“Money complicates everything. I have a genuine belief that art is a more powerful currency than money – thats the romantic feeling that an artist has. But you start to have this sneaking feeling that money is more powerful.” (Damien Hirst)
“Becoming a brand name is an important part of life. Its the world we live in.” (Damien Hirst)
In May 1997 New Labour, Cool Britannia and Tony Blair replaced the orthodoxy of Monetarism and the ineptitude of Major’s Government. Four months later Charles Saatchi mounted the Sensation Show, stamping his credentials on to what Cool Britannia meant for the visual arts – credentials which were the summation of the idea that anything and everything can be art and the greater the spectacle the better.
We all have our specializations and our particular set of talent . We view history from our own, unique perspective with whatever knowledge we have. Marketing men are no different from the rest of us. Their spin on history no less valid than anyone else’s, as spin. However, it is not nor never can be the full story. Judgments should rely upon the fullest story possible and not fall for the marketing trick that exploits the ‘impression’ one exudes as the key to how successful one will be. No matter that so many of us fall for this every day.
Spectacle has always been part of the visual arts. The Gothic abbeys and castles, as centres of power, were built to dwarf their surrounds with armies of singers and soldiers respectively, but when they dug up ‘Laocoön and his Sons’ in 1506, Renaissance ideas received an amazing insight into the skill and dynamism in Greek sculpture that had been forgotten in the intervening centuries. It was not a surprise that this pagan masterpiece was first displayed in the Vatican, becoming the first exhibit in what is now the Vatican Museums. The church has always employed the spectacle of the visual arts, as a means of claiming cultural tradition and displaying its authority over miracles. Deity and beauty have always been placed together, which is where kingship got its ideas of conjoining spectacle and deification with the monarch. Laocoön influenced artists from the first. Through prints the discovery had an impact right across Europe.
Perspective – the use of angles to fool the viewer into seeing 3 dimensions set onto a 2 dimensional space – which began with Giotto and Duccio in the 13th century was seen as a move towards realism, yet artists have always known you cannot, in every circumstance, paint exactly what you see in order to portray what you see. The illusion perspective gave to art, birthed the centuries of artists who have tried to show nature in paint. The high Renaissance gave us decorations inside Christian houses of worship that were the Hollywood blockbusters of their day. Vaulting ceilings, altar pieces and municipal buildings cementing the marriage of painting and sculpture with architecture. They were there to inspire awe, they were there to demand worship. Just as in the ancient world. The Parthenon is, after all, a temple to ‘Athena Parthenos’, the patron ‘virgin goddess’ of Athens.
The Baroque took things to a sometimes ludicrous conclusion with huge paintings joining heaven and earth, filled with movement and colour and again, designed to be spectacular turning the crucifixion into a horror movie style blood festival (taken up again by mainstream Hollywood in 2004 with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ.) But they pushed this drama to excess, and the public will pall of excess, but they never fail to be attracted to the new. Even when the new is just the old hyped up the draw of the visual imagery is still overpowering to the human mind. We will still dance around the golden calf.
Marketing people, knowing this, thrive on the influence of the visual arts. Along with the manipulation and artifice of language (Fcuk) it is their lifeblood. They can see the ways in which people can be persuaded, societies can be managed, religions glorified, individuals magnified by what artists create, added to the impact created by the choice of exhibition space. There is nothing new about how power uses the visual arts or how powerful the visual arts are, but we tend to forget when we critique the gullibility of older generations and past times that the visual arts still work in the exactly the same way. The sensational nature of the visual experience is still with us. It is still the seduction of looking into the shop window at the feast entrepreneurs want us to enjoy. The dream of sitting in finery in the Castle.
Throughout all the centuries of art history, countries across Europe had a shared symbolic order. God was in heaven, Satan in hell, we all needed to be obedient to the monarch and only rebel occasionally. The Industrial Revolution was to do away with shared symbolism and change our peasant/patrician hierarchy into the modern class system. The Reformation helped science mount an intellectual challenge by giving a new order that was to become far less symbolic as they embraced scientific method, and the British Empire was to leave the world with a language in which working class people could begin to talk to working class people the way the elite had always spoken to each other – directly. Working class peoples from different countries, up to the last century, had mostly only ever met on battlefields.
