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.

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