Let me explain. To coincide with the wonderful open-air gallery’s retrospective on the legacy of the Damien Hirst generation, subtitled Art and the Self since the 1990s, the British Museum has decided to court controversy by putting Liverpool star Mo Salah’s mint green football boots on display as part of its Modern Egypt Exhibition. Various art critics, manifesting the forthright, plain-speaking, no-nonsense approach that was Batty’s trademark during a long and distinguished career, have put the boot into the Egyptian collection.
Some have declared themselves to be profoundly shocked by such a wanton act of philistinism. Almost as profoundly shocked as their predecessors were when first setting eyes on an animal preserved in formaldehyde. Or, indeed, as football fans were when they witnessed Batty and his team-mate Graeme Le Saux battering seven bells out of each other during a Champions League game in Moscow.
That notorious punch-up, like the emergence of Hirst’s game-changing art works, took place during a groundbreaking decade when Damien and David’s beloved home city – Leeds – set about reinventing itself as a cool, hip, postmodern place and prepared to soar into the new millennium.
I have recently been asked to contribute a chapter on Batts, one of my favourite ever players, to a new book on the Mighty Whites. And it occurred to me that he was, very clearly, the Damien Hirst of football. Both men attended the same north Leeds school, Allerton Grange – and both achieved notoriety through their unusual, surreal and often downright weird proclivities.
The Young British Artists, like the 1992 title-winning team Batty starred in, leapt from obscurity to international recognition in just a few years. Britart, like Howard Wilkinson’s wonders, produced an extraordinary explosion of talent, part of a new generation of young, irreverent, in-your-face, blood-and-thunder mavericks who challenged the old order and brought about a Northernisation of culture which reinvigorated jaded old Blighty.
There was a strong Leeds core – Hirst, Jay Jopling, Carl Freedman and Marcus Harvey – to the YBA. “In the early days,” wrote curator Gregor Muir, “there was a noticeable Northern contingent descending on private views and causing mayhem. With their thick Leeds accents, Hirst and Freedman were among the most prominent... for a brief moment it was entirely desirable to be an artist with a Northern working-class background.”
While growing up in Leeds, Hirst made an unsettling discovery. One day, a neighbour disappeared. He climbed the fence to see what had happened and came across an amazing store of objects: parcels of money, alarm clocks, hundreds of tubes of toothpaste and magazine pictures of naked women. The abandoned house inspired a series of collages that caught the attention of Jopling, a pinstriped, LUFC-obsessed art dealer. Hirst’s reputation as the enfant terrible of the art world was secured.
The coveted boots of Salah, who has scored 32 goals in Premier League 38 matches for Liverpool are part of an exhibition which appears to have been inspired by such Hirst-esque installations.
At its launch, two years ago, it showcased razor blades, cigarette boxes, old radio devices, newspapers, magazines and other objects which helped tell the story of the evolution of Egyptian society.
Wilkinson, Batty’s manager at Elland Road, once made journalists chuckle at the player’s expense during a riff on the somewhat more illustrious Eric Cantona. “Eric gives interviews on art, philosophy and politics,” he quipped. “A natural room-mate for David Batty.” Like the snooty art critics queueing up to ridicule Salah, Wilko was belittling Batty’s status as a cultural icon: a working-class Leeds lad whose extraordinary journey, like the rise of Hirst and his mates, helped tell the story of a decade which changed the world.