There is nothing about marketing to the masses we don’t know today. Since Bernays published Propaganda – How The Media Molds Your Mind in 1928, and described the methods used. Since Orwell watched Communism with incisive eyes and we learned that there can be no news in news (Pravda), and no truth in truth (Izvestia). Lies, hyperbole, fantasy all play a part in the spectacular. The fashion for believing society is better than it is (we are all equals before the law), for accepting untruths because that makes one feel better (we are all free) for our fight always being on the side of right (this is the best country in the world.)
The reason why propaganda has always worked is because we are willing to believe, because we are seeking the safety net that makes our lives worthwhile, before we achieve anything. We are in god’s image, we are not animals, Heaven gives us the chance to cheat death. This is why Saatchi called his show Sensation. And into this system of the spectacular, Cool Britannia and the marketing skills of Charles Saatchi, stepped Damien Hirst.
Known to Saatchi since 1988 when, while still at Goldsmiths his lecturer Michael Craig-Martin invited Saatchi, Serota and Rosenthal to his student show Freeze. A time when Hirst produced the Medicine Cabinets – stocked with the empty medicine packets used by his grandmother which, at his request, she bequeathed him on her death. Conceptually Hirst was going for death but he was not subtle. The finest conceptual work delineates a thread of artistic thinking with the least material support to make that thinking explicit. Hirst was in your face. He would learn from Serrano about photographing death and the furore of the cultural wars in the USA under Senator Helms. His greatest conceptual piece was to become his own fame. In 1990 Saatchi bought Hirst’s piece A Thousand Years – maggots and flies crawling over to get at a cow’s rotting head only to be electrocuted en route. In 1992 Hirst was in Saatchi’s gallery as a Young British Artist showing his dead shark. This was marketing at its vulgar and shocking best. A young man who had bold ideas had chosen the right art college to attend and been introduced to his future – which was his brand. The importance of branding is considered by Don Thompson,
“When an artist becomes branded, the market tends to accept as legitimate whatever the artists submit.”
Brands are enhanced by select auction houses, dealers, galleries and patrons.
Every artist has had to deal with the problems of patronage. Today the Arts Council is the major patron of hundreds of artists and organisations. Their funds pour out with a deluge of data to be gathered and maintained, audience figures, diversity issues, inclusivity … none of which are germane to the creative process. A work of art, by its very nature, when it is complete, belongs to the world. Getting people to explore their own creativity used to be called education and even hobbyist, now it is a grant aided, feel good factor that has more to do with consumerism than art because patronage has a cost and the cost is to do what the patron requires in order to get the funds.
No one knows how Saatchi influenced Hirst or how far Serota influenced the YBA. What we do know is that without Serota and without Saatchi there would be no YBA as we know them. And we know this because marketing men never let the public make up their own minds. Their skill is to make people believe what they are selling is what the people wanted all the time. Saatchi had the spectacle, Serota had the might of the tax-payer-funded Tate which, with the advent of the National Lottery, had access to all the expansion funding it needed. The YBA always had the media train ready. The Turner Prize has never been about the art works, it’s about the money value and the publicity. We all know a gamer is going to win in the next five years, we can probably guess the college he or she will come from. It has nothing to do with discernment, taste, judgment or finding great art. It is advertising to the masses. This was one of Clement Greenberg’s arguments against Duchamp, found in ‘Greenberg: Late Writings’:
“… the shocking, the scandalizing, the mystifying and confounding, became embraced as ends in themselves and no longer regretted as initial side effects of artistic newness that would wear off with familiarity. Now these side effects were to be built in. The first bewildered reaction to innovative art was to be the sole and appropriate one.”
Sensibility is a strange creature. On the one hand it is little thought about, on the other it can be highly informed. It becomes taste. As we all engage in looking we all emerge as subjective critics. There is no other form of criticism than the subjective. But we all have taste, informed or not. In the wild world of Arts Council funding, Saatchi marketing and the omnipresent longing to be wealthy in a society that holds money higher than intellectual achievement or skill, the bullish, uncaring personality of Hirst did very well. Not for him looking at the footage from the Holocaust of a head swimming in formaldehyde and realising that can never be art, not for him comments on the brutality of how we treat animals. No worries about why he chose a cow, why a sheep, why a shark? Would he have dared do a monkey? Would he have dared do the last individual of an entire species? He chose animals that were already enslaved, already dismembered in the imagination of the population and a shark – brilliantly feared. These animals can be brought into the abattoir of human indifference. Animal rights were irrelevant to making people see the outside and inside of an animal, in a huge specimen jar, as a work of art. And the press went along because Saatchi owned their psyche. Art was headline making not only because of the shock but because of the shock of the prices changing hands. Art became a commodity like any other consumer item.
