The plausibility of a ‘celebrity-artist’ is met with scepticism, suspicion and/or outright disdain amongst those who guard the traditions surrounding the exclusionary world of ‘High Art’. As a construct unique to the advent of media culture, the vapid and transient nature associated with contemporary celebrity negates the high-minded notion of genius retrospectively applied to a ‘hero-artist’ such as Michelangelo or Rembrandt. (Chris Rojek’s categories are useful in illustrating this difference. While the celebrity of earlier artists was based on talent, and thus, ‘achieved celebrity’, current media-generated celebrity, or what Rojek terms ‘celetoid’, is transient and artificially generated.) For media-celebrity is an immediately accessible veneer, a stopgap in our moments of boredom, and a point of ‘other’ against which we situate our desires, not expected to provide anything more or less significant than mass-entertainment. This contradicts or otherwise undermines the anticipation that Art express the ‘profound’, possess ‘essence’ if not ‘beauty’, or be part of the politically-motivated avant-garde. The two-dimensional world of ‘media-ted culture’ (a term I use to describe the manner in which the media mediates culture, as opposed to mass culture which presupposes a top-down construction of culture denying the free-play of signs and free-will of cultural consumption), with its attribute capitalist underpinnings, complicates the depth and emancipatory potential of Art, and, by extension, appears to threaten the entire elitist infrastructure of the Artworld by association to or blending with ‘mass culture’. In addition to a general malaise fuelled by the troublesome notion of a ‘Culture Industry’, these ideological Artworld constants maintain their position in the post-postmodern Nineties as the curmudgeonly core of criticism, particularly that scripted within the realm of the ‘popular’ media, aimed at contemporary art and its celebrity occupants.
In his text Art and Celebrity, John Walker discusses the career trajectory of British-born artist Damien Hirst remarking that some critics “regard him as a frivolous clown whose showmanship robs art of its dignity” and further, “think his work has contributed to the dumbing down, coarsening and vulgarisation of British culture” (Walker 247). The relationship of the character of the artist to the form of his artworks, I will assert, is not an organic occurrence but a media-ted one. As an artist whose media-persona appeared to be driven by fame and the excesses and lifestyle it afforded, and who created work which seemed to reflect a rather disinterested, dispirited and dismissive attitude similar to that persona, Hirst finds himself in the conundrum of having become an artist whose financial success and art historical dilemma is his relationship to those self-same processes he utilized to achieve success at the start of his career. I will briefly sketch the mechanisms which led to Hirst’s definition within the purview of the popular, and follow by suggesting an art historical repositioning of his work.
Damien Hirst currently enjoys a peaceful, rural existence as the third highest-paid British artist alive today, having sky-rocketed to success in the Nineties as the ‘founder’ of the loose-knit group known as ‘young British art’. A product of the can-do attitude associated with Thatcherism and encouraged by his teachers, particularly the American-born Conceptualist Michael Craig-Martin, Hirst actively participated within the endorsement of his works and those of his London-based Goldsmith College classmates. Freeze, his first attempt at curation, has taken on mythic status in defining the group, and its professional gloss — particularly within its marketing strategy — is viewed as the precursor to an artistic disposition far more interested in fame and fortune, than form. (For a full discussion of Freeze, from a particularly Marxist perspective, see Stallabrass. His rebranding of ‘young British art’ into ‘High Art Lite’ sums up his position quite precisely. For a more light-hearted approach, see Collings.) As he progressed in his career during the early Nineties, and in conjunction with the promotional savvy of his dealer Jay Jopling, Hirst received frequent mention in specialist and popular media alike, quickly becoming known as young British art’s enfant-terrible. His lewd public behaviour, when collapsed as a single performance with his Art, was construed as a media-friendly spectacle which actively sought to attract the voyeuristic gaze of popular culture.
This ploy appeared to work. Due to the familiarity granted by extensive media coverage, his images were subsequently co-opted within a number of marketplaces, ranging from film to advertising. For the first time in Britain an unusual cultural twist placed the world of High Art, embodied within the media-ted-performance-installation piece ‘Damien Hirst’, squarely within the realm of everyday experience. The ubiquity of his forms prompted friend/author Gordon Burn to pronounce that Britain was now under the influence of “a new intangible poetry becoming part of modern life” (Burn 10), or, in other words, had entered ‘Hirstworld’.
Although the collapsing of work and artist within the realm of ‘modern life’ has art historical precedents, most obviously within the oeuvre of Andy Warhol, Hirst created a juxtaposition within his personality which largely undermined notions of what constituted the ‘Artist’. In contrast with Warhol’s eclectic ‘artsy’ public persona, Hirst presented himself as an average ‘Northern lad’: rowdy, temperamental, beer-swilling. His antics were part of the common cultural vernacular and when viewed in conjunction with the supposed media-friendly nature of his works, as Rosie Millard reflects, “Even if they hated it, people felt like they could have an opinion, because they understood what was going on” (Millard 21). Yet what did the public really understand, and how did they come to understand it?
While a higher than normal attendance at the Sensation exhibit was regarded as an indicator of the success of young British art, the vast majority of the non-specialist audience commenting on these works based their assessment and interpretation of them on the exposure granted them by the mass media. The media-tion of yBa, particularly in the flagrant reporting of the artists’ statements and antics, flattened complexities or intertextual meanings into a by-line, which was meant to capture the imagination of a new audience for contemporary art in an easily consumable form. Although specialist criticism predictably ran the gambit, popular criticism was quite often disparaging or otherwise derogatory, and almost always took a biographical approach to describing the objects. Thus, what the public appeared to ‘understand’ was related much more to the hype and celebrity surrounding the artists, particularly the main protagonist Hirst, than of any issue related to form, appreciation or the history of art. Even more detrimentally, this conflation of art with biography led to many misunderstandings related to form, particularly in the assumption of its intention as ‘shock-art’ (as in Sister Wendy’s statement – see Wroe).
