a dividual consumer.

Peter Saville – designer, artist, and co-founder of Factory Records – recently told me that the 80s was a “period without or beyond irony”. There is some truth to this but I do not fully agree with this statement: I think there was a deeply ironic aspect to the art we started to produce, starting with a commonly held foundational self-consciousness that expressed, through art, an ironic response to the failure of modernity and its various modernist calls and responses. An example from Goldsmiths’ College at the time is the work of Gary Hume. In his “Door Paintings”, what appeared to be monochrome paintings in a lineage of late-modern formalism took their compositional form from institutional swing doors such as might be found in a hospital or at Goldsmiths itself. A conscious reference to a mundane, everyday structure combined with signifiers pointing towards elevated minimalism. The work both undermined and reinforced its doubled source. Points of reference from modernism and traditional high culture had been mediated and lost their class-access taboo. Schools didn’t care about this process. The government didn’t even recognise it. Yet a new class of “producer/audience” was created at this time by young artists with their own universes of mediated referentialities. Jeremy Deller, Merlin Carpenter, Sonia Boyce and Donald Rodney were all educated within a postmodern context, but their work was less about mining historical points than inserting themselves into an implicated role in relation to how the presented self of an artist should imbue every gesture and affect all readings of their work. In this one could argue they were little different to some older artists of the time, such as Martin Kippenberger, although this younger generation did not share their conscious battle for artistic primacy.

The dominant cultural potential in the 80s lay in the quality of the interface – artists began to operate in the zones between cultural phenomena in order to make those varied terrains both subject and context. Saville described the late 1970s and early 80s as a time in Britain when “popular music became the interface of culture.” Independent record labels were, in his words, the “brokers of the canonical” – which was, moreover, “validated as cool by association.” What this meant was that the generation of artists educated in the 80s had already played with hierarchies of culture before entering the advanced art-education system. Art students had a critical substructure and processing framework outside of the accepted hierarchies and logic systems, which rendered them a point of resistance to the destructive antisocial project around them.

Image of the Battle of Orgreave, a violent confrontation between police and pickets during the 1984-85 UK miner's strike in Oregreave, Yorkshire, UK

Image of the Battle of Orgreave, a violent confrontation between police and pickets during the 1984-85 UK miner's strike in Oregreave, Yorkshire, UK

It was this structural play that bound creative action in 1980s Britain across racial and gender lines. Few accounts of mainstream culture can easily address the brutal exclusion that was assumed by the dominant culture – what it felt like, what it did to people – yet a common potential for critical progress could be found within the multiplicity of possible responses described in Stuart Hall’s reception theory (1980) and Dick Hebdige’s influential book Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). Hall and Hebdige held a key to the ways that different subcultures and identity groups decoded and recoded media, how they received and screwed with the originally encoded “social output”. Within this process, we could find a sociologically based creative collectivity in which each subgroup could play a part in aiding complication. The reception, reordering, and representation of social material was an activated process, and one that could be shared.

You cannot be anyone you want to be but you can not become the anyone they want you to be

Culture, in Hall’s words, was “experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined” – a description that encapsulated the emergent kind of processing pursued by those who were, for reasons of class or identity or sexual orientation, traditionally excluded from being recognized for their cultural production. They shared an often intuitive understanding that popular culture and its varied forms had completely shifted our relationship to power and authority. For a young man eating a kebab in Camberwell it was clear that authority had long wielded its power through its various commitments to its own tastes, expressed in high cultural forms. What we were beginning to synthesise, instead, was a layered sequence of decodings and recodings of cultural material within and without traditional hierarchies. Ultimately, this set the course for the later rise of contemporary art and its contradictory social function in Britain today.

It is too simple to trace British scepticism about visual art back to the country’s own peculiar Royalist version of the Reformation. More important, not least for some intellectually hungry artists in the 1980s, was the lack of any philosophy of national identity – no Kant or Hegel to police their dreams. This was combined with an establishment rejection of “continental philosophy”. As late as 1992 Derrida was roundly condemned when receiving an honorary degree from Cambridge University following a sustained attack from noted academics of the “analytical” persuasion.

Margare Thatcher, 1985

Margare Thatcher, 1985

The shifts in art in Britain that took place in the 1980s were marked by two clear and often polarising drives. The first was postcolonial theory and the second was class identification. Art degrees replaced diplomas in the 1970s, and by the 1980s an increasing if still small number of people of colour began to take up places, supported by the financial grant system that had yet to be completely dismantled under Thatcherite market principles. These students were joined by other working-class and lower-middle-class people such as myself who entered an art-school environment where they confronted urgent subjects of political discussion, among them identity, the rise of the extreme right, the attempt to crush organised labour and the question of who gets to speak or has the right to determine how we define culture. Importantly, this last question was a central concern for the art teachers at Goldsmiths. Veronica Ryan, Michael Craig-Martin, Susan Hiller, Richard Wentworth, Mary Kelly and Jon Thompson all felt that we had the right to enter the culture under our own terms and with our own contextual structure. This sense of entryism was mirrored by the panic in the Labour Party over the threat posed by neo-Trotskyite movements within its ranks, which they responded to by, for example, expelling the Militant Tendency in the early 80s.

