Beyond Bad: Learning to Love Damien Hirst

It’s sad to watch someone drift over to the dark side. I’m not talking about Anakin Skywalker. I’m talking about renowned Guardian art blogger extraordinaire Jonathan Jones. I don’t know Jonathan, but I’ve read enough of his work to feel like I do. When I read his recent post, “Why I've joined Damien Hirst's bad taste party,” I wanted to stage an intervention. Jonathan states his reasons clearly and argues his points well. But here’s my attempt at saving his soul, and perhaps the soul of art and culture in the world today.


People have asked me (and I’ve asked myself) why I write about people such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and other “star” artists who seem short on substance and long on self-promotion in the name of profit. The fact of the matter is, they can’t be ignored, for better or worse. If you write about the art world, it seems absurd to steer around them in the name of some kind of principle. They are the 800-pound gorillas that must be taken on no matter what. Perhaps by taking them on, even in my humble fashion, they seem slightly smaller.

The punch in the gut moment for me in Jonathan Jones’ post came when he grudgingly gave credit to the Stuckists, the anti-Hirsts of the modern art world in many ways. “The Stuckists are right about a lot (just wrong about everything that matters),” Jones concedes, “it is absolutely true that art in the 21st century, with its conceptual tropes and market values, lacks the permanent merits of earlier art. But if it matters—and it does—this has to be for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with taste.” Ever have a friend turn so cynical that you go speechless for a moment? That’s how I felt.

Is modern art merely “conceptual tropes and market values” and, therefore, so disposable that it “lacks the permanent merits of earlier art”? Has art and civilization suddenly taken some cataclysmic turn in which nothing is worthy of posterity, if such a concept even still exists? It’s an end-of-the-world scenario that renders everything done today worthless. Even worse, we can’t even go back to the past for that sense of “permanent merits.” “Basically, if you dismiss Hirst,” Jones concludes, “get you to an Old Master gallery—because the only legitimate position from which to reject him is one that sees the art of this century as a bad parody of Duchamp, and prefers the proper arts of painting and carved sculpture.” Jones leaves us the “out” of the Old Masters, but how are we poor saps trapped in the age of meaninglessness ever going to get back to the Garden of Eden of meaningful painting and sculpture short of a time machine? No, we’re tainted by the modern trappings that have formed us. Either all is bad Duchamp or nothing is.

Jones uses the occasion of Hirst’s upcoming “Souls” exhibition of butterfly paintings to express his surrender to the art star market. (One of Hirst’s earlier butterfly works, Souls on Jacob’s Ladder Take Their Flight, from 2007, is shown above.) “If conceptual strategies have any worth at all, then Hirst has worth,” Jones says in defense of his conversion. “He has already secured his place in art history. He can fart around for 20 years painting in his shed if he wants to. We critics can hurl our insults, but he is much cleverer than us. He knows good taste is for fools.” In the comments to his post, Jones adds, “I am not saying Hirst is kitsch and ironic, so bad he's good, or any of those things. I am saying his ambition and ideas put him beyond good or bad as defined in contemporary art criticism, or fashion.” Jones imagines a world beyond good or bad, where the market sets values—usually quantifiable ones such as dollars. The qualifiable ones—the soft science of good or bad art exercised by critics both amateur and professional—are dead or, worse, irrelevant. Only fools think otherwise. Hirst has won.

Not so fast, I say. Travel back in that time machine to the nineteenth century, step outside, and listen for the names of the art stars. Listen hard for Manet, Cezanne, or any of the other usual suspects rounded up for blockbuster exhibitions today. Hear names such as Ernest Meissonier and Hans Makart and wonder who they are. Then take solace in the idea that there have always been art stars hogging the limelight, just as there have always been greater figures lingering in the shadows, biding their time. For every Hirst or Koons ruling the Earth today, take comfort in the knowledge of a Marina Abramović who will eventually eclipse them. Perhaps not today, but someday. Taste is not for fools. Taste is for dreamers who are realistic enough to believe that talent will rise to the top and that time, and not record prices, will render the proper judgment.

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less