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Damien Hirst: once a pickler of sharks, now associated with large wads of cash. Photograph: PR

The campaign against arts cuts is gearing up, and the techniques are tried and trusted ones. If you want to get a high-profile message across, sign up some celebrity artists. That accounts for the starry cast, including Damien Hirst, that has joined a campaign against coalition attacks on arts funding.

There is, however, trouble ahead. A poll by the organisers of the Threadneedle prize, which was reported by the BBC, found that two-thirds of its sample “agree with arts funding change”; only 16% of those questioned believed the public should be the main funder of visual art. A fifth felt visual art should get no state funds at all, while 66% said the majority of visual art funding should come from corporate sponsorship and private donations.


Jonathan Jones


Getty Images

A few quick questions. 1. Are these new paintings, painted by Damien Hirst himself, any good? No, not at all, they are not worth looking at. 2. So why are you writing about them at such length? Because he is very famous. 3. And why has the Wallace Collection decided to exhibit them? Because he is very famous. 4. And why did Damien Hirst even paint them in the first place? Because he is very famous.

Now let me put this at more length. Damien Hirst has painted some paintings, entirely by hand. So far he has made his name with other kinds of art: with assemblages, mainly involving dead animals and pills, and paintings, painted by other people. There have been the spot paintings, the spin paintings, paintings copied from photographs, all done by assistants. But now he has risked his fame, with some paintings done by his own hand.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s an extra attraction in where these paintings are being shown., The Wallace Collection is a distinguished, old-fashioned venue, and chosen precisely as a traditionalist setting, to stress the way these new paintings have a place in the great tradition. As the artist has said himself, he feels they are “deeply connected to the past.” For the public, it’s intriguing. If you were expecting some outrage from the master of Brit Art shock, expect again.

Here they are, then, looking like history. In a long chamber, just off the Wallace’s main gallery of masterpieces, they hang on walls of sumptuous silk, and held in heavy old-master frames. There are 25 pictures, including two triptychs. Their collective title is No Love Lost, Blue Paintings. And they don’t look back that far. As you’d expect, they are most reminiscent of paintings by Hirst’s hero, Francis Bacon.


The Independent

Damien Hirst

Is the art world’s new mandate “Don’t Trust Anyone Under 50”? For collectors used to buying work by artists younger than the wines they’d serve, this week’s auctions offer slim pickings. Hardly any of the artists in the big evening sales of contemporary art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s were born after 1959. Instead, the big auctioneers (and some dealers) are packing this week with work by people (Calder, Cornell, Hofmann) right out of an art-history textbook.

Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s gavel-wielding chief of contemporary art, says, “It is no accident that we focused on artists with longer careers” in choosing the lots this time. (Only six were born after 1959.) “We asked ourselves, ‘What artists haven’t been hyped up too much, haven’t had auction records?’ ” If significant works by some younger artists like Matthew Barney (age 42) or John Currin (46) had come up for sale, Sotheby’s would have taken them “in a second,” he says—but they didn’t. (That said, Sotheby’s slate, featuring a 1988 Kippenberger, is still “groovy,” he adds.)

Top dealers like PaceWildenstein and David Zwirner are going old school, too, showing Alex Katz and Alice Neel as collectors stream into town. Even Phillips de Pury, known for its support of young hot artists, has an auction featuring Baldessari, Judd, and Guston. The house had six Damien Hirsts in its evening sale last May, but none this time. Also MIA: Tom Friedman, Mark Bradford, and Hernan Bas. The downturn has doused collectors and dealers’ willingness to experiment, says private dealer Paul Quatrochi, who’s put his own holdings on the block recently, unsuccessfully.

Something much more subtle than a classic boom-bust cycle is going on. The art world is punishing the overly prolific, those artists who responded (in retrospect, perhaps too hastily) to stiff demand by upping supply. “There’s a winnowing,” says critic Charlie Finch. Who was especially productive before the recession hit? Murakami and Hirst, still both under 50, get singled out by critics, as do Cecily Brown, Dana Schutz, and a host of contemporary Chinese artists. Artists whose work is plentiful or sells in editions—including many photographers—are now seeing softer numbers than those for painters like John Currin. While veterans like Cy Twombly and Bruce Nauman continued to work at the same pace, others did more work to meet the needs of galleries that had satellites or partners all over the world.

