Two things obsessed Damien Hirst and friends—making money and mortalityby Stephen Bayley / May 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
Damien Hirst’s shark and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed will be remembered forever. So too, perhaps, will Marc Quinn’s self-portrait of his head filled with his own frozen blood, although decomposing plasma and unreli- able refrigeration may mean that memories will be all that remain of his masterpiece.
Marcus Harvey’s Myra, a gigantic portrait of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley, may also enter the canon. Harvey’s work reproduces the infamous 1965 Daily Mirror photograph of Hindley using imprints of a child’s hand. At its first public showing at the Royal Academy in 1997, Myra was vandalised twice on the first day and subsequently four Royal Academicians resigned in protest—sure evidence that Harvey was on to something.
All four works have become synonymous with BritArt—that noisy, febrile, promising, chaotic, brilliant movement that was as much to do with the history of public relations as it was the history of art—which is the subject of a new book by Elizabeth Fullerton: Artrage! The Story of the BritArt Revolution.
If enduring memory and the ability to create strong public reactions are a measure of quality, then the Young British Artists bear comparison with national treasures such as JMW Turner and John Constable and the BritArt movement with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. By the same tests, it exceeds the achievements of Joshua Reynolds or the Camden Town School. But BritArt could also be infantile and unrewarding. And now, it seems, it is exhausted.
Other artists were involved in the movement—many technically better than Hirst, whose talent was for pranks, postures and publicity. In these fields, he’s a genius. But it was his satanic drive, craving for fame, managerial authority, preoccupation with mortality (his name is an anagram of “Is Mr Death In?” he once cheerfully explained) and his love of money, that fuelled the high-speed motor driving the BritArt machine.
While Hirst is not everyone’s idea of a great artist, his astonishing career speaks volubly of what art has become today. And he knows it. By confronting viewers with experiences calculated to be tastelessly shocking, Hirst played—very successfully—with our idea of what art does. He moves you to irritation or dismay or disgust, if rarely to exaltation or delight.…