The Sensationalists, broadcast last night on BBC2, is the story of the YBAs (young British artists) – a movement originating in Goldsmith’s College of Art – whose prime mover was Damien Hirst.
They fulminated against the traditional values of the art world, epitomised by Cork Street galleries, and rode the crest of the wave of avant-garde fashion and outrageous performers.
Nearly 40 years later they still were foul-mouthed and full of themselves in interviews.
For an art movement to rail against tradition is scarcely anything new.
In the 19th century the Salon des Independants, where Edourd Manet first exhibited, was a reaction to the Salon of the Academy.
In 1910 and in 1912 Roger Fry and Clive Bell organised two post-impressionist, vastly popular and well-attended, exhibitions at the Colnaghi Gallery that brought European modernism into the fusty world of Victorian art.
The following year the Armoury Exhibition in New York imported cubism and fauvism to America.
Marcel Duchamp famously exhibited a urinal as art.
Not long after this you had dadaism.
There was nothing new about the YBAs, though you had to admire Hirst ‘s talents for publicity.
Hirst and Tracey Emin’s meteors might have burned out, especially as Charles Saatchi – described in the programme as a collector – but in reality a dealer, is not so active.
Cordelia Parker and Jenny Saville, reflecting an upsurge in woman artists, are the big names now.
A friend of mine who visited Hirst’s house was amazed to find it full not of contemporary British art but European masters.
I do not why he was surprised.
Even that master of invention Picasso was greatly influenced by El Greco and Dominique Ingres.
David Hockney spent his lunch hours in the National Gallery. The real difference between these two and the YBAs is they were draughtsmen of the highest quality.