Hirst, Henson and Hype

As the editor of this magazine remarked to me recently, a large audience of interested readers exists which continues to find the internal workings and discussions of the art world difficult or impossible to understand.

As an experienced writer on the subject, do I feel there is anything I can contribute which might help explain why Damien Hirst appears now to be one of the world’s most highly rewarded living artists or why Bill Henson’s work seems to have reached a fresh pinnacle of notoriety and controversy? As challenges go, this pair possible rank with explaining the mysteries of current world banking to a rightly stupefied and angry lay audience. All I can promise is to do my best.

In seeking to explain any contemporary impasse it is generally necessary to go back a little in time to unpick the origins of what may have attempted to pass itself off later as “received wisdom”.

Dealing with Hirst first, the background to his success clearly lies in the favourable reception widely given today to what we have been conditioned to accept as “modern art”. Yet strangely the mainspring behind such favourable reception has little to do with art itself. Instead it relies on a confusion which has arisen in many minds about the respective roles played by evolution in art and evolution in science and technology and by the largely unjustified links which have been proposed between the two.

One of the more widely—if ignorantly—held beliefs of the modern age is that it is inherently superior to any that preceded it. Advocates of this point of view will point immediately to the enormous technological advances which have occurred in medicine, aviation, mass-production, communications, genetics, space travel or any other acknowledged area of human ingenuity. Do not these collectively represent an undeniable case for what is widely thought of as “progress”?

Progress is, in fact, the key word in a rhetoric of future or futuristic achievement. In short, of course the human race must advance, develop, press forward, experiment boldly and thus evolve. If it hadn’t we would still be travelling by horse and cart or dug-out canoes. In moments of occasional world-weariness I feel I have been listening to precisely this kind of argument for much of my conscious life.

Purely in technological terms one cannot but agree. In fact, it is only when the idea of inevitable human progress and evolution in science and technology begin to get linked deliberately—via assorted processes of intellectual sleight-of-hand—with other possible areas of human achievement that arguments for the inevitability of human progress grow tendentious and dishonest.

For instance, if time alone guaranteed “progress” David Williamson might find himself the automatic apogee in an evolution of drama written in the English language that began, more or less, with Shakespeare.

If you find this example far-fetched or a bit below-the-belt, here is another one to try. Let us examine, if you will, the history of “evolution” of painted royal portraiture in Britain. Broadly speaking, this was a process which began about 1533 with the introduction of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543) to the royal court of Henry VIII. By widespread consent among art historians, at least, Holbein was not only the first truly professional royal portraitist to work in Britain but also the best that nation has ever enjoyed, notwithstanding claims which could be advanced for Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) who was court painter to Charles I and who, Rubens apart, was the greatest Flemish painter of the seventeenth century.

By contrast, the most recent portrait of a member of the British royal family I have seen was painted on television—with much ado—by the otherwise estimable Rolf Harris.

Is what we have witnessed in this area of human skill an example of “reverse evolution”, where we begin with the best and then slowly degenerate over centuries?

In art, even when a directly “evolutionary” argument is not employed, much of the attempted reasoning used to further the causes of recent art enlists theories of “equivalence”—for example, while Goya’s art may have been appropriate to conditions prevailing in Spain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the art of abstract painters such as Rothko and Pollock was altogether more appropriate to the psychological climate of the Western world by the time we had reached the mid-twentieth century.

So far as his advocates are concerned, the art of Damien Hirst would certainly attempt to benefit from such a flawed theory of “equivalents” and from being supremely “appropriate” somehow to its time. In short, Hirst is simply one more beneficiary of one of the more familiar arguments advanced regularly by modernists and postmodernists.

Unfortunately such arguments invariably manage to overlook what is possibly the most significant quality of great art of any kind: an ability to exist and remain relevant beyond the mere boundaries of time. Thus the respective art forms of the three major historical practitioners I have cited—Shakespeare, Hans Holbein the Younger and Goya—comfortably bypass the boundaries of their eras and remain as relevant and wonderful today (to the intellectually alert, at least) as when they were first created.

Will Hirst’s highly-priced and lauded productions withstand such temporal tests with anything approaching equal certainty?

Hirst’s is an unusual case in that his art’s origins lie properly in the left-wing anti-art movements of the late 1960s yet his art has largely been embraced by private buyers, at least, by those plying trades among the less acceptable faces of capitalism, such as money traders and ad-men. His largest private patron, Charles Saatchi, falls heavily into the latter camp.

On a recent visit to Britain I noted that Hirst’s work—and auction prices—had attracted the particular ire of the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. The latter also delivered a side-swipe at Britain’s politicians and educationalists in a claim that the country existed now “in an age of commercial depravity and irresponsibility”. Of Hirst’s work he said:

“I think we can all learn from a recent auction of art as an instantly recognisable iconic commodity where it has become part of the entertainment industry, crossed with investment banking. The artist had wit to sell a golden calf and other bejewelled trinkets, but all creative artists, in whatever branch of the arts they work, must ponder the implications of so much money scrambling after manufactured artefacts without content, with just a brand tag supposed to guarantee market value.”

