Updated: Sep 16, 2019
Matthew Finn’s photographs of London art students summon the innocent days of the 1990s.
By Lou Stoppard
“England, 1997” reads the opening page of Matthew Finn’s new book, School of Art. On May 1 of that year, the left-leaning Labour Party, under the leadership of Tony Blair, won the general election. It was a landslide victory, one that, in numbers, has not since been topped, and it ended the party’s eighteen-year spell in opposition to the right-wing Conservative Party government. Infamously, in response Liam Gallagher, of the rock band Oasis, and his partner Patsy Kensit lay on crumpled Union Jack bedsheets in a photograph shot by Lorenzo Agius on the cover of Vanity Fair, under the headline “London Swings Again!”
Times seemed good. It was the age of Britpop. The age of Girl Power. My parents watched Titanic. I read Harry Potter. We all listened to The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work,” which was eclipsed at Number One in the UK Singles chart by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” which reentered the charts following his stirring performance at Princess Diana’s funeral (she died in a car crash that August). John’s song stayed there for five weeks before being toppled by the Spice Girls’ “Spice Up Your Life.” The year 1997 was one that changed the UK. The very notion of being British—the thought of what we had, who we were, what we’d lost, and what we could be—had never been so potent, so debated. That year, the nation wore its heart on its sleeve. We were proud but wounded. We were cocky.
The subjects of Finn’s book are students of an unnamed art college in London (it’s actually Watford’s West Herts College), and their portraits show them in all their grungy, half-curious, half-insolent glory. But really, School of Art is about the way life changed, that special and strange year. Maybe the project wasn’t always focused this way—when he took the photos, Finn was likely just working instinctively, as capturing students he works with is a central part of his practice. But the choice to publish these now suggests a different, new motivation, a desire to focus the mind on the passage of time.
It’s easy to read School of Art through the lens of Brexit. The year 1997 is just shy of two decades before the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, which saw the UK vote to leave the EU and thus plunge itself off a cliff into a sea of uncertainty and division. But it’s better to see this as a book about education, a policy area that receives woefully little airtime in Parliament today, as Brexit talks limp on. Here, 1997 was also a turning point. In November of that year, the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 was published (enacted in July 1998), which introduced tuition fees across the UK. Before that, university was a time of experimentation, of freedom. “We were able to expand our creativity in any direction we wanted,” writes former student Sonya Bhaji in the book’s foreword. Now, education is something altogether more transactional. Few can afford the luxury of failing, and thus few can afford to truly explore. Now, a young person’s path from school, to university, to endless internships, to work, is highly strategized, highly planned, highly valued.
But beyond the politics, there are images. A boy wears a duster coat with “I’m not a trendy asshole, I do what I want”’ and “Pearl Jam” scrawled on the back. That typical angst—propelled by feeling so utterly unique, so totally separate, so smart—raises a smile. We were all young and livid once. In another photograph, a girl wears a Trainspotting t-shirt with the “Choose Life” monologue printed on it: “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. . . .” It goes on. That film, and that speech, is now a cliché in itself, a relic of a time when one had the security to perform rebellion. A time far before urgent news of more pressing issues than one’s own identity, like the imminent climate disaster. What a luxury to choose, or not choose, those things.
It’s fitting that these pictures are being published now, not just for the reasons above, but also because the world of image-making, and image-sharing, is going through a moment of oppressive nostalgia. To a fresh eye, the past might look newer (and undoubtedly safer) than the present. And have the ’90s ever been so in fashion? Look to the runways, where the looks of that age dominate. Look on Instagram, where teens are happily re-gramming pictures of ’90s editorials from The Face or i-D. School of Art cannot simply be read as a savvy comment on all this backward glancing, as it’s undoubtedly shaped by the same impulses. Just then, I found myself tempted to make an Oasis pun, some terrible riff on “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” but maybe that’s apt for this book—a fitting touch of nostalgia, a touch of comradery, a touch of pride, a tiny shot of something that makes one cringe. For those who dream of the better days, of freedom, of opportunity, of a veneer of cool and confidence, and are happy to keep the rose-tinted glasses firmly on, this book will be a tonic.
Really, School of Art is about possibility, about the promise of the future. It lands its punch because, here in 2019, we know how the story went.
Lou Stoppard is a writer and curator based in London.
Matthew Finn: School of Art was published by Stanley/Barker in 2019.