What separates art and artefact? At the British Museum, the question always seems pressing. Earlier this year, the Ice Age exhibition showed us art at its purest, carved from ritual and superstition. The first representations of the female form, faceless and totemic, stood inside their glass cases like an abyss, demanding we accept the ancient, sacred purpose of creativity. But this power, although aesthetic, was not simply artistic; at the museum’s current attraction, documenting the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79, we find a simple household cupboard has the same transporting effect.
The power of objects and images in a museum, regardless of their artistic merits, is the power of artefact. We are struck by their profound detachment from the present, and are left with a lingering sense of mystery. Glimpsing experiences so distant and different to our own, our attempts at comprehension stall. It is difficult to imagine art produced today generating this effect. But why?
As I stood before the ceramic drinking vessels of Pompeii, I found myself thinking of another cup I had seen some time ago: an espresso cup in the Tate Modern gift shop. It was ergonomic and attractive, the saucer patterned with a close-knit floral design, reflected in a smooth, convex arc by the mirrored surface of the cup itself. For an instant it swelled with significance, a modern artefact in its own right. But then the mood was shattered. Beside the cup was a glossy black cardboard box, like that of an Apple accessory, and just as sharply branded. The word, a name: HIRST.
You may feel that Damien Hirst has already received too much attention. However, his conspicuous tale illustrates why contemporary art is so often unable to stir life in us today.As his modish box suggests, Damien Hirst is no ordinary name, but a brand, manufactured by Charles Saatchi’s PR machine to increase the value of the works he had already bought. He is the golden tooth in the crooked smile of the art establishment, reflecting our commercial and media obsessions in the grin of a diamond skull. His art was a trick, its success revealing the corruption of popular responses to art by PR culture, with its twin pillars of money and celebrity.
The problem here is not that art has monetary value and notoriety, but why it has these things. The Saatchi/Hirst show was built on the principle that names are now the predominant criteria for the public’s reception of any creative morsel. Consider the NoiseLab postcard sale in Manchester, where unsigned postcards of the famous and the unknown are displayed together, and punters jostle to see if they might spot the work of a “big name.” Then there’s that sound one sometimes hears coming from people gathered around brick walls: “Is that a Banksy?”
Now consider an artefact in the British Museum—stark in its anonymity. Even when we do know the name of an artist or craftsman behind an artefact, it does not represent a living brand, but a reference that encapsulates its distance from our own reality. Indeed, it is an unfortunate irony that Grayson Perry’s brilliant and searching 2011-12 exhibition, “Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman,” used his name as its selling point.
The fetishism of names may be as old as civilisation itself, but the primacy of the artist’s name is a relatively new phenomenon, which only took off in the 18th century as industrialisation gathered pace and secular art gradually became the concern of a wider public.
It’s a good thing, of course, that art has become widely available and financially viable, allowing people from all backgrounds to produce and appreciate art. The pendulum, however, has swung decisively away from art itself and towards the names behind it, making it more difficult again to break into the coterie of the recognisable. A tenacious PR operation is now almost as important to financial success as the art itself, commercial galleries being interested only in a name to promote. This has strange repercussions further down the tree, where every piece in a small independent gallery must be a transparent foil for some marketable maverick, waiting in the wings.
An artist’s name should not replace the art itself in our considerations. Under this system our personal response to art is devalued and the artistic establishment—that is critics, galleries and buyers, not artists—decide what should be appreciated, or even seen at all. This mentality interferes with how we receive an artist’s work, either because we feel the need to be impressed, or feel at a loss because no one has told us how to feel. We are not free to respond instinctively to art, and it is a freedom we miss—that is clear from the way we react to artefacts in a museum.