Conceptual art gets a lot of stick, but most of the criticism comes from the standard anti-intellectual position that is suspicious of creativity and imagination in general. Stock phrases include: ‘My two year old could do better’ and ‘You can learn more from Life Experience than you can from books’ (as if anyone has ever argued otherwise).
So it’s nice to read these two pieces that give a more intelligent critique of the recent Damien Hirst auction and conceptual stuff in general.
His far-famed shark with its pretentious title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is ‘nature’ for those who have no conception of nature, in whose life nature plays no real part except as a shallow emblem, a still from Jaws. It might have had a little more point if Hirst had caught it himself. But of course he didn’t and couldn’t; the job was done by a pro fisherman in Australia, and paid for by Charles Saatchi, that untiring patron of the briefly new.
The publicity over the shark created the illusion that danger had somehow been confronted by Hirst, and come swimming into the gallery, gnashing its incisors. Having caught a few large sharks myself off Sydney, Montauk and elsewhere, and seen quite a few more over a lifetime of recreational fishing, I am underwhelmed by the blither and rubbish churned out by critics, publicists and other art-world denizens about Hirst’s fish and the existential risks it allegedly symbolises.
One might as well get excited about seeing a dead halibut on a slab in Harrods food hall. Living sharks are among the most beautiful creatures in the world, but the idea that the American hedge fund broker Steve Cohen, out of a hypnotised form of culture-snobbery, would pay an alleged $12m for a third of a tonne of shark, far gone in decay, is so risible that it beggars the imagination. As for the implied danger, it is worth remembering that the number of people recorded as killed by sharks worldwide in 2007 was exactly one. By comparison, a housefly is a ravening murderous beast. Maybe Hirst should pickle one, and throw in a magnifying glass or two.
And Nick Cohen asks: why is there so much conceptualism? It seems that every Turner Prize winner is a big-concept installation of some sort.
The rather magnificent Stuckist movement of figurative artists has a simple explanation: the art establishment in London has been dominated for too long by an in-group which favours only the conceptual art of Hirst and his colleagues.
All outsiders claim the system is rigged against them and that who you know matters more than what you do — but the Stuckists have a point. The Turner Prize nearly always goes to conceptual artists. Their friend and patron, Sir Nicholas Serota, has been in charge of the Tate for 21 years. As the Stuckist sculptor Nigel Konstam says: ‘Few dictators have lasted so long or been able to implement their policies so completely. Sir Nicholas has presided over a monoculture more complete than any other European nation.’
The annual Daily Mail wailing about sensationalism really misses the point.