Abstract Critical

Damien at Tate: the Revenge of Subject Matter

Written by Robin Greenwood

Portrait of Damien Hirst. Photography by Billie Scheepers © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

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.

Robin Greenwood
April 2012

  1. Julia Cooper said…

    ‘meaningfully visual’do you mean engineered visual spatiality?

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      ‘A plastic purpose…’, to quote Mr. Gouk from his recent essay. I’m thinking really here about ‘content’ in art, or lack of it; what the work actually physically/visually does, as best we can discern it. Does that make sense? I’m not quite clear what you in turn mean by ‘engineered visual spatiality’.

  2. Alan Fowler said…

    It’s tempting to do a Julian Splading on the whole of Hirst’s ouevre – but I’ll limit this comment to the vacuous spot paintings. Hirst clealy doesn’t see the difference between paintings of spots per se, and the use of spots as a constructional aspect of an expressive abstract image. To see the difference, just look at how effectively Sophie Tauber-Arp used spots way back in 1950s. She knocked spots off Hirst.

  3. John Holland said…

    I don’t agree that Hirst is a surrealist; none of his works use the kind of uncanny juxtapositions or supposed mining of the subconscious that classic surrealism attempted. He’s not really interested in the processes of psychology.
    Robin’s reference to academic art seems more pertinent. Maybe he’s the contemporary Landseer; he uses ‘subject matter’ like the Victorians, only instead of religion and sentimentality, he presents us with nihilism and extinction, because that’s what we’re comfortable with. People like to feel that art ‘deals’ with the big themes, or at least ‘references’ them. Hirst treats subject matter like a substance one can pour into things; he has said that he admired Minimalism, but he wanted to give it a subject, to make it mean something. This is why he is not a genuinely visual artist- for him, the look of art and its meaning are somehow separable.
    He is certainly visually competent, in the sense of designing well edited and striking pictorial metaphors. He stole Bacon’s invention of the vulnerable figure in the geometric cage, and his images are memorable and culturally quite potent, but, as Robin says, although they are visually striking, they have little serious visual content. The content lies in the power of the metaphor only. They are one-liners, illustrations of concepts.

  4. Sam Cornish said…

    There is no way we could really say that Hirst is ‘engrossed with subject matter’. Surely Hirst is just a combination of PR, the need for investors to make sure they don’t lose their money, and a gift for a easily readable, direct visual statement. Of course these visual statements are also derivative, repetitive, facile, overblown, etc etc, but they are primarily visual.

    I very much like Robin’s definition of the ‘meaningfully visual’ and agree with the suggestion that much abstract art only comes a little closer to it than Hirst himself does. However it seems strange to evoke as examples of artists achieving the ‘meaningfully visual’ three whose work was undeniably as ‘engrossed with subject matter’ as it was with a ‘complex set of relational forms… made … 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.’

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Except that I didn’t say that those three artists (van der Weyden, Constable and Matisse) were not ‘engrossed with subject matter’; I wouldn’t presume to say that they were or were not. They may well have been, and I’d rather they were, in a way, rather than engrossed with formalism or other art issues; but both their subject matter and their intentions regarding it are obscure and irrelevant to me. What do I know of their relationship to their subjects? What do I know of the issues on or around Christianity in Northern Europe in early Renaissance times; what do I know about rural Suffolk farming communities in the nineteenth century; what do I know of Henri Matisse’s obsessions with plants and models and morals? Their work remains nevertheless lucid and pertinent now because of what they built into their work, what it achieved visually.

      Actually, I have more than an inkling that Matisse was not engrossed with subject matter at all. What one can observe throughout Matisse’s career, beyond all else, and in direct contrast to many of his contemporaries, is his relentlessly focussed pursuit of what is central and proper to painting (and, believe me, this is not an art issue and it’s not about formalism). I would hazard a guess that van der Weyden and Constable were similarly obsessed.

      If what I said is ambiguous, let me re-state it: their work has in common a meaningful visual content, in contrast to Hirst and also to much abstract art. I would stand by my assertion that Hirst is engrossed in subject matter, to the exclusion of all else. Of course, like many contemporary artists, one of his subject matters is the art world itself.