Jim gets in a froth in Bermondsey | The Open College of the Arts
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Jim gets in a froth in Bermondsey

Jim Cowan, OCA tutor and blogger sees red.
‘This is Damien Hirst’s third exhibition in London this year, this time at the White Cube Gallery. The first was of his Spot Paintings, some of which were exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery and the rest simultaneously at other venues throughout the world. As an ambassador for Britain’s Cultural Olympiad, we have the selected retrospective at Tate Modern that ends on 9th September this year. The third exhibition is at the White Cube Bermondsey where he is exhibiting newly completed ‘unassisted’ paintings in an exhibition called ‘Two Weeks One Summer’
When Hirst last exhibited works by his own hand, at the Wallace Collection in 2009, the press were not enthusiastic about his efforts. It was felt that these paintings, which were hung near to works by Titian, Valazqueth, Rubens and Van Dyck, were there to position Hirst, the most successful artist of his generation with those great artists of the past. The consensus of opinion was that Damien lacked the painterly skills to make that comparison believable.
Now, at the White Cube Gallery, he is again showing his own paintings undeterred by hostile reviews and with the confidence that only his powerful position in the contemporary art world can provide. The results are dire. In a gallery the size of two football pitches, he is displaying 35 paintings, the subject matter of which revisit the great Memento Mori paintings of the past as best seen in the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Hirst’s variations of this theme depict birds, rabbits, oranges and lemons, jugs, foetuses in glass cases along with branches of cherry blossom, all with varying degrees of ineptitude.

The artist he wishes most to emulate is Francis Bacon and badly drawn space frames litter the canvases. It is the Bacon of the 1950s Businessman series and the same dark blue tonality pervades the pictures. When Damien won the Turner Prize in 1995 he said in his acceptance speech that “ …it’s amazing what you can do with an E grade in A level art, a twisted imagination and a chain saw…’” Today, without the chain saw and with little imagination, we are just left with the E grade in A Level Art. As the most financially successful living artist in the world today, Hirst thinks that it is enough to pick up a brush and canvas, and without any training, application or subject knowledge and with little sensibility for the medium create masterpieces. His position is such that he can employ a curator from the Prado Gallery in Madrid to compare his work to the likes of Caravaggio and Velázquez.

These days traditional art practice is neglected in university art departments. Students are encouraged to take the easier options rather than follow the disciplines required for representational painting. As students they are encouraged in the misguided belief that anything is art as long as they say it is.
Damien’s bafflement is a result of this inevitable decline in standards. With the aid of technicians, fabricators, business managers, dealers, auction houses and assistants, Hirst has risen to the top rung of the international art world but under his own steam he struggles with the basic competences of representation. The Open College of the Arts has courses in Drawing or Painting, which may help, but hopefully Hirst will realise his limitations and return to the safety of dots, tanks, formaldehyde solution and the Carolina Biological Supply Company Science catalogue (a source for much of his work), plus near universal acclaim.’

Posted by author: Jim
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42 thoughts on “Jim gets in a froth in Bermondsey

  • A good review Jim.
    It just shows that no amount of hype, money or power can disguise poor skills.
    Give me the honesty of Hockney rather than the daubs of a charlatan.

  • I always enjoy reading Jim’s provocative reviews. However with some trepidation I have to confess that I like what I see here (but not the dot paintings done by assistants). These still lifes have a special quality about them and suggest to me that Damien Hirst’s renown is deserved.
    Assistants doing the work, now that’s something else. If a painter has a certain “handwriting” then how can assistants do the work for him? Art done in that way perhaps needs a different classification … like giclee prints, along those lines anyway. It’s difficult to put into words but it should be distinguished in some way from work by the artist’s own hand. No doubt Barthes would not agree.

  • “Assistants doing the work, now that’s something else. If a painter has a certain “handwriting” then how can assistants do the work for him?”…tell that to Raphael, Leonardo, Rubens….etc. etc.

