27 Mar 2012

Con art? In defence of Damien Hirst

He’s Britain’s most famous artist but Damien Hirst’s work is “con art” and its value like toxic debt, says Julian Spalding. In defence of Hirst, Art Review’s Oliver Basciano writes for Channel 4 News.

For worst, we all have to sell ourselves somehow. And to be fair, if I had self-published a book online and needed a bit of publicity, I’d try chucking some rocks at the biggest kid in the playground for some attention too. The problem for me with Tuesday’s opinion piece in the Independent by Julian Spalding, the conservative critic and former curator, is that he’s not just having a dig at Damien Hirst, whose work he says has “no artistic content and are worthless as works of art”, but goes on to write-off the whole on contemporary, concept-led, art.

Hirst’s work has long bitten the dust, and very few people with an ounce of critical sense give his recent work much thought any more beyond the occasional comic snipe (in January for example, as Hirst was showing his spot paintings in all eleven Gagosian Galleries around the world, the critic Christian Viveros-Faune wrote a darkly ironic obituary in the Village Voice for the artist).

Sure, through a combination of his fame, historic affection and sheer awe for sublime financial clout, Hirst will get tons of people through the doors of Tate Modern when his retrospective opens next month. Some will be happy buying Spot Painting magnet sets and Spin Painting umbrellas from the gift shop for the brand recognition they inspire. The hedge fund managers and oligarchs will be told to buy the real thing by their advisers. The rest of us who oddly get off on thinking about art, writing about it, making it and seeing as much of it as possible, will largely let it pass us by. There is simply too much other stuff, more relevant to our current, more precarious times, to occupy us now.

In defence of Damien Hirst.

Spalding’s diatribe is confusing, and hard to engage with as it leaps from one reactionary gambit to another, but his first key gripe seems to be that he thinks that Hirst’s work is likely to depreciate in financial value and the Tate needs to offload it quick. Now I have no idea whether it will or not – I’m no market monitor – but the idea that a public gallery should be building their collection with an eye to its market worth is beyond troublesome.

Museums should accession work into their collection based on curatorial decisions alone – and having Hirst’s work in this national depositary (and putting it on show) points to a particular period in our cultural history. Secondly however and more absurdly, Spalding doesn’t think Hirst (or Marcel Duchamp, Tracey Emin or Carl Andre, all of whom he makes cliché reference too) are artists at all because “all art must also be a creation” and they don’t make the objects in their work.

This is good enough ground for him to write-off all conceptualism, apparently. Not just art that uses ready-mades mind – but the entire history of idea-based art from the 20th and 21st centuries and all those who have dabbled in it. He’d junk Sol LeWitt, bin Cindy Sherman, tip Mike Kelley: all artists (and I use them only by way of example) who have had an idea and looked for the best means of expression for it and found it in sculpture, photography, painting or film.

That means of expression could have been an article or book of course, it could have been communicated in song or cinema; but these artists – and the thousands round the world that allow people to see something or think about something just a little bit differently – felt that using formal materials would have the easiest and most direct affect. So Spalding might reject Hirst, but to reject the production and communication of ideas? Wow, that’s quite a bold statement to make just to flog an e-book.

Oliver Basciano is a critic and writer based in London.