Commodifying Art with the Entrepreneurial Young British Artists

My Bed by Tracey Emin at Tate Britain, London My Bed by Tracey Emin at Tate Britain, London (Image credit: Karen Bryan of on Flickr)

Throughout history, art has embraced myriad aesthetics, but no movement has incorporated a business-minded approach with such alarming ferocity as the entrepreneurial and media savvy Young British Artists, whose shock tactics and wild partying during their 1990s heyday not only shot them to worldwide fame, but also helped them become some of the richest artists in the world.

What started as a loose group of British student artists exhibiting with an openness to materials, processes, and media engagement at the Freeze exhibition of 1988 would transform into one of the most ambitious and controversial groups of artists in contemporary art history; the Young British Artists.

Notorious for a willingness to shock, Damien Hirst organised the Freeze exhibition, which not only transformed British art at the height of Britpop’s ascendancy, but also lifted his fellow exhibitors to fame. The fact that Hirst was still a student when he put together the pivotal exhibition makes his achievement all the more impressive, as he instigated a monumental turning point for British art.

Characterized by an open approach to process and materials that resulted in an unmade bed (Tracey Emin) and a tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde (Hirst), the Postmodern work of the YBA artists can be traced to the Fine Art course at Goldsmiths College in London, where courses abandoned the traditional segregation of artistic training into painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture classes in favor of mixed studios.

Anya Gallaccio - Red Door With Handle.

Anya Gallaccio – Red Door with Handle. Sold for £7,500 via Christie’s (February 2015).

Fuelled by a rebellious education, artists including Mat CollishawIan DavenportAnya Gallaccio, Damien Hirst, Gary HumeAbigail LaneSarah Lucas, and Fiona Rae all exhibited at Freeze and benefited from the influential teaching of Michael Craig-Martin at Goldsmiths. It would be a number of years though before the group’s identity was fully formed and they began to gain worldwide exposure, notoriety (and a fair amount of derision) in a whirlwind of shocks, excess, and fame that burned brightly at the end of the 20th century. 

The YBA Brand

Gary Hume – Beautiful (Kate Moss).

Gary Hume – Beautiful (Kate Moss). Sold for $321,600 via Phillips (May 2004).

Four years after Freeze 1988, this gaggle of Young British Artists was given a clear collective identity. The artist, art historian, and writer, Michael Corris first coined the phrase in Artforum, May 1992 and the crisp marketing tool of a catchy name would help unite the group with worldwide recognition. 

The label created a powerful brand that was recognised worldwide, as British art and music enjoyed a renaissance. The group’s ‘can do’ entrepreneurial approach to art was at the center of the brand and encompassed the Freeze exhibitions, as well the Pharmacy restaurant opened in Notting Hill in 1998 where Hirst exhibited his work before earning over £11 million from their sale at Sotheby’s. Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas’s, The Shop in east London signified this dedication to marketing their work, where t-shirts with painted slogans ‘Complete Arsehole’ and ‘Fucking Useless’ were particularly popular.

Chris Ofili - collage, 1996.

Chris Ofili – collage, 1996. Sold for $1,565,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2014).

Not only a high watermark for popular Postmodern art, the success of the YBA proved incredibly lucrative for a few, most notably Damien Hirst who is the richest living British visual artist according to a 2020 Sunday Times Rich List. His wealth is estimated at $384 million. The entrepreneur persisted in Hirst, as in September 2008, he broke with tradition and sold a complete show, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever at Sotheby’s, raising $198 million; a record for a one-artist auction. The artist also persisted with the restaurant business with The Quay in the Devon seaside town of Ilfracombe, which closed in 2018 after fourteen years in operation. 

The YBA movement was more than an entrepreneurial exercise, as it also spearheaded a revolution that smashed elitist barriers surrounding art, transformed national awareness of art, and aggressively flung contemporary British art onto the international map.

The YBA Aesthetic

Distinctly Postmodern in its destruction of the distinction between high and low culture, the Young British Artists movement embodied more than one aspect of the Postmodernism that dominated art of the 1980s and ’90s in Europe and America. They both shared the use of appropriation, a rejection of tradition fine art materials, and a media savvy focus on spectacle. 

