holy cow, as promised

I’m sorry. There’s going to be no Norma Shearer in a fairy crown this time.

The other day I went to see the Hirst auction preview – the largest-ever exhibition of Damien Hirst’s work ever mounted – at Sotheby’s. The exhibition, to catch you up, is being sold direct by Hirst, without the benefit of a “dealer” – though it’s hard to see what Sotheby’s is doing, if they aren’t purveying the works for Hirst – and this is something of a landmark in the art world. The 210 works reprise the major tropes of Hirst’s career – animals in formaldehyde, paintings made with butterfly wings, dot paintings, spin paintings, pharmacy cabinets, lots of other cabinets, some extremely random installations, a couple of sculptures, a few figurative paint-by-numbers-looking paintings – so it has both the feel and the size of a major retrospective – but everything on sale was made in 2008! My golly, those elves were busy.

He’s also selling the sketches for the works, some very large, and these are all estimated at – but no, that comes later. The sale is expected to make in the region of £64million. One account has it that something like 90% of the world’s art market activity this coming week will happen in New Bond St on Monday and Tuesday – that is, now, today and tomorrow. It’s like a Mega Hadron Separator of the world’s finances. Will so much money change hads that we tilt on our axis?

My original idea was to write something cogent about it all, but it is so big, and so blunt, and so weird, and so numbing, that instead I’ve spent the week reading about it and trying to sift through my thoughts. I’m struck, as with the Hammershøi, by the crudeness of the debate.

In particular I can’t believe Janet Street-Porter was paid good money and allowed to publish her self-serving little piece of verbiage in the Independent the other day.

I think it’s because nobody knows what to make of Damien Hirst.

The reasoning from Street-Porter – the woman who used to go out with the guy from Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and is clearly friends with Hirst – is that “Great art’s what you want it to be, and I want it to be provocative. No one does that better than Damien.” I’ll give that one a paragraph break so you can savour it.

The rhetorical question with which she wraps up her rant against Robert Hughes – who dares to say he thinks Hirst is crass! – is beyond empty.* “The tragedy of Bob Hughes,” she writes, “is that he can’t acknowledge that Hirst, like Warhol and Bacon, is a perfect reflection of our times. Does Hughes really expect kids today to connect with the vapid pretentiousness of Rothko and the abstract expressionists of the 1950’s?”

Big Brother also reflects our times, and it isn’t art. But kids today seem to like it. And what is this vacuous idolatry of “our times”? Like, I know we’re the only ones we can see right now, but we’re far from being the be-all and end-all. When our times have gone, what will be left?

Let’s take as our starting point that Hirst is making ART. Hughes misses, I think, the main points in his Guardian piece – distracted by his hatred, I reckon – but he does get this. The common assertion that, if Hirst can get away with it, why not? is also vapid, despite the fact that it is made by a few of my friends. It reduces the whole world to a spectator event. (I know: it is. We can sit back and watch the mega-rich waste their money on kitsch, but even then it doesn’t answer the question.) You’d like to think we have a little more control than that over the content of our brains, wouldn’t you?

Well, let’s make a few observations.

nb. It is later. I have been struggling with this thing all afternoon, and that’s after procrastinating since Wednesday. Why do I do it to myself! The banality of it all is deadening, depressing, demoralising, demotivating, defenestrating – no, wait, not that one… It’s the observations, I just can’t make myself go back into that place. Okay, look, it was HUGE. It was more works than most people have in a major retrospective. And they were mostly THE SAME. Same as each other, same as last year. Churned out, one after the other after the other, in deadening monotony, by 120 people Damien Hirst pays, in six locations, to carry out his ideas better than he is capable of doing.

You can’t go outside the lines, for one thing.