  • “tell that to Raphael, Leonardo, Rubens….etc. etc”
    … yes, but isn’t that rather simplistic? A couple of years ago I read of scholars identifying a particular part of a painting that had been done by Leonardo when he himself was an assistant. The scholars identified a part as his work because of certain fine details of his painterly “handwriting”. Or consider lost paintings that come to light where attributions are based on the drawing and brushwork — http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/leonardo-da-vinci-painting-discovered-125191694.html
    Then you have all those painters who didn’t have assistants — Klee, Freud, Hockney — and others too numerous to mention. I don’t mean assistants who stretch canvas and whatnot, I mean assistants who do part or all of the actual drawing and painting. Not Picasso, that’s for sure.
    It seems to me that despite the ‘Death of the Author’ authorship in art has never been more important than from 1900 to the present.

  • But why? If an image is good in and of itself what difference does it make if it is made by A, B or a committee? It seems to me that we have been conned by the market to value provenance above aesthetic value. All this stuff about ‘handwriting’ is very interesting to the art historians who make their living from publishing the definitive catalogue raisonné of particular artists, or authenticating works to be sold second hand but is easy to take too seriously when looking at work. I suspect that it is just another thing that those wanting a return to a previous way of making art are using to defend their reactionary cause. The values and traditions of the Renaissance were eroded through the period of Modernism and finally put to rest in the second half of the 20thC and to cling on to them is foolish.
    None of which excuses what appear to me to be some pretty weak images (I have only seen then in reproduction) by Hurst but I will reserve my judgement till I get a better view of them.

  • “If an image is good in and of itself what difference does it make if it is made by A, B or a committee?”
    It’s a nice thought but contemporary photographers who claim copyright on their photographs or any part thereof would disagree. The death of the author is really a myth.
    This has gone off track, it wasn’t about the Renaissance, so I’ll leave it here.

    • The whole point of the Barthes/Foucault thinking about authorship was a distinction between the idea of an ‘author’ (the maker and imparter of a single meaning to be discovered but the ‘reader’) and the maker who offers up a work for exploration and the discovery of multiple and changing meanings.
      The photographers of whom you speak are merely acting on a neo-liberal extension of the con=modification of all things brought about by the market-society in which we live.
      Strangely I think it has a lot to do with the Renaissance or at least the ideas from the Renaissance and the final laying of them to rest that a number of the artists (of all disciplines and media) regret and resist.

  • They’re alright, really nothing special though. As for the traditional art practice thing of course it still goes on in art departments especially the classical ateliers popping up all over the place now. Just artists etc are looking for new ways to express themselves and they can’t be sidelined for that. I can’t stand those who just repeat the past.

  • There is something I like about these paintings, although I agree they are rather ham-fisted. One contemporary take on painting is this kind of slick awkwardness, single-layeredness, playful yet bland naivity. I think these are better than some others who follow this trend. It is ludicrous to compare him to the masters of course- but, then again, who would stand up next to them? Hirst is better at bringing ideas to fruition with the technical help of others.

    • “slick awkwardness, single-layeredness, playful yet bland naivity.”…I wonder if this is going to take a similar role to the simply naive styles of some of the the Modernists in the 20s and 30s? If it does I think the underlying reasons will be very different, the Modernists looking for an honest simplicity, the post-(post-?)modernists evoking a more knowing, ironic eye, ‘It ain’t what it looks like’
      “Hirst is better at bringing ideas to fruition with the technical help of others.” this could be the nub of things of course, and rather in the post WWII tradition which seems increasingly to have denied craftspersonship on the part of the conceiver of the work of not on the part of the maker.

      • Thanks to Olivia and Peter for this exchange which has helped me to understand something i had noticed in contemporary painting but never quite managed to put into words! I wonder how we can keep ourselves up to date with this kind of thing when we are working on our own at home without getting any input on current developments in fine art practise other than what we can find under our own steam. I’m fairly sure i’m reading the right magazines….still though I find myself struggling to find the right conceptual frameworks for understanding contemporary art practise properly.

        • This is one of the downsides of working in isolation. You need to get out to the galleries, the openings, mix with other artists and so on. Few people live sop far away from a contemporary gallery that they can’t make regular trips and attend openings. Working in isolation tends to over introspection and a lack of openness to new ideas.

