Damien Hirst’s Tate retrospective has opened and the reviews have been far from adulatory, which will no doubt please the curator-turned-critic Julian Spalding. To coincide with the momentous event, he’s released Con Art: Why You Should Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can, a bitter screed that targets not just Hirst or his YBA chums, but the whole notion of conceptual art, going back as far as Duchamp. In Spalding’s eyes, the problem with Damien and Marcel (along with Emin and the Chapmans, Andy Warhol and Piero Manzoni) is not simply that they make bad art: they don’t make art at all.
And this is where Spalding falls down. It’s easy to say why an artist is bad, but to do this you have to show why another artist is good. And here Spalding gets terribly bogged down. “Real art is always positive,” he bleats, which would disqualify plenty of the darker moments of Goya or Caravaggio. “Real art always has a face.” Eh? Maybe Spalding could have done with an editor. Con(ceptual) art is dismissed with reference to the Emperor’s New Clothes, an analogy that was tired the first time he made it, positively moribund when it comes round a fourth time. Con art is also allowed “to romp its rainbow rump across the public stage.” Henri Cartier-Bresson is described as waiting for a perfect shot “like an agitated Buddhist”. Maybe Spalding has a point that the YBA’s have sacrificed technique for meaning, but as a writer, he shows evidence of neither.
So furious is he with the whole notion of conceptualism that he fails to acknowledge those moments when it succeeds on its own terms, like a football fan denying the brilliance of a goal because it was scored by a team he loathes. Spalding caws over the fact that the Fountain urinal was almost certainly the brainchild of Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, rather than of Duchamp; and that nobody really knows whether Manzoni’s tin cans actually contain his (or anyone’s) Scheisse. But such toying with notions of attribution and description is part and parcel of Dada and the scepticism it passed on to its successors. Spalding may not share the attitude, but he can’t accuse Duchamp and Manzoni of bad faith.
But still it comes back to that key question: if Hirst and Warhol are bad, what’s good? Michelangelo and Van Gogh get a nod, as do more recent artists, such as Lowry and Hockney. Beryl Cook is described as “genuinely original”. But since one of Spalding’s main charges against the Hirst & Co is their contempt for the ordinary art lover, he has very little to say about popular/populist painters working today. What of Jack Vettriano or Thomas Kinkade (RIP)? How about Rolf Harris? They’re pretty positive, aren’t they? Should Saatchi dump his Hirsts and instead invest in something that might appeal to Sun readers? Or is that just too much positivity?
A more focused analysis of the post-Sensation art market, perhaps with some historical context about artistic crazes of the past that later proved to be bubbles, would have been valuable, and Spalding clearly has the knowledge and experience to come up with something like that. Instead, in a very short e-book, he lashes out at everything he dislikes, seeming bitter, petulant and – for someone who lauds positivity so much – utterly, despondently negative.