“Some artists participated in the boom by ramping up production. They set up studio factories, trying to be ‘Little Warhols’ and believing they had surpassed Warhol. But they were not better than Warhol,” says collector Ranbir Singh, who owns several Warhols, plus works by Louise Bourgeois and Currin’s Bea Arthur Naked. Now “the auction houses are underrepresenting all younger artists.” Meyer counters that there’s no age discrimination, they’re just missing works by some prolific artists who were heavily traded by speculators during the boom. “For an artist to become a commodity, he has to produce a lot of work, similar works of similar value,” so that they can “become currency.” With the market softer this season, the works for sale “don’t have a speculative element.”

Alexandra Peers
New York Magazine

Animal figure in carved limestone found in the Judean desert and dated at 10,500-8,300 bce. From the Natufian culture which ranged from Southern Turkey to Sinai.

Why do humans make art? It can be lovely. It can be stimulating. It absorbs some of the finest minds in any society. It can change hands for ridiculous sums of money. And dizzying edifices of commentary have been built around it since the time of the Greeks. But all those aspects of art beg a fundamental question: why do we do it?

In his new book, The Art Instinct, Dennis Dutton looks to the man of the moment, Charles Darwin, for an answer.

Dutton suggests that because all humans make art, and people from many different cultures appreciate similar subjects in art, art is an evolutionary adaptation, helping humans survive as individuals and as a species. Eventually, over the millennia, art-making traits have been absorbed into the repertoire of human instinct.

“Show me something pleasurable and I’ll show you something which is very likely associated with Pleistocene adaptation,” Dutton says in conversation about the book…

His opinions of art are full of surprises. He is scathing of “postmodern” art which, descending to irony and kitsch, tells us nothing about ourselves and ignores our hankering for the sublime. Then he writes of the modernists with admiration: even Malevich, the Soviet suprematist, whose famous black square must be as far from Pleistocene tastes as one could imagine, and Duchamp’s “ready-mades”, including Fountain, the infamous urinal, which he can parse at length.

“I have an answer to that!” he says when asked why some people get so het up when faced with art they don’t like.

“When you see that reaction from the conservative, from the naive, or people on the street who say ‘That’s not a work of art’, they are harking back to the older sense of art as an honorific,” he says. “Those of us who are deeply into the art world stop making these kinds of assessments.

“But who knows? Maybe the guy in the street has a point, too. If art is a display of skill, if it is designed to reveal some kind of human spirit, then of course we might feel there is something missing in Jeff Koons’s jokes, or Damien Hirst’s pickled sharks.”

Dutton draws a clear distinction between kitsch and great art. His discussion of them in the book is more nuanced than his explorations of neo-Darwinianism — and a long way from the preferences of the Pleistocene.

“Much the greatest art of human history comes not as an expression of religion, or even of individuality, but of a human mind trying to overcome a technical problem,” he says. “The foremost example of this is Beethoven, who flourished as a composer just at the time when tonality was breaking up and romanticism was opening. He could produce these incredible quartets, these phenomenal symphonies, because he was obsessed by the problems of his craft and his art.”

The Australian

Damien Hirst

If you think you’re the next big thing, forget it. You’re nothing. So said the tutors of the Royal College of Art to their fine art and sculpture master’s students in 1991. Gavin Turk, then a student, now a highly acclaimed British artist, remembers it well. “‘Britain has had David Hockney; we aren’t bothered by you,’ they told us. They were incredibly patronising and we were a bit depressed after that,” he says.

Little over a year later, Turk had his work snapped up by millionaire art collector and talent-spotter Charles Saatchi – despite being refused a master’s for leaving only a heritage plaque to commemorate his work at his all-important final show.

Today, Turk and some of his fellow artists accuse art colleges of doing just the opposite to dampening students’ ambitions. Art colleges are behaving irresponsibly, they say, by raising students’ expectations that they will “hit the big time”. This is particularly unfair as the country enters a recession and the art market shrinks, they argue.

“It is possible for a gallerist or someone in the art world to come to a degree show, enjoy a student’s work and for the student to find themselves in quite a professional form of art soon afterwards,” says Turk.

But the economic climate has changed since his and Damien Hirst’s days at the start of the 90s, when Britain was experiencing an art boom.

“When art students come out of college now, they aren’t going to be in that climate,” Turk says. “The recession will make things even more difficult for them. Let’s try to keep their feet on the ground. If we build their expectations, they aren’t going to be able to square it with reality when they come out of college.”

But colleges are building up expectations, according to Naomi Pearce, 23, who graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2007 with a textiles degree.

