12 October 2012
“I hope it will excite the locals,” Damien Hirst tells the North Devon Gazette, “although I know everybody won’t love it, but I hope it will bring more tourists to the area and increase business for the local people.”
He talking about Verity,his 20 metre high statue of a naked pregnant woman, bearing aloft a trumphant sword, which he has loaned to North Devon Council for a period of 20 years.
“I wanted to take this existing sculpture and change it to make it stand for something important – for truth, “says Hirst.
I have my doubts about whether Verity will survive her entire loan period. She is, as Jonathan Jones has remarked, disturbingly like the statues commonly seen in totalitarian states. Jones hates Verity and thinks she marks ‘a dark age for British art.’ He draws a distinction between Verity and Hirst’s earlier work, his high estimation of which justfies this:
“When histories of modern Britain come to be written by later generations, it will be Hirst whose art shapes the image of these times.’
I dimly recall the Pre-Raphaelites felt the same way about Rossetti, just before everybody was struck dumb by Cezanne, Degas etc. Also Jones’s description of Hirst at his best includes the thought that he was driven by ‘a real obsession with mortality.’ If I ever meet a human being who isn’t driven by such an obsession, I will urge him or her to seek professional help. There is an unhelpful critical tradition in which truisms detected in a work – we are all going to die, peace is better than war and so on – are elevated to world-transforming aesthetic programmes. This is sometimes true when artists are at their worst – Philip Larkin, a very fine poet indeed, is merely dull when he whines about dying – but never true of great art.
Jones’s estimation of Hirst – an early good period, a late bad one – parallels my own estimation of Andy Warhol, a great artist between 1962 and 1968, the year he was shot, and an increasingly poor one thereafter. After 1968, Warhol was, for the most part, just playing the market. Hirst – and here’s the big, the critical, difference – has never done anything else.
Also Jones’s description of Hirst at his best includes the thought that he was driven by ‘a real obsession with mortality.’ If I ever meet a human being who isn’t driven by such an obsession, I will urge them to seek professional help.
This is not, in itself, a criticism. Hirst has always been frank about the market as the source of his inspiration. This has difficulties – as Anish Papoor noted in my interview – but at least you know what you are getting. It has been acceptable to an art world that is all too eager to take its cue from one work of Duchamp’s – the urinal he called Fountain (see my Gompertz review). In fact, this is the least of his major works and Duchamp himself intended it as a very good joke about the way the market values art. Duchamp’s most important work -The Large Glass – is a much more mysterious piece and too awkward for easy classification.
Verity, however, takes all these difficulties to a new plane. Hirst’s market psychology is impeccable – to criticise the fact that she is ugly will be to invite the charge that you find naked, pregnant women ugly. Furthermore, to say she is ugly is likely to have you consigned to those poor fools who did not ‘get Cezanne’ or the old buffer watercolourists who think Warhol represented the end of western civilisation. Well, okay, I’ll take all that on the chin. She looks bloody ugly – I have only seen photographs, I confess - and that, I suspect, is the point.
She is not ugly because she is naked and pregnant – these are two giant red herrings placed there by Hirst – she is ugly because she is a god-awful sculpture, roughly of the standard of the things found in gift shops (again that may be the point). North Devon have been sold a dud but that’s not a problem because they were repeatedly told they were being sold a dud, Hirst’s entire career testifies to the fact.
Hirst’s market psychology is impeccable – to criticise the fact that she is ugly will be to invite the charge that you find naked, pregnant women ugly.
Perhaps he now thinks, as he told the North Devon Gazette, that she stands for truth. Obviously, in one sense, she does; she stands for the truth of the marketplace – in this case, the market defined by the philistinism of local councils. But I suspect he is using ‘truth’ to mean something more. Perhaps she stands for the triumphant glory of pregnancy or something. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter because whatever Hirst does is tainted by his now profoundly unfashionable fidelity to the market. Who wants to fetishise the market after what the bankers did to it? Jones’s and Kapoor’s comments nail this point above all others.
Jones is also right to note that this is an odd moment for the visual arts in Britain. Verity and the Gompertz book both unintentionally proclaim a high level of fatigue with and a startling degree of provincialism in the anglocencric art historical story of the last twenty years or so. Something needs to happen, most helpfully a liberation from the deterministic, historicist narrative peddled in the art schools where ideas abandoned in almost every other discpline are still taken as gospel. British art is in danger of becoming not just provincial but also desperately unfashionable and, if that does not send a chill down Hoxton way, I can’t imagine what will.