Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Just an artist - more on credit

Damien Hirst gets so buried under hype - his own and other people's - that it is sometimes difficult to remember that he is just an artist. . - Simon Morley

I have nothing much more of value to say than I have said before about an artist of nothing much value. Except money, of course. And how safe is yours nowadays? Best bank on Damien Hirst then.

There was once a footballer called Ronnie Radford who played for non-league Hereford in the early 70s. Hereford beat Newcastle United in the Cup on a rainy day with a great thirty yard strike from Radford that was caught on film by the BBC. It has been replayed a thousand times since.

Hirst's art is a little like that. One big shark, then loads of replays, plus a few fribbles. A kind of diamond-encrusted Hereford United.

But there's a difference. Because Hirst, unlike Radford, had genius, you see. How do I know? Because so many fine, upstanding people have told me so. Nick Serota told me, Norman Rosenthal told me ("Rosenthal is a big friend of Hirst's") and, most important of all, Charles Saatchi told me by putting his money where his mouth is.Because who knows what any art is worth unless somebody puts their money where their mouth is.

But money is not quite enough. After all, Saddam Hussein, paid his Boy's Own-meets-Playboy style artists very well. Saddam's mouth never found the ear of those who matter in the long run.

Who matters? is the question. How do we know that any art is good? There is little that is objective about aesthetic value, especially visual art that deals in unique objects as commodities, or multiple objects with some limited direct underwritten relation to a single unique object.

Walter Benjamin used the term aura to refer to such works of art. The aura did not reside in the objects, per se, but in whatever external factors made it numinous, turned into a cult. He thought the age of mechanical reproduction would destroy that notion, emancipate it "from its parasitical dependence on ritual".

Wrong. Wrong, alas.

Hirst's art is full frontal cult, 99% aura, the great ripe fruit of capitalism. Not "the aestheticisation of politics" (Benjamin) but the politicisation - and capitalisation - of aesthetics. It is the credit that does not get crunched.

The discovery of the power of credit in terms of 'right' opinion and publicity coincided with the rise of neo-liberal economics. Art history, according to this account, is not a spiritual force that develops along evolutionary lines as Modernism thought it might be, but is what you say it is. That is if you have a mouth full of noise and money.

It is exciting seeing shares rise, house-prices rise, credit surfing the waves. It is exciting watching the Hirst phenomenon. The more excitement the bigger aura, the greater the confidence in Hirsts. People get a kick from it. They can hardly tell the kick they get from looking at a piece of Hirst from the kick of simply knowing about its excitement. The two wash together. Blithering idiots like Janet Street-Porter (I don't get offended by much, but she does it for me) are addicted to surfing the waves. Surf addicts. Aura addicts. It makes them feel cool. They feel so cool they forget they are idiots.

Hirst money is cool money. It's fun money. He is a national treasure, a music-hall artiste. But the treasure is other people's sweat. The music-hall is a whispering gallery papered with money. And it's not that different from Saddam really.

I am not putting up yet another image by Hirst. Here's Ronnie Radford's goal instead.


Mark Granier said...

"Hirst's art is a little like [Ronnie Radford's]. One big shark, then loads of replays, plus a few fribbles. A kind of diamond-encrusted Hereford United."

I like the analogy (and everything else you say here regarding the cuddly wide boy), but I disagree slightly. The goal is sweet, evidence of an actual talent. The shark, as Robert Hughes put it, is merely a decaying marine organism; it is NOTHING but "aura".

Who needs to go see it in some aseptic gallery (The White Cube?!) or cluttered exhibition space? Our own black cat is far more interesting, and disturbing in its way. And I look forward to revisiting the Natural History Museum in Dublin (that creaky Victorian Ark), when they eventually restore it, to encounter again that Fin Whale skeleton, the Great Apes, the butterflies.. Hirst isn't even a good taxidermist/preserver. He's missed his true calling: a street con artist, a purveyor of quack horrors and miracle cures.

Anyway, I've been going on about this so much that it's probably time that I posted something on it, a final word.

George S said...

Mark - answered in new post.

Anonymous said...

George, I've been too busy the past few days to read much, so just catching up with this. I think it is a great post. I satirised, but I did feel thast the whole phenomenon deserved to be treated seriously - politically, aesthetically, culturally. You're right about Hughes, in fact I thought his Saturday Guardian piece was a bit too self-serving and didnt make the points. He let himself down.

I agree re the power - I felt it as I was going through the enormous Sotheby's show. First you respond the works, their kitchy power, the faux-prettiness of them, the "hey wow" thing. Being open-minded. Then you begin to find it all overwhelming - up the stairs, faced with the Rose Window pieces, etc. Then you realised you are being brutalised - it is a brute power you're feeling, it's not art as interrogation of conditions or anything like that.

The immensity of gold and diamonds did in fact bring that oil-rich Arab sort of aesthetic to mind, a Saddam type of aesthetic. Well, now you've said it.

I love your paraphrase of Benjamin.