Friday, 17 August 2012

Damien Hirst at Tate Modern

I have been for a long time as convinced as I am of anything that Damien Hirst's art is a fraud. I have no idea about his sincerity, I don't know him. But I do know his work, and I've just come out from the first major exhibition of it ever in a world-class museum, the Tate Modern. There were various rumours in the art press about how important his collectors thought a major retrospective would be for the value of their collections, I mean, for the artist's reputation, so we should be able to take this as the best of his work.

What did we get? Medicine cabinets, animal and fish vitrines, pills in glittering showcases, spot paintings, three big spin paintings, some medical equipment cabinets, cigarette butts, and the butterfly room. I'll come back to the Real Live Butterfly room later. All these works were produced by assistants in workshops all over the world - though he closed a lot of them in 2008/9. I'm guessing White Cube still has all the unsold Hirst paintings a gallery could ever not want. Heaven alone knows what the notional value of it all was: £100m at the height of the boom, maybe £20m-£30m now? Of course, that's one reason the collectors needed the Tate's endorsement.

You need to know where I'm coming from. I can spot a Pollock that works from one that doesn't, and the same for Barnett Newman. I have a blind spot for Cy Twombley, but on Tuesdays I feel it's my fault, and I'm quite happy for Manzoni to can his shit and exhibit the cans. I thought Spiral Jetty was amazing when I first learned about it sometime in my late teens. I could happily have a Crevelli and a Boldini and a Rothko on my walls - if I had walls strong enough and large enough and if someone were to be so generous. I know that a work or an artist can be the real thing and yet I don't like it, which is how I feel about Basquiat's work. The real thing in art is as subtle, mysterious and utterly present as it is in acting, or politics or cooking. You know when a meal has been slapped together and when, however simple, it has been made with love. Knowing this is not genetic, it's not "evolutionary", it is "cultural knowledge" (but that's the point) that takes reading, looking, learning and practice, and one thing I'm saying is that if you put in the work, you will agree with me, or at least understand why I have this opinion.

I walked through Hirst's exhibition and wondered how on earth anyone could buy it - not just the work, but the whole act. My art detector remained resolutely silent. There's no point explaining why I think Hirst's art is fraudulent. If I say "it lacks X" the rules of modern art-babble allow the reply "Well, that's the point, it's interrogating the idea that art should be X". Hirst's art is supposed to be as much conceptual as representative and physical, but these are ideas you wouldn't bother to have, rather than ideas that, having seen them, you wish you had had. Medicines in cabinets might work if there was some subject linking the medicines together - but there isn't. It's just a collage of boxes. One instance of an idea is conceptual art, a hundred are just a production-line commodity.

The only thing that ever gave me pause about Hirst was the fact that Saatchi backed him. Now I think that Saatchi saw in the young Hirst a good self-publicist, networker and organiser, someone who could (have others) turn out easily-identifiable pseudo-art works for the ordinary millionaire with no actual understanding of or feeling for art. Saatchi backed Hirst as a business proposition, not as an artist. Hirst's is art for people who don't get art, in the same way that Jane Campion's films are movies for people who don't go to the movies. Buy a Hirst, put it in your boardroom, foyer or lounge, spout the art-babble the gallery gave you, and all your friends and visitors will have to assume you are therefore smarter and hipper than them, because you get it, and they don't.

Artists have sub-contracted parts of their work to technicians before and will do so forever: you don't really think that Hals, Rembrant and all those guys painted those ruff collars? There were craftsmen who specialised in it, as there were specialists in painting rugs, curtains and voluminous clothing - they were called "tapestrymen". There's nothing wrong with sending the routine stuff out to a tapestryman - just as there's nothing wrong with a novelist letting their editor give the first draft a good going-over - but an artist can't send out the whole thing. Then they are a designer or an architect. A lot of the work of certain of the big names feels to me as if they really were out of the room when it was done and shipped. These are exactly the artists Banksy is parodying with the Mr Brain Wash thing. Warhol was always on the Art side of the line, Koons can be either side, Hirst is always on the design side. A Warhol has that extra something we need art to have, but a Hirst doesn't have that magic, it's soul-less. Art without soul is usually just bad design.

He even manages to strip the soul and magic out of exotic South American butterflies. The idea of a room full of fancy butterflies doing whatever they do isn't a new one, though keeping the whiteboards on which their pupae were stuck might be. A proper interior designer would have somehow recognised and reflected the exoticism of the butterflies in the colour of the walls, the floorboards and the furniture, while the mechanisms of heating and steaming would have been rendered invisible. It would be a room for rich people to sit in, perhaps to lightly sauna in, and enjoy the sight of the butterflies. So it was difficult to see the point of the peice: was it about the birth-life-death cycle of these wonderful creatures? Was it about their presence? Who knows? When one of the butterflies landed on one of the children in the room, it should have somehow made them part of the artwork. But it didn't, it just made them a kid with a butterfly on their shirt.

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