Damien is a Surrealist, no? I have difficulty with Surrealism. Along with Dada, it always seemed a rather petulant reaction to the visual blockbusters of Impressionism, Fauvism, Rodin, Picasso and Matisse, abstraction etc., all of which effectively turned over and dumped the subject-matter-led academic art of the Nineteenth Century. The latter didn’t go away, of course, and the lineage of Symbolism and Surrealism kept that side of things going. If you didn’t want to paint or make sculpture, you could mess with the subject matter, twist it and turn it around, play games with its literal and literary meanings, put them into peculiar and unfamiliar contexts. Isn’t this what Damien does now? Hirst’s talent has been to exploit to the full the Surrealist/Dada dictum that everything is art. His wit was to choose the most spectacular bits of life to make his art from; a shark is after all a lot more astonishing than a bottle-rack. And there can be few pieces of art more totally engrossed in subject matter at the expense of all else than Hirst’s ‘verbatim’ exposition of the life of a fly. Is he a good Surrealist? I don’t know or really care, so I leave that judgement to those who do.
Leaving that aside then, what else? Well, we should judge his work as an abstract painter on its merits, I suppose. The spin paintings and the spot paintings, on this showing, are not very OK-ish. I’ve seen many that are better, I’ve seen some that are worse. What can we compare them with? Though they may be made with a not-dissimilar ironic and twisted intellectual detachment, they are nowhere near as interesting as Gerhard Richter’s best eighties abstracts (see Is Richter for Real?), not least because there is even less conscious visual decision-making apparent. They might be about on a par with some of Richter’s poorer squeegee works – maybe – but that’s pretty low down in my book. The spot paintings in particular are really boring. I don’t want to get into the argument of who made them, assistants or otherwise; it doesn’t make any difference to me, so long as somebody was there to take responsibility. But there isn’t anyone. There are a few initial decisions or rules that have been made at the beginning that impinge upon how things look in the end, such as size, choice of colour, how fast to spin, how many dots etc., and it matters not a lot by whom or why. But the fact is that, rather than continuing to the point where some compelling sense of purpose might take over, the decision-making comes to an abrupt and premature end. It stops well before anything in the work is made particular and specific (which would no doubt imply too much engagement, not enough cool, and let’s face it, be a little bit difficult too), so allowing the work to remain generic. A spot painting is always and forever ‘a Spot Painting’, like any other; a spin painting is forever ‘a Spin Painting’. This is how Hirst can make 1500 spot paintings without batting an eyelid – none of them take on board any further input past a certain point which might have made them better or worse than the other 1499. There are no bad ones to burn, none that can fail. I suppose this fulfils some of Hirst’s inverted ambitions for his art, and I suppose it is also what the rich punters who don’t know what they are looking at demand – guaranteed quality every time. They are literal and serial demonstrations of a process, and that process has no values. Unfortunately, the history of abstract painting abounds in such literalism and serialism; all the worse for us. Hirst is not the first, nor perhaps the worst; nor is he to be blamed for this, but if we countenance it in other works higher up in the abstract canon, we have to swallow it from him too.
Now, you might like some spin paintings more than others, you might feel one to be better than another, or one might remind you of stuff that you like or look a bit like something or other, but this is mostly a fruitless and deceptive subjectivity. Such one-dimensional ‘aesthetic judgement’ is common to the discourse about all art, and the critique of abstract painting and sculpture is especially susceptible to it; we accept it without question. If, however, you get into thinking about what the real content of the work is – by which I mean, what it is really doing, what it is that the artist has made to happen in the form and structure of the work – then you begin to see Hirst’s (and anyone else’s, including your own) abstract paintings for what they really are: in Hirst’s case, just simply and literally spun things or spotted things, with no trace of intrinsic visual invention. Because they are so very unspecific, because they are all in the end pretty much of a muchness, pretty equal, whether we like one better than another is neither here nor there. And this is a lesson to be learnt about abstract art in general. We should learn to leave off from talking all the time about our feelings about our own abstract art, feelings and sensitivities which we might think put us above those chavs Damien and Tracy, feelings we are tempted to think of as representing a more sophisticated aesthetic sensibility altogether. Beware, when we speak of our own art in such a manner; it may be that we simply have nothing else to talk about, no content to discuss, because most of our own abstract art is really as close to being as empty of meaningful form as Damien’s – certainly in comparison, that is to say, with a Rogier van der Weyden or a John Constable or a Henri Matisse.
Hirst’s work has been described in the press (I forget by who) as highly visual, but I don’t think that is quite true, at least not in what it means to me to make something that works visually. Yes, the shark looks good; it just would, wouldn’t it, because it’s a fantastic natural thing. Likewise the cows etc. Even the pills and butterflies. I can remember looking at pickled human dissections in the Wellcome Museum years ago, and they were endlessly fascinating and beautiful. And, yes, we can see them. But visual? Not really. What is naturally spectacular doesn’t of necessity equate with what is meaningfully visual. Not, at least, in the sense that I understand those criteria; which is to say, a complex set of relational forms which somehow are made (importantly, by another cognisant human being) to work together, their diversity becoming transformed and unified into a conscious or unconscious purpose, all for the benefit of the eye and the delight of the mind. That, at least, is a rough and tumble outline of what I look for. Lots of art meets those criteria full on, but even more doesn’t. Usually when it doesn’t, it’s because it’s engrossed with subject matter, and just doesn’t get going visually; like for instance Dada or Surrealism. Or, for that matter, academic art.
Am I saying Damien is really an academic artist? Yep. Remember how the Royal Academy took the YBAs so swiftly and completely to its dear old powdered and wheezing bosom? Hirst’s work is overwhelmingly conventional in its visual organisation; a good example of this is the butterfly wing paintings, which crucify hundreds of the lovely little things in an unkind and vainglorious attempt to razzle and dazzle us, but are about as clichéd and redundant in their symmetry and basic clunking geometry as anything you care to mention (try Gilbert & George). Hirst may perhaps be an innovator with subject matter, and have talents for all manner of things to do with engaging the art-world at large, but visual imagination and originality elude him.