Sunday 3 June 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I chuckled all the way through a recent article by Jonathan Jones on Damien Hirst's latest exhibition at the White Cube Bermonsey in London. I wasn't laughing at Jonathan, I hasten to add, to me he is one of the finest art critics around, but at the tone of his review.
It's right behind you, Spielberg!

His opening salvo was a direct comparison between Hirst and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of the sons of Libya's late dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, who had an exhibit in a specially built pavillion in Kensington Gardens in 2002. Jonathan calls Damien deluded and goes on to accuse the British artist of arrogance and stupidity. I assume that The Guardian's art critic will not be amongst the recipients of Hirst's Christmas cards this year. Unless the latter improvises on the shark motif of his 1991 work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living to design them.

I always love a spat between critics and artists. The way both groups face each other off, sometimes stooping to playground insults is, at least to an outsider like me, highly amusing.

I've no truck with Damien Hirst as an artist. In fact I've never been completely swayed by the whole YBA (Young British Artists) movement. I wasn't in this country when it started and by the time I caught on to it, via an unmade bed by Tracey Emin, I was hearing more about the price some of the pieces on sale were fetching than about the actual quality of the work exhibited.

Which doesn't excuse Jones' outburst. He's clearly someone who's been close to Hirst's work from the very beginning. His own column, albeit highly inflammatory at the outset, tones down the harshness eventually and ends with a plea: "Seriously – Mr Hirst – I am talking to you. It seems you have no one around you to say this: stop, now. Shut up the shed. I say this as a longtime admirer, not an enemy". However, no matter how passionate Jonathan feels about Hirst's alleged crime (make art?) he (Jones) comes across as a übercritic, a creature so caught up in his own world, and his own ways, that it's almost as if here were saying in his tirade: well, it's my way or the highway, honey.

Jones' review turns him into the type of critic who is meritocratic in form, but conservative in essence. That is, he acknowledges good art, even championing at times the non-conventional kind and believes that artists should be judged on the quality of their work. But when it comes to slamming down his judgement on a particular piece or exhibition, it's his opinion and only his opinion that counts. If being a critic (or reviewer) is all about expressing your own personal taste and belief based on your professional experience, then being an artist is all about telling your truth based on the way you conceive the world. At some point, or rather, quite often, the two sides will collide. And a consensus should be reached. The critic, on the one hand, must keep an open mind about the reality to which he or she is being exposed, that is, the artist's reality. And the artist?

That's the other side of the coin. A coin whose metallic skin is harder to work out with the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, as they have not only become great artists in their own right (and here's me acknowledging their contribution rather than slamming down my own judgement) but also entrepeneurs. In Hirst's case, for instance, his recent For the Love of God, a sculpture in the shape of a skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, was deemed "the most expensive piece of contemporary art ever created,". It's hard not to think that the sound Damien is more used to hearing nowadays is the Kerching! of yet another piece being sold at a stratospheric price than that of nails falling on the floor as his paintings are being hung. Even his installations are mounted by a professional and knowledgeable team of people who, I'm sure, doesn't get the same financial retribution he does. In that sense Jonathan's plea was a way of getting Hirst to reverse to a younger self who might have been truer to his art than in awe of Mr Money.

There's still another element to bear in mind. And it's the fact that usually critics are not artists themselves. Michael Billington doesn't write plays, he gets paid to review them. Alexis Petridis waxes lyrical about new musical releases, but I've yet to listen to one of his own scores, if he's ever produced one. In literature, however, the playing field is more levelled. Authors tend to review other authors even if this also leads to the occasional verbal fracas (Ferguson vs Mishra, anyone?). But going back to the visual arts, it is my understanding that when you do a major in art, you're required to also study other subjects like art history, for instance. Nevertheless, when you take a degree in the history of art, studio experience is not required. To wit, an art historian or critic needn't be an artist in order to write about art or review art exhibitions. And yet, without that insider's knowledge and hands-on understanding of what the proces of making art entails, it is difficult to make a sound and unbiased judgement on a particular piece of work. As far as I know Jonathan Jones is not an artist.

Was he right, however, to chastise Damien Hirst (and Tracey Emin, too. Her own exhibit in her native Margate was heavily criticised by Jonathan)? It's up to you to decide, reader/fellow blogger. A self-indulgent artist vs a one-track-minded critic. You take your pick but don't forget, I'll be right behind you, chuckling all the way through.

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 6th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Some interesting issues you raise here, and in a form in which we do not often hear them. I'm not sure about others, but I tend to have my fav. critics - as with books - whose outlooks are roughly in line with mine. And as with books, I'd never let a critic put me off an artist or an exhibition, but could be tempted in to something I might not otherwise have considered.

  2. I went to an Emin show in Edinburgh a few years ago (a retrospective, I think). I went with a pretty open mind and I'd have to say I spent a very happy few hours looking round.

    Less of an opinion on Hirst... he seems a bit of tosser but I know that's not important. I suspect some of the critics envy him hugely. And as long as people keep paying him he'll keep going. By now he must be so rich he could pay himself even if they did stop...


  3. In my experience, artists are often too close emotionally to analyze another artist's work. Critic's have the right amount of distance to objectively view the work. I think Damien Hirst has been asking for that outburst for awhile.

  4. Thank you all for your comments.

    Dave, same here. I, too, have my faves.

    Rachel, Tracey leaves me cold most of the time, yet, I did see a couple of her sketches some years ago and I liked them.

    Flygirl, you raised an important point there. That artists are too close emotionally to be impartial or even make a sound judgement. Thanks for that. I would say that critics, too, need to get their hands dirty doing actual work.

    Greetings from London.



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