We all know that Damien Hirst's art has polarised opinion. Is he the genius of late twentieth century art whom we ought to celebrate, or has he been lucky, adopted by hedge-fund bankers as a safe investment for their corporate millions? One might expect that this major show at the Tate would perhaps be able to answer a few questions, or at least point the spectator in the right direction, but, after spending two hours or so at the exhibition, I admit that I am no nearer to establishing an opinion of Hirst's art.
The critical responses to the exhibition are of little help, ranging from Julian Spalding's negative remarks in the Independent when the exhibition opened, to Richard Tormant's generally sympathetic review in the Telegraph. Read other reviews, such as Brian Sewell's in the Evening Standard, and it quickly becomes apparent that where Hirst is concerned there is no consensus, no common ground, no agreed way of even looking at this work. This is partly to do with our own expectations, themselves the product of media information and speculation, not least about the huge sums of money that Hirst's production line now generates: he now employs numerous assistants to make his spot and spin pictures.
The art world has always been about money. From the early Renaissance, when wealthy patrons would pay for the finest artists to make church decorations in their name, to the courtly painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and on to the masters of the twentieth century such as Matisse and Picasso, the most successful artists have deliberately exploited their talents for financial gain. Hirst is no different to Picasso, who used to squiggle a few signed lines on serviettes after a meal at his local restaurant as payment, but perhaps the scale is not comparable. When Hirst challenged the art market in 2008 by placing 244 works up for sale at a single auction, the result was a total sum of £ 111 million, by far the largest figure ever paid for the works of a living artist at a single auction, the vast majority apparently purchased for investment purposes.
The last exhibition that Hirst showed in London was No Love Lost, Blue Paintings at the Wallace Collection a few years ago, a reputable venue indeed for a contemporary artist. The publicity for this was full of the significant fact that these were actually works which Hirst had made himself, but the response to the exhibition was almost universally negative, criticising the works' originality and technical aspects.
On the same day that I visited the new exhibition I also went to the Tate Britain, and sat for several minutes in front of a Jackson Pollock. During his lifetime this artist was ridiculed and neglected, and yet produced work which is now regarded by many as amongst the finest of his era. Abstract, formless, and without representation of the world around us, a typical Pollock could be viewed as just the dabbles and drips of someone who cannot paint 'proper' pictures. Yet it draws you in: the limited palette of black, white, grey, yellow and red, pure with no shading, push and pull against one another, creating islands of colour and non-colour, spaces and enclosures, that require the viewer to either make sense of their relationships, or dismiss them as meaningless. Pollock works his magic as we recognise his attempt to express in paint that which is inexpressible. The human condition, the passing of time, disillusion, transient success and failure, even our own personal histories, all seem to be there. But is this imagined? I don't feel that it is, and I make this point because nothing in the Hirst exhibition came close to having this effect on me.
So, what about the works themselves? The new exhibition is organised into fourteen rooms, the last attached to the shop (where you can purchase a signed and stamped Hirst print for £20,000, or wallpaper of the Sotheby's catalogue cover for £250 a roll). The first rooms are dedicated to early works: the first spot painting from 1986, a photograph from 1991 of Hirst with a specimen from the anatomy department of Leeds University, a set of coloured pans on the wall, raw sausages, more spot paintings. Then come the cabinets of pharmaceutical packages, the first filled in 1988, which gradually get larger as we go through the galleries. Ashtrays and cigarette ends are next, both inside cabinets and on open display. Fish, enclosed within their own formaldehyde prisons, all point in the same direction until we come to the shark, sheep and cows, again suspended in tanks and variously positioned: floating, cut in half, staring into vacant space.
The middle rooms contain the A Thousand Years from 1990, a glass vitrine which houses a severed cow's head and flies which feed on the congealed blood, only to be zapped on the insect-O-cutor. Following on from this, the viewer enters the installation In and Out of Love, a room in which butterflies feed on sugared water and large flowers until they expire and fall to the floor. The people around me mostly smiled at the beauty of the large blue butterflies, and were very careful not to tread on them. I shared their pleasure until I considered the creatures themselves-- born into an artificial environment, force-fed in bowls of sugared water for our enjoyment until they die. Watching these beautiful butterflies flying around my head suddenly became deeply uncomfortable. To me, this art did not involve any craft or insights into the human condition; ultimately I just felt like opening the windows.
The next room is a complete pharmacy installation from 1992, with cabinets of medical packaging, plastic pill boxes, and even a counter bearing four bottles filled with coloured water. It is a chemist's shop with representations of the drugs which may, or may not, help to keep us comfortable and alive. Hirst's explanation of this work is as follows: "You can only cure people for so long and then they are going to die anyway." Early in his career Hirst filled small cabinets with these medicines, and now he gives us an entire shop. (A theme of the exhibition seems to be that if a few was good, a whole lot more is even better. Sadly, this is not necessarily the case.)
The final rooms repeat the spot paintings in various sizes, introduce the spin paintings, and then conclude with more butterfly constructions, this time using their wings to create symmetrical patterns which reference mediaeval stained glass windows as well as Buddhist mandala forms. Amidst more cabinets of medical instruments, 30,000 manufactured diamonds, and spot paintings edged with gold, we come to the marble sculpture Anatomy of an Angel, a roughly carved figure which is half goddess and half internal organs. The end of the exhibition is signified by an enclosed dove (again in formaldehyde) caught in flight, an obvious reference to the Christian symbol of the Holy Ghost, although on close examination it looks a bit like a pigeon.
Finally, down in the darkened Turbine Hall, guarded by two security men in dark glasses, the famous diamond-encrusted platinum skull is displayed in a specially constructed black-box room. This single object is rumoured to have been sold for £50 million, although the sale has been confused by the fact that Hirst is part of the business consortium that now owns the object. The skull sits within its own precious space, revered like some kind of religious icon. It also looks vaguely silly, as it is, after all, a ridiculously expensive object which will probably spend the rest of its existence locked in a bank vault somewhere. In Western art the image of a skull usually represents a momento mori, asking the viewer to think about the transient nature of human life. Think about Holbein's Ambassadors, for example, surrounded by their wealth and symbols of learning, with the distorted skull image in the centre reminding us that no matter who you are, life as we know it has to end. And this skull? It is a gaudy bauble, resplendent with excess monetary value, and seems to possess no other merit apart from its (possible) irony and challenge to the contemporary art world. It is the ultimate corporate art work.
After visiting the exhibition, I am no nearer to deciding whether Hirst's work is the great art that the buyers at Sotheby's think it is. Other recent sales in this country indicate that the works of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Van Gogh and Munch certainly are, and not many would disagree. Art is big business, and we are foolish to pretend that it is not. Yet it is disheartening, and extremely sad, to see original ideas endlessly repeated until they are vacuous. The evidence of this show suggests that the view of Hirst's oeuvre as great art on the one hand, and the critics' ridicule of it on the other, are both foolish and misinformed. The art on display here may be mostly second-rate and derivative, but the heavy criticism that it has drawn is extreme.
No doubt Hirst will continue to produce his spot and spin paintings, and to be a media phenomenon. However, his art has moved away from any kind of connection with its audience except those who are in position to invest in it. At this point, sadly, that seems to be the real theme of this show.--Paul Flux