Saturday, June 02, 2007

On Damien Hirst

It's hard to know what to say about Damien Hirst and his £50 million skull, but, as always with Hirst, one feels there is something to be said. He is, I don't doubt, brilliant - but brilliant at what? 'Art' is, I suppose, the answer. All art is, of course, defined by context, but Hirst's art seems to be narrowly defined by the market - a fact apparently acknowledged by the skull's egregious display of 'value'. The art market is currently the most effective absorber of surplus cash and that fact alone has the effect of creating more art. Furthermore, Hirst follows Duchamp and Warhol in eliminating craft from the equation. For the Love of God - the skull's title - is made by the jewellers Bentley & Skinner and his famous shark was even caught by somebody else. Hirst brings his idea to the party and then applies his taste and preferences to the process of manufacture. He plays very effectively with these ideas and, in the process, produces some very striking images - striking but, for me, unmoving. Unmoving because he is a quite fantastically literal artist. Like the pre-Raphaelites, he produces works with a clear moral message. All his work tends to the form of the simple memento mori, and, in case we miss the point, he uses very simple, explanatory titles. At one level, this is a reaction to the abstraction and aridity of much late modernism. This is work about something. At another level, this is about the contemporary rediscovery of death and its escape from behind the veil of modern medicine. And, finally, it is a way of reassuring rich but uninformed buyers that the cost of any piece is underwritten by something more than late modernist head-clutching. The moral makes it art in the most literal-minded sense. It is easy enough to say Hirst knows all this - as, I am sure, judging by the skull, he does - and therefore the whole thing is a brilliant, ironic commentary about the place of the artist. But this, surely, is just another form of aridity, a self-regarding contemplation of the evasiveness of content. But what do I know? Money talks.


  1. Obviously plenty of intelligence behind Hirst's work but there's also plenty of intelligence behind banking institutions. As a whole from what I've seen his work amounts to something like Art by numbers for a dried up age. Different ages or versions of reality can exist simultaneously however so that isn't meant as nihilistically as it may seem. Genuine great art is about transcendence- a Rembrandt late self-portrait may contain all thought within itself but it also transcends such thought. Alternatively, Hirst type art seems to exist simply to set pretty mundane thought in motion. 1+1=2, ie the image plus the viewer produces the desired response. What tedium, as Sam Becks might say.

  2. Take Damien Hirst out of the equation and what is one left with: superb craftsmanship or extremely expensive tat? Maybe it is the same if one contemplates the removal or application of the term "Faberge" to a jewelled ornament. I suppose the whole point is that Damien Hirst is in this equation, but perhaps that is all the point there is. True art is inexhaustible, imho. It will be interesting to see whether, treated anonymously, this piece is art or whether the ideas associated with it destroy the possibility of it being art.

  3. David Whitlam, an artist i met on the temping circuit said of Hirst & Emin, "no, it is art. It's just shit art, that's all." i contemplate the painting (Ascent to Nothing) i bought from Whitlam, and find a pre-cognitive fascination, that sometimes becomes words & thoughts, but is itself (for me) what art is about - that fascination, that irreducibility. With Hirst's stuff i don't feel that - i just nod and say, "ah yes, it's about mortality" or whatever. It seems so uninterestingly obvious.

    Perhaps it's with art as with poetry, of which Wallace Stevens wrote, "poetry must resist the imagination almost successfully."

    There just don't seem any hidden reserves, anything inscrutable about Hirst's work. It's an easy lay and you get up soiled and bored and probably diseased, tossing a rusted coin onto the bed, The Wild Bunch-style. But i don't know much about art, to be honest.

    Hirst-style art seems to me on a par with literary theory - the inevitable product of nihilism. If you believe that there is there is no centre, no order (religious or not), then the scrambled & empty language of Lit Theory, and the strikingly empty works of Hirst & co are inevitable. The bullshit of Lit Theory, Emin's dirty bed, all the same to me.

  4. This is great, once again I can claim a connection. Hirst's son went to the school at which my father used to teach. He came in once and took an art class. We've got some originals. Maybe it'll be my inheritance.

    I like a lot of Hirst's stuff, but he's less witty than Banksy.

