Damien Hirst, Stupid Comments and Artistic Integrity

“What a prick.” was my first thought when I was scrolling down Facebook and came across an article in The Guardian with the headline ‘Damien Hirst: I still believe art is more powerful than money’. My second thought was more or less similar. However, what you or I think of this artist/nature thief/platinum grade taxidermist/naive child, let’s just expand on his statement a little further. Art is more powerful than money.

So what does this mean? Maybe we could fight the bankers and the government with a massive painting or perhaps all of Damien Hirsts animals in formaldehyde will come alive in a Jumanjiesque rampage to the financial district, ending the fiscal tyranny we currently suffer in a hail of paint-sprinkled claws. Maybe there could be a stare out competition between the Mona Lisa and the IMF. Perhaps someone will see one of Tracy Emins turds and think “I’ve had enough of all this poverty.”

"RUN! Get those evil bankers!! ROOOOAAAAARRRR!!!!

"RUN! Get those evil bankers!! ROOOOAAAAARRRR!!!!

Despite my jokes above about Hirst stealing the surplus value of nature, stuffing it and flicking some paint onto it, I have to admit he is an important artist. I actually really like installation art and believe art should be whatever an artist wants it to be. Hirsts art itself deals with mortality, human revulsion and nature. For me, and I think this is deliberate in Hirsts part, it’s what happens to his art once it is made and the monetary conversations and therefore social and power relations that govern it that he has allowed to become one of the main themes in his work. But then he ignores this with a silly sentence.

Basically, he’s taking the piss. Not out of us but the rich and the media. He contradicts the headline statement twice in the Guardian article, whining that “rebellion doesn’t really matter to the market.” and that it’s “hard to see the art for the dollar signs”. This sort of moaning doesn’t really add up when you consider his 2007 £50 million valued work ‘For The Love Of God’, an artefact in which it’s hard to see the platinum cast human skull for the 8,601 flawless diamonds. It’s as clear as day or a dead shark behind some glass that he pretty much knows what he’s doing. The thing is, I don’t really care in any kind of positive way because it changes precisely nothing.

"I'm going to make all the bad things go away."

"I'm going to make all the bad things go away."

I mean, how many times over could the IMF buy the Mona Lisa for the love of God? Or ‘For The Love Of God?’ for the love of God? I tried to ask them but they were too busy slapping Greece in the face. What would the Pope have said to Michaelangelo if he’d announced a new style of post-revolutionary art called constructivism and he was going to cover the Sistine Chapel ceiling with large flat abstract shapes, with the image of Adam trying to reach God replaced by a red square trying to fit into a round sky blue hole? It’s ever so slightly possible he may have been murdered. It would have been like Stalinism all over again.

More importantly, what if he’d presented Pope Julius II with the corpse of a dead pig, with half-dead flies on it congealed with yellow paint? Unfortunately, Michaelangelo wouldn’t have had post modernism on his side but he was however, in a pretty similar position to us. Despite what our slowly dying post modern culture might tell us, class society is still here containing the class antagonisms that come with it just as it was then. Without the Pope and wealthy benefactors, one of the greatest human beings in history would be unheard of and therefore, not one of the greatest human beings who ever lived.

Market-led capitalism may offer artists more popes but the fundamental relationship remains the same. The ‘working class lad made good’ Damien Hirst laughing at Sothebys or the clueless rich morons who buy his or any other fashionable artists work might raise a smirk but as a (political?) point all it betrays is an incestuous, post modern irony inverted so much it becomes myopic, obvious and staring into it’s own intestines. Kitsch as a response to a kitsch, commodity fetishist culture. Becoming richer through laughing at the rich doesn’t really work. It just makes you a richer hypocrite. All integrity is gone and the rich still win, gaining credence with peers or future profits from your work.

How can artistic integrity be maintained over time by a working class artist in a class society when their works becomes fetishized by the wealthy? Maybe the only response of that individual is to laugh at them and talk bollocks.

Material conditions stump everything. I studied art for four years yet I know more about television, film and music not only because I love the mediums but because material conditions better allowed for this than weekend trips to Florence, New York, Berlin or even London. Most of the art I’ve ‘seen’ has been on the pages of books. Let’s say I become successful and through selling art I’m able to travel to these places. It would be the commodification of the art that would allow me to do this, not the art itself. How many primitive cave painters travelled the globe because they painted some deer on a cave wall?

With me knowing more about music, I’ll talk about the Britpop band Oasis’ musical journey from their debut album ‘Definitely Maybe’ to their third album ‘Be Here Now’ . This working class band were discovered in a Glasgow club with a capacity of 200, playing songs about there being ‘nothing worth working for’ and wanting to live forever. A few success laden years later, they showcased some of their songs from ‘Be Here Now’, a cocaine bloated extravagant mess of an album at Knebworth over two nights, playing infront of 250000 people. While Sir Paul McCartney watched from the VIP stage, most fans could barely see the stage it was so far away. Art measured in rungs and metres from the top down, a crass disneyfied journey from pauper to prince, the initial basis of their art no longer able to be seen with the naked eye. Kurt Cobains suicide because of the pressure he felt to compromise started at broadly the same place as this story. Maybe he should have written an album called ‘Shark Sandwich’ instead and laughed maniacally at the record company executives who had put him where he was.

In terms of artistic integrity, the punk band Crass come to mind. April’s Word Magazine in an article about authenticity wrote about them:

“If authenticity is measured by a groups autonomy and oneness with their audience, Crass were utmost. They were self managed and ran their own label, selling in excess of a million records. Between 1977 and 1984 they played more than 350 shows, often in out of they way places. Every concert was a benefit, usually for a local cause. They roadied for themselves and never onced stayed in a hotel, sleeping instead at the venue, at followers homes, squats or in their van.”

For Crass, “when people are paid to do something, resentment finally sets in.”. Maybe the amount doesn’t matter. I suspect it does. Damien Hirst, with his £200 million, it seems, through his posturing about money and art, certainly resents something. This doesn’t change the flippancy and facetiousness of the statement (and possibly his art) that caused me to write this blog.

In answer to Hirsts assertion that art is more powerful than money, I challenge him to put the 150 plus assistants he has on a year long ‘workfare’ scheme, to show them the real incentive of working for someone who makes such powerful art. Would he? I don’t think so.

This is the overall point about the production of art in class society, or indeed being successful at creating anything that’s supposed to be beyond mere commodification. You need the correct material conditions to be successful and the right capitalist to become aware of you. Then if you are successful, it brings you into the arms and indeed the ranks of this commodifying class (this is true in all arenas of life), even if you’re laughing right into their noses in an ironic, I-love-you-really kind of way. We shouldn’t laugh right up their noses. They’re too powerful to care. We should break their noses and their system and see art flourish for it.

Is it too much too ask for a situation in which artists can create what they want without the interference of an outside influence, whether that be a rich benefactor or a powerful state/body? Despite this having been historically too much to ask up to now, I think all great art has been made despite class society and that most terrible or misguided art has been created because of it.

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