“Most students know that it won’t be easy, but art colleges ignore the fact that you are going to be poor and might not have your work picked up,” she says. “They use their famous alumni in the prospectus. I do feel my expectations were unfairly raised.”

When there was no interest in Pearce’s work after her final-year show, she “wondered what on earth to do” and “felt the art world was completely out of my grasp”. She came up with the idea of curating recent graduates’ work with fellow Goldsmiths textiles graduate Gavin Ramsey, who was in the same position.

The pair now tour the country’s art college degree shows and pick some of their favourites to display for art-lovers. Their partnership – Pearce and Ramsey – takes a small commission from the work sold.

“No one ever told me that I was going to be the next big thing at art college,” she says. “But you hope it will happen. All you hear about are the big shots.”

The “big shots” tend to agree with her – or go even further. British artist Patrick Hughes says art schools are “extremely indulgent with their students”.

“The colleges treat students as if they were little geniuses,” says the former lecturer at Bradford, Leeds, Chelsea and Wolverhampton schools of art. “The art teachers walk around and say to their students: ‘Oh, you are interested in pigs, are you?’. That’s OK up to the age of 15, but past 18 it’s a bit indulgent.”

British artist Fiona MacDonald says London art schools have a “hot-house element” and treat their students as an “elite” for getting on to their courses at all. “It’s as if they are saying, ‘You are now here and are going to have a career paved with gold’,” the Chelsea school of art graduate says.

Some recent graduates have indeed fast-tracked to success. Boo Ritson, for example, graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2005 and had her first solo show two years later.

Pearce and MacDonald were among those who spoke out on this topic at the Crunch Art at Hay Festival last November. “A decade ago, you had a longer-term view of things. You’d work up to your first solo show five to 10 years after you graduated,” MacDonald says.

She doesn’t wholly blame the art colleges or their students.

“It’s our reality TV society that makes us think we can go from pauper to princess,” she says. “There’s more chatter about who sold what to whom than there used to be. That atmosphere has pervaded the art world in general.”

Artist Adam Dant agrees. “The media covers the financial aspects of the art world much more than it used to,” he says. It follows that “more people are attracted to art college because of the perceived financial gain and celebrity success”.

He remembers being given unrealistic expectations himself back in 1992, as a student at the Royal College of Art. “A woman who came to talk to us started her sentence ‘when you earn between £50,000 and £60,000 a year…’ I only know two or three people who earn a living as fine artists, including myself,” he says.

British artist Brad Lochore says there is a “ghastly celebrity culture in the art world” and artists in their 20s are “tempered by it”. He gave up teaching in art colleges in 2001.

He blames the massive growth in the number of art students. To reduce unreasonable expectations, colleges “should reduce the number of students and it should be harder to get in”, he says.

Art colleges have expanded at an even greater pace than universities in the last decade. Between 1998-99 and 2006-07, the number of art students at undergraduate level in the UK rose by 23.6%, compared with 20.6% across all subjects.

But the colleges say they have made up for this with extra tutors and resources. They provide business courses – in how to publicise a gallery, for example – so that students have other skills.

The rector of the Royal College of Art, Sir Christopher Frayling, refutes the criticism of the artists and graduates. “A lot of high-profile artists tend to badmouth art schools because they think it diminishes them as geniuses to admit they ever learned anything,” he says. “They think they jumped Minerva-like to stardom.”

Frayling says this portrait of art colleges might have been true a decade ago, in the heyday of British art, but isn’t true now. “We encourage them to build a career slowly,” he says. “We really try to train them not to be dazzled by the celebrity culture.”

The art world is a lottery, he says, and yet 93% of graduates are in work related to their degree subject within two years of leaving his college. “If we were to dangle the carrot of gallery success in front of our students, it would be immoral. But we aren’t.”

Richard Noble, head of the art department at Goldsmiths, says the artists’ criticisms are “an absurd caricature”. “The idea that we promote a celebrity-driven notion of the art world is simply wrong and does a disservice to the seriousness of our students,” he says. “Students are required from their first year to have their own practice and to develop it through a sustained critical engagement with tutors and fellow students.

“Celebrity, if it figures at all in any of this, only does so as a subject for critical engagement. Of course we try to help our students make the transition into the professional art world by inviting artists, gallerists and career counsellors to speak to them in the summer terms. But we would never suggest that visual art is a means to either celebrity or riches.

“The written and verbal skills they acquire with us, as well as their understanding of the visual, prepares them better than many traditional humanities and social science disciplines for work in the 21st-century economy.”