In this, by the way, it differs from the studios of the Renaissance artists people keep talking about. (“So what? Even Rembrandt had a ‘school of’,” they say. “Even Warhol.” Let me tell you right now that Damien Hirst makes Andy Warhol look like Goldilocks.) Those Renaissance** artists, the ones who were great artists, did it first, did it best, and then taught their assistants – however myriad – to do it almost as well – and then they patrolled the ateliers to make sure everyone was doing it right. Damien, what he does is he gets an idea, commissions someone to do it for him, and then they make it. The butterfly paintings are made by a factory. Even he says the best dot painting you can have is painted by a person called Rachel. Another assistant left him, and she asked for one of his dot paintings. He told her she should make her own. She said she wanted one of his. He said to her, “What for? The only difference is the price tag.”

This confirms my next point: that, with this pointless, literally senseless, proliferation the price tag is a vital element of the work itself. Otherwise, what is the significance of a piece which may be the hundredth of its kind, was made by an anonymous assistant, and is banal? You end up going around, looking at the pieces, reading the information (“The Impossibility of Remembering Which Piece This Is: household paint, butterflies and diamonds on canvas”) and checking the price (“£250,000-450,000). The £20,000 price tag on the preparatory sketches is particularly meaningful and illuminating.

The media – “household gloss, dead dismembered butterflies, diamonds, gold leaf, someone else’s money” – are a huge part of Hirst’s work, obviously. His sacred hearts – of which there are at least three or four in this show, all more or less identical except some are dyed red and some are bleached white – are made of a bull’s heart, some pigeon wings attached to it, a dagger stuck through it, and some barbed wire. In, natch, a vitrine of formalin. He had this kind of shocking-yet-decorative concept, and he’s reworked it over and over.

I mean, one sacred heart like this looks like a prop left over from Romeo + Juliet, but four? Why four? Monet made lots of waterlily paintings, lots of Rouen Cathedrals, but that’s because he was exploring the changing light and trying to say what he was trying to say. Why has Hirst made four of these hearts, some red, some white? All displayed separately from one another so they appear unrelated or even unremembered? Could it be because each one will fetch enough for a normal person to take years off work?

The people I was with were comparing him to the Bodyworks guy – and no one has ever said that was art. The little piglet with the wings, in the formalin, for some reason really got to me. Pigs Will Fly indeed. Of course the critics are falling over themselves wondering which is more Important, the Golden Calf (dead calf on a six-foot Carrera marble plinth, with a gold halo, gold horns and hooves, and in a gold-plated case) or the (whole, you want to add) zebra.

A word about the butterfly pieces, in particular the cathedral windows. But first, the round monochrome butterfly-wing pieces that were displayed downstairs. Picture it: round. Cream gloss paint, in which have been embedded hundreds of butterfly wings in white, cream, brown, in a round pattern. It looks a bit like Victorian memorial art, maybe crossed with a collector’s display case – except that memorial art was to commemorate the loved one, was small and intimate, and the display case was to learn about butterflies. This – and it is only the cream one, there were other colourways – looks like one thing and one thing only. It looks like it will wind up on the wall of a cream drawing room in Chelsea, over someone’s cream sofa. People will sit on the sofa, and others on the chairs opposite, drawling in their trustafarian or oil-tycoon voices, “Dahling, that Hirst piece is adorable! Oh my God, did you get it at the Sotheby’s sale?”

Oh, and I have to share this with you. It is a blurb from Guy Hepner Contemporary Artists in Knightsbridge:

“Actual Butterflies, seemingly trapped on a background of monochrome gloss paint form a chilling, but somehow comforting scene. It appears almost as if the butterflies are happy to sacrifice their brief lives in exchange for being a part of one of the most exciting and challenging concepts in contemporary art today.”

There are some moderately more interesting pieces, like the black one – black household gloss – encrusted with Swarovski crystals, butterfly wings and scalpel blades. There is a round canvas entirely encrusted with dead flies, called “A Thousand Years” – a reference to the famous installation, years ago, of the flies and maggots eating a dead bull’s head. Presumably it is only a reference, though: they can’t be the same flies. But I bet they were happy to give up their little lives… or no – like the butterflies, they live for so tragically short a span – I’m sure the collectors sat and waited for them to just die…

Upstairs, in the room with the pig, there are large, square canvases gold-leafed and set with scattered butterflies and diamonds. What do you think it looks like? It looks like a posh branch, maybe the one in Tottenham Court Road, of Paperchase. My colleague (we went on a team outing, we are that arty) came in, and I said to her, “Nat, what do you think those look like?”

