Has Sam Taylor-Johnson Permanently Obliterated Her Serious Artist Credibility?

Sam Taylor Wood

From Young British Artist to Old British Bore: many of the YBAs who kick started their careers by putting unashamedly self-obsessed and defiant  artworks on the map in the early 1990s, and now continue to do so as welcome members of the ‘establishment’. Yet how many still operate with their integrity intact? Emin and Hirst are now so buffered from criticism by the soft, all-enclosing cushion that is wads of wealth and the company of such sociYBA,al echelons, that when combined with the continuing self-preoccupation and interest of their artistic concerns, we have reached an age in which even Emin can fill an entire White Cube with child scribbles of her vagina and no one bats and eyelid. Critics like Jonathan Jones could only piggyback on its publicity: criticism redundant, his giving it 5/5 functioned solely as clickbait.

This type of shock is now old hat (and old vagina). Speaking of which: this week YBA (or OBB) Sam Taylor-Johnson’s distinctly vanilla film version of bad-soft-porn novel ’Fifty Shades of Grey’ is about to break the $50m (Shades of Money) mark worldwide. I’m not about to wade into the endless discussion about how shockingly awful it is or the debate surrounding its attitudes to BDSM, but instead focus on its lack of content, artistic or indeed otherwise. It is merely a continuation of her previous ‘artistic’ work as a video artist and photographer, which is characterised exactly so: all sheen and no substance. A video of David Beckham sleeping, or of Taylor-Johnson herself holding up a hare. All of these concepts take less than ten seconds to think of, but through sheer self-confidence and canny use of celebrity nonetheless have been made and presented as real, thought-provoking reflections of our society, life and times and the universe and everything else art is supposed to reflect. Just like ’Fifty Shades’, they’re decidedly bland and banal, an empty shrug that assumes an air of artistic intelligence. Taylor-Johnson once claimed to own a chicken bone which Hirst had previously inserted into his foreskin, regarding it as like a relic; yet her art is nowhere near as daring or (pun absolutely intended) close to the bone. It is about as close to actual real dick that the sanitised ’50 Shades’ is ever going to venture.

Compare with the artist turned film-maker Steve McQueen. Both he and Taylor-Johnson have been nominated for the Turner prize (McQueen actually winning in 1999, opposite Emin’s bed), yet it is he who has chosen to exploit the medium of film with the most sincere artistic intent. Out of any commercial project, his three films ‘Hunger’, ‘Shame’ and ’12 Years A Slave’ all choose to visit head-on topics that are equally uncomfortable and thought-provoking, just like his previous works right back to 1993’s short film ‘Bear’ which also tackles issues of race. This is not to chastise ’Fifty Shades’ for being a bit of money-spinning popcorn, but it certainly doesn’t do her any favours if she wants to still consider herself a serious artist. Pass the cheque, please.