A friend of mine sent me a pic of his painting by Damien Hirst and asked me what I thought about it. That’s not a very good photo, for there’s a flash reflection in it, and I am sure the colours are distorted, but you get the idea:
It is difficult to talk about a Hirst painting in isolation, that is, abstracting myself from knowledge about Hirst’s revolutionary history.
I don’t think that Hirst is an artist anymore, that’s the problem.
If Andy Warhol was an artist who became an artist-entrepreneur, with two-thirds still remaining the artist, then Hirst was initially an artist who’s grown to become a familiar kind of businessman who borrows good ideas to mass-produce them. The key difference is that Hirst produces not cheap fakes, but expensive authenticated replicas. In marketing terms, he is a genius brand builder and salesman. He sells poster prints for £32,000, which is roughly the price of two Chagall’s lithographs. That’s no small feat. You can get a dozen limited-edition Matisse lithographs for that much too.
Unfortunately, there’s that borrowing of ideas, or plagiarizing, that is the notorious fly in the ointment.
Borrowing ideas is not good. Picasso was right saying that great artists steal ideas, while poor ones just borrow them. A borrowed idea comes back to its original owner unchanged. One can’t borrow a jacket, refit it, embroider one’s name on it, wear it, and then return it. But if an idea (or jacket) is stolen by a great artist, it gets a chance to become refitted and transformed into something new. A stolen jacket reshaped by a genius can become a better outfit than it used to be.
Occasionally, though, Hirst steals ideas. He can be quite good when he is not talking about life, death, or the meaning of existence (he’s got so dumb stuff to say peppered with so much gerund “f***ing” that it depreciates all his other achievements).
One of the ideas he honestly stole, was the concept of random painting.
To produce a spin painting, household gloss paints are randomly poured onto a spinning foundation, which can be a clean slate, a photograph, or a drawing. The operator changes rotation speed and alternates paints to arrive at a great variety in the resulting work. Some parts of it can then be cut out and plastered on canvas or carton.
Damien Hirst then baptises each painting with a fancy name, though I suspect nowadays a smart assistant may be performing this ritual as well.
This randomly painted circle bears the title of “Beautiful, amore, gasp, eyes going into the top of the head and fluttering painting”.
It is a cheerful piece of design furniture that can liven up a gray wall. I can’t imagine why I or you can’t produce it ourselves. Not exactly this piece but something similar, with colours attuned to our individual liking, though.
I’d happily receive it as a gift, but I won’t ever pay for it a price higher than the sum of the cost of paint, labour, depreciation of machinery used, overheads, and VAT.
And, of course, I understand perfectly well that Hirst’s signature adds a kilo-tonne of value, but I can do without it. I can also do without the title, thank you very much.
The idea of chance artworks, made without an artist’s conscious effort was an old idea at the time Hirst started experimenting with “random painting”.
It was first explored by Dadaists in the 1920s.
Jean Arp was randomly pouring coloured squares down onto a canvas, gluing them down exactly where they came to rest.
Andre Masson, a few years after Arp, was throwing sand and glue onto canvas and making oil paintings based around the shapes that formed.
My beloved Max Ernst was putting different objects (leaves, stones, tree bark, etc.) underneath canvas or paper, which he would then “shade” without a preconceived purpose in mind into a “painting” or drawing that he would name by a clever line of a title after completion:
These artists saw randomness as a manifestation of the subconscious or some mystic Universal Power, but were fast to abandon this idea because either nothing got manifested or they realised the observers were interested in their own subconscious, not that of a half-mad artist.
Hirst took this idea to a new high. There’s an element of control (because rotation speed and colour are controlled) but the paint distributes seemingly randomly and the artist’s hands never touch the painting. So, a spin painting is both controlled and uncontrolled. This is philosophically cute, especially if the series is limited.
When it runs into hundreds of copies, the joke stops being funny and artworks become souvenirs.
Now, back to my friend’s painting.
it is good it is not a typical spin work, but a mixture of a realistic image, which had been spinned, and then cut out. It goes further then the simple “controlled and uncontrolled” work of art towards “produced by chance – created by conscious will”.
An old building, perhaps, a historic site was splashed by different colours that add life, colour, and drama (via the clash of conflicting colours) to a place that otherwise would be a cemetery of past history.
Now, a place that was about the past becomes a place that also is about the future.
I like this idea. It reflects my view of history in general. History is about the past as long as you don’t know how to breathe life into it by linking it to the present. As the link to the present is secured, it begins telling you something about the future.
Given that the owner is Italian, he simply must love it. No other country has succeeded so much in linking its past to its present than Italy in the area of visual arts. Well, until London & NY have become the capitals of design, of course. But who said that with the promiscuous friend of Putin now ousted from politics, Italy can’t rise again? Sublimation is believed to produce wonders.
My only hope is that Hirst won’t force his assistants to make hundreds of “repetitions”. I want my friend to possess a painting, not a signed souvenir.