1988 … Year zero

… when branding and art formed a marriage of convenience, argues artist John Kelly.

1988 is the seminal year, the year that our concepts of art, money and values changed irredeemably.

It was the year I came to London as a 23-year-old artist, having taken an opportunity to play league cricket in London. It was a chance for a young Melbourne man to explore his ancestry and the art and culture of Europe while enjoying the quintessential English game. I would set off in the morning, along the Boundary Road, then lunch in the pavilion at Lord’s, and finally off to the Tate Gallery, only interrupted by comedian Harry Enfield’s 1988 ‘Loadsa Money’ character. Enfield pointed up the greed and vulgarity of a changing society. Gordon Gekko was another;

“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

But the film that made ‘loadsa money’ in 1988 was not Wall Street; it was Rain Man, starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Rain Man is about a performance car salesman yuppie named Charlie (Cruise), who is furious when his estranged father’s estate, worth millions, is bequeathed to a mental institution. To his shock, he learns he has a brother in the care of that institution. The brother, Raymond (Hoffman), is an ‘autistic savant’ whose obsession with airline safety records results in a cancelled flight and a road trip across the United States.

Cruise personified the yuppie – the young upwardly mobile, urban professional who in the late 1980s began to inhabit all spheres of life, including sport and the arts. The rise of the yuppie was the result, to some extent, of the creep of managerialism, a business philosophy that spread across the globe through government and business. Master of Business Administration (MBA) programmes churned out thousands schooled in a scientific approach to management.

“Managerialism is the belief that organisations have more similarities than differences, and thus the performance of all organisations can be optimised by the application of generic management skills and theory. To a practitioner of managerialism, there is little difference in the skills required to run a college, an advertising agency or an oil rig. Experience and skills pertinent to an organisation’s core business are considered secondary.”(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Managerialism)

1988 furnishes an interesting – albeit failed – example of managerialism: the attempted takeover of Britain’s fourth largest bank by an advertising agency, Saatchi and Saatchi. This agency was synonymous with the 1979 election of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher herself, thanks to their ‘Labour isn’t working’ campaign poster and three successive Conservative victories. In 1988, Saatchi and Saatchi launched a takeover bid for the Midland. The agency, created and controlled by brothers Charles and Maurice, were at the forefront of corporate takeovers using financial mechanisms that often deferred payment until future profits arrived. Their targets were not just other advertising agencies; they also bought management companies such as The Hay Group (1984) and Cleveland Consulting (1987). Unfortunately in 1988 the idea of an advertising company running a bank did not sit comfortably with The City; it was described in fact as “insane hubris” by financial journalists. Its failure followed the stockmarket crash of 1987 and the resultant recession badly harmed the Saatchis’ reputation and would eventually see the two brothers depart from the company that bore their name.

The late 1980s also saw advertising agency revenues hit by further restrictions on cigarette promotion. Advertisers were unable to refer directly to the product or show people smoking it. It created a paradigm shift in the ad business that in some circles was compared to art, for it relied heavily on aesthetics and concepts placed indirectly in the mind of the consumer. An example is purple silk juxtaposed against a pair of scissors or a gash; this was the code for Silk Cut cigarettes. Charles Saatchi had a long-standing interest in art; Saatchi and Saatchi had the Silk Cut account.

“Then, in 1988, Charles Saatchi left his wife [Doris Lockhart Saatchi]… Something of the nature of their divorce may be deduced from the fact that Charles Saatchi’s current entry in Who’s Who makes no reference to Doris Lockhart’s ever having even existed.” (Darwent, Charles. Pieces from a confessional, The Independent, 18/10/1998.)

Lockhart is described as:

“a sophisticated woman who spoke several languages, knew a great deal about art and wine… She became known during their marriage as an art and design journalist, with particular knowledge of minimalism.”

1988 is also the year that the business philosophy of branding took hold. The influence of ‘brand equity mania’ would last decades. From footwear to footballers, everything could be branded, including art and artists. In business the defining moment

“…arrived in 1988, when Philip Morris purchased Kraft for $12.6 billion – six times what the company was worth on paper. The price difference, apparently, was the cost of the word ‘Kraft’. Of course Wall Street was aware that decades of marketing and brand bolstering added value to a company over and above its assets and total annual sales. But with the Kraft purchase, a huge dollar value had been assigned to something that had previously been abstract and unquantifiable – a brand name.” (Klein, Naomi. No Logo, Picador books, 1999.)

1988 is such a seminal year because of the changes not only in business practices but also in politics. After the cricket season had ended in England, I was wandering around the galleries of Europe while the Iron Lady made her Bruges speech on Britain’s relationship with Europe. This is widely seen as the birth of Conservative Euro-scepticism. As she travelled home, Margaret Thatcher read Sir Roy Griffiths’s report, commissioned by her government, on the National Health Service. It was titled Community Care: Agenda for Action. Griffiths’s business expertise lay in supermarkets: he was vice-chairman of Sainsbury’s. However as a champion of managerialism, this report was to mark a change of direction in the way in which Britain administered psychiatric care. Before Griffiths

“Mentally ill and mentally handicapped people were generally sent away to large forbidding institutions … many patients became worse rather than better and ‘institutionalised’.  However, there was, in a true sense, asylum for people who could be ‘strange’ in private.” (NHS History; see www.nhshistory.net/shorthistory.html)

After Griffiths, asylums and psychiatric wards were closed and responsibility for this type of care was transferred to local authorities, where case managers were waiting. The philosophy soon spread throughout the western world and a battle for language ensued. Patients became ‘clients’ and ‘stakeholders’, while ‘benchmarking’ and ‘quantitative reports’ and ‘qualitative reports’ were stacked high.

Coincidentally it is around this time that the authorities began to increase the funding for contemporary art. Public galleries and artist studios began to