Hirst, equally keen to be meaningful, has pretty well avoided each of those large categories. Not wholly: In and Out of Love constitutes his own modest allusion to sensuality, and the room installation Pharmacy, with its shelves upon shelves of assorted pill packets, backhandedly comments on the negative community formed by our shared ailments and blind trust in science. But the prescription on the absent pharmacist’s desk is from London, while his foodbag is from New York: it’s a generic, fatalistic visual poem, with no bite on any particular place, time, or politics.
For Hirst’s chosen task, as the shark and diamond skull indicate, is to coin visual aphorisms on the nature of life and death, at once recklessly bleak and brimming with sheer cheek. He lays claim to a style in disillusion, jocular and savage, for which you could find English correlatives in Philip Larkin’s later poetry or in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Yes, beauty is what matters and beauty is what my art subscribes to, Hirst declares: look at all those iridescent wings, look for that matter at all those perfect, gleaming panes of glass! Yet by the same token—for beauty is at root a response to it—there is mortality. A truth that we can only grope for with sad laughter: look at this poor pickled lamb, frozen in mid-skip! Or through gross mock-aggression: regard this poor cow and poor calf, each swaggeringly chainsawed in two!
What is remarkable, as the art historian Thomas Crow points out in the exhibition’s catalog, is that with his wry, heavyhanded, sometimes grisly take on eternal verities, Hirst has become a people’s artist on a scale far exceeding that of Koons, the impresario of busty babes in porcelain and giant shiny rabbits. “Despite his strenuous efforts to fashion a crowd-pleasing, populist body of work, Koons remains a name recognized largely among self-selected art followers”; whereas the name of Hirst is now “virtually synonymous with the art boom of the 2000s,” spearheading a vast extension of the international audience for contemporary art.
Crow probes the factors leading to these differing outcomes. “The American artist assumes that the mass media cannot be moved, so adopts a defensively superior attitude towards the whole popular realm.” In London, however, with its “overheated media concentration,” there might be an opportunity for fine art to bend the narrative to its own ends, “provided that its procedures and processes are realistically regarded as so much expedient packaging.”
So it was that in 1990 the boldness of Hirst’s personality, along with the enormous flair for innovation that he then possessed, attracted the respect of Charles Saatchi, by far the most important patron of contemporary work in London’s “media concentration.” Their ensuing alliance gave this strategically streamlined art an exceptional breadth of license in which to operate. It feels as though Hirst has been able to make pretty much whatever he wanted for a very long time. His career has settled into a pattern familiar to rock stars, torn between whether to keep trading on early hits or to try to break into fresh markets. He has certainly been highly productive—at least once, I’ve suggested, to memorable effect. But the diamond skull apart, most of the new ventures have been eminently forgettable. The Anatomy of an Angel, a classicist marble statue of a female nude opened up in anatomical cross-section, is the exhibition’s nadir: it assaults a genre far too dense in accumulated meanings to be pierced by this style in wit.
Having so long depended on his fears of death for creative stimulus, Hirst has more recently tried to cook up his conflicted feelings about God toward the same end: but his vitrined Holy Ghost and butterfly-wing mandalas are whimsical conceptions, neither searingly blasphemous nor stoutly materialistic. And then, near the show’s end, he attempts, for once, an autobiographical note. Or so I read a gallery that reprises his greatest hits—the lepidoptera, the pills, the cigarette butts, colored spots, and diamonds—but all framed against backdrops of gold. Ah, pity me for my Midas touch!
Hirst is a large enough personality, however, to acknowledge the problem his career’s form presents. In a catalog interview with Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, he comes across as a man of loyalties and devout artistic admirations, readily offering an afterthought to that anecdote about sealing up the insects, twenty-two years ago:
The fly piece was the most exciting thing—still is, possibly—the most exciting piece I made. I still don’t really understand how you get to those moments. It’s instinctive; you can’t really control what you do. Lucian Freud said to me, “I think you started with the final act, my dear,” or something like that. And in a way I think he was right.