“Wrapping paper?” she said.

In another room there are twelve round canvases, encased, like everything else, in perspex, each painted a different colour of household gloss: green, orange, purple, etc. They are arranged three up & down and four across. Centred in each circle is a whole butterfly. Each is named after a sign of the zodiac, but there seems no rationale to which is which, or anything.

They are estimated to fetch £20,000+ each.

I mean, they’re pretty. But art is not about being pretty. No, it isn’t. Paperchase wrapping paper is about being pretty.

The pharmacy cabinets! More of them! What is the point?? (Hmm, at several hundred thousand each, and all he had to do was write the chits…)

There are two gigantic wall cabinets set with rows upon tiny rows of cigarette stubs. Ah, the wee thing! He’s quit smoking, you see. Ages ago now, but why not get the guys to churn out a few more. And, get this: among all the cigarette stubs, the lipsticky ones, the plain ones, the upright ones and falling-down ones, the tipped-over and not-quite-used-up ones, there’s one cigar stub. Oh, wow – it’s like, like – wow. It’s gotta be significant, cause there’s only the one. You wonder how long it took to decide where it would go.

The sketch for that piece, downstairs, is big, pencil, scribbled with sentences from Hirst like, “Can you believe this shit,” and priced at £20,000-40,000.

At one point there are two big, solid gold wall cabinets set with tiny shelves of diamonds. Don’t even ask what they’re called or supposed to be about: this was when I started to feel physically sick. There is something really sickening about so much gold, the ostentation of it, the diamonds, the heaviness, relentless heaviness that drags you down morally and spiritually while giving you nothing whatsoever to think about, because you’ve arrived at the whole point as soon as you saw the thing, and the image of the rich gold-tapped houses the work will end up in.

From there you go in to see that golden calf, and it’s more gold, set on its big dead plinth (they apparently had to reinforce the ceiling below), with gold horns & hooves etc and a big gold Mesopotamian-style Golden Calf halo thing on its poor head. The fact that he’s in the preview catalogue chortling about King Midas (“yeah, I really like that he can’t eat because everything he touches turns to gold – starves to death, doesn’t he, Midas?”) makes no difference, adds no ironic distance (and what ironic distance could there possibly appropriately be, in a work involving a dead beast?) or meaning or anything, just shows that Damien Hirst knows the value of nothing.

And here we arrive at the crux. People say Hirst’s work is about death. He’s discovered religion (very sad: when Joe Strummer died he suddenly realised he was mortal). His work draws on the Christian tropes, the Rose windows, the sacred hearts, redemption forgiveness death death death etc. Also the religious conundrum of how objects as numerous as the grains of sand can each be imbued with significance. But what his work is really about, what I felt overwhelmingly going through there, is BEING DEAD. It looks as if he is telling us we are dead. We’re worshipping the Golden Calf, geddit, it’s his art, we’re paying for it, we love it. We must be dead, we’re surrounding ourselves with cursèd gold, gold that he loves, and fake diamonds and dead animals. Things so heavy that nothing can comfortably exist around them; however thin, puerile, facile they may be, you just feel bludgeoned by them. (Even the Sotheby’s catalogue says that the formaldehyde works “require a huge commitment. They are difficult to install and to live with…” No kidding. For one thing, the formaldehyde needs maintenance. They are not static pieces.) We can only feel alive contemplating the death of others.

This work will make you dead. It will discourage aliveness. And anyway, everyone knows that art itself is born in the mind of the maker, so what this work is really telling us is that Damien Hirst feels dead.