As Hirst progressed he even set his own skills aside preferring, like Koons, to have a busy business employing other artists to create objects in a factory setting for the hungry market Saatchi had helped to create. For, as with many brands in the art world, the work does not have to be created by the artist but simply have their conceptual input and signature.
At the age of 32 he wrote his autobiography. Ever willing to make a fool of himself, he said to Rebecca Allison of the Guardian in 2002, “The thing about 9/11 is that it’s kind of an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually.” Here Hirst’s thirst for sensation had driven him into overkill.
Cool Britannia baulked under the Iraq war with the UK serving the interests of the corrupted Bush Presidency. With real European blood flowing once again, tidying up the mess left by the British Empire, it was harder to make headlines. He repeated themes and sold a cabinet of pills for a record sum in the European market. So he went for more sensation. A skull of diamonds in 2007, a Memento Mori titled ‘For The Love Of God’, was a human skull recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,601 diamonds weighing a total of 1,106.18 carats The £50 million asking price attracted no buyers and the consortium that bought it included Hirst. In a capitalist world he thought everyone wanted to see what millionaires buy to adorn their castles. But castles are the seats of military power, millionaires are the beneficiaries of banks. The two are sometimes worlds apart.
He has often spent years working on an exhibition and Shipwreck in 2017 is no exception. Here is the YBA version of Koons – the theme park lying about its origins to give the full force of the spectacle a gloss of reality. Everything sparkling with its lurid engagement of the expectations of the TV generations. Pulling at the strings of antiquity like Laocoön, treasure hunting poured down the throat as everyone’s dream of discovering hidden wealth, a huge statue to dwarf the individual, and the choice of galleries in Venice, one of the seats of the Renaissance. Hirst had learned a lot from Saatchi. They share the same taste if Saatchi’s buying Hirst’s work is a means to judge. But a theme park is there for fun, nothing else. If the works had been prizes for hitting moving ducks it would have had an honesty Hirst has always lacked. It isn’t whether or not the glass is half full or half empty with Hirst, it is twigging the fact that the core of the philosophy of his work is self promotion. But just as Sarah Lucas lost her footing at the Venice Biennale in 2015 receiving less than commendable reviews, so Hirst has shown he knows about promotion but nothing about how fashion has changed around him.
Surrounded by the money men, partnering with Saatchi and Serota he had a place to go – the place they set out for him. He has a name, people will take notice, he is culturally famed but his conceptual work has the emptiness of late capitalism. Money for money’s sake has left millions of human beings feeling their lives are bereft of value. His fall from grace is not unexpected, it started in 2001 with his insanity of self-promotion going too far with the Americans. If you want to be a powerful figure in the art world you don’t upset the city, New York, that considers it owns the avant garde. You don’t allow your passion for big things to become megalomaniacal, so that it allows you to applaud slaughter as a conceptual work of art.
But the fall was always going to come because the YBA are based on the fallacy that everything is art, which is a proposition they cannot prove, not a definition.
The consumer society, which we have come to inhabit, relies upon a willing public to receive, without question, the PR materials piping through phones, TV and news sound bites. But fashion has changed. People are questioning. The age of objection is here, the war between the age groups has hotted up, racism is rampant, inclusivity is being attacked and theme parks cannot give an answer to these changes. Everything is not art. The bigger the better is not true.
The new generation of artists deal with art history better than the YBA. Hirst was good for his day but today’s students have begun to see that teaching them to be provocative is not professionalising them. Painting is once again in the Turner Prize. The rise of the far right is changing the young artists. Hirst will continue to get reviews for shows and continue to put on his spectacles. He will devolve into a continual re-hash of all he has done before. His millionaire-consumer orientated works will no longer glitter.
It is the morning after the party. Overkill hurts. We are all living on debt, including the millionaire-consumers. Debts have to be repaid, even artistic ones.
(Quotes from The 12 million Stuffed Shark by Don Thompson)
Daniel Nanavati is the UK Editor of the New Art Examiner, a published author and poet.
Volume 31 no.6 July / August 2017 pp 10-13