  5. A mediocre age needs its mediocrities, Brit.

  6. For the Love of God - the skull's title - is made by the jewellers Bentley & Skinner and his famous shark was even caught by somebody else. Hirst brings his idea to the party and then applies his taste and preferences to the process of manufacture.

    Rather, he brings his name. Modern art destoyed the boundaries of what constitutes art. But when anything can be art, then nothing is art, and we have no art. The post-modern artist substitutes himself as the boundary. Like modern day King Midas', whatever they touch becomes art. So art is now defined as the thing that artists produce, period. Becoming an artist isn't a craft as much as it is a confidence game. You're an artist if you can pull it off. The Hirsts have learned the lesson of the big lie. The bigger the lie, the more believable. So you don't become an artist by painting a landscape. You do it by grabbing trash out of the dumpster and putting it on a pedestal. It's a pure act of chutspah.

    "At one level, this is a reaction to the abstraction and aridity of much late modernism."

    That's part of the lie. Modernity becomes arid when people buy into it. The artist is posing as a modern day prophet. But, as with the Old Testament prophecies, it becomes one of those self-fulfilling prophecies. Society becomes arid when people buy into the message that it is so. Getting people to admit that they are decadent, sinful, or Heaven forbid, boring and arid, is one of the easiest con games in history. Why we continue to treat such charlatans as geniouses truly baffles me.

  7. Crikey. Art.

    Is art context-dependent or perception-dependent? Is perception part of context, or context part of perception?


  8. "But when anything can be art, then nothing is art, and we have no art."

    That's not a problem if you distinguish between rational and irrational character. Everything has both, it's just a question of which is explicit or implicit.

    A table will tend to be created for it's rational character ie it's usefulness for dining etc, but will have an implicitly irrational aesthetic character, how it looks, how it meshes with its aesthetic environment etc, and it can thus be displayed for aesthetic purposes, in a gallery say, by making the implicit aesthetic more explicit, and conversely rendering its rational function implicit.

    Something can be deliberately created for its explicit aesthetic character, a picture etc, but will still have an implicitly rational character ie the paint and canvas of which it is physically composed.

    We can display either type as art in a gallery. Duchamp's urinal had an aesthetic character which you can like or dislike, but you can't deny the possibility of its aesthetic character, he simply made the normally implicit explicit, confounding the literal-minded in the process, because of their overly rational preoccupations.

    (A problem which also applies to the likes of Dawkins with his overblown attacks on religion. He ignores the fact that religion is simply a specific manifestation of generic irrationality, which is inescapably twinned with the rational because they 'define' each other.)

    Art is also a specific manifestation of the generically spiritual. Our most universally spiritual impulses are simply aesthetic impulses on a larger scale: Life, the Universe and Everthing as Art, so to speak.

    The universe has crafted us out of physical processes, and we then make art of our lives and our societies, reaching back out to the ultimate which brought us forth. We mimic this process when we make art - only this time on a smaller scale.

    We are the deities of canvas and paint, clay or stone, and when our craft is skilled, they become art, calling out to us, as we call out to our own origin. We objectify our own longing for greater truth, in the art which we create. We embody our very souls.

    The greatest art is so beautiful because it reminds us of ourselves in the fullest sense - not just our finite self, but the infinite 'self' which threw us forth. When we look outwards at the universe we do so as mere men, but when we search within, to bring forth art, or love or any truth, then we know what it is to be gods.

    "Is art context-dependent or perception-dependent? Is perception part of context, or context part of perception?"

    Surely perception is an aspect of context? Context exists prior to perception, since perception is a function of consciousness and context can exist without consciousness, can't it?

  9. Just in case, the mediocroties being the artistic stature of the Hirsts of this world when measured against great art as against ....emmm.....a culture of idiocy.

  10. If you need to know the name in order to understand the piece, it's not art, it's commentary.

  11. Nothing exists without consciousness, Michael, though for the sake of convenience we pretend this not to be the case. Where does everything/life exist? In one's mind. Where does one's mind exist? In life. Where does...

  12. If intelligent people stopped trying to make intelligent comments about this rubbish, we might get the art we deserve, rather than the art we unfortunately deserve.

    (Hell, I'm in a profound mood today!)

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  14. interesting that we talk about hirst and his work- it must be art then. whether it is good or bad art is the question