Professor Karen Forbes, head of the school of drawing and painting at Edinburgh College of Art, says the first priority for her college is to help students develop to a point where they will be able to sustain their work “even in complex circumstances”.

These circumstances may be just around the corner. Artist Jane Simpson says she can predict that the “DIY attitude” she had when she left college in the late 80s may be about to return. “Then, we created our own opportunities and couldn’t rely on a dealer to flog our work at an art fair,” Simpson says.

If so, students about to graduate should perhaps be taking Pearce and Ramsey as examples, rather than Damien Hirst.

Jessica Shepherd
The Guardian

I came across a great rant about the art market the other day. It’s by Damien Hirst and it appears in the catalogue of the exhibition In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, held at Tate Britain in 2004.

Hirst’s relations with dealers, money and the Golden Calf in general have been big news this autumn, what with his sidestepping his dealers, Jay Jopling and Larry Gagosian, to auction his latest works directly at Sotheby’s. And the future of the big, beautiful art market is now of course as dubious as every other economic fact. So I can’t resist introducing Hirst as guest blogger today. His remarks made in 2004 surely reveal a lot about his real feelings about White Cube and Gagosian.

Here’s a highlight: ” … Art is about life and the art world is about money although the buyers and sellers, the movers and shakers, the money men will tell you anything to not have you realise their real motive is cash, because if you realise – that they would sell your granny to Nigerian sex slave traders for 50 pence (10 bob) and a packet of woodbines – then you’re not going to believe the other shit coming out of their mouths that’s trying to get you to buy the garish shit they’ve got hanging on the wall in their posh shops … Most of the time they are all selling shit to fools, and it’s getting worse.”

So there you have it – the last word on the art market from the man who deconstructed it and made millions into the bargain.

Jonathan Jones

‘A pirate’ … Damien Hirst at Sotheby’s to promote Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. Photograph: Felix Clay

By now, with the enormous hype that has been spun around it, there probably isn’t an earthworm between John O’Groats and Land’s End that hasn’t heard about the auction of Damien Hirst’s work at Sotheby’s on Monday and Tuesday – the special character of the event being that the artist is offering the work directly for sale, not through a dealer. This, of course, is persiflage. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are now scarcely distinguishable from private dealers anyway: they in effect manage and represent living artists, and the Hirst auction is merely another step in cutting gallery dealers out of the loop.

If there is anything special about this event, it lies in the extreme disproportion between Hirst’s expected prices and his actual talent. Hirst is basically a pirate, and his skill is shown by the way in which he has managed to bluff so many art-related people, from museum personnel such as Tate’s Nicholas Serota to billionaires in the New York real-estate trade, into giving credence to his originality and the importance of his “ideas”. This skill at manipulation is his real success as an artist. He has manoeuvred himself into the sweet spot where wannabe collectors, no matter how dumb (indeed, the dumber the better), feel somehow ignorable without a Hirst or two.

Actually, the presence of a Hirst in a collection is a sure sign of dullness of taste. What serious person could want those collages of dead butterflies, which are nothing more than replays of Victorian decor? What is there to those empty spin paintings, enlarged versions of the pseudo-art made in funfairs? Who can look for long at his silly sub-Bridget Riley spot paintings, or at the pointless imitations of drug bottles on pharmacy shelves? No wonder so many business big-shots go for Hirst: his work is both simple-minded and sensationalist, just the ticket for newbie collectors who are, to put it mildly, connoisseurship-challenged and resonance-free. Where you see Hirsts you will also see Jeff Koons’s balloons, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s stoned scribbles, Richard Prince’s feeble jokes and pin-ups of nurses and, inevitably, scads of really bad, really late Warhols. Such works of art are bound to hang out together, a uniform message from our fin-de-siècle decadence.

Hirst’s fatuous religious references don’t hurt either. “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, the sale is titled. One might as well be in Forest Lawn, contemplating a loved one – which, in effect, Hirst’s embalmed dumb friends are, bisected though they may be. Consider the Golden Calf in this auction, pickled, with a gold disc on its head and its hoofs made of real gold. For these bozos, gold is religion, Volpone-style. “Good morning to the day; and next, my gold! Open the shrine, that I may see my saint!”

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.

