Sylvia Arthur

Journalist: Writer: Communicator

London: The Undisputed Capital of Cool

Sylvia Arthur has been in love with the subversive nature of London for as long as she can remember and insists that, despite the economic downturn, it remains the capital of cool
(Lucid Magazine, Mar/Apr 09)

Visual artist Godfried Donkor is in an upbeat kind of mood. Over the last few years the Central St. Martin’s alum, famous for his controversial Black Madonna and Boxers prints, has exhibited his paintings and installations around the world to rapturous reception. Increasingly, though, Donkor has been bringing his art to new audiences. Working in his hometown of London, Donkor has held shows at various regional venues including Hackney Museum, SPACE Studios, the Museum in Docklands, and, further afield, at The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester.

Art, like music and theatre, is becoming more local, a result of the new economy in which money is hard to make and even harder to spend. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, visual art, and the arts in general, have become more accessible to the wider public.

“In times of adversity creativeness really comes out wherever you go and I think Londoners, in particular, will start the new creative renaissance, definitely,” Donkor insists. “In fact, it’s already beginning.”

London is on the threshold of a cultural resurgence. The YBAs, who dominated the Nineties art scene with their infamous interpretations of contemporary art, may have sold out to the establishment – unmade beds and sheep in formaldehyde anyone? – but a whole new generation of artists, musicians and luvvies are gearing up to take their place.

London is becoming cool again. In music, fashion, art and culture the feel-good factor is returning to the capital. Recent award shows are testament to the city’s standing in the pantheon of popular culture. Brits, and Londoners, in particular, dominated this year’s Grammys, the music industry equivalent of the Oscars. Notting Hill native Estelle and Tottenham-bred Adele both took home statues (Adele's Best New Artist award was won by fellow North Londoner Amy Winehouse last year) and rockers Coldplay were the toast of the night. Hackney’s Leona Lewis and Mitcham’s M.I.A were both nominated but ultimately lost out while Welsh warbler and London resident Duffy scooped the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album.

The awards love-in carried over to the Oscars where Britflick Slumdog Millionaire swept the board winning eight gongs, including best picture and best director for Danny Boyle while Kate Winslett proved that perseverance pays when she finally picked up the Best Actress prize after losing out on six previous occasions.

London may not be gracing the covers of international glossies with a Union Jack draped proudly across the page but all the signs are that our time is coming once again.

The Cultural Merry-Go-Round
Given the cyclical nature of trends, London is due another turn on the merry-go-round of cool. And the conditions for a cultural renaissance are ripe.

Twelve years ago you couldn’t escape the spectre of the city and its achingly cool denizens. Newsweek, Vanity Fair and a string of other hip publications dedicated numerous pages to London, its arts and its icons.

But the emergence of Britpop, Britart and Britfashion in the mid-Nineties came at a time of social and political upheaval. After eighteen years of Conservative government, eleven of those under the leadership Margaret Thatcher, perhaps the most divisive figure in recent political history, music and art provided an outlet for disenfranchised youth. As the country slumped in to (and out of) recession, the prospect of unemployment put paid to the notion of a job for life and thousands of young, able Britons seemed without hope for a future. This proved to be an inspiration for some and a creative entrepreneurialism came in to play. “At the end of the eighties and in the early nineties we had a period where it seemed like a lot of the creative talent in London was going abroad – people moving to New York, Berlin, a lot of artists I know were moving to France”, says Donkor. “But London still maintained a creative cutting edge”. This coincided with the imminent prospect of political change embodied in the charismatic, newly-elected leader of the newly rebranded (New) Labour party. Suddenly, everything seemed to be coming together.

Stryker McGuire, Contributing Editor of Newsweek, kick-started the Cool Britannia media frenzy when, in 1996, he declared in a Newsweek cover story that “London Reigns”. In the article, McGuire concluded that London’s art, music, food and fashion put it ahead of its American and European rivals when it came to its cultural offer. The changing of the old political guard also played a significant part in transforming London’s fortunes. “The mid-1990s were a very special moment for London, a time of ferment and innovation across not only the arts, but also politics and business”, McGuire says. “It's that eclipse of things that made the time unique in recent London history”.

This time around, while commentators argue over whether to call the economic crisis a recession or depression and with the politics of New Labour not feeling so new anymore, some would say this provides fertile ground for an explosion of creativity similar to that experienced in the last decade of the old millennium. The veneer of decadence has long since faded and the cultural opportunism which Tony Blair tapped in to in 1997 by appropriating the arts isn’t likely to work in David Cameron’s favour should he win the next election. Artists have wised up since the days of gratuitous champagne fuelled photo opps at Downing Street. So, will the current economic climate act as a catalyst for a creative renaissance? That’s the question on every culture vulture’s lips.

“Just as the arts budget cuts of the Thatcher era spawned a generation of artist-entrepreneurs so the current economic situation will do the same”, McGuire believes. Godfried Donkor agrees, saying he’s already seen artists changing the way they work to adapt to the changing economy. “The way that artists are working in collaborative areas, using alternative spaces, making work which is more public based rather than gallery based is evidence of their adaptability. Artists are again looking for new ways to show their work and they’re taking up the challenge as they always do.”