Don’t worry. He’s not reflecting us, our times, our society, our lack of religion. He’s reflecting himself. Beautiful Inside My Head Forever! He’s like a big kid, whining Why me, why me, why meeee

Why do people love it and pay for it? Maybe they’re just glad it’s not them.

*Hirst is on record as having been very hurt, reading Hughes’ book on Titian, to find a derogatory comparison to himself. He wants people to think him as good as Titian. To me this is exactly analagous to JK Rowling writing seven fat books about witch kids and then pouting because people don’t think she’s the next Ian McEwen. Hirst cheerfully admits that his work explores his obsession with money: how can he then complain if someone thinks he’s crass?

“I think money’s always been something I’ve thought a lot about,” he’s quoted as saying. “It’s one of the big ones. You can just put it together with love, religion, science, death.”

(This reminds me of the girl in Groundhog Day – sorry, I think it’s Andie McDowell – when Bill Murray asks her to make a toast, and she says: “To world peace.”)

**But wait! We are in a New Renaissance, the Arts Council guy says so, and this must be proof of it. Basically, going on the evidence, and basing my suppositions on the article I read the other day about the travails of Machiavelli at the hands of the Medicis – who, remember, also had a penchant for dead flesh and marble – it must be only a matter of time before Hirst is shown the strappado (you really don’t want to know) and exiled to another province.


Filed under art, pseud's corner, the Line on Beauty, Uncategorized, what IS it with this lot??

18 responses to “holy cow, as promised

  1. spaniel

    Fabulous. Hirst, J.K. Rowling and Janet Street Porter spatchcocked in one post. And Mike Leigh a few months back. All the cardboard cut-out heroes of the greatest period in the arts since the Renaissance. Keep going. (Next up: Richard Curtis . . . ?)

  2. Knowing not much about the contemporary art world except performance artists i studied in college, ppl like Franco B, Annie Sprinkle and Ron Athy, it seems to me that Hirst is a bloke who got lucky with Saatchi, and since then has been treated as if the content of his mind is a vatic well-source on the human condition. A bit like when rock-gods spew forth drunken coked up rants at fawning hacks who re-print their every word with the love of a disciple. But I suspect when he began, he was as surprised as anyone and in his twenties it was one long lark. I read an interview with one of the Blur members who recounted having a vacuous existence in his first decade of fame, basically taking the piss on a monumental scale, and Hirst was the godfather of his gang of Groucho-centric Home House, Ivy league diners flush with cash and literally taking the piss, urinating on ppl, tossing bottles of bubbler over the precipice of New York nightclubs twenty stories up and getting away with being took serious.

    But the problem comes when they hit their thirties and deffo their forties, as the mind matures. It happens that lots of artists who go for the shallower stuff, they cannot keep it up as their mind matures. Look at Beckham. Looked great in a sarong at 21, but now should he wear it, he couldn’t pull it off. So all this God bit may be an attempt at finding some sense and balance in his life, but he is still only one person, same as you, me and the fella with a cup outside MacDonalds.

    The only issue here is the price of his art, and at the end of the day, cash can never beat the human spirit infused with a higher power instilled by a confidence from the ancient gods of mimesis.

    A waste of time to take it serious, better still to go the other, unexpected route of taking the piss out of it more than these practitioners do themselves, analyse it straight for a gag, get showing Hirst who the real artist is. Make him feel the fake with poetry and hopefully collide with his path at a time of deep spiritual crisis and get to be his guru instead of him ours.

  3. Damien Hirst should feel empty and shameful Shocking that people actually consider this art. What a racket that someone without talent can sell and others who are truly talented, yet not business savvy are not. Amazing. While Louise Bougeois may disturb…a stunning show at the Guggenheim in New York…at least she has a message.

  4. Spaniel, I’m just waiting for the Richard Curtis/ Kenneth Branagh collaboration, Two Rich Blokes in a Boat (with January Jones). Then we’ll be away.

