The Guardian recently published an interesting column about Damien Hirst, à propos of a new exhibition that’s opening in London this week. I say “interesting” because although I disagree with pretty much everything it has to say, it’s a useful illustration of a particular way of thinking about art.
So, Damien Hirst. He’s long been a controversial figure in the art world, which no doubt is exactly how he likes it. In the red corner, there’s those who think he’s the defining genius of late 20th century British art; in the blue corner, there’s those who reckon his output is one giant elaborate pisstake. The disagreement basically comes down to a larger debate about conceptual art vs figurative art, a particularly British debate that has gone back and forth for the last 20 years or so, fighting over whether pieces like Hirst’s famous ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (a shark in a tank of formaldehyde) or Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ (yes, her bed) are actually art at all.
This really a debate that should have been put to bed long ago – I don’t think that many people in 2010 would deny that art is whatever you want it to be. But still, it’s the context in which Guardian writer Jonathan Jones frames Hirst’s work. If you accept conceptual art, he argues, you have to accept Hirst into the bargain: the “only legitimate position from which to reject [Hirst],” he writes, “is one that sees the art of this century as a bad parody of [Marcel] Duchamp … If conceptual strategies have any worth at all, then Hirst has worth”.
This isn’t necessarily true. The important question to ask these days isn’t “Is it art?” but “Is it any good?”. And by “good”, I don’t mean technically accomplished, I mean able to convey its meaning, to get its point across. This is the point on which Hirst fails for me. It’s not a matter of taste, or of abstract considerations of artistic worth, it’s a question of whether the art works or not.
I have nothing against conceptual art per se. I quite like some of it – Gilbert and George, for instance. I just think the concepts in Hirst’s work aren’t especially interesting. Or, if they are – Jones argues that “Hirst has always believed that it is content and meaning that make art significant” – his work doesn’t do a good job of putting those concepts across. A shark in a tank may well be intended to illustrate “the rage against death [and] the longing to love forever”, but your average observer sees a shark in a tank. As a piece of artwork, pure and simple, it doesn’t work.
As such, Hirst’s work certainly reflects one defining 20th century trend: the concept of celebrity. The force of his personality (or persona, perhaps) is more important than his output. In fact, without the personality behind it, the artwork means nothing. Take the £50m diamond-encrusted skull he called ‘For the Love of God’ – it becomes artistically important, as opposed to colossally chintzy, because Hirst made it. His celebrity lends it artistic weight; without that celebrity, it has none.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it’s a certain way of working, one that necessitates a fair old chunk of narcissism. It’s the same for, say, Emin: her bed can be seen in the light of the fact she apparently spent days on end lying in it, in the grip of a suicidal depression – but only if you know this to be the case. Otherwise it’s just a bed.
In view of this, it’s no surprise that Hirst’s greatest talents lie in self-promotion and the fact that he exists as a celebrity artist, in the same way that Lady Gaga is a celebrity musician. You could argue – as many have – that this makes him the archetypal late 20th/early 21st century artist, but I think this is pretty pusillanimous and piss-poor thinking.
Jones suggests that “it is absolutely true that art in the 21st century, with its conceptual tropes and market values, lacks the permanent merits of earlier art”. It’s absolutely true that some art is like this, but to argue that anything made today by definition lacks such merits is the same kind of hand-wringing that suggests that txt msg spk is ruining English and that illegal downloading is killing music.
Art is what it’s always been: a means of self-expression. Some pieces will prove to have longevity, while others will fade away. This historical weeding out may or may not reflect the merit of the work, but either way, I’m going to bet that as the years pass and the work of celebrity conceptualists like Damien Hirst is slowly shorn of the force of their personality and renown, interest in it will wane. It’ll remain in art texts and courses, and perhaps the subject of artistic debate, but ultimately it lacks the ability to connect with people. And that’s what makes art so important.