  • “The Open College of the Arts has courses in Drawing or Painting, which may help”
    I like this line the best. Only “may help”. However, an improvement in this area will lead to a lost of income from selling future art work, because he has lost his “style”.
    To be honest, I am not sure if I am the one who should be taking the course just get some understanding of “Art”. I went to Damien Hirst’s exhibition at Tate and I struggled to link a cabinat of cigarettes with the process of life and death, or a canvas of coloured dot with control. His art work does not leave me any clue of what he is thinking. I only get it from the little handout Tate offered. At the end, I find it more entertaining to read the handout than look at the art work. Ultimately, I wonder, is art work a medium to express ourselves in a way only ourselves can tell, or a medium to share our thoughts and experience with other people, of which we are obligated to make it somewhat accessable (I don’t want to use the word “understandable”, but it is probably closer) to our viewers?
    Out of curiousity, how exactly is painting differ from other art form? We look at a building and think of the architect but not the brick layers. Commercial still life photographer might not be retouching the image, non designing the set from the beginning. There is a lot of collaboration work (or assisted work). The reminisce of “individual style” may suffer, but the collaborted work can still be an outstanding piece of work.

    • “how exactly is painting differ from other art form?” A very good question and I sometimes think it differs mostly in that it was the premier medium for centuries but its fall from grace is difficult to take for some who still practice in this medium alone. Ii know some painters who still think that being such makes them some special sort of artist and all others are to some extent merely playing at it and only painting is ‘real’ art. On the other hand the better painters I know think in a totally different way to this.

  • I have always felt a similarity of ‘the king’s new clothes’and art which, we are told, is great! It is refreshing now to hear a voice shout the truth. A commercial band wagon does not equal great art. Even worse, the band wagon does nothing to help create great art, in fact the opposite. The result has been confused arts university courses which try and please the commercial band wagon instead of nurturing the true elements of great art.

    • I couldn’t disagree more. Each generation of artists looks for new and more relevant ways to make their art speak of and to the world as they find it (not necessarily the way they would want it note) the problem tends to be the older generations (mine) who have a vested interest in preserving the supremacy of artistic expression as they(we) knew it. Added to which it is a particularly British obsession to avow that old things are always better than new…come of “[…]living in an old country” I guess!

  • A difficult one – I really liked the exhibition at the Tate modern his ideas with help making them come alive were beautiful and thought provoking. His work here just emphasise what I have been saying on the OCA website about his attitude, he takes pride and in the fact he cannot paint and likes to take on other peoples ideas and reinvent them. This work is just honest imagery making if it was someone else’s we would probably not debate it as much and just shrug and move on to the next lot of work to view…. I am getting really disheartened and yet again am at the stage where I am thinking about giving up my studies because at the end of the day it is not what you can do but who you know that gets you into the art world – what’s the point?

  • It ‘s realy amazing to read such review in english, here in France nearly nobody would dare to criticize

  • Hello Dawn –
    “At the end of the day it is not what you can do but who you know that gets you into the art world – what’s the point?”
    If you are making work to get into the art world – I am disappointed – you make work because you are driven to do so- Who cares a fig about the art world! Some of the greatest artists across the arts spectrum died without recognition or as paupers – life would be a very sad experience if we did not have the music of Mozart, the films of Jacques Tati or the paintings of Gauguin

  • Hi, Richard because the end product for my themes is being seen by a wider audience – no point commenting on themes about world decay, poor society ethics and killing everyone and everything around us if the work is going to be seen in my local library. Also you are in the art world as ‘I see it’, it doesn’t have to be the flashing light of fame scene just being in the real art world with a studio out of the house would be nice and not stuck in four walls at home where I just feel like a mum who has a hobby. Is there a point ot the degree I have another 6 years of following a folders orders and assignments….. – what’s the point?

    • Dawn, if you don’t mind me chipping in, being a mum. The point is that you do not know where life will take you. It may be easier to be a ‘proper’ artist when you can spend all your time thinking and doing art and not so easy when you have to think about constantly nurturing the next generation but you won’t be doing that forever. The degree might be your entry to something you can’t imagine or you might be meekly handing in a module for assessment thinking ‘I am just an overworked mum what if they don’t like it’ and lo and behold next thing you know you are flying across the atlantic to be at your opening! 🙂 However if you are feeling stifled, take small steps to join the world you aspire to. Even though you are doing the degree there is nothing to stop you joining a local art class to bolster it or indeed start one, or go through the school network to find out who else has a morning free to spend doing art or appreciating it. Also don’t knock the local library, you never know who you might meet, and what might happen next, put up a flyer. At a school event about jobs I was showing the kids images and talking to them about different sorts of photography jobs, I met another parent who needed a photographer and have now got a network from that initial contact that is still expanding 10 years later. Life happens when you least expect it, start small and see what develops, Good luck!

