Sunday, October 18, 2009

Backlash against the conceptual

Damien Hirst with White Roses and Butterflies, 2008, The Wallace Collection. Photograph: Katie Collins/PA

I don't care whether or not Damian Hirst can paint. His dozens of studio assistants churning out spin painting after medicine cabinet after taxidermied animal doesn't bother me at all. I like the concepts, I like the aesthetics (ok the millionth dot painting was silly) but I don't care if the final product came via his hand or his direction. If you keep up with all the contemporary art news you might think I am the only one that feels this way.

Hirst's most recent exhibition, which just opened at the Wallace Collection in London, is comprised only of paintings in which the artist got rid of all assistants and created everything with his own hand. By all accounts the paintings are awful. I have not seen the show in person but the fact that BBC has a page on their website dedicated to linking all of the bad reviews is a pretty strong indication. My guess is the show is not as bad as all the naysayers are putting in print. Hirst has for years been the critics favorite person to hate, but I think it's a pretty strong assumption that painting is not his forte.

Enter Denis Dutton. This weekend his article Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank? was published in the New York Times. Basically he is equating contemporary conceptual art to the cartoons in the New Yorker. He asserts that Hirst's inability to paint will cause future art historians to consider him irrelevant and that those who have purchased his work (along with his contemporary Jeff Koons) must be baffoons (my words).

What I don't understand is why the public (or at least the critics) need to draw this imaginary line in the sand where on one side is everything beautiful and created by an artist and is labeled 'art' and on the other side is everything else that we label 'junk'. In my lifetime art has been about blurring boundaries, mixing the aesthetic with the conceptual, and the functional with the beautiful. Do I care if my favorite photographer can't draw? No. Do I think any less of my favorite sculptor if they can't do an interesting piece with the medium of video? No. And would it bother me at all if my favorite conceptual artist can't paint? I bet you can guess the answer.

Damien Hirst, Pharmacy, 1992, installation view at Cohen Gallery, NY.


  1. Read that article too. After finding the diatribe about primitive hand axes a little disassociated, I focused on this statement by Dutton: "painstakingly developed artistic technique." What I think he missed entirely is that the painstakingly developed artistic technique of today is not of the hand or in mastery of the medium - it's in the mind, man!

    It exists out there in the whateversphere, just like our phone calls, bank transfers and porn. This thing is invisible, and all that matters is that the information (or the concept and the pitch) occurs perfectly from point A to point B. Conceptual art has much less to do with the giant ashtray with fag ends of cigs or goofy spiral paintings or nasty deteriorating sliced sharks, and much more to do with an artist whose work is to manipulate economics and persuade megalomaniacs to pay unfathomable monies to own some physical representation of said idea - likely in the hope of selling at a profit or getting laid. Period. That's it, that's what life is about.

    And I can draw.