For much of the time, when Hirst hasn’t been able to “get to those moments,” he has opted to persist obstinately in pursuing intuitions glimpsed back in his youth. As a result, there are large swathes of this exhibition that are not exactly bad in the way that Angel is bad, but neither are they particularly rewarding to look at.
The projects in question stem from Hirst’s early attention to minimalism. Perhaps, he proposed, you could cover canvases with systematically positioned spots of color, and this would be enough: this would, quite simply and self-sufficiently, offer beauty to the eyes. And so it does, albeit mildly, a couple of times, at first. But that proposal proved too modest: the “spot” procedure must be maximized, in a series meant to run on forever. (Besides, these easily stackable products proved Hirst’s easiest items to sell.) The resulting barrage of inanition is matched by the tedium of the pharmaceutical displays, which continue from gallery to gallery. Again, a notion from Judd about coming to terms with actual, orthogonal, industrial products lurks somewhere in Hirst’s obsessive packet-collecting, but it’s confused by his symbolic aspirations. Hirst’s wit is sometimes more alive verbally than visually: to give eight of these glazed cupboards titles after Sex Pistols songs doesn’t turn them into vivid experiences.
The problem can be expressed spatially. Hirst has a good instinct for what will dominate a gallery, if the exhibit is set on its floor. But galleries also have walls, and these daunt him. Hanging stacked cases and arrays of spots and insect wings is a way of deflecting the demand that gallery walls customarily make on an artist. For what principally drives Hirst (and again, we have his own freely offered word for it) is a fear not of death but of painting.
Long before he glanced at Donald Judd, Hirst was looking up to Britain’s own master of the portentous designer-macabre, Francis Bacon. This lifelong reverence has coexisted with a terror at blank canvases and the endless choices they present, a neurosis best negotiated by hands-off, art-director tactics. It remains the case that, as Hirst said in 2001, “there’s one kind of art, and it’s painting. Everything else is a step away from that, and it all points back to that.”5 His poor-little-rich-kid problems are not my concern, but in this light I feel there was something touching (as well as pompously foolish) about his exposure, three years ago in a London museum, of some recent, timid, hand-painted homages to Bacon. They met with universal ridicule, and have not reappeared at the Tate.
Such is the strange position of this front man for the era of installation. Hirst is clearly a historically significant artist—not least in his own earnest striving for life-and-death significance. The conjunction of that striving with a media-savvy, image-grabbing sensibility has delivered pieces that, at their strongest, set thoughts jangling concerning our value systems. (I continue wondering about those butterflies. It’s as if life were one positive charge and painting another, but if you force the two together, substituting a flapping wing for a brushstroke, some kind of repulsion occurs.) This is merely to salute the artist as a symptom of his age: it is not a statement of taste. Personally I find that it is the small, intimate, ephemeral significances that go missing in the broad range of Hirst’s bombast.
I only see them come alive in one line of image production, and that half-inadvertently: the conceit of the extinguished cigarette. “From the point you light one to when you stub it out, it’s death,” Hirst paraphrases, ever helpful to his exegetes. Nowhere does it feature more poignantly than in a piece from 1991 named The Acquired Inability to Escape. A packet of Silk Cuts, a Bic lighter, and a filled ashtray sit on a white Formica table, at which an empty office chair has been drawn up: a seven-foot-high vitrine immures them, and through an internal dividing pane the chair faces a yet more constricted, entirely vacant glass box. Every aspect of the ensemble is severely, formally exquisite, so that one can imagine it as a memorial monument to the desperate habits of the previous millennium. Indoor smoking: now that’s truly a dying art.
5 Hirst interviewed in Hirst and Burn, On the Way to Work, p. 68. ↩
Hirst interviewed in Hirst and Burn, On the Way to Work, p. 68. ↩