After the Fire: Damien Hirst, Decadence, Death, and Diabolism

Critics either love him or hate him, but one thing most have in common with respect to the recent global exhibition of Damien Hirst’s Spot paintings at Gagosian is the fact that they seem to take the whole spectacle for granted. Those who love him seem to do so perhaps because that is what expected of them. In reading their reviews of “Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011” they are unable to offer any meaningful criticism or analysis, and it is clear that their fawning reviews are nothing more than blatant patronisation. The negative reviews, for their part, have mostly been negative for the sake of being negative.

Yet, what I have found most interesting is how many in the art world have taken the exhibition for granted, which is to say there has not been much in the way of astonishment, awe, shock, surprise, or even incredulity at the possibility or likelihood of such an exhibition ever occurring. We are, after all, talking about an exhibition of paintings of coloured dots. This is unprecedented in the history of art.

In an earlier commentary, I had written that while there is no meaning to be found in the Spot paintings themselves, or in the work of Damien Hirst in general, there is abundant meaning to be found in the spectacle itself, in the simple act of observing the behaviour and reactions of those in attendance. The talent of conceptual artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin has never been in the creation of art itself, but in exposing the shiny veneer of the contemporary art world for the nonsensical absurdity that it has become through the medium of the spectacle. In this, their work is genius.

Those opposed to conceptualism in art tend to point their fingers in blame at Hirst and Emin as being responsible for such an absurdity. The reality, however, is that they are doing nothing more than producing a commodity that happens to be in demand by those who have the financial standing and power to instigate supply. It’s a capitalist world, after all, and those are the rules of the game.

Here in the Western world, we live in jaded and sarcastic times. There is little that is taken seriously anymore, and where art is concerned, apathy and indifference reign supreme. This is not to say that there aren’t artists out there doing interesting or relevant work, simply that there so few artists engaged in such work that critics and collectors have become bored. It should come as no surprise then, that a blue chip collector would be willing to shell out ridiculous amounts of cash for work that is at best, glorified decor, or at worst, absolutely meaningless and ugly.

The Stuckists were a reaction against this sort of apathy, protesting the treatment of such absurdities as a soiled mattress or a shark carcass preserved in a tank of formaldehyde as works of art. The artist G. B. Jones produced an entire series of drawings of crashed cars as a critique of using found objects as art; in this specific case, cars that had been involved in collisions and found abandoned on a road or highway, then taken and presented as-is in a gallery setting – as priceless works of art.

When you take a step back and look at all this from a distance, it is an amazing thing that you really cannot take for granted. It’s all so bizarre and absurd that it defies the most basic levels of logic and reason. From where I stand, the issue isn’t about conceptualism and abstraction versus representational and figurative art.  It’s about apathy and the degeneration of ethical standards in our contemporary society.

As a collector, Damien Hirst appears to be cognizant of this phenomenon. He is fascinated by death and the aesthetics of mortality. Back in 2006 he held an exhibition of works he had acquired by other artists at the Serpentine Gallery. I hadn’t realized Hirst was a serious collector until that time, and it was fascinating to understand him in an entirely new and different light, and to view selections from his private collection. A person’s art collection is a window into their personality, and in the case of Hirst, a rather somber journey through his mind. But, it didn’t surprise me. Perhaps his understanding of the inevitability of death is a reaction to his own decadent work, and the fear that in time, he will leave no legacy behind and history will have forgotten his productions a hundred years from now.

I doubt that will be the case. History may not remember him as an artist of note, but if for nothing else, he will be remembered as one who through the vision and practice of spectacle and by forcing the art world to accept the illusion of his reality, bending their will to his, became the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

In this, Damien Hirst is a magician of the highest order.

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