Hans Haacke, Ballot box
Hans Haacke, Ballot box installed for the exhibition information at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970

What would be the outcome of a discussion on contemporary British art between a prominent academic and art critic and a leading author and cultural commentator? This was one of the questions that it was hoped would be answered when Well Self and Julian Stallabrass agreed to appear in conversation earlier this year at the Institute.

Set to coincide with Verso’s paperback publicaton of High Art Lite, the discussion was loosely centred on the contention made by Julian that the vanguard posturing and sensationalism that characterised the British art scene in the 1990’s obscured the fact that what we were actually being offered was 'an art that looks like but is not quire art, that acts as a substitute for art’. Although when High Art Lite was first published back in July 1999 its refusal to follow the eulogising tone set by similar titles provoked hostility from certain quarters of the British art scene. Will Self’s review in the New Statesman applauded both its analytical scope and its invention of a term that aptly captured the essence of this 'tendency’. This consensus followed through into their dialogue and while not everything was agreed — especially the value of Tracy Emin’s work — the trajectory of the conversation did seem to reinforce the arguments set forth in the book.

Throughout the discussion Will’s adeptness as a broadcaster was clearly evident, asking Julian the questions while at the same time interjecting his own thoughts and comments. While Julian’s capacity to compete with Will on an intellectual level was never in doubt, the ability he displayed to match Will’s acerbic wit produced a conversation that was as amusing as it was informative. When the discussion was opened up to the floor for questions and comments it developed into a wider debate covering such areas as internet art and the cross-over between art and literature. As I’m sure that anyone in attendance would agree, both Will and Julian provided us all with a thoroughly absorbing evening.

Simon Pooley
MA Student, Contemporary British Art