The Minimal Cost of Artistic Failure

The Minimal Cost of Artistic Failure

Arts May 31, 2012 / By Mark Sheerin
The Minimal Cost of Artistic Failure

Damien Hirst's latest show of paintings has provoked an outcry from some quarters. But even if his technical abilities are said to falter, Hirst has done a service to painting. Could it the real issue be the YBA's disregard for critical opinion?

Depsite what you may have recently heard, Damien Hirst is perhaps painting’s greatest living servant, for now. The artist better known for breathtaking installations has just reminded London gallery goers how bloody difficult it is to paint.

His current show at the immense new White Cube space in Bermondsey has taken a hammering in the UK press. In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones called Hirst “a tyrant lost in a world of mirrors.” Charles Darwent in the Independent said it was impossible to even pretend to like the show. Although Fisun Guner in the Metro did like the horrific “Grand Guignol spectacle of someone getting it so wrong.“

But as far as I’m aware no one has died as a result of this show. And unlike surgeons, prime ministers and air traffic controllers, artists should be allowed to fail. And it could be argued, along with Beckett, that artists always do fail. To describe an exhibition otherwise, as a triumph, may be viewed as cultural hubris. Not even the greatest triumph in 20th century painting, let’s say Guernica, ever saved a life. The Bush administration simply hid it with a curtain when at the UN they briefed the world’s press on Iraq.

At this point I should admit, I haven’t yet seen the no less controversial Two Weeks, One Summer, but I was lucky enough to catch Hirst’s first painting show at the Wallace Collection in 2009. Since then it seems, the YBA has brightened up his pallette, replaced a few of the skulls with a smattering of parrots, swapped ashtrays for blossom, oranges for lemons. He appears to be enjoying himself. Should we really be so annoyed by that.

What’s more, the paintings should not be seen as a complete departure from Hirst’s previous work. His trademark vitrines are all still here, albeit as scratchy white lines which insist upon a pictorial depth that his various attempts at flora and fauna cannot deliver on their own. Another conceptual quirk is the dark blue background which has become a new trademark. With some of the brighter colours in the current show, this appears to be working to attractive effect.

Of course, it is wildly unjust that so many lesser known painters have been toiling away at their craft for years without any interest from either blue chip galleries or historic collections. Hirst’s work will sell on the strength of his name alone. Ever since the Sotherby’s auction in which he sold his work direct to the ‘public‘, this is an artist who has managed to bypass the vagaries of critical and curatorial favour. If his Wallace show is anything to go by, the audience may buy the work on White Cube no matter what the press say. The market is now above any matters of opinion.

And that surely is what has provoked such an outcry from hostile critics. Perhaps what Hirst’s return to traditional painting represents more than anything else is the obsolescence of traditional voices vis-à-vis the art on the wall. Money is talking now and it is no wonder less-well heeled scribes don’t like it. This is really what is so impossible to like. But as for the paintings themselves, perhaps we should go easy on them. There are worse and less useful things than artistic failure. There is, for example, guaranteed commercial success. But as a byproduct of all this, Hirst has demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that painting still matters, however it turns out.

Two Weeks One Summer is on at White Cube Bermondsey until July 8 2012

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