  • So, is the underlying question of the discussion – does he believe in his art or does he just do it to make money? Would he do this if it didn’t make money or would he go in a different direction? I think both he, and I, are pretty cynical!

    • I really think he believes in it but he has made sure that he in in a position to get almost anything he does shown…maybe we are only jealous that we didn’t get that sort of ‘professional practice’ module when we were at college!

    • Making money while making a mockery of the art market is a major part of Hirst’s practice – following in the footsteps of (for example) Piero Manzoni in the 60’s with his signed limited edition cans of (his own) sh*t valued by weight in relation to the price of gold. The art work would be rendered worthless if the purchaser opened the can to check what was inside. Amongst his other multiples were signed baloons filled with the artists breath that would slowly deflate and collapse – the work of art happening through its own destruction. Ironically Manzoni died very young and his sh*t is still here, but more importantly his ideas are still here to be picked up and taken further by artists like Hirst.

  • There is no doubt that over the last few decades many young artists decided that they weren’t going to starve in a garret but do their best to make sure that the art they made would keep them. Not necessarily make art with the sole intention of making money but to be savvy enough to make sure that their work was noticed, schmooze the right people etc. it’s a simple reaction the the world they were brought up in, not one I approve of but then my generation made a right mess of it it seems so maybe we only have ourselves to blame. Too many hippies came back from the trail to enlightenment in the Far East only to become investment bankers!

  • “At the end of the day it is not what you can do but who you know that gets you into the art world – what’s the point?”
    I don’t know if we are having an unmet ideal here. I come from a developing country, and knowing the local government officials does help in getting business runs smoother. Even back then when I was a kid, knowing the school headmaster can get you into the school even if you are not making the grade. I thought it was just part of the culture in far east, but then my friend told me, it helps to get a job in France if you go to an ecole, because company seniors are most likely to be graduated from an ecole. Therefore, it seems like everywhere, it is about who you know.
    Anyway, I have a question for most of you: How do you balance between creating an art work for money, and creating an art work for say self expression, when two are not necessary the same?

    • I think that there is a big difference between making work simply as a commercial venture to make money and making sure that the work you do make gets the appropriate attention from those who are in a position to see that it is adequately rewarded.
      When I was at college it was assumed that you would go away and make work and finally, if it was good enough, some sort of mystical process would ensure that it would be shown and some of it would sell, in the mean time you would teach!
      These days we have modules (in college) on professional practice and encourage our students to network as much as possible, educate them in ways to promote their work, show them where to look for funding etc. etc.
      We also slap them down for making purely commercial work so that they will find a way of distinguishing between their own motivations.

  • I am not interested in the fame or money – I just want to be a proper ‘artist’ who shows their work to a greater audience but without the support of other art professionals in the know it will be near inpossible for me to realise my dreams.
    I have no knowledge of how to network or even present my work professionally and as I have said before on the OCA website our courses are but a learning curve in the practice of a skill, which I am doing well at BUT without a professional practice module as explained before or without a final degree show where networking with invited ‘art guests’ – what is the point for me? Another 4 years of trolling through exercises to get to my Degree level and then atleast 3 years to complete them.
    I cannot see beyond the next 6 years of college work and it is making me feel tired at the thought of it.
    As I write this I am not complainting about the OCA work or tutors just that for me personally if I could of afforded a brick and mortar collage I would of finished my degree by now rather than being on my third course with another 4 to go….

