Saturday, April 07, 2012

Julian Spalding: exactly what it says on the tin

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.


Annie said...

He dismisses Warhol along with Hirst but at least Andy Warhol could draw. He was a graphic designer before he became an artist artist,in the days before CAD.
I like Duchamp but he opened the way for many talentless bores.
The thing I object to really with Damien Hirst is that the actual art is so bloody tedious. Someone invited me to the private view but you don't really need to go and look at it.

Chocolate is not the only fruit said...

I've only seen Hirst's work at Tate Modern - pharmacy, v dull, nothing original or artistic about it - and just don't 'get' him. I always put it down to my inability to appreciate the art as it did appear entirely Emporor's New Clothes to me.

I think this critic lark is right up my street - I can slag stuff off for a living. Where do I sign up Spalding ?

Tim F said...

That's a good point, Annie. I went to Sensation, but I have no particular memory of anything of Hirst's there. I know the sheep was in it, but I don't recall it. Whereas Marcus Harvey's Myra picture was utterly jaw-dropping, far more impressive than any reproduction.

The New Clothes analogy is perfectly sound, Swazi, but it palls a bit the second or third time. Which is what Spalding does, and then some.

Eric G. C.Weets said...

Real art and Artist's challenge

You can make art with everything but if you be honest and correct then you will know that the first 500 works cannot be good because you are not yet there, where your personality is. You make up a piece from what you have seen, from what you have learnt. You have to go further on and on till you are fed up with what you have seen and what you have learnt. You have to go on till you find that box and take out from there that is something complete unique and about which you can say, this is me. It’s a learning process and to reach there, it takes years and mountain of patience.

Second thing to be aware of is - you have to have that uniqueness in you. There is a chance that you may also find nothing and then it is quite a waste of time and the sad thing is, you don’t know it from before whether you have it or not.

Personally, I think that most artists find something they are happy with and they stay doing it because it gives them some satisfaction but satisfaction is not what it goes about. You have to acknowledge that beyond personal satisfaction, the real quest starts. That is why I said you will have to go through, most probably, a lot of depressions, lot of times not being happy with yourself, if you choose to create art.
Eric G. C. Weets, artist, thinker, story teller.