I went to the White Cube determined to hate Damien Hirst’s paintings, ready for ridicule. And yet my first reaction, in that vast shiny space, was to like them.
There were parrots in pretty pleasing colours, and magpies which I happen to like a lot, sorrowful singular symbols that they are. I also like the colour blue, particularly in midnight shades, and this was the rich and dominant palette. In my time I have been known to dabble in a little sponge printing, and there were lots of quite appealing pink -sponged butterflies flitting all over Damien Hirst’s canvases. If I ignored the odd looking foetuses and shark jaws, I feel I could quite happily live with some of these on my walls.
But any artist who can demand such hefty price-tags, one of the biggest names in contemporary art with a concurrent sell-out retrospective at the Tate Modern, is not merely trying to be pleasing. Hirst’s paintings are undeserving of such critical generosity.
Hirst’s paintings have all the grand delusions of his oeuvre, the familiar references to the impossibly big questions of life and death (foetuses can symbolise both life and death, do you get it?) without any of the technical skill to make them convincing.
The works make eager gestures towards traditional motifs in the art historical canon, the PR suggests they ‘could be seen as traditional still life’ and memento mori, but stumble in overreaching themselves. When Hirst picks up a citrus fruit I worry that he might be invoking Picasso and feel a little queasy. Hirst can’t paint perspectives, he can’t paint foetuses or shark jaws and what the press release describes as a purposeful shift between ‘clarity and impasto’ to brush strokes which are ‘hazy and faint, as if they are somehow more insubstantial,’ just comes across as a lack of skill.
There is a part of me that thinks, as though Hirst were a wayward pupil of mine, that I shouldn’t discourage him from spending time alone in his studio in Devon, getting back to the basics of his craft. Isn’t the limited company and the factory-like workforce the thing that irks us most about the Hirst-industry?
But it’s not just that is it? It’s the ego. And I am happy to say that we live in a world where people are allowed to say mean things about rich men.
I may have got a little caught up in the critical vehemence and the climate of disdain which has currently made Damien Hirst the baddie of the art world, but why not? Read Jonathan Jones for the perfectly pitched review of hate.
As to the rumour that the value of a Hirst could decrease after his retrospective? Well all economies are proportionately boom and bust. It’s fair to say that Hirst has been gifted a fairly genrous boom, and therefore not unfair to predict a sizable bust. But no recessionary period lasts forever, no matter how slow and grim it might seem, so don’t feel too sorry for Damien.