The International Writers Magazine: A is For Art - Debate
is for Art?
Or How Damien Hirst Tried Something New
James D Evans
"I don't paint pictures in the hope that people will understand
them. They understand or not, according to their capacity."
Picture : Vladimirka Road
the roadside of the twentieth century there lays an unresolved argument,
abandoned like an unwanted child born out of wedlock. I am guessing
the practitioners of this debate agreed to agree to disagree some time
ago, each convinced of their own precocity. The subject of this discourse
is art theory and it is a subject that polarises its intrigues like
no other. Followers of each camp can be found everywhere. Check out
the arts section of your favourite rag and no doubt you°Øll
find either some privileged octogenarian raving on about the 'impotence'
of contemporary art, or alternatively a trendy young thing tearing apart
the semiotics of preserved mammals. They're called Art Critics and they
can be found in a Sunday supplement near you.
I would be surprised if you could pin down any sort of rational dialectic
amongst these people, anything approximating a model for what separates
good art from the bad. The fact is the Art establishment ran away with
the idea that anything goes a long time ago and the real nuances of
art have been a moot point ever since. And yet it's hard to gauge this
given the presentation of art within the modern society. Every year
'prizes' for art are awarded with the now typical aplomb of an Oscar,
or some other hackneyed accolade. Art of any kind it seems has been
subsumed into the establishment in way rather curious for something
that is essentially a decorative medium. Or is it?
And what is art anyway? The humble craftsman may lay claim that anything
created by the hand of man, that seeks to visually stimulate in some
way, is art. On the other hand the modern artist may consider it to
be anything that has the dubious honour of being deemed so by the 'artiste'.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that these opposing views are in
any way reconcilable. So let us concern ourselves with the latter, art
with a capital A if you will, as it is amongst these practitioners that
the debate seems the greater source of consternation.
The contemporary (shall we say 'Western') artist generally sees art
as an essentially intellectual exercise. I will assume this as given.
He or she can bestow upon anything they wish the often spurious charge
of 'Art' if they so wish. It is an intellectual choice born out of a
desire to communicate something. If a problem needs to be addressed
then it can be done so by any means necessary and if the purveyor deems
this to be art then it becomes so. Such an approach has given rise to
what seems on the surface to be pretty vacuous stuff, but is it a simply
victim of its own circumstance, or success even, a very genuine reflection
of vacuous times? Or is the answer much more straight forward that that
'that contemporary art has become mere posture, an extension of ego
for ego's sake. Or is that the same thing? Whatever the case art seems
to be caught in a sort of stasis where as a form it is not developing.
The delightfully acerbic Michael Collings is spot on when he explains;
"I can't think of an historical situation where all this has happened
'it's a new problem. Art has had a wide public aspect before, of course,
but the wide public world had some gravity and dignity. It's as almost
as if we've now got to admit that what art was, it can no longer be.
In ten years time we'll probably admit that it no longer exists, that
we really have broken away from any need for it."
But is the context of art the point? Has today's art insisted that technique
and skill are now redundant, as Collings and many others have suggested,
and if so is this right? Or is truly great art a balance between the
There was a time when a man was held accountable for his art. If not
the crown, then certainly the church would ensure the errant artist
not step too far over the boundaries of good taste. So instead one would
have to content oneself with experimentation in form, composition and
technique if to satiate an internal desire for innovation and self-expression.
As society has moved forward the constraints placed upon the artist
have slowly withered, their cruellest fate often scorn or disdain rather
than torture of imprisonment. For most parts such liberation has proved
unproblematic. The Russian Itinerants had to contend with issues of
funding, mild censorship and public suspicion, obstacles that almost
acted as an incentive rather than a deterrent invoked to enforce the
party line. Hogarths more vitriolic works were brushed aside as political
satire (which they estimably were) somehow separate from his more conventional
portraiture (which was oft-overlooked entirely it might be added). World
War 2 not withstanding Western art has been allowed to proceed pretty
much physically unchecked, as long as it doesn't expect to get paid
So in the absence of any real clandestine censorship, art in the 20th
century was able to carve out its tributaries in legion, pushing the
boundaries of artistic expression further and further into the aesthetic
fug. But while it may be easy to explain away something like Mondrian
as the brutally logical conclusion of abstraction, it is not so easy
when tackling art that has appropriated existing images, or objects,
as their raison d'etre, Warhol, Duchamp or Hirst to name but a few.