Of course, $12m would be nothing to Cohen, but the thought of paying that price for a rotten fish is an outright obscenity. And there are plenty more where it came from. For future customers, Hirst has a number of smaller sharks waiting in large refrigerators, and one of them is currently on show in its tank of formalin in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Inert, wretched and wrinkled, and already leaking the telltale juices of its decay, it is a dismal trophy of – what? Nothing beyond the fatuity of art-world greed. The Met should be ashamed. If this is the way America’s greatest museum brings itself into line with late modernist decadence, then heaven help it, for the god Neptune will not.

The now famous diamond-encrusted skull, lately unveiled to a gawping art world amid deluges of hype, is a letdown unless you believe the unverifiable claims about its cash value, and are mesmerised by mere bling of rather secondary quality; as a spectacle of transformation and terror, the sugar skulls sold on any Mexican street corner on the Day of the Dead are 10 times as vivid and, as a bonus, raise real issues about death and its relation to religious belief in a way that is genuinely democratic, not just a vicarious spectacle for money groupies such as Hirst and his admirers.

It certainly suggests where Hirst’s own cranium is that his latest trick with the skull is to show photos of the thing in London’s White Cube gallery, just ordinary photo reproductions made into 100cm x 75cm silkscreen prints and then sprinkled (yay, Tinkerbell, go for it!) with diamond dust, and to charge an outrageous $10,000 each for them. The edition size is 250. You do the maths. But, given the tastes of the collectoriat, he may well get away with this – in the short run. Even if his auction makes the expected tonne of money, it will bid fair to be one of the less interesting cultural events of 2008.

Robert Hughes
The Guardian

Damien Hirst

British artist Damien Hirst has hit back at condemnation from Australian art critic Robert Hughes by likening his business approach to that of greats Rembrandt, Velasquez and Goya.

Speaking yesterday at auction house Sotheby’s, which will offer 223 new works by the artist for sale next week, Hirst defended himself against Hughes’ criticism that he was “functioning like a commercial brand”.

“Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya, I think they were all thinking about the commercial aspects of art,” Hirst said.

“I believe I’m only doing what any of these artists would be doing if they were alive.”

But Hirst also said he put art first and money was secondary.

Hughes has branded Hirst’s works – which include a diamond encrusted human skull which recently sold for £50 million ($108.4 million) – as “tacky” and “absurd” in a new TV documentary in Britain.

The Australian described Hirst’s acclaimed shark in formaldehyde is the “world’s most over-rated marine organism” despite it having sold for £8 million ($17.34 million) four years ago.

“It is a clever piece of marketing but as a piece of art it is absurd,” Hughes says in the documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse, which is to be screened on Channel 4 on September 21.

But Hirst dismissed the criticism as “Luddite”.

“I wouldn’t expect anything less from Robert Hughes,” Hirst said.

“He probably cried when Queen Victoria died.”

The Sotheby’s auction, which expected to raise £65 million ($140.35 million), is seen as a ground-breaking departure from the tradition of leading artists selling works through galleries and dealers.

Sydney Morning Herald

Art critic Robert Hughes

Damien Hirst’s works are “absurd” and “tacky commodities”, according to Robert Hughes, a prominent Australian art critic.

The critic said commercial pieces with large price tags mean “art as spectacle loses its meaning” and identified the British artist’s work as a cause of that loss. Hughes says it is “a little miracle” Hirst’s 35ft statue Virgin Mother, could be worth £5 million and yet be made by someone “with so little facility.”

He calls Hirst’s formaldehyde tiger shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a “tacky commodity”, and “the world’s most over-rated marine organism”, despite collector Charles Saatchi selling it for close to £7 million in 2004.

His criticism comes amid claims Hirst is now so rich he is a dollar billionaire, and if his empire continues at the rate it is going, he will soon be worth more than Sotheby’s, the auction house.

Hughes, 70, is famous for his 1980 BBC series The Shock of the New, which made the theories behind modernism in art accessible to a wider audience.

The latest attack was made in a Channel 4 documentary about art and money called The Mona Lisa Curse, to be shown on September 21, which details Hughes’s observations over 50 years as a New York-based art reviewer.

He says works of art now operate like film stars, starting in 1962 when Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa left The Louvre in Paris to go on display in New York, the long queues turning the masterpiece into a mere spectacle.

It is not the first time Hughes has made public his contempt for Hirst’s art. Making a speech four years ago at the Royal Academy of Art’s annual dinner, he said: “A string of brush marks on a lace collar in a Velazquez can be as radical as a shark that an Australian caught for a couple of Englishmen some years ago and is now murkily disintegrating in its tank on the other side of the Thames.”