In April, Tate Modern opens a Damien Hirst show that will be on display all the way through theOlympics, as London holds the attention of the world. It’s a survey, with work from all stages of Hirst’s career, so old friends like the pickled shark will be sure tojostle with the spot paintings and butterfly paintings that have become so ubiquitous in contemporary art galleries and salerooms.
In one sense, Hirst is an obvious choice to be the poster child of British art at the Tate. As thedirector, Sir Nicholas Serota, must in his heart ofhearts know, he’s a bad choice too: unimaginative andof limited artistic interest. The Tate is heavilysubsidised by you and me so that it can beoriginal and brave and not resort to this sort of safe-betconsumerism. The Olympics could have presented an extraordinary opportunity to showcase less well-known artists. So what was Serota thinking?
Well, one answer might be that the Tate owes Hirst. When Serota put out a call for contemporary artists to give work in 2007, he responded with a significant donation. More pertinently, there is Hirst’s status as our established art rebel: he elbowed his way into the position in the late 1980s and has kept it ever since. His brash consumerism stood well alongside theeconomic bubble. And unlike the bubble, his prices have remained inflated. Demand for his spot paintings is almost as strong as ever, despite tepid reviews for the recent exhibition of them across five of the Gagosian galleries around the world.
Sucking up to billionaires like Ukrainian Victor Pinchuk, for whom Hirst is mentoring young artists, works. But in truth everything even nearly interesting that Hirst has done was close to the beginning of his career — the rest has been a mix of tedious repetition and outstanding marketing. On occasion, he has stuck his neck out. In marketing terms, he did it with dazzling success at his 2008 sale at Sotheby’s, an orgy ofcommercialism perfectly in tune with the work. With his art, he did it at the Wallace Collection where, in dubious circumstances (the Wallace is reported to have been paid to put on the show), he showed paintings of such obscurity and tedium that they were pretty much universally decried. It’s been rumoured that he may have even painted some of them.
These paintings will reportedly not be shown in the Tate survey, which is a blessing for visitors, although it does call into question what a survey is supposed to achieve. What will be included is Hirst’s famous skull, the centrepiece of his White Cube exhibition in 2007 and alleged by his former friend John LeKay to be part-copied from the jewel-encrusted skulls he claims to have made years before. I queued up to see the skull in White Cube’s gallery in Mason’s Yard as it twinkled away with its improbable price tag of £50 million that garnered breathless headlines around the world. The skull’s aura led to the sale of well over 100 million pounds worth of his other work.
Like everyone else I gasped to hear that the skull had been bought, although it transpired that the sale was an illusion, the buyers being Hirst and hisrepresentatives. It seemed and seems odd that thisdeft piece of manoeuvring, artificially inflating his golden reputation, was legal — but with Hirst, it isoften the things going on in the background that are the most fascinating.
So you can forgive me for thinking that only the second major show of a British artist at Tate Modern is not quite the dazzling showboat you might expect during the Olympics. I agree with the legendaryLondon art dealer Danny Katz, who finds Hirst ‘vacuous’ and suggests that if you want to see real art, you should make your way to the National Portrait Gallery and see its Lucian Freud show.
It makes me wonder whether the Tate and Sir Nicholas Serota have made a mistake. Sir Nicholas, Tate director since 1988, is a busy man with a finger in many pies. Recently he has been on the board of the Cultural Olympiad, which has reportedly spent some £94 million and yet has communicated itsaims to almost nobody. He was also influential in the selection of Anish Kapoor’s design for thecontroversial ArcelorMittal tower.
Tate Modern, however, has been his crowningachievement, and his current grand project is amassive expansion of the gallery. This may seem alittle surprising since it is barely ten years old, but it is very much of a piece with his ambition — anddoubtless the new space and its contents willcompensate for the diminishment of the profile of Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station.
It must be hard when you spend decades dealing with funding bodies and attempting to raise the enthusiasm of billionaires not to become just a bit affected, for one’s taste not to respond to the tastes of the rich. To me, that’s what the prospect of a Hirst show feels like: not at all rebellious, in the way Hirst once was, but institutional, predictable and dull. A Hirst show must make it easier to deal with the hedge-fund managers and oil and gas tycoons, whose houses are crammed with Hirsts, and without whom there may be no expansion. It’s easy to see how an empire-builder might get into this way of thinking, and perhaps it’s another reason why directors of the Tate shouldn’t serve for epic lengths of time.
Of course, the Tate isn’t alone in having aBritish theme during the Olympics. Across the river, the V&A will be showcasing the best in postwar and contemporary British design. The British Museum will be celebrating the Olympics with a blockbusterexhibition called ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’. And the National Portrait Gallery is showing portraits of the Queen, which is right and proper in this jubilee year and will hopefully appeal to our international visitors, even if it is a little unexciting.
It feels terribly conservative to be so pleased to have Shakespeare and the Queen mitigating the brash and dumb message being put out by a Damien Hirst show. But what I really wish is that we had the Lucian Freud exhibition showing at the Tate Modern for the Olympic crowds, putting our best foot forward with an artist whose work is rich in the humanity that Shakespeare’s plays reek of.
Damien Hirst 4 April – 9 September 2012,Tate Modern
‘Lullaby Spring’Sold to a private bidder at a Sotheby’s auction in 2007
‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’Sold to Steven A. Cohen by Charles Saatchi in 2004
‘For the Love of God’Sold to an investment group in 2007. Hirst retained part-ownership
‘The Golden Calf’Sold to a private client at a Sotheby’s sale in 2008 that earned Hirst over £111m in total
WHAT TO SEE INSTEAD
V & A
‘Even To Spark Out Now Would Be No Pain’, a poster by John Maybury (1986)
British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, 31 March – 12 August
NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
The Queen in ‘The Lightness of Being’ by Chris Levine (2007)
The Queen: Art and Image 17 May – 21 October
Engraved portrait of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout (1663)
Shakespeare: Staging the World 19 July – 25 November