The List






The Death of the Artist


June 2007. It may seem, from our current viewpoint, to be almost part of a wholly different age; as if we are Russians remembering the last days of the Tsars from the other side of the revolution, or soldiers fighting in the Great War's trenches recalling the final hours of peace. Things were different then.

No doubt this differentness, and the shift in society that began a month later, in July 2007, will be noted and debated in the coming centuries by innumerable historians. And, in their search for the iconic moment that defined the end of an era, (for history is little more than the elevation of the chosen over the ignored) they will perhaps focus their attention on an event that happened on 1st June 2007. An event that marked the apogee of modern art (in a financial sense at least) and has unwittingly come to symbolise the twin vices of greed and vacuity that were endemic to the time: the unveiling of Damien Hirst's For the Love of God at the White Cube Gallery.

For those of you who are not familiar with Hirst's work (and lord only knows who isn't, given that his reputation is, like a glamour model's, almost entirely based on relentless self-promotion), For the Love of God is a human skull, replicated in platinum and studded with over eight thousand diamonds. With a reputed production cost of 15 million and a price of 50 million, the work asked, perhaps more succinctly than any other piece of art, whether the buyer was willing to give financial primacy to the idea, the concept.

Unfortunately for Hirst, the answer was a resounding no. With a credit crisis just starting to crunch, even the most credulous art collectors were unwilling to accept the 35 million cost of the 'pure art' (or 'profit', as it's known to the rest of us) that was the difference between the production cost and the price charged. The skull, like crown jewels in a recently declared socialist republic, became nothing more than a valuable but ultimately useless reminder of a frivolous past.

But perhaps it is unfair to criticise For the Love of God purely because of its inability to generate the expected income for the artist. Art cannot be defined as good or bad simply on the grounds of whether it is profitable or not: some great artists have lived in penury, struggling to sell a single painting; some bad artists have made a fortune selling what amounted to little more than a craft. Hirst's sculpture (if indeed it can be called that) and what it represents in terms of modern art's current direction should be judged without the dazzling light of monetary value blinding us to the true issues. The real question to ask is merely: 'is it good or bad art?'

A few centuries ago, such a question would have been easier to answer. Good art was largely linked to good technique (witness any Old Master) bad art was bad technique - the hands, in particular, being a give-away in many portraits. Since the advent of photography, though, and the consequent movement of art from pure representation through to abstraction and finally on to conceptualism, this judgement has been harder to make. In post-modernity the touch of the artist has become so far removed from the work of art, that the art itself, particularly in Hirst's case is little more than the idea. And because ideas are so ubiquitous, the only distinctions between those that are 'good art' and those that are something more prosaic are the proclamations of the artist and the corroboration of this by a small band of critics. The term 'good art' means, like words to Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass, only what they choose it to mean. If that results in something which resembles a bizarre collaboration between Black Sabbath, Pol Pot and Liberace being defined as great art, then so be it, they say.

Such an anti-essentialist viewpoint may be fashionable, but it has the significant disadvantage of being wrong. If art were only what we, or in this case the art establishment and the artist, choose to define as art, the sheer arbitrariness of the term would devalue it to the point of worthlessness. It is far better to think of art as a general term in the context of Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblances, whereby no single feature defines all of the works that fall under the description 'art'; they merely share a complex web of inter-related features, much like a human family may not share one single facial feature, but, as a whole, would be recognisably a family.

For the Love of God, like much, if not all, of Hirst's work, finds itself a distant relative of this 'art family'. So distant, in fact, that it exhibits far more of the qualities that one would associate with the family 'craft': factory-like production mechanisms and the profit motive being two that spring most instantly to mind. Some may argue that these qualities have belonged to the modern art family since the days of Warhol's factory, but they are missing the point; Warhol's ideas were revolutionary, but that was precisely why they were art - not because the ideas themselves were actually pointers towards a new direction. Replicating these ideas in a slightly modified way, as Hirst has been doing for the last twenty years, is merely to follow Warhol into an artistic dead-end. The road may have been a new one, carved out by Warhol, which is why it belonged so clearly to the 'art family', but, like the modernist experiments of Joyce and Woolf, it was always doomed to lead nowhere.

Perhaps a final thought is best left to the artist himself: '...there's f**k all there,' he once said of some of his works. Perhaps, in years to come, the art world will finally come to agree.