Friday 23 October 2009

A tragic aspiration to cool

Damien Hirst: No Love Lost, Blue Paintings, The Wallace Collection, London

Damien Hirst is the enfant terrible turned grand old man of contemporary art, master of the grandiloquent gesture and media darling of the postmodern age. The Wallace Collection is a dainty gem of a gallery, a nineteenth century collection with a wonderful concentration of delicate French eighteenth century painting and decorative art. We don’t need to see the show to know that they are incompatible.

In fact, Hirst’s paintings are shockingly bad. They are crudely painted, shallowly conceived, derivative and trite. They are pastiches of Francis Bacon, hewing close to the original but with none of the panache. But they are not only poorly crafted. The symbolism is laughably shallow – a skull and an ashtray, for example. Oh my gosh – I get it, smoking and death, that’s soooo clever…

It’s ironic because apologists for Hirst defend him as a thinker rather than a maker, as some one who has changed our idea of art and, in that awful cliché, ‘pushed the boundaries’. But after Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and Andy Warhol exhibited his Brillo Boxes, pushing boundaries has just become the new conformism, each iteration more trite and desperate than the last. Hirst’s concepts are especially obvious, requiring no thought and offering no reward to sustained engagement.

For a donation of £1 you can get a little booklet by Hirst about his Wallace favourites. It’s crudely written and devoid of insight, recycling silly clichés like ‘any interpretation is good’ and offering childish naivety like ‘I love the light and the dark in this painting’ and ‘all the paintings here create an illusion of 3D space on a 2D surface’ (no shit, Sherlock). The most striking aspect of this isn’t that a famous artist has little to say about art, but rather that so many otherwise intelligent people continue to lionise him as a great ‘conceptual’ artist.

It matters not at all that some people like Hirst. His fans and detractors can happily co-exist, and pour scorn on one another without the slightest harm to either side. But this show is more corrosive, because he has been permitted to upstage really great art. The worthy object of our vituperation is not Hirst, but the people at the Wallace who allowed this to happen.

There are many failings. It was an aesthetic and critical failing to see these daubs as worthy of the Wallace. It was a moral failing for the Wallace to accept £250k to do-up the gallery to Hirst’s specifications, lending its kudos and boosting Hirst’s market value. And it was a failure of nerve to think that the Wallace’s historic holdings are not worthwhile in themselves, and need re-energising with something sensational.

Wallace director Dame Rosalind Savill embarrasses herself with this tragic aspiration to cool, and she sounds a fool when she draws comparison between these inept daubs and the sublime beauty of Poussin’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’. But the real harm is to the institution and its public. Savill has misunderstood the Wallace, turning it from a quiet space for contemplation into a raucous playpen, taking down the great art and putting it into store so that she can showcase mediocrity. She claims that Hirst’s paintings have a ‘real connection’ with those in the Wallace. Other than being made of paint, they do not.

In 2006 Savill said that huge numbers of visitors were ‘more a problem than a bonus’. Now she claims to ‘love the idea of people queuing around the block’. But these small rooms cannot cater for large crowds. The Wallace has staked a great deal on getting people through the door for this show. From the evidence of my visit it seems to be doing this by filling the galleries with schoolchildren ferried in to copy Hirst’s silly daubs. They have no choice about attending, but we can vote with our feet. The Wallace re-opens in February, when this foolish experiment will be over.

Till 24 January 2010

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