‘He is either the presiding genius of contemporary British art, justifiably making a fortune by thrilling audiences with his memorable reflections on life and death. Or he is an empty con artist, making a fool of us and raking in millions from buyers with more money than sense.’ Mark Brown for The Guardian.
Over the last few weeks momentum has been building in advance of the opening of the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern. Personally, I am really looking forward to going – and remain fairly defensive of Hirst’s work, despite the fact I wouldn’t call myself a fan. There have been some hilarious articles published over the last few days, my favourite of which was Julian Spalding’s scathing article published in both The Independent and The Daily Mail over the weekend, curiously at the same time as his book ‘Con Art – Why You Ought to Sell Your Damien Hirst’s While You Can’ is due out. Whilst a few of Spalding’s points resonate with a wider feeling of unease about the confidence placed in Hirst’s work, the article feels more like the rantings of an overeducated spoilsport than true art criticism. For a fellow so well read and involved in the art scene it is sad to see Spalding reduced to placing words such as progressing, cutting-edge and ideas in inverted commas in order to show his dismissive and resentful tone. In a bid to discredit Hirst and the backing the artist has received from the Tate, he makes tenuous links to the mortgage crisis, the emperor’s new clothes and unforgivably states there is no genius in the work of Hirst, or of the wider conceptual and contemporary art scene. To take a dislike to the output of an artist is not unfathomable; but to write so vehemently dismissing the many mediums Hirst has worked through, sculpture, installation and painting – and to take it further by writing off the entirety of the contemporary art scene through use of barely disguised cliché’s to take digs at Emin and Duchamp is absurd.
Spalding’s vitriolic tirade seeks to highlight the divide between the bohemians frequenting the Tate discussing the wider context of the shark in opposition to the Joe Average masses who have felt wrong-footed whenever they enter a gallery. But Spalding’s reliance on stereotypes is his own downfall. The desired face-off between The Daily Mail readership painted as struggling to understand the new era in artistic talent is supposed to reiterate that it is the artistic classes who have been hoodwinked by the complete immersion of the idea of contemporary art. They pretend to understand the nuances of the severed cow head on show and are lavishly throwing money after diamond encrusted skulls to have in their homes to show how cool they are. Spalding seems to purport the view that everyone who likes contemporary art is an oligarch or millionaire but it is ludicrous to assume that all of the visitors this summer will all be queuing in the gift shop with a spin painting we’ve collected from the gallery walls. From the way Spalding sells the art world the class divide is comparable to something out of a Dickens novel – which clearly isn’t the case. Galleries and museums are open to the public, and whilst the Hirst retrospective is an admission fee exhibition the majority of Hirst followers and visitors to the Tate this summer will not be collectors – merely mortals interested in seeing 25 years worth of art on show made by one prolific artist who has turned his hand to different mediums. Spalding’s insistence that those who can’t see the genius in Hirst’s work are the enlightened ones only seeks to further alienate the readership of certain newspapers to the view that this exhibition wouldn’t be for them. Which to those Daily Mail readers with more than an iota of common sense is unfair – to dissuade people from art is monstrous, and rather than writing such a one sided, self-serving article, Spalding as a seasoned art critic and ex-curator should be encouraging arts visits rather than sales for his latest book.
Spalding’s main line of argument is that ‘found objects’ (I’m quoting now, not being obtuse) are not art, therefore as Hirst has failed to alter said objects in any meaningful way his work should not be in the artistic canon. Spalding continues with his diatribe and in essence he is saying that anyone could create the works on show. But the thing is – you couldn’t. I couldn’t procure a cow or a shark and put it into a huge glass tank filled with formaldehyde. I couldn’t make one of the spin or spot paintings. I couldn’t keep a room full of butterflies as an installation (I would never leave the room, it would be so magical). In order to prove this I have made my own version of Hirst’s ‘Sinner’ made in 1988. This is one of his first medicine cabinets and a part of the Pharmacy series he made. So whilst you can emulate it – you cannot rival it. Hirst made dozens of these, mainly on huge scales, and at the Tate there will be several of his pill collections on show. Something your everyday pill taker couldn’t emulate without becoming poorly from having missed so much of their medication. So you see, Spalding, you can copy it, but seeing as I couldn’t replicate one of his smaller ideas I would love to see you take on that shark.