    Des, you can see I’ve edited. Love & peace!

    Nancy, well I’ve told you my suspicion. Louise Bourgeois is an astounding artist, isn’t she! New York can be very proud.

  5. Interesting piece. It’s one of those things…you don’t want to waste time on it in a way but then…when it’s a subject you love it’s hard to keep away!

    I tend to think of everything in terms of music…so if this was music who would Hirst be? Why it’s obvious…Simon Cowell! Now, see…he doesn’t seem so important does he? You can just ignore him. I don’t watch ‘X Factor’ or ‘Britain’s got nits’ or any of that.

    So why the difference? Is it because (visual) art is not so wide a field in terms of audience and so Hirst somehow gets taken ‘seriously’ whereas in music he would just be seen as the money-making side of the industry and not an artistic individual who deserves critical attention? Is it because Hirst makes SO much money (even more than Cowell – I have no idea, anyone know?)?

    I don’t know the answers but does seeing him as Cowell in the silly trousers help at all? Maybe not right now. See him as Cowell in bed with golden calf? Maybe I should leave it there…

  6. Rik

    You gotta laugh, innit!

    I can cope with the Hurst thing if I think of it in terms of Damien Hurst Ltd – a limited risk enterprise catering to the high end of the art market in wholesale fashion. More Liberty than Ikea, if you like.

    Given the numbers of cityboyz and citygrlz losing their jobs over the weekend, and the shades of 1929 now surging through the public psyche, I wonder how many of the items will sell over the next couple of days …

  7. Rachel, alas, he is more important than Simon Cowell. Well, he is if you think the art world is important, and in fact it is important for number of reasons, which apply even if you don’t like art. In one paradigm, you can see Cowell as an employee; hsi reputation rests on other people; whereas Hirst is an employer, someone who makes things happen, and who also – for good or ill and however tangentially – drives taste. Beautiful inside my head forever… God help us.

    And Rik, I love that, Damien Hirst Ltd. I also wondered what Mr Hirst was thinking this morning when he read about Lehman etc. His heart must have sunk. Well, we’ll see how it all goes, won’t we.

  8. Re Andie McDowell, misquoting here from another of her films: ‘Is it still dead? I hadn’t noticed.’

    Love the lashing you give Hirst here. He deserves it. He’s not reflecting me with these pieces. I have no interest in money – except to pay the rent on our very small home and keep us in baked beans and breadsticks – and absolutely no interest whatsoever in bling, gold wall cabinets, dot paintings made in factories, dead butterflies stuck to plates, preserved carcasses etc.

    And you say he’s discovered religion; if only he had discovered art.

  9. yes, yes, yes, and I thought the diamond skull was the worst of it…. it’s extraordinary how some people are such effective puppet masters.

  10. Hirst’s works have gone for roughly double the expected price. Hedge against credit crunch now. Buy Hirst. Spend £2 million. You know it will come back as £4 million. If that doesn’t prove it’s art I don’t know what does.

  11. Nicely put Katy.

    And yes George, you’re right of course. If Money = Art a Hirst is an excellent investment. Despite Hirst’s self-identification with the ‘new’ and ‘shocking’ it is all rather old hat. Many decades ago, Warhol twigged the intercourse between art and cash, and may have been the first to realise that one might simply swap places with the other. Years before Hirst happened along, I wrote a little squib about it:


    Once Andy Warhol started framing money
    ‘conceptual’ art had nothing else to say

    and is still saying it, today.

    But that is too pat, of course. There is actually good, perhaps even great, conceptual art (though all art is in some sense conceptual), such as Walter De Maria’s ‘Lightning Field’ or Bill Viola’s ‘Messenger’. Hirst is not even close to being in that league. His imaginative reach is that of a chronically bored child.

