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Sunday, September 16, 2012


Damien Hirst, meet Thomas Kinkade. I think you'll find you have a lot in common.

Here's a story:

Once upon a time, America was a warm and wholesome place. Homes were cosy and folks were honest; windows glowed with candlelight and the sky was pastel-pure. Times were simpler back then, but the world was full of comfort and charm - the same charm that good honest folk know in their hearts today.

Isn't that a nice story? And if you genuinely believed in it, and could buy something that helped you to believe, and it was in your price range, you might buy it, mightn't you? Why not? We all like to believe the nice stories in this world. 

Here's another story:

Once upon a time, some bright and brave artists rebelled against the stifling Academy and created works of genius. Stupid people sneered, calling their works rubbish and the artists themselves wild beasts ('les fauves'), but the artists held to their vision and produced works whose brilliance is now admired today far more than those boring old wall-decorations the Academy insisted upon. Only a minority of art connoisseurs - the special ones - were able to see how wonderful Manet, Gauguin, Monet, van Gogh, the Fauvists and the Cubists and the Impressionists really were, but those special people were there right from the beginning, and those paintings they bought for love are now worth millions.

That's a nice story too, isn't it? Let's all fess up: it'd be really, really cool to have been one of the people who spotted the future of art in work the rest of the world was calling ugly. 

Of course, work that's really marginal goes for low prices: that's what 'marginal' means. But 'low' is a relative term. Suppose you're a fabulously wealthy businessman, the kind of person who can drop twelve million dollars on a work of art without feeling any kind of pinch. If you're that kind of person, you have a psychological problem: you have far more money than any human being in the world could ever possibly deserve. One way to reconcile yourself is to conclude that you may not quite deserve the money, but you've earned it: your shrewdness, your acumen, your ability to see things that other people can't, makes you special. You're smarter than the conventional wage-earner; you're above the petit bourgeoisie - financially, yes, but financially because intellectually

But if you're that kind of person, do you have the disposition, or indeed the time, to trawl through the real margins of the art world, the place where the real rebels are working? After all, they don't serve champagne at those kinds of galleries, and they might let just anyone in. Those galleries have a currency of cool, of expertise, of artiness - and one doesn't acquire such qualities, nor comfort around those who do have such qualities, overnight. A trained artistic eye can't be bought. But it can be hired. You can go to those people who will reliably, or so you hope, have the eye you're not sure you have yourself. Fashionable dealers. Reputable auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's. Of course, that fashionable brand comes with its own price tag, but if you're the kind of person who can drop twelve million dollars on a painting or an installation*, that hardly matters to you; if anything, it's reassuring, because surely nobody would charge that kind of sum unless they had something really valuable to sell. 

With enough expenditure on the use of a fashionable mind, you can buy that story. You're the one who saw and appreciated - who understood - the art that other people called ugly, boring, unattractive. 

Thomas Kinkade, meet Damien Hirst: the Thomas Kinkade of the One Per Cent. 

In June this year I visited the Tate to see the Hirst exhibition. It was a well-organised retrospective of his most famous works - the pickled shark, the bisected cow, the 'spot paintings', the rooms and rooms of medical objects. Damien Hirst, subject of tabloid gasping anti-intellectualism from his earliest successes: I was hoping to find something interesting. 

What did I get out of it? Well, now I hate his work from an informed perspective.

Hirst is definitely an artist who harps upon his favourite string. He likes his mementos mori, and pretty much everything in this exhibition was some version of that. But at the same time, there was something profoundly appropriative about it, something cold and compassionless. And something that might actually explain the dizzying prices his work sells for:
While his work is aggressively cerebral, it doesn’t actually contain messages that would discomfit a wealthy patron.
Take, for instance, The Acquired Inability to Escape, an office desk with some cigarettes mounted in a vitrine box. One doesn't need a PhD to comprehend the message. One never does with Hirst; his titles are basically catalogue copy in capsule form to make sure people understand how cerebral he's being. It's not a complicated title here either: between our addictions and our jobs, human beings doom themselves to repetition and slavery. Now, that’s all very well – but when it’s the work of a fabulously expensive artist, which can only be afforded by a fabulously wealthy buyer, there’s hardly a sense of solidarity in this message. Frankly, both artist and buyer are in the position to congratulate themselves for their ability to escape, their freedom from the confinements that Hirst is appropriating for his art. A position from which they can dismiss office work as an enslavement just as voluntary and just as foolish as the decision to begin smoking. 
Likewise, Pharmacy, and his numerous works of mounted pills. If you’re not ‘pinned down by pain and moaning for release’, as Edna St Vincent Millay has it, it’s very easy to stroke your chin and mediate upon what a medicated society we are and how many pills we seem to take nowadays. ‘You can only cure people for so long and then they’re going to die anyway,’ declares Hirst in the gallery hand-out, which probably sounds very philosophical - if you’re not pinned down by pain and moaning for release.
A lot of animals had to be killed for Hirst's fly traps, his butterfly wings, his bisected cattle. The average gallery-goer probably has more kinship with them than with Hirst.

