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.