The problem with assessing much modern art is that it's hard to tell the difference between a banal work and one whose theme is banality. So, how might we make a case against Damien Hirst?by Ben Lewis / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
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Beyond Belief, by Damien Hirst
(White Cube, Hoxton Square & Mason’s Yard, until 7th July)
Damien Hirst’s new skull is studded with thousands of flawless diamonds—but does that make it a flawless work of art? Yes, according to most art critics. Reviews have been euphoric for Hirst’s new exhibition at London’s White Cube gallery—a big change from the mixed reaction to his blood-splattered cabinets of 2003, or his photorealist paintings
of 2005. But now Damien has “redeemed himself,” as one critic put it, and created what “might be the art of the 21st century.” The new show is called “Beyond Belief,” a title that refers to Hirst’s current religious preoccupations, but which a cynic might interpret as a reference to the popularity of his often derivative and repetitive oeuvre. I am not a cynic, but, unlike many of my peers, I do think the question of how great Hirst is remains unresolved.
The skull, wittily titled For the Love of God, is certainly dazzling, and very much of its time. With its widely reported but unverifiable £50m price tag, it is a work that an artist could only afford to make at a time when the art market is booming. It embodies the fact that art works have become the crown jewels of our age, yet it also reaches far back in history—its prototype is an Aztec skull decorated with precious stones. It glorifies death, and it ironises the Christian message that your wealth is not taken with you to the grave. Yet its aesthetic value remains uncertain. Has Hirst found a new way of capturing the imagination of a mass audience? Or is For the Love of God a gimmick: grotesquely extravagant in its execution and inane in its meaning?
This question hovers over all Hirst’s work. Enthusiasts talk of its immediacy and simplicity. Take his dot paintings, a series of paintings of randomly chosen colours arranged mathematically in a grid of spots, each spot the size of the circumference of a paint tin. These, one might say, paint the full stop in the history of 20th-century abstraction. After the mysterious spirituality of Kandinsky’s symphonies of colour and Barnett Newman’s colour field paintings, after Pollock or Rothko’s representation of psychological turmoil through colour, Hirst makes the point that any geometric arrangement of colours can have a pleasing aesthetic impact. Is that a banal thing for an art work to say, or a clever debunking of a century of mythology?
Then there are the works based on cigarette butts, piled up in ashtrays or arranged in a minimalist grid in a cabinet. These can be favourably interpreted as simple images of death—mementi mori, like so many other Hirsts. Or they can be slotted into the postwar tradition of satirical works mocking the idolisation of the artist. Piero Manzoni canned what he claimed was his shit and sold it as art; Hirst collects his fag ends—most of them probably smoked by his assistants, which adds another layer of satire.
Hirst’s new show, split between the White Cube’s two venues, is dominated by a series of huge paintings of biopsies being carried out on terminally ill patients. The paintings glow bloody red, and glitter with cascades of broken glass, razor blades and scalpels. I fought off the feeling that they were gothic monstrosities, and tried to convince myself that Hirst had created a new kind of accessible abstract painting. Another work consists of three vitrines, perched on opulent white marble plinths, in which skinned and gutted sheep hang crucified in a bath of turquoise formaldehyde. Their sinewy silhouettes are beautiful; the animals’ heads twist in suffering. And yet, while they seem to offer a moving conceptualist revision of 500 years of crucifixion scenes, it is possible, simultaneously, to see them as gags.
There are lots of things you can’t criticise Hirst for. You can’t complain about the fact that he doesn’t make his work by himself—neither did Rembrandt or Rubens or Warhol. You can’t complain that he’s made too many similar works—Pissaro, Magritte, Dalí and many others churned out substandard stuff on demand. The real difficulty with coming to a judgement on Hirst is that contemporary art theory does not permit one to assess whether an artist’s work is superficial or deep, because it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between a banal work of art and one that takes banality as its theme, or between a simple work of art and a simplistic one. A critic could spend hours trying to decide if something is superficially superficial or deeply superficial—and never come up with an answer.
The contemporary theory of the icon is also relevant. Icons were originally images of Christ and the saints. Warhol revived the icon, by making images of celebrities who were already icons in the media. Nowadays, an iconic work of art is something even simpler. If a series of works of art are acquired by a sufficient number of collectors, or achieve such a media presence that they are instantly recognisable, then they become, de facto, iconic. That’s why the world’s best historians of modern art, Rosalind Krauss and Benjamin Buchloh of October magazine, have remarked contemptuously that, in the art of Hirst, the aura of artistic inspiration has been replaced by the auras of media celebrity and of luxury commodity.
So how might we make a case against Hirst? One way is to point to the large amount of terrible work that he has produced. All great artists have produced bad works, but surely none have made as many as Hirst. His 1993 We’ve Got Style, for example, is a yellow kitchen sideboard decorated with ceramic crockery in different single colours—a mundane spinoff from the dot painting. At other times, he has unimaginatively evoked the tedium of modern life by placing office tables and swivel chairs in big glass cases. And then there are all the other skulls Hirst has been manufacturing over the last few years, cast in expensive metals and bearing laughably pompous titles like The Fate of Man.
Many of Hirst’s trademark works are blatant imitations of other artists’ pieces—as if he were himself picking up other artists’ fag ends. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, the little-known Austrian artist Alphons Schilling used a technique very similar to the one Hirst later deployed in making his “spin” paintings. Hirst’s dot paintings are based on Gerhard Richter’s colour chart series, made between 1966 and 1974—as was admitted by the curator of Hirst’s first public solo show, at the ICA in 1991, a time when Hirst’s commercial success had not yet stifled debate about him. Of course, in the era of “appropriation art,” it is considered acceptable for artists to borrow concepts if they fit into their own oeuvres. Damien himself possesses a collection of skulls set with precious stones made by another artist, Steven Gregory, in 2003.
It isn’t just ideas that Hirst is happy to borrow; his styles and themes can be derivative too. His imagery—cute lambs, black sheep, butterflies, flying doves, impoverished children, sickness—is often in the worst tradition of 19th-century genre painting. Many of his recent works have been depictions of the saints (in the new show, there’s a cow pierced by arrows like Saint Sebastian). Some great 20th-century artists have tried their hand at biblical subjects, but they usually only turn to religion when they have run out of other ideas.
History provides some interesting examples of artists eulogised as geniuses in their lifetimes, only to be dismissed later. This was the fate of the late 19th-century history painter, Edwin Longsden Long, who produced vast bombastic canvases crammed with harems of women in flowing white dresses. At the time, his works seemed original and urgent. They were avidly collected by a new generation of wealthy industrialists, comparable to the plutocrats who buy Hirsts today. These arrivistes fuelled a Victorian art boom. In 1882, a painting by Long, The Babylonian Marriage Market, achieved a record price for a work by a living artist when it went for £6,615 (about £4m in today’s money) at auction. Ten years after his death, Long’s work was worth far less than it was when he died in 1891. A biographer later wrote: “One of the Victorian art world’s most important figures had drifted into relative obscurity, the throngs of visitors who went to see his work at Burlington House or Bond Street had disappeared, his auction house record dismissed as an isolated sensation.” Burlington House is just a stone’s throw from the White Cube. Today, The Babylonian Marriage Market hangs in the Royal Holloway and Bedford New College in Surrey. Will Damien’s skull also end up on display in a provincial academic institution?
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