‘These artists pretend to engage in a critical annihilation of mass-cultural fetishization, but in doing so they reinforce the fetishization of the high-cultural object even more: not a single discursive frame is undone, not a single aspect of the support systems is reflected, not one institutional device is touched upon’.
Nothing quite raises fears of an apocalyptic breakdown of Western culture like the spectre of a Damien Hirst exhibition. Wading through the turgid media furore one sees the shadow of a puppet master as Hirst’s evasive and contradictory words and phrases circulate and re-emerge, wrapping the internet up in a state of constipated consternation that feels like it will never end. Observing him one notes the full arsenal of ‘avant-garde’ posture from Warholian vacuity, (“art is like medicine – it can heal”), through fake Dylanesque exasperation, (“It’s not the point if I painted them”), to the inevitable pinch of adolescent Sex Pistols nihilism, (“I couldn’t be fucked to paint them”). With his lattices of statement and counter statement Hirst continues to baffle, amuse and titillate the media into vague uncritical acceptance – “The works may be crass but this is his genius – he understands the vacuity of our age like so few”.
Which is just as well for him, as the experience of standing before the works on display at the Britannia Street section of the 50,000 square foot 11 gallery exhibition could not be in starker contrast to such hyperbole. The spots come larger than you may expect (up to 40 inches) and smaller than I had (down to 5 mm). They come on trapezoid and circular canvasses– and of course they come in cufflinks and badges (Sir Nicholas Serota’s wife was apparently enamoured by the former, the good Sir himself by the latter – one ‘I spot DH’ on each lapel). But none of this does much to move the preconception that they are, as Hirst states with rare acuity, ‘what they are, perfectly dumb paintings”.
The gap between the cacophony of media interest and the mute ineloquence of the works would be fine – if in no way commendable – were it not for the fact that the works’ wider hold (amongst museum executives, collectors and art critics) seems to rest upon a critical and discursive void of approximately the same proportions. For between the underwhelming physical presence of the paintings and their media cache opens up a conceptual game that appears to still have many of us on the run. It plays out somewhere amidst Michael Bracewell’s catalogue assertion that it is the paintings’ “simplicity that makes them so complex and their dumbness that makes them so eloquent” – amidst the thickets of evasive and multiplying doublespeak.
The spot paintings are, of course, neither complex nor eloquent once we start to approach them from the unfashionable modes of historical and formal analysis – by looking, for example, at the structure of the works. For, despite Hirst’s appeals to the contrary it is clear to the historically conscious viewer that in choosing to make a series of colour chart grids based upon a random assortment of mass produced paints Hirst is engaging with a heritage which stretches back to Ellsworth Kelly’s early 1950s work and traces a line through US minimalism and Gerhard Richter through to the current day.
In picking up this line whilst adding nothing to it, bar circling the square, muting the colours and applying Warholian concepts of Mass production, Hirst lays bare his weakness– the inherently Kitsch irrelevance of a work so wrapped up in disavowal and conceptual reference that it precludes its own physicality – and his strength – the good fortune to be born into an age in which our notions of form, art, history, progress and democracy are confused enough to allow him not just breathing space but international stardom.
Admirers and Hirst himself try to impart meaning to the physical experience of standing before the works; ‘these coloured circles feel joyous, simple, seductive. Then one can no longer focus on them. A dizziness sets in, an unexpected discomfort, a mix of positive and negative feelings’. It is clear however that any such physical relation to the works would have to be precluded by a virginal or most accepting disposition (– or perhaps advanced hunger). For why else would anyone stand still in front of these mass produced, self-declaringly mute works for long enough to be moved to discomfort or emotion by their mere presence, unless of course they did the same to wallpaper.
So much for kitsch! But of course, the works also make a claim to a higher meaning – to what Greenberg called, in reference to avant-garde art in the shape of Picasso, the projected values of a sensitive spectator. Only where Greenberg felt that the spectator of a Picasso could derive ‘the recognizable, the miraculous and the sympathetic’ at second hand through reflection on the plastic values left by the work, it would seem we can derive obfuscation, mundanity and narcissism at third hand by the absence of plastic values in a Hirst filtered through the clattering feedback of the spectacle.
To enjoy such performance as art it seems all we must do is give up our attachment to the object as a site of meaningful experience, our values and our conceptions of history. And from there it can only be a short step to the sort of neo-Hegelian ecstasy that Damien Hirst must feel in fulfilling his “urge to be a painter above and beyond the object of painting”. Or what Michael Bracewell must feel in encountering ‘“art” at its most intense’, an art that is, ‘timeless and ageless… could have been drawn from the thirteenth century or thirty years ago… might be termed “post everything art” – an art meaning everything and nothing’. I think I’ll exit the gift shop.