    • ” I just want to be a proper ‘artist’”…hmmm…I wonder what one of those is 🙂
      Seriously though, the first thing to do is to make sure that you attend as many of the openings as possible in galleries, particularly the publicly funded ones, reasonably local to you and talk to people. Most galleries have a presence on social websites (Facebook and the like) so become a ‘friend’ to see what is going on. Get to know who is the person in the galleries who deals with the exhibitions (usually the exhibitions officer in a publicly funded one) and talk to them at the shows, see if you can make an appointment to talk to them about your work, not necessarily to try to get a show with them but they might have some useful comments on your work. Talk to other artists, there might be shared studios that you could join; there might be artist controlled spaces that you could get involved with; there might be open studio events etc. etc.
      See if you can find out what funding opportunities exist (A-N is a good starting point here but again talking to other artists at shows can bring a lot of info).
      Many local galleries rely in volunteers in a whole range of roles from being a gallery attendant to cleaning etc. so this could be a way in.
      You have to go to them, they won’t come to you if they don’t know you are there, and probably not even then!

    • Cheer up Dawn, creativity will find a way somehow or other!
      I can’t beleive Richard actually meant we should make it a career aim of dying in obscurity in a garret. Even artists of the past that ended up doing so so surely didn’t intend that to happen.
      One thing about Damien Hirst is that he found his own way, made his own luck and got where he has under his own steam. The “art world” isn’t a fixed thing that never changes, you are a part of it because you are a student on an art degree course, anyone that tells you different has their own agenda and I think we should question what that is exactly:-)

  • No I did not mean that and I think Peter has summed up most of the points in this dicussion.
    However I would also like to make the point that your creative practice is to do with your own credibility and motivation. The business side of it is a separate issue that has to be addressed but is is linked to networking and publicity .
    People like Grayson Perry worked for years in obscurity but he was always committed to his practice. In his case this eventually paid off when he was nominated for the Turner prize on the strength of an exhibition held at the Barbican Art Gallery.
    It is difficult when we see figures like Damien Hirst who just happen to be in the right place at the right time and whose actual talent will always be questioned. But how many other artists were superstars in their life time but faded into obscurity over time. Some quite high profile artists such as Augustus John have begun to fade into obscurity. Whereas his sister who was obscure in her life time is much more highly thought of.

    • To be honest I think that Hirst and the others of his time made the right place and the right time. The first Frieze show was the time and the place. In these neo-liberal days we have to make our own luck and manipulate time and place to our advantage…and I am crap at it 🙁

  • 🙂 My definition of a proper artist is – One whom creates because they want too ( Richard!! 🙂 ) Who is able to have their artwork seen beyond the 6 people who visit their local library and who has breathing people as mentor, friend, like minded as opposed to my current family who think everything I do is ‘crap’ and they ‘don’t understand what I am on about’ and who think that I am going to be knifed by a hoodie one day…. One who is free of logbooks 😉 but can replace them with their own way of working without worrying about if they tick the boxes or look the part…
    This is how sad I am – I get really excited when I am on an OCA course or one of Richards courses because I am going to be with like minded people, this is the nearest I get to feeling like a proper artist at the moment – sad aren’t I!

  • Isn’t want to and have to the same? Or ‘connected’?
    Artists in my area – advice heard and will be looking into it – Thanks 🙂

  • I suppose it depends on one’s locality and I do think people create because they want to. I have a drive to create ( that has been constant since I was a child), and I don’t really care if people don’t see what I do. In fact there is some of my work that I like to keep private (not because it’s dodgy !) because it is personal to me ( and for no other reason).

    • “I have a drive to create”…that is what I meant really. Simply ‘wanting to’ doesn’t, I would suggest, make a person an Artist, a Writer etc. but someone who enjoys writing, making art and so on and more power to their elbow. The difference is that for an Artist (or Writer or what ever) the making of art comes first and the rest second, for everyone else the making of art is only a part of their existence. That is not a value judgement, simply differentiation of priorities in the context of the question about a ‘real’ artist.
      Your comment about personal work is important too.

  • All this talk about ‘the art world’… It is more of an ‘art universe’ with lots of systems, stars, satelites and black holes. Some bodies shine brightly, then fade- others just go round and round, steady but unnoticed. I could enjoy this analogy for longer, but what i am trying to say is that the art world is very varied. Yes,there are the shiny galleries that show cutting edge work, but there are also smaller galleries, artist’s initiatives, community initiatives, alternative spaces, on-line galleries etc etc. There is room for all kinds of art and for all levels of fame and obscurity.

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