Damien Hirst’s retrospective opened at London’s Tate Modern on April 4th and I didn’t want to write about it. In fact I didn’t even want to acknowledge its existence. But having attended a range of exhibitions lately where the gallery spaces resemble more of an amusement park than places of culture and learning, I had to see the Hirst show and wonder for myself if his show represents the place where public spaces are heading?
I don’t mean this in a grumpy, ‘everything must be serious all the time’ kind of way. It just seems that more and more galleries are relenting curatorial rigour to making galleries all play, no consideration in order to draw the crowds.
Reading about Christian Marclay, another artist on the White Cube rota, put these suspicions to light. Marclay spoke with The New Yorker about his work The Clock and exhibiting it in public spaces. This seminal 2010 video work is a 24-hour montage of thousands of film and television clips all showing glimpses of time as captured on celluloid. The work was created to be shown in real time so as well as providing an ambitious montage of time-specificity, the work acts as fantastic, impractical clock. Exhibited to huge critical acclaim, Marclay found himself embroiled in an intense bidding war over the six copies available of the work.
For Marclay, he felt that the museum curators involved in the bidding, didn’t think through the subtleties of showing his video. With the lengthy real time aspect and a carefully orchestrated score, The Clock requires specific viewing conditions of simultaneous comfort and concentration. Marclay said of the process, “Venerable museums are acting like greedy kids. There’s a lack of scholarship. It’s all about how many people they can get through the doors.… They just want a hit.”
Well if a gallery wants a crowd drawing hit, with easy to digest surface scholarship, retrospectives are an easy option, and Damien Hirst is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. The debates surrounding his work have never centred on any notions of aesthetics (he’s a repackager), method (assistants make everything) or what lasting importance his work will have. Rather, to talk of Hirst is talk about publicity, money, of how that skull sold for £50 million.
But unfortunately, it’s a no-brainer that galleries are susceptible to market forces. Ben Eltham wrote an excellent piece recently on how museum directors being susceptible to market forces and in a similar vein, Robert Storr talks about the reality that contemporary museums are increasingly business-oriented in their approach to every aspect of operation, often at the expense of artistic vision.
But if these are the facts, why get so caught up in the fact that one of the world’s most renowned artists is enjoying a retrospective? At the time of writing, two other major career artists are enjoying sold out London shows (David Hockney and Lucien Freud) so why not feel so vitriolic against them?
The difference is that Damien Hirst represents the way the art world has gone and holding a retrospective for an artist who is known more for his publicity skills and commercial acumen than his art represents a huge leap from his forebears. In The Mona Lisa Curse (2008), Robert Hughes argues the traditional values that judge art by its quality have been overridden by marketing and hype, and that in the present consumer culture, the only meaning left for art is a financial one. Hirst defines this rule and of the artist, Hughes says “The idea that there is some special magic attached to Hirst’s work that shoves it into the multimillion pound realm is ludicrous. [The price] has to do with promotion and publicity and not with the quality of the works themselves.”
Showing an artist such as Hirst is a very public confirmation that galleries are curating shows that will guarantee crowds, but not necessarily critical acclaim. Perhaps I am degenerating into an irrelevant rant. In this era of smart phones and sensationalist TV, most people don’t want ‘high culture’ rammed down their throats and being sensationalist is perhaps the only way to get people to pay attention.
But ranting is important. Galleries at the end of the day were founded on vision and art has always existed to reflect and question our condition. Damien Hirst might regurgitate aspects of our world, but he doesn’t really manipulate them and he certainly doesn’t make make much of a comment beyond the monetary factor. The Guardian’s Adrian Searle says at the end of the day, his retrospective is repetitive. “My problem with Hirst is not the money (Picasso made lots, and nobody cares), nor the vulgarity he has opted for, but his capitulation as an artist. He could have been so much better. It is an enormous disappointment.”
If you need any more convincing, check out Hennesy Youngman’s thoughtz on Damien Hirst. He’s hilarious and he’s spot on.
Rozzy Middleton is on occasional arts and music blogger.