In the 80s, non-commercial spaces were not yet dominated by self-reflection, hyperawareness, and critical gatekeepers

Looking back, we can certainly say that such questions are more urgent than ever, but they were not the ones that caught the eye of newspaper editors and magazine journalists very much at the time. By the end of the 80s it was the personalities of a new group of artists which began to attract attention. Loudmouthed, irreverent, cocky and ambitious, a small group of primarily white and working-class artists arose from London colleges as straight-talking jesters within a newly affluent culture of dockland renovation, new kitchen minimalism and endless party times. Artists at the interface became at once subjects, objects and mediators of what from now on would be termed “a career”. The 80s in Britain had seen the rise of new youth-oriented television programming, newspaper style sections and magazines such as The Face and i-D. Despite their indifference to what counted as advanced art at the time, they established a context of openness towards the apparent “shock” of just about anything – including contemporary art. This rapid passage from urgent self-determination to vanguard of Dionysian consciousness already pointed to the future inherent contradictions of art in Britain. This was clear as early as 1988, when the group show “Freeze” (organised by Damien Hirst) took place courtesy of a property developer waiting for the opportunity to “revitalise” part of London’s former docks. The exhibition was widely discussed in the press and became the subject of a short television documentary. Artists were becoming resistant and complicit encoders and recoders of the world around them, rebranding the foyers of apartment complexes, making commissions for public agencies, and watching as contemporary art started to be treated as a social and lifestyle paradigm.

Brixton Riot, 1981

Brixton Riot, 1981

In terms of the London institutional context, most of the major public spaces (Serpentine Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Hayward Gallery, and Camden Arts Centre) were already there at this point, with the exception of the Showroom and Chisenhale Gallery, which were established in 1983 and 1986, respectively – as well as Tate Modern, of course, which would not open until 2000. The lack of a dedicated museum of modern art was frequently cited and provided provincial stigma. Nevertheless, broadly speaking the cultural terrain would be recognisable today, with one missing element: the mass of young critical theorists, contemporary-art historians, and varied curatorial players. Those who now inhabit these roles are the intellectual inheritors of Hall’s insights. In the 80s, non-commercial spaces were not yet dominated by self-reflection, hyperawareness, and critical gatekeepers. That self-conscious scholarly presence was only just emerging, but by the early 2000s a new art appeared, ready to be framed by these hosts.

The 80s was the last period when low self-esteem was a normative response to authority

I studied art at Goldsmiths’ College between 1984 and 1987. Arriving with little sophistication and a lot of cultural baggage in terms of class and identity, the generation I was part of transformed low self-esteem into self-consciousness, aided by teachers who had survived the art-school upheavals of the 60s and 70s and were prepared to learn a new syntax from their students. Our older teachers were only in their mid-forties. They had been at the forefront of post-1968 art departments at Middlesex, Corsham, and St Martins, where old disciplines had been abandoned, studio walls removed and the open seminar and one-to-one analysis and discussions of motivation had transformed relationships. Goldsmiths was also where Hebdige and Hall produced their work. Their critical apparatus was absorbed within the culture of the place and we took it as a framework without hesitation or too much thought.

Turning from the Peckham Road into Southampton Way Estate, I braced myself again – not against the wind this time but in anticipation of a potential encounter with one of the many white heroin addicts who lived there. They were responsible for most of the crime and regular apartment break-ins. Many times I had to find one of them and attempt to buy back the things they had stolen from me. Objects with little or no street value like Super-8 cameras and defective open-reel tape machines. I was in no mood for a late encounter. Reaching the stairwell of Netley House I raced up the stairs and pushed open the broken front door. It had been kicked in again. There was nothing left worth stealing so nothing had been stolen. Bright bare bulbs in the hallway and warmth from an electric stove that we had dragged into the main room and left on most of the time with the oven door open. I tried to take off my jacket, but I couldn’t shake it. So I put down my keys and tried to pull it off my wrists. I felt a strange tension and cracking against the skin. Starting a new tack, I started trying to peel the jacket off my arms. It was fully bonded to my bare skin. Completely stuck.

Sometime later, one of my flatmates, Kofi, returned and cursed the skaghead raiders with a mix of wonder words. He found me in the living room, sitting in front of the stove attempting to melt the kebab fat that had glued me into my jacket. He cursed me, too, and cursed the whole fucking decade.

LIAM GILLICK is an artist based in New York. He attended Goldsmiths’ College between 1984 and 1987, while living in Peckham, Nunhead, Sydenham, and Brixton.

– This text appears in Spike Art Quarterly #57 . You can buy it in our online shop

Liam Gillick's apartment house in Peckham

Liam Gillick's apartment house in Peckham