Damien Hirst Art
By Julian Spalding
PUBLISHED: 21:04, 31 March 2012 | UPDATED: 21:04, 31 March 2012
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? Well, it’s April 1 today, and it’s time to name the real fools. And they’re not you.
The first in my list are the people who run the Tate in London. They are opening a huge exhibition this week at the Tate Modern of the ‘work’ of Damien Hirst. I put the word work in inverted commas because he’s not actually done anything.
Hirst has amassed a £215million fortune from his often shocking works
He’s had a dead shark and a sheep put in a tank of formaldehyde. He’s had a cow sliced in half. He’s had boxes of pills put on shelves in medicine cabinets. He’s had assistants paint coloured dots on plain canvases, fling paint at spinning discs and stick tropical butterflies, higgledy-piggledy, on to wet gloss surfaces.
Other people do this ‘work’, not Hirst himself. He is presumably too busy thinking up his ‘ideas’, such as they are.
This supposedly intellectual activity is called conceptual art. I call it Con Art, for short, because it cons people. Found objects aren’t art.
You can’t tell by looking at them what the person who put them in front of you is trying to tell you because he or she hasn’t altered them in any meaningful way.
Nor does the act of placing something in an art gallery, whether it’s a stack of bricks, a light going on and off in an empty room, or an unmade bed, automatically make it a work of art, any more than framing a canvas with paint on automatically makes it a painting.
Art can’t be just an idea or a feeling in your mind. All art is a subjective response, of course, but art has to be made. You have to be able to see the art in something.
When we look at a Rembrandt, we know we are looking at something that has been made for us to look at – and a truly wonderful thing it is. And our appreciation of Rembrandt’s achievement is enhanced by the fact that we know we couldn’t have made it ourselves.
What has Hirst himself made for us to look at in his shark in a tank? What has he made that merits his current status as a great artist of our times, so great that he’s been awarded the exceptional honour of a mid-career retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern? He’s made nothing.
This child-like scribbled drawing of a shark drawn in a hurry in an autograph book by Damien Hirst has sold for a whopping £4,500
A shark is interesting to look at but it’s not, in any way, Hirst’s creation. All the art critics – and they are my next bunch of fools – who write that Hirst’s shark addresses the big issues of life and death are projecting their own thoughts on to it. It’s all in their minds. So is Hirst’s status as an artist.
This was how the emperor was dressed; his expensive robes were in the minds of people around him, when in reality he had nothing on. Hirst’s work has no art in it. The plain truth is that he isn’t an artist and his work shouldn’t be in the Tate. Nor should any of the found objects that this gallery has been buying over the years, with taxpayers’ money.
They bought a stack of bricks in 1972 by an ‘artist’ called Carl Andre for £2,297, a princely sum in those days, about twice an annual living wage. In 2000 they bought a can of excrement ‘made’ by an ‘artist’ called Piero Manzoni, for £22,300. Presumably, he thought, since he was an artist, everything he did (literally) was art.
When they’re exhibited in galleries, works of art have what they are made of described on the label: oil on canvas; watercolour on paper; bronze or marble. This exhibit in the Tate is described as ‘tin can with paper wrapping with unidentified contents’. The Tate haven’t opened the tin to see if they got what they paid for. But you can’t blame them for that. Who would want to?
Damien Hirst's '1-Methylcutosine', which is exhibiting across the world
In 1999, the Tate bought a urinal for $500,000 (then about £300,000). This was a copy made in the Sixties of a urinal that was supposedly sent as a joke to an open-entry exhibition in New York 1917 by the failed painter Marcel Duchamp. But recent research has now shown that the joke wasn’t his.
The urinal was actually submitted by the madcap Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Her gesture was an early feminist attack on a male society. She didn’t claim the urinal was a work of art. She was taking the p***.
Duchamp stole her idea much later, long after she was dead, when he began to promote himself as the founding father of modern art. The whole idea that a found object could be art was a scam from the start. More fool the Tate for believing it.
The Tate is crucial to this sorry tale. Public art galleries and museums stand like banks behind the art trade. The art they have in them is supposed to be the best in the world.
It’s the art that will last. If you buy a work of art similar to one in a museum, your purchase is a guaranteed investment. It’s gilt-edged and you put a gold frame around it to show it is.
What the Tate and other public galleries buy influences the art market. Amazingly, so-called artists and their dealers have made fortunes selling found objects that have no art in them, on the basis that they are art worth investing in.
Presumably Steven Cohen, the owner of SAC Capital Advisors, who bought Hirst’s shark in 2004 for a believed $12 million (£7.5 million), thought he was buying a good investment. If he’d just wanted to look at a shark in a tank, he could have bought one for a lot less, and a live one at that.
Hirst unveils new paintings in his exhibition 'No Love Lost' at the Wallace Collection including 'Skull with Ashtray Cigarettes, Lighter and Shell'
Hirst’s production lines have made him a multi-millionaire. His assistants’ coloured spins sell for $75,000 (£47,000) a throw. Their butterfly daubs go for $750,000 (£470,000) apiece. And their dots cost $1.5 million (£940,000) each.
The people who bought these things aren’t fools if they make money but they’ll be fools if they start to lose. I’d advise them to sell while they can, for Hirst’s reputation is a hollow one, and will burst soon.
Like the sub-prime mortgage crisis, Con Art is a bubble of smoke and mirrors, blown up by selfish greed and wishful thinking, without any foundation in reality.
So many otherwise intelligent people have been fooled for so long, blinded by the myths surrounding Con Art.
There is the myth that art has to shock to be new and that art is somehow ‘progressing’ and should be ‘cutting-edge’.
Most pernicious of all is the myth of the museum of modern art. When the first one in the world opened in New York in 1929, the poet Gertrude Stein said: ‘A museum of modern art – that’s a contradiction in terms.’ She was right.
A host of spurious artistic reputations have been founded on the myth that we can write our own history, and predict what art will be valued in the future. As history proves again and again, people who think they can are the biggest fools of all.
Julian Spalding is an independent curator and museums consultant. His book Con Art – Why You Ought To Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can is available via Amazon Kindle.