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Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern. The sum of these two elements is one of the best definitions of a blockbuster in contemporary art. The person and the place. Thousands of questions, commentaries, analysis and more or less contained rage, and all at the moment that Damien Hirst most needs it. If Dalí controlled the media with his loaded phrases and his moustache, Hirst does so with capital and a voluntarily uncouth, almost stupid, pose
The reflections from the diamonds of “For the love of God” colour the faces of the children that swing on the urn. One of them spots that a tooth is missing from the skull, while another asks where the nose might be. A very bright girl comments that the teeth are terrifying. An attentive mother asks for a stool to improve the visibility of the “little people”. The guard prowls very close to the glass and with his torch, indicates the exit to those disoriented in the darkness. They are all happy and the majority are smiling.
In the press they said that Hirst would never do anything as bourgeois as a retrospective at the Tate. But that’s not been the case and what is more it is ages since Hirst stopped being the enfant terrible, placed on high by Charles Saatchi as the target for all the critics. Wherever one looks, there seems to be unanimity. The current global financial crisis had already begun when it occurred to Hirst to boycott, from within, the structure to which he pertains. “Beautiful inside my head forever”. The 15 and 16 September in 2008, marked an interlude in Sotheby’s premises in New Bond Street, in which the most ultraliberal free commerce could flourish, and the buying and selling of works of art by Hirst entertained the world. The world of those who could and still can, spend their money on art. One sees that in general Hirst seems to be a joy.
It wasn’t quite the same, however, for others in the art World, as Hirst’s performative gesture of skipping the gallery mediator and endeavouring to deal directly with the auction house wounded many sensibilities. One heard a chorus of voices in the distance, voices silenced perhaps out of shame, but there was a scandalised “Oh”, from astride the barricades of just indignation. The rules. The broken rule against which the gesture was supposedly made was that of the commission, the percentage that the gallerist takes for selling the piece, in his case Gagosian in the United States and White Cube (which today is his) in London. In some declarations the artist himself attacked this abuse, alleging that everybody wins and the one who takes the least is the creator. His was, thus, an act of rebellion.
Collectors from across the world gobbled up the 223 pieces in the auction, that closed with figures of 200,7 million dollars, rather than the 177,6 million that Sotheby’s had calculated. The figure surpassed the record achieved by Picasso in 1993, when 88 pieces were sold for 20 million dollars. The ambience throbbed with the debate about the commission, given that, as is easily deduced, Sotheby’s doesn’t work for free and also takes its cut. 25% of the first 20.000 dollars, 20% of the following 20.000 dollars up to 500.000 dollars, and then 12% of the rest of the sales. Not that much, bearing in mind the total turnover. The piece that reached the highest price, in the two day auction, was “The Golden Calf,” the white bull conserved in formaldehyde, with hooves and horns of 18 carat gold, and a disc, also in gold, on top of its head, the price of which was calculated between 15,8 million dollars and 23,6 million. The piece attracted 3 bidders and was finally sold over the phone, to a bidder who paid 18,6 million dollars. As was commented at the time, this was his first retrospective.
But the subject wasn’t going to be resolved with just the sales. The Wall Street Journal rushed to place its cards on the tables, without mincing of their words: experts across the art world clarified that only those, who occupy the highest rankings of the art market where auction sales are guaranteed by the fame of the artist, are cases where the middleman (that fantastic word, “middleman”) would be an anachronism; only a handful of artists such as Hirst or Koons have the necessary fame, so gallerists consequently still have a crucial role to play. This hasty clarification, a mixed warning to people, this case of badly camouflaged nerves reveals something that doesn’t quite add up, not even to the ones writing this. It is the general unease when it’s possible to hear foundations start to tremble.
Shooting the messenger is a typical symptom. The press, like a Greek chorus, lambast the work of Damien Hirst. Collectors across the world throw themselves into buying his work at any price and thousands of visitors fill his exhibitions and buy his merchandising. These contrasts are always symptomatic. Reviews in the British press are at times beyond the pale. But not for the right motives. Hirst doesn’t make his pieces they are made by his assistants, who he treats badly. The price of Hirst’s work doesn’t correspond to his talent. For Hirst what is important is the idea, and not its materialisation. Hirst is a pirate. Hirst is not original. Hirst maybe even plagiarises. Hirst sells sharks in formaldehyde for 12 million dollars, when the whole world knows that a preserved shark is much cheaper. The great success of Hirst as an artist is manipulation. Hirst is a sensationalist and a simpleton. His titles are pretentious. The shark piece would have a bit more meaning if he had at least caught it himself. The Mexican skulls do have something to say. On the whole totally lacking in interest. Boring. Repetitive.
It is obvious the ease with which these criticisms can be taken apart. One could mention acclaimed “geniuses” whose assistants participated in the creation of their murals, commissioned evidently by figures of established power. But then art was about craftsmanship and today, the artist is someone special. Special people do it all themselves. And, of course they are original. Just when one thought that the issues of romantic authorship had been overcome, that Benjamin had been read profusely, etc, we bump once again into the vindication of the most traditional concepts in relation to the figure of the artist. What is also surprising coming from critics undoubtedly read and educated, in places from where only the most sublime “high culture” emanates, is the allusion to the material value of the piece in disproportion to its commercial value. It’s as if all the years that the art market has functioned have evaporated, as if living with their back turned to the economic reality of the market and, just as in “The emperor’s new clothes”, the desire being to carry on believing the obvious little lie. If the disparity between the material value of the piece and its commercial value are criticised, not just the art market, but the whole capitalist system, comes tumbling down. Just as all the contemporary art that we know comes down: the idea and its materialisation. It seemed that this question had already been resolved, that the critiques of the avant guarde had been collated and that the inevitable evolution in the history of art, as in the history of almost everything, had already been discussed. It seems odd and even absurd, that artists now work with ideas.