Art which deliberately sets itself apart from any existing narrative
and insists on starting violently anew. It is from here that concepts
of art become discombobulated and the idea of what is permissible as
art starts to get more archly vitriolic. By this I mean that pure visual
abstraction, in a traditional two dimensional sense, will often be tolerated
as simple visual experimentation (Rothko for example) but once you enter
the realm of mixed media, video installation or object re-appropriation
the product suddenly demands a raison d°Øetre governed by
something outside of aesthetics. Otherwise why would one bother?
However, this presumes that through an innovatory interpretation of
art there lies the potential for deeper meaning, or indeed that a simple
landscape can have no greater significance that that is obvious from
the subject. Yet the irony here is that it is the progression of form
alone that imbues the work with a progressive meaning. That to portray
an idea figuratively is too straight forward a method to be considered
profound and that only through a development of form can art truly offer
meaningful resonance. But is such development (or 'meaning') enough
to qualify 'good' art? This is what contemporary art seems to be saying,
that art need not be a symbiosis of it's from and content, but may exist
as pure un-objective profundity. That if it is abstruse enough then
its technical inabilities become irrelevant. Its agenda is paramount
'art' as epistemology. How can we reconcile such a vicious shift in,
not just form & subject, but its entire statement?
Damien Hirst admitted, quite casually I suspect, that he 'had nothing
in particular to say' but that "he wanted to convey this"
anyway. Fair enough, but hasn't his all been done before, and in very
much more imaginative ways. Take Isaac Levitan's 'Vladimirka Road',
a painting of nothing much more than a road. Nothing too figurative,
no explicit symbolism, just a road with a solitary figure poised at
a set of crossroads. On the surface one could reasonably assume that
the author too has nothing specific to say, that he merely wanted to
convey the loneliness of the Russian landscape. Yet the pictures moves.
It could be because the chosen landscape is inherently powerful as an
image (the Russian countryside on a sinisterly overcast day), or maybe
it is because Levitan was using this as a metaphor for the authors state
of mind (which if so would be melancholic to say the least). The difference
with this, as apposed to Hirst's take on 'nothingness', is that Levitan
realises, consciously or not, that one cannot really have 'nothing'
at all to say. One can not want to say anything, weighed down as one
may be with an overwhelming sense of torpor or ennui, but to be genuinely
speechless would involve some sort of complete mental paralysis. Hence
Levitan paints a picture which conveys a dissatisfaction, restlessness
or anxiety. This is not having nothing to say. Whereas Hirst's claims
to nothingness are not backed up with a product that actually reflects
his self proclaimed mood. He is hoodwinking us. His work is neither
minimally wan nor nihilistically gauche enough to suggest anything approaching
intellectual or emotional stagnation. They simply reek of contrivance.
And this is the crux if Hirst really had nothing to say then why would
he even want to bother trying? His say so is not enough to be convincing
because, even assuming it were possible, ones sense of limited expression
could only logically distil itself into one finite piece of work.
(David Bowie's Low was his own take on the situation and he moved
on from there very shortly afterwards). It could all be irrelevant anyway
as I suspect Hirst was reaching for a sound bite when this was said.
But it is indicative of the modern malaise in art where, without the
cult of personality to justify the art, the works are left frustratingly
tight lipped. Without the artist to establish a context then what worth
is its face value? It's almost as if the modern artist works backwards,
conjuring up a contrivance from which to display themselves rather than
speak about something bigger than the self. Indeed some artists seem
to have become frustratingly savvy to the barren coda they have come
to inhabit. The Guardian cites Jake Chapman as saying of Charles
Saatchi and his monolith to artistic narcissism that the Tate Modern
has become a "monument to absolute cultural saturation' and "simply
an expression of one man's ownership."
