Why the 1990s were the last golden age of culture

With Sensation at the Royal Academy in 1997, which opened amid official talk of “Cool Britannia”, the movement peaked – and today, within the art world, it is often derided as splashy and dumb. Yet, the YBAs made contemporary art less elitist, and generated an energy that other artists benefited from too, such as the “neo-conceptualists” clustered in Glasgow, who provided an important counterpoint, and whose ranks included Douglas Gordon.

For Ikon’s outgoing director Jonathan Watkins, who, in the early part of the decade, was a curator at London’s Chisenhale Gallery, the 90s were a happier, more innocent time of Western self-confidence, bracketed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9 /11: “They were a bit like that moment after the pill and before Aids,” he tells me, “when everybody could be promiscuous and irresponsible.”

That surging sense of possibility inspired some of the decade’s most memorable and ambitious artworks, staged in unusual, off-site spaces by the London-based arts organization Artangel, such as Rachel Whiteread’s brilliant (and swiftly destroyed) public sculpture House, a ghostly concrete cast of a Victorian terrace in east London that provoked ire in Parliament. These, more than the media-baiting work churned out by the YBAs, will still be talked about in years to come. Alastair Sooke


British comedy blazed in the 90s, the last full decade before social media arrived and made everyone miserable. In 1991, a certain Frank Skinner saw off a shortlist that included Jack Dee, Eddie Izzard and Lily Savage – future stars all – to win the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe. Within three years, he and David Baddiel had created the BBC Two show Fantasy Football League, its laddish humor perfectly riding on the easygoing optimism of that decade, and in many ways coming to define it.

By that point, Baddiel was already a megastar in his own right. In 1993, on the back of the satirical radio-turned-television show The Mary Whitehouse Experience, he and fellow Cambridge graduate Rob Newman famously sold out the 12,000-capacity Wembley Arena, the first time any comedians had done so. Comedy, in Britain, truly had become the new rock and roll.

Back in 1991, however, a separate and altogether more sophisticated strand of British comedy was also burgeoning. That year, the then unknown Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris created a faux news show for Radio 4 called On the Hour, featuring a hopeless sports presenter called Alan Partridge, played by one Steve Coogan.


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