An editorial letter printed in The Times points to this problem: “I am sure I am speaking for the general public when I say that these exhibits are not challenging, not clever, not funny and certainly not art” (Taylor 5; italics are mine). Outside of the media attention it garnered, young British art was as incomprehensible to its public as contemporary Art ever had been, even if the personalities of the artists and their motifs were easily recognizable. The notoriously fickle British were suspect of the equation: shark in formaldehyde = art. As Andrew Graham-Dixon notes, “They distrust the modern artist for old-fashioned puritanical reasons, being suspicious of any work of art which appears, to them, to have involved little work. They also suspect modern art of trying to fool them with a spurious jiggery-pokery” (Graham-Dixon 202). And perhaps more significantly, a class system which remained highly stratified continued to be firmly in place in the Nineties and was intensely critical regarding the allotment of government funds. (A well-documented incidence of this is the public outcry that occurred after the Tate purchased a work by Carl Andrew consisting solely of a line of firebrick.) The only thing that seemed shocking to the public was the promotion of the decadent young British artists with their spurious forms and high-fashion lifestyle. Exposure to the allegory of yBa led to the over-riding sentiment: ‘I could make that too, now give me my fame!’ (Incidences of this were rampant in the papers, i.e. members of the ‘working-class’ were shown displaying fish and chips in the gallery, other papers suggested ways to make-your-own Hirst; for one example, see Independent.)
Not only did media-ted biography influence public opinion, but it infiltrated specialist art writing as well. Creating a direct link between biography and subject, Burn conflates objects which could be read as expressing an element of alienation with Hirst’s ‘predicament’ as a celebrity figure: “Celebrity is about control and distance; it is about adding space to the space that inevitably exists between human beings and remaining apart from the flock” (Burn 10; clearly co-opting Hirst’s vitrine sculpture of a lamb caught in mid-leap Away From The Flock to highlight this sentiment.) This sort of psychoanalytical approach edges, at best, slightly out of the realm of persona and into that of the personal. Either type of reading is regarded by Julian Stallabrass as possible only because of an intentional ambiguity on the part of the artist which allows the art object to posture as Art. For instance, Hirst provides sweeping generalizations regarding his objects, often associating them to the ‘grand narratives’ of life and death, and is at times even contradictory, employing a vague multi-referentiality which Stallabrass feels heightens the sense of ‘something important going on’. (Stallabrass suggests this is accomplished by utilizing theory without either acknowledgement or political/emancipatory intent in order to provide an illusion of sophistication. Hirst thus presents ‘The Death of the Author’, an art which appears to speak to intertextuality, only to make effectual use of it.) While Stallabrass’s own critique of yBa also conflates the persona of the artist with the artworks, he feels the media-tion of the artists has worked in their favour: “…behaviour and object-making together, fosters a feeling that it must be authentic because of its intimate link with the artist’s self, no matter how sham that self may be” (Stallabrass 247). The success of yBa is, therefore, based on a mythology regarding the persona of the artist, and a misreading of works that are otherwise “[a] combination of Hammer-style schlock and high-art minimalist rigour” (Stallabrass 26).
Both of these critiques point to the central issue in an assessment of yBa (and a perennial problem for contemporary art in general): the possibilities of interpretation. In yBa in particular, interpretation has become a problem based on the conflation of the persona of the artist with their works, which I would attest is part of a larger problem regarding the confusion surrounding the relationship between the aesthetic and the spectacle, and the difficulties each term represents in popular and academic discourse alike. In the instance of Damien Hirst, the outcome of this confusion is an inability to accurately historicize the objects which comprise his oeuvre, additionally denying its aesthetic potential and dismissing the climate in which it was created. Unarguably, Hirst’s art contemplates the experience of life: as a cultural phenomenon in its contemplation of spectacular society, and as a tenuous state of embodiment, of the conditions in which we experience a state of ‘alive’. His objects (as signs or texts) provide a means to consider the dynamics in which human beings experience aesthetics, as well as providing an experience of that experience: systems which emphasize the sentient experience of phenomenology.
The significance of the legacy of Hirst’s art (and of yBa generally) has already begun to be written in relation to its interaction with the media: as “conceptual work in visually accessible and spectacular form” (Stallabrass 4). While it would be disingenuous to suggest that Hirst has not capitalized or intentionally pandered to the media attention he received, it would be equally naïve to presume that his effort is purely a charade, or a mass-manipulation. The conflation of a media-ted biography with form negates the more significant aspects of Hirst’s work and its various dialogues with visual culture, the viewers in that culture and otherwise, and the history of visual objects, while simultaneously undermining the relative value of the image within contemporary society generally by association to capitalism and art-as-production. Perhaps there is a middle-ground between the Death of the Author, and Obsession with the Author? In reconsidering the aesthetic as a dialectical and culturally-bound sentient response resulting from interaction with an art object and experienced beyond the constraints of the beautiful, the importance of the first-hand interaction with art returns, shifting would-be viewers away from the water-cooler and back to the wonder of the art-experience in its many spectacular guises.