Tracey Emin – I Think it’s in my Head.

Tracey Emin – I Think it’s in My Head. Sold for £325,000 via Sotheby’s (March 2019).

And like Postmodernism, there is no single YBA style or approach. There are unifying thematic trends, including a willingness to shock with gratuitously violent imagery and pornography, and a desire to stretch the limits of decency, which were all seized upon by a derogatory UK press. Turning expectation on its head, the negative coverage was an important element of the group’s success, as it allowed them to shock a mainstream audience and push the boundaries of taste into the suburbs, with a select band of provocateurs making an art form of this process.   

Tracey Emin

Known as the “bad girl of British art” for challenging societal norms and expectations with her self-righteous art, Emin’s style is often referred to as confessional, as she inserts her personal history into her art. Rising to fame as much through press gossip as from critical acclaim, her 1995 piece of an erected tent titled, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95 brought her to public attention, but her headline-grabbing My Bed (1999) has become her defining piece and documents several bedbound days in the grip of depression. 

Damien Hirst 

Damien Hirst - Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.

Damien Hirst – Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. Sold for £2,953,250 via Sotheby’s (September 2008).

The most financially successful artist to emerge from the YBA collective, Hirst followed in the commodified footsteps of Andy Warhol to become one of the late-20th century’s most polarizing provocateurs – and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Rocketing to fame with the support of advertising tycoon, Charles Saatchi, Hirst’s shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, wowed and repulsed in equal measure in 1991. In 1995 he won the coveted Turner Prize, but the revulsion continued as his installation of a rotting bull and cow in New York was banned amid concerns of “vomiting among the visitors.” 

Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas – Four Bunnies.

Sarah Lucas – Four Bunnies. Sold for $905,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2014).

Often associated with persuasive feminist statements, Lucas challenged the casual objectification of women and what she perceived as the myth of female sexual liberation, with Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996) embodying the approach that helped to make her name. Utilising everyday objects, Lucas’ art fizzes with a raw energy that offers shocking, even obscene, commentaries on sensitive topics.

Rachel Whiteread

Rachel Whiteread – Untitled.

Rachel Whiteread – Untitled Sold for £445,250 via Sotheby’s (July 2008).

The first woman to win the prestigious Turner Prize, Whiteread is most famous for the producing plaster casts of the unseen space around an object, and in so doing, turning the traditional process of cast sculpture on its head. This redefined what a sculpture was, as part of an approach that broke new ground on the conceptual idea of absence, in a process that could even be seen as almost anti-sculptural.

The YBA Legacy 

Once the wild newcomers of British art rebelling against conventions and embracing shock tactics in a 1990s cigarette-clouded party scene, today the Older British Artists form part of the art mainstream – and are among the wealthiest artists in the UK. 

This financial astuteness and entrepreneurial approach embodies part of the YBA movement and defines their legacy. Their impact has, however, also been felt by a new wave of artists like contemporary sculptors Darren Bader and Austrian Valentin Ruhry, who have utilised the YBAs’ readymade legacy in their own way, while Marie Jacotey-Voyatzis and French video artist Laure Prouvost echo Emin’s themes of autobiography and modern womanhood.

The Damien Hirst commodification model has also been embraced by Takashi Murakami, the ‘Japanese Warhol’ whose hugely profitable, factory-like studios reflect his mentor’s approach, while Ai Weiwei’s large installations of vases dipped in primary-colors can trace an influence to Hirst’s Spot Paintings.

Today, many of the YBAs sit at the top of the establishment they once rebelled against. Emin, Gary Hume, and Michael Landy have all been elected as Royal Academicians at the Royal Academy of Art in London, while Emin was even recognized in the Queen’s honours with a CBE in 2013. Hume, Emin, Lucas, and Chris Ofili have represented the UK at the Venice Biennale, while Whiteread, Hirst, and Ofili won the Turner Prize. Shocking!