But perhaps this is our problem? Until the public start re-acting to
art both honestly and sincerely maybe the contemporary artist has every
right to exploit this disingenuous void. Dinos Chapman admits 'People
don't respond to art in a very honest or truthful way. They tend to
do what they are instructed to do by whoever they get their opinions
from. Art is probably the last place where anybody's going to have an
One of the more interesting approximations of what it means to be artistic
I have found comes from that strange purveyor of art and music they
call Billy Childish. I don't know a huge amount about Mr. Childish other
than he paints, writes, records music and once dated Tracy Emin. Talking
about his dalliances with the nuances of art he concludes: "Authenticity
is of far more worth than originality. In truth, originality only has
a chance if you are first authentic." A quote that seems to hint
at some underlying atavism within the human psyche to produce art as
exorcism, to create in order to satiate some primordial desire rather
than make any contextual remarks. If this is true then art criticism
would seem to be fighting a very difficult task 'that of dissecting
the inner recess of an artists psyche. So if the establishment cannot
'get it' then it has to find other means with which to appropriate art
(which it does of course). So all bets are off it would seem, David
Shepherd may rank alongside Warhol, conjoined through sincerity. I am
not trying to sound cynical of Mr Childish because I think it a noble
idea; that that which is honest with itself can be considered worthy
of being called art, regardless of its apparent quality to others. And
it would rid the art world of a lot of the contrivance that blights
it if such a sentiment were to be taken on board by the art community.
But surely somebody can be sincere and still produce bad art, can't
they? For if self reverence is the only qualification for what art may
be then all art becomes subjective. This may be true in a solipsistic
sense but it is of no use when wanting to achieve a universal understanding
of what art may be. Or, in practical terms, what we may allow art to
And perhaps this is the crux; that art is what society affords it to
be, and if something feels uncomfortably out of step with the times
then its suffrage will be in dispute. The perplexing implication then
is that the worth of a particular piece of art is not fixed, that it
can mean different things to different people at different points in
time. Great isn't it? But faintly ridiculous also. Maybe it would help
to imagine what art can be not? It cannot be lazy, it should not please
too easily, it certainly cannot be cheap and it helps if it toys with
infamy. A certain picture is developing don't you think? Warhol has
a lot to answer for. but then that's the measure of his genius. His
art was a once in a life time offer that many an artist since has used
as licence to flesh out their unsubstantial whims.
Hirst has just exhibited a series of pseudo-realist painting that he
didn't even paint. He will argue that it is not important who actually
transfers his ideas on to the canvas, that a painter is merely a conduit,
an extension of the brush that applies the acrylic. Is he right? Can
these new works carry the same weight of authenticity without coming
directly from the hand of the auteur? For these ideas to then pass through
a second party defeats the object surely? He can tell his minions what
to paint, and to a degree how to paint, but these works will never be
more than second hand appropriations of Hirst's ideas. And what's more,
many of these works are merely representations of other works, be it
photographs, tele-visual images and in some cases Hirst's own previous
works. If he is making a comment on the dilatation of image then may
I direct him towards Warhol's far more succinct fading screen prints
of Jackie O, Monroe and Presley, among others. Or is Hirst just a charlatan,
a hustler, convinced of his own misplaced importance within the art
world. Because if this art really is just about the ideas or meaning,
or even moods, then why doesn't he just tell us what these ideas/meanings/moods
are, write them down or give a lecture or something. Maybe Collings'
is right and art as a truly meaningful tool is dead. Instead maybe it's
better to simply define art as running the whole gamut of creative expression
and leave it at that. And then the issue of whether it is good or bad
art can simply be left to ones own taste.
© James D Evans May 2005
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