  12. Interesting article.

    I think the money aspect has just done it’s usual trick and moved centrestage, demanding all the attention. Hirst went along with it wholesale. Mainly, I’d guess, because he likes Mr. Moolah and needs his fix. Greed isn’t exclusivetot he non-aesthetic. The Simon Cowell comparison is spot on – just as there’s a skilled businessman behind that brand, so too is there a talented artist behind the Hirst brand. But he’s on the run from his inner investment banker.

    Whatever way you slice yer species, there’s always a cost to selling out. Any claim to the effect that selling out is the whole point, misses the key fact that post-modernist irony died in 9-11.

    A good friend once commented that he sees a lot of contemporary art as very clever, but not very expressive. I concur – and, like Rachel, I do tend to switch channels. Just because it dominates the media, it doesn’t mean it moves me.

  13. Michele

    What a priceless quote from that guy, Guy. If I were a suicidal butterfly, I think I would try to find some little kids with nets to give them the pleasure of my death. Or, I would fly into one of those pharmacy boxes and gobble up all his Valium and leave a little butterfly suicide note, something cliche about a wing and a prayer, but he’d probably sell that too.

  14. Holy Cow in Infernal Formaldehyde! An auction frenzy for dead animal parts in preservative as the market for derivatives melts down ordinary hope to nothing. How many have a steak in this world? What will the artful count of crass make next! Tune in…
    When Warhol started doing celebrity portraits in the 70s, his help giving him hell, he was already past it. His last piece: The Diary, was not his but his secretary’s..
    When I first saw Hirst’s first tanked thing, I imagine like everyone I was impressed, but now this ol’ bore’s a hole in my head..

  15. Interesting thoughts on this Katy.

    I think the problem is that crazy art and big shows are very media friendly, and so pretentious that mere mortals like me are too afraid to comment lest we seem idiotic.

    I personally don’t want any dead animal in my possession, whether it is stuffed or in nasty chemicals. I also don’t want to spend money on it. Reading the news today, someone obviously did.

  16. Oh – and we needn’t meantion the credit crunch in the midst of this ‘artistic’ extravagance!

  17. Hi guys, great comments. George and Jane, you two win joint first for pith.

    I think there’s a lot of good conceptual art around – well, art in general. It’s a shame a few people have hogged centre stage with a particular puerile sensibility… Andy Goldsworthy is still going strong, for example, in the opposite direction.

    PJ, hi and thanks for that. I don’t think I’ve missed anything really – for one thing, I don’t think Hirst is being ironic! He himself says, and I quoted him, that the price tag is the point. I think he’s sincere. Sincerely what is the question, and the answer is not much.

    Great quote about clever/not expressive.

    Louisiana, yeah… you remind me how we have made Warhol cosy and cute since he died. I remember when he was going, how we sneered. Except I always loved the soup cans, and I love his drawings from the fifties. Maybe it’s not cosifying, maybe with Warhol dead we have the freedom to decide for ourselves what we think his real achievements were. But he was a pain in the arse at the time!

    Actually, from the sixties too, a maxim to remember: the medium is the message! Hirst media: gold, jewels, dead things, money.

    Alex, funny that, eh? I think George has a point: when in doubt, invest in Hirst… sigh.

    Well, next up, Rothko and Bacon. THERE’LL be a compare and contrast! What would Bacon have said about this lot? And Rothko, well I have a love of Abstract Expressionism that will ride out all this bling-frenzy.

    Thinking about it, post-9/11 or not, my own ironimeter has been pretty busy the past few days! Ach. Thanks all.

  18. aliceinwonderfulland

    Thought-provoking, Ms Baroque. I love your writing and the way it leaps and pirouettes from thought to thought mimicking conversation.

    I confess I am no fan of Hirst, in my mind, his art draws parallels with Murakami’s limited edition handbags for Louis Vuitton (well-timed and well-tuned to the taste of the growing niche of bling-bling status-seeking oligarchs’ wives) and with Duchamp’s legendary Dada urinal, which urged art critics to accept that art could lie in interpretation alone – although at the time it seemed an aberration. I look forward to reading your article about Hirst… hopefully, in The Statesman.

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