Over the years I, too, have written quite extensively about Hirst’s work, although not since coming to Australia to work in 1995. What appears below is an extract—perhaps a prophetic one—written about Hirst and Saatchi in the Spectator on April 4, 1992. The complete article, “Tycoon’s Buzz”, was later included in The Spectator Annual for that year.

“The current exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery purports to introduce the brightest of young British hopefuls to an admiring audience. The first time I was told about the most publicity-conscious of their number, I understood his name to be Damien Hearse. As possessor of what Andrew Graham-Dixon describes as a ‘single-minded morbidity’, Mr Hirst should at least consider my recommendation for a new surname. The college at which he studied—Goldsmith’s—trains its young artists in the manipulation of publicity. Clearly Mr Hirst has absorbed his lessons very well and is already a minor star of the avant-garde firmament in consequence. Mr Saatchi, like Graham-Dixon, cannot but see more in Hirst’s festering displays than I do. Possibly both hope to discover the meaning of life from contemplation of foetid fish or fly-blown skulls. I should admit here that if I were seeking a philosophical guru, I doubt I would be scouring the ranks of immature former art students.”

Since Hirst has for long been a tycoon in his own right, the left-wing and anti-art origins of much of his production seem at least mildly ironic. The widely held heresy that anything can be art and anyone an artist was merely one of many untruths unleashed on our unfortunate society by the Parisian quasi-revolutionaries of 1968.

The late Peter Fuller suggested that it was transformation of materials which created legitimate art. Many of Hirst’s “productions” such as medicine cabinets full of potions and pills would certainly fail such a test, and often clear symbolism or message is absent from them, with the result that they become intellectually and artistically inert. But clearly criticisms such as mine—or those of Maxwell Davies—are unlikely to be heeded by a new breed of investor in an overblown market. Where else have we recently encountered such folk?

Surprisingly perhaps, lack of clear-cut symbolism or meaning is a criticism which is rarely made of Bill Henson’s work largely because the work itself seldom looks less than portentous.

Given recent events, any even with legitimate reservations about the artist’s work are probably anxious not to get lumped together in the philistines’ camp where they will be unable to choose the company they keep.

In fact, to find an example of anything less than fulsome praise for Henson, I was obliged to turn to an anthology of “unforgettable Australian reviews” put together by Angela Bennie and published under the title Crème de la Phlegm in 2006 by the Miegunyah Press in Melbourne. Since I feature fairly prominently in this anthology, the probable implication is that those included have offended against some unwritten law of Australian letters such as not querying the unquestionable status of local icons.

Here is an extract from Robert Nelson’s review of Henson’s work which first appeared in the Age of June 1, 1996:

“But the most baroque part of Henson’s works is neither the contrasty light nor the tragic skies nor the elaborate, diagonal compositions: it’s the theatricality of staging a sensational performance. Henson has arranged young people to act out sexual happenings. A bizarre multiplicity of performers hug, arch their backs, sprawl with the exhaustion of sexual transport. Yet these randy juveniles cavort darkly; they could never smile or engage with intimacy: they’re distant, whether isolated or groping like cats.”

Because of the meticulous excellence of their staging, Henson’s photographs often take on an appearance of “stills” from a film or video. Indeed, if such action sequences had been shot, rather than implied, there seems little doubt about how they would be classified in terms of public viewing. By choosing photography as a medium Henson has, deliberately or otherwise, increased the risks of his work being misunderstood or misread, since photography is also a preferred medium of pornography.

Since I do not know the artist, I am not aware whether the sheer frisson of such risk-taking is or is not part of the motivational force of his art. Instinctively I suspect that it is, for it is probably exciting to tread a continual fine line. Where the artist may have suspected he had overstepped this he formerly made use of a technique of collage which always struck me otherwise as irrational.

Equally I have no knowledge of the manner in which he tracks down and selects the secret locations which are so vital to the staging of his shots. How, also, does he transport the rusted hulks of cars there or his hand-selected teams of juvenile actors?

The invariable slenderness and nubility of the latter argue—even if such comment were necessary—against even the slightest hint of social realism, since a high percentage of Australian teenagers tend to chubbiness these days.

Henson’s histrionic orgies take place, in fact, in derelict Edens where the physical beauty of the participants and skies contrasts sharply with the dereliction of the settings. This accounts not just for their moody “edge” but also, in large part, for their attractiveness and saleability.

The logistics made necessary by Henson’s art argue a strange obsessiveness on the artist’s part rather than the desire to promulgate any credible metaphorical let alone metaphysical vision.

In the end, it is the skill and extreme sensitivity of their making alone, rather than any specific message or vision, which elevates them far above the sorry mundanity and failure of imagination of much would-be erotica.

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