Note, too, Hirst's use of pronouns: 'they're going to die anyway.' Not 'we're going to die'; they are. ‘A Thousand Years’, according to the catalogue, was something Hirst declared he ‘had no control over’. Seriously? You cannot control flies in the normal world, but in this piece, where Hirst predetermined exactly where the flies would be born, where they’d die, and what they’d die of, it’s an act of extreme control. And control, more than mortality, seemed to animate these works; the Spin Paintings' blurb specifically declared that the technique allowed Hirst ‘to exercise some distance in their execution’, thus conveniently freeing him from the proletarian gaze lighting upon the work of his hands. The Spot Paintings – each spot ‘painted a difference colour … of a uniform size – equal to the size of the spaces between each spot – and … arranged within a precise grid structure on the white canvas’ – are, according to Hirst, ‘a structure where I could lay [colour] down, be in control of it rather than it controlling me,’ and again conveniently frees him from having to involve himself in mess - even before we consider the fact that these paintings were physically created by his employees under his direction, not by Hirst's own hands. Mess is all very well when he creates works he can say are not under his control, when it’s the flies and the cows that do the dying, but when it comes to touching the canvas, letting the movement of his body be observed by the viewer, we’re sudden frozen out with avoidance: his invention all goes towards finding ways to conceal his own physicality. There’s no fellow-feeling with the physical creatures he lays open; superiority rules here with a cold, geometric touch.
The great patron of Damien Hirst is, of course, Charles Saatchi: advertising mogul and collector; if anyone understands branding, it's Saatchi. Hirst hit a good streak with his pickled corpses and medical instruments, and those are a recognisable element of his work. His brand, in effect. So here's another thing: recently the Saatchi Gallery commissioned sixteen 'leading artists' to design their own chess sets for an exhibition. Different artists chose different ways to design them. 

Guess what Hirst's pieces are made of?

If you guessed 'medicine bottles and copywriting', congratulations. It's a chess set made of medicine bottles with one of his characteristically portentous, just-in-case-you-miss-the-point titles (in this case, 'Mental Escapology.') Twenty years after he made 'Pharmacy', that's still what he's doing.

A portraitist friend of mine points out that every working artist needs to evolve some kind of recognisable style in order to navigate the market, and I have no doubt she's right. But at what point does the branded style of an artist become a mere logo? A point, I cannot but feel, that Hirst has long passed. 

To be clear: I'm not inviting, and will in fact delete, silly generalisations about how all contemporary art or all conceptual art is pretentious nonsense. It isn't. Contemporary art is a tremendously varied and often interesting field; conceptual art is as valid a form as any other. But if you are an artist of concepts, then it would perhaps show a degree of integrity to come up with some new concepts every decade or so. Otherwise, it's Thomas Kinkade's mass produced 'limited edition' work all over again.

Hirst is just one artist. He's a popular artist with some people, and if his work speaks to them, fine. (My husband, for instance, enjoyed the exhibition more than I did.) But let's not pretend that appreciating Damien Hirst is tantamount to being the prescient critic who realised there was something in Monet's splodges. Hirst is a mass-producer of art priced and conceived to suit the hyper-wealthy patron. Hirst isn't a rebel. He's the Academy. 

And if this chess set is anything to go on, Ingres was not the only Academician in history to declare, 'Everything has been done before. Our task is not to invent, but to continue.' 

*This is the price paid for Damein Hirst's first pickled shark - which was, at the time, already in the process of decaying. To quote Don Thompson's The $12 Stuffed Shark: the curious economics of contemporary art:

Cohen [the purchaser] is an example of the financial-sector buyer who drives the market in high-end contemporary art. He is the owner of SAC Capital Advisors in Greenwich, Connecticut, and is considered a genius. He manages $11 billion in assets, and is said to earn $500 million a year ... To put the $12 million price tag in context it is necessary to understand how rich really rich is. Assume Mr Cohen has a net worth of $4 billion to go with an annual income of $500 million before tax. Even at a 10 per cent rate of return - far less than he actually earns on on the assets he manages - his total income is just over $16 million a week, or $90,000 an hour. The shark cost him five days' income. 

And income which, we should remember, is more or less entirely disposable: when you have that much money, paying your bills and buying your groceries for an entire year represents a slow morning's work. After that, you can buy whatever you like.


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