The repetition, the boredom, the lack of originality, the flamboyant (pseudo)theory. This is Hirst and this what makes him great. As a very angry critic wrote, Hirst along with Koons will be hung together, sending out a uniform message of our “fin du siècle” decadence. That is the point. The most facile materialisation coupled with the most pretentious theory. And now we lower our eyes to the floor and say under our breath that this binomial doesn’t occur in contemporary art. That in fact it doesn’t happen in western society in general. We say that we are not familiar with it. That, we are deep and truly committed. “Banality as saviour!” proclaimed Koons.
The superficial, the plastic and the empty appeal to us irredeemably. And, instead of rejecting it outright it would perhaps be both honest and cynical, an impossible gesture, to accept a certain degree of beauty in this bleak landscape.
Hirst counterattacks with the same arms that his tutors showed him. He returns it with a mirror. He makes art with the very low but makes it pass for, and it ends up being, the very highest. But obviously he’s not fooling anyone. It is all there. It is sufficient to hear him speak, to see his massive ploy. He doesn’t waffle on and on, he appears nervous, with evasive and obvious answers, that are so absurd they are amusing and quite clearly works his role, as the troublemaker from Leeds. His genius is the absolute vacuity of his discourse. It is important to underline the word “absolute”. If this is the case, is it necessary to explain the relevance of his work?
With the appropriate predisposition and an eager eye, the retrospective of Hirst at the Tate is a continuum of sensations, twixt theme park and a visit to the Indian cemetery. It produces a variety of states between deep disgust, a touch of indignation, fast-food fun, cloying, nausea, peaks of excitement and visual euphoria. Even though one of the most fascinating things is always watching others. The serious and thoughtful contemplate in silence amidst the disbelieving visitors and their giggles, with the abundance of kids merely adding to the general revelry. It is surprising to watch how families, children and adults contemplate in raptures the anatomy lessons of dissected animals. Parents point with their finger and the little ones look, discovering the secrets already noted at school. From time to time an “Amazing!” punctuates the community of the chosen few, who after interminable queues have achieved at noon, a 14pound ticket to enter at 5 in the afternoon. Hirst harms nobody. One of the pieces that most attracts the attention of all the public is without a doubt “Loving in a world of desire”: a giant beach ball hovering on stream of air above a box painted with colours.
In a gesture of “opening up to the public at large”, to which some cultural institutions are given, those who can’t or don’t want to pay for an entry ticket and those who are simply passing by can participate in the experience. On the one hand the skull, set up in the immense Turbine Hall, that name that is so Mad Max, consisting of a black box, that doesn’t contain an exotic religious icon of the type that can be extracted on the quiet from the British Museum (or maybe yes, something similar) but the remains of a dead person with 8601 diamonds stuck on it. Even more easily accessible, in the street itself at the main entrance of the building, is the giant sculpture of a model of human anatomy, “Hymn”. Somebody has written “Occupy” with lilac spray-paint on one side of the lower part of the sculpture.
And once again this latent discomfort returns us to the crumbling foundations, the slip sands or whatever other hackneyed simile. All the good intentions in the world, that arise from the productions of artists, will not make the auction houses, galleries and their commissions, investor-collectors, the laundering of capital, the public institutions injected with private capital, the eternal debate about the subsidised artist and the price of works of art disappear. The matter of money is inherent and central to art, to not see this is naïve or reflects interests of some other form. That it doesn’t have to be is another matter, it can be something else. However in the face of the solid and immoveable existence of something called the art market, do we have to carry on pretending that it scandalises us?
In front of this graffiti to which we all respond, particularly children, eagerly posing for their parents in front of the intestines and the spleen, the question is whether or not a mass stoning would have been more in proportion to the capitalist barbarity, an intent to end the statue, smash it into a thousand pieces, an ear-splitting scream, and not a cock and bull story, that is yet another in the long, tiresome and never-ending sham in the art world, of the sort, “Another world is possible”. The excellent is taken on with alarming ease, few accept the monumental contradiction inherent in the world of art when we begin to enter into details of money. And there appears our friend Hirst, the fool, the simpleton, pirate, manipulator, lacking in originality, the Hirst that dangles carrots in front of the press and who has put everything on the table. The whole score, loud and clear. Then everyone is scandalised and throws their hands up in horror. The red faces because the pantomime is less sustainable than ever. How much rhetoric would not be written, how many exercises in legitimation. It is an economic crisis and of values, and yes, everything is very bad.
The art/market will continue to exist while there are fortunes, given that it forms part of its nature, something economic. Art beyond this, beyond this market, will also continue to exist because that is its nature, something human. Never have there been, nor will there be, watertight compartments, nor is it valid the basic consideration of good and bad that always comes from above. When one looks at the work of Damien Hirst the most uncomfortable opens up a path between resonances, to “social”, “emancipating”, “transversal”, “outputs” and “inputs”. What do we do with all this? As London says, “keep calm and carry on”. Damien Hirst is no doubt a good person and thanks to him the new generations learn truths about the world and, on top of it, have a great time.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)