Saturday, June 02, 2007
It's hard to know what to say about Damien Hirst and his £50 million skull, but, as always with Hirst, one feels there is something to be said. He is, I don't doubt, brilliant - but brilliant at what? 'Art' is, I suppose, the answer. All art is, of course, defined by context, but Hirst's art seems to be narrowly defined by the market - a fact apparently acknowledged by the skull's egregious display of 'value'. The art market is currently the most effective absorber of surplus cash and that fact alone has the effect of creating more art. Furthermore, Hirst follows Duchamp and Warhol in eliminating craft from the equation. For the Love of God - the skull's title - is made by the jewellers Bentley & Skinner and his famous shark was even caught by somebody else. Hirst brings his idea to the party and then applies his taste and preferences to the process of manufacture. He plays very effectively with these ideas and, in the process, produces some very striking images - striking but, for me, unmoving. Unmoving because he is a quite fantastically literal artist. Like the pre-Raphaelites, he produces works with a clear moral message. All his work tends to the form of the simple memento mori, and, in case we miss the point, he uses very simple, explanatory titles. At one level, this is a reaction to the abstraction and aridity of much late modernism. This is work about something. At another level, this is about the contemporary rediscovery of death and its escape from behind the veil of modern medicine. And, finally, it is a way of reassuring rich but uninformed buyers that the cost of any piece is underwritten by something more than late modernist head-clutching. The moral makes it art in the most literal-minded sense. It is easy enough to say Hirst knows all this - as, I am sure, judging by the skull, he does - and therefore the whole thing is a brilliant, ironic commentary about the place of the artist. But this, surely, is just another form of aridity, a self-regarding contemplation of the evasiveness of content. But what do I know? Money talks.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:25 am