Despite