“Yeah, but I could do that” – probably a front-runner in the chart of “Popular Whisperings in Modern Art Galleries”. Whether it’s a scribble by Cy Twombly, a canvas of pure colour by Rodchenko, or even worse, an upturned urinal “by” Marcel Duchamp, the conceptual nature of modern art can be incredibly frustrating; seemingly conceptual art requires little skill, involves inexpensive materials and projects unclear or dubious messages. Yet attached to many works of art are unimaginably large price tags. Defending it is tricky.
According to one Arts writer, we shouldn’t stick up for it any longer. The recent publication of Julian Spalding’s book “Con Art” confronts the world of conceptual art head on, and the former gallery boss is hardly subtle, particularly considering that the title “Con Art” is followed by a colon and, “Why you should sell your Damien Hirsts while you can”. Harsh, considering Hirst’s first London-based retrospective, at the prestigious Tate Modern, opened a week later, ensuring that Hirst makes headlines but not in the manner he intended.
This controversial stance on the world of cows suspended in phemaldehyde, if it takes off, could seriously shape the progression of art today. Hirst and his fellow “conceptualists” such as Jeff Koons and Sir Antony Gormley have been for several decades now, incredibly fashionable; they see themselves placed in the canon alongside Picasso, Bacon and Rothko, as pioneers of modernism. If the idea, not the object, as Hirst argues, is no longer the source of interest and huge figures at auction, where does modern art go from here?
To predict a return to aesthetics would be wrong, because we never left it. Hyperrealism has been the fascination of many painters and sculptors, and photography is a still an expanse explored and enjoyed by artists. Abstraction, figuration, colour, composition didn’t die the day Duchamp upturned the urinal, and though it is fundamentally an art movement, Conceptualism has shaken almost every aspect of modern art. If defending it is difficult, it’s even more difficult to imagine the future of art without it.
So what’s caused such a negative stance from Spalding and why has he so explicitly picked on Hirst in his title? A household name in modern art, Hirst has, willingly, gained a reputation making money more than actually making art, and not everyone’s a fan. In the condemning words of author and writer, Hari Kunzru: he has created “the image of the artist as celebrity clown, the licensed working-class fool who not only shits on us from on top of his pile of cash, but persuades us to buy that shit and beg for more.” Hirst confronts the much-tabooed subject of death directly, encouraging us to do the same and constantly strives to impossibly capture it. How many people, however, enjoy this aspect to his work, and how many only see the price tags? Arts Correspondent Colin Gleadell seems certain of the answer: “the millions who visit museums do so in order to contemplate art’s financial rather than aesthetic value”. Walking around the Tate Modern exhibition, the atmosphere was most certainly a skeptical one.
In the end, however, how likely is it that anything will change? It’s impossible to stop buyers from paying six or seven figure sums for artwork, and an aggressive headline has never stopped Hirst before. If anything, isn’t Spalding’s book just the kind of publicity that benefits him? In search of the answer to the ethereal question, “What is (good) art?” or more probably, “how is this worth that much money?” Hirst’s exhibition welcomes in visitors, fans and critics alike, to try and work it out in between two halves of a cow, and after having paid their entrance fee.
As the wealthiest, and probably the most famous living artist, Hirst has become an icon of the Conceptual, and I think that’s where the problem starts. People’s dislike of conceptual art is inextricably linked to Hirst himself, his relationship with money, the fact that he intentionally pulls the wool over the eyes of the viewing public, and his love of controversy as a source of publicity. Koons might receive similar kinds of criticism, and Emin’s bed will always have an array of nay-sayers, but I doubt critics would respond to a retrospective of Sir Antony Gormley’s work in a similarly condemning fashion. This criticism seems too focused upon Hirst. I would argue that conceptual art is scoffed at to the extent that it is, because he’s the figurehead of it. Hirst, lover of the crude, the rude and the garish, is believed to be the movement’s epitome and as a result other conceptualists can’t escape his mold. Some don’t, but most do.
The same applies to the artist himself. I’ve never been able to say I particularly like the work of Hirst, because as an artist he varies so much. “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” does exactly what it says on the tin. Standing in front of it, staring up the throat of an intimidating Tiger shark is an experience I would highly recommend. Stand me in front of one of his similarly famous dot paintings and I can’t help but shrug. Inevitably, artists, musicians, writers, poets and architects are defined by their most famous work; and if you don’t like the cliché, you’re likely to be reluctant in giving the rest of their work a chance.
If you’re ever in London from now until 9th September, see if Hirst can win you over. If not, don’t lose faith in such an exciting aspect of modern art as Spalding’s book encourages. After all, he’s only a thread in the tapestry. He is only one artist.