To have this article published in The Daily Mail, in my opinion the lowest form of print media, was clearly done in an effort to appeal to those who actively search for something, anything, to aggravate them. I can’t imagine for a moment the sort of half-wits who read the Mail would have even contemplated going to the retrospective – but over the course of writing a few ill informed, self-publicizing paragraphs, Spalding has set the struggle for the arts to integrate further mainstream back by miles. The erosion of the readers confidence that they may like to attend the exhibition is battered by the class division Spalding obliquely refers to. The amounts which are spent on the paintings are listed like some sort of upper class shopping list and the rhetorical questions which open the article such as: ‘Have you ever seen modern art on TV or been to an art gallery and felt bewildered and angry about the exhibits? Have you ever felt it must be your fault you can’t understand it because you think the people running the gallery must know more about art than you do?’ These views are sycophantic to the readership who Spalding (rightly or wrongly) assumes are heathens incapable of comprehending that a shark in a tank might be more than the physical object. Which frankly, the readers may not be as densely stupid as we arty lefties assume, but the point of arts is not to alienate – strong opinions are encouraged, it doesn’t matter that you don’t like the art; you just need to be able to articulate why you don’t. The inflammatory tone used to identify with the reader and to remind them how stupid they feel in the face of contemporary art only serves to show that the readership Spalding is gunning for is the slow witted, low intellect numpties who further qualified the article with their own banal comments beneath the piece. And as a side note, Spalding, you monumental moron, the people running the galleries, curators, as you well know as you used to be one, probably DO know more about the art on show than the viewers. You unspeakable idiot.
Mainly I’m annoyed at Spalding for the wedge he drives further between the populous and the arts. The Hirst retrospective would have been an ideal medium to interest kids in the arts – where else can they walk into rooms full of butterflies, see sharks in tanks and decapitated animals on show? This is a perfect (if slightly scary) introduction to the arts, and as a faltering medium in the face of the 2012 cuts it is more important than ever to get the next generation interested. To an intellectual or artistic eye, by targeting Hirst – arguably the most prevalent, prominent and outspoken artist of current times, Spalding only serves to undermine his own agenda by further alienating himself from the art world with his outdated views that look to scrub away the whole conceptual art movement as it does not fit into his idea of the art world aesthetic.
The retrospective will attract those who are huge fans, and those who like me who appreciate what Hirst amongst others has bought to the contemporary arts scene. No, it’s not comparable to Rembrandt, Spalding, but it is comparable to Warhol. When Warhol painted Campbells soup cans and silk screen prints of celebrities he was initially called a sell out – lambasted for getting in on the consumerist game, but over time people began to realise that Warhol’s motives were far more tongue in cheek and is now one of the most celebrated artists of his genre and Pop Art – just as Hirst is for Conceptual Art. These two mediums are both sit under the Postmodern art movement umbrella and as such there are recurrent tropes.
Bearing in mind that I write this from the view point of someone looking to preserve the arts – not as a Hirst fan – I am well aware that his star is beginning to fall. His works aren’t deemed as important anymore, and the retrospective feels more like a last hurrah than the cusp of further work to follow; but I would like to be proved wrong. I think Hirst is a hugely important figure in modern art, and just because I wouldn’t spend the reputed £50m on an encrusted skull doesn’t mean I think he should sink into obscurity. As an artist he has pushed boundaries, challenged taste and mainstream conventions and heralded a new era of sales in the art market, which can to an extent only generate more interest in the art arena. Which is fantastic. His contribution to the art world has far exceeded what predictions in the eighties when he was the art It boy could have speculated – and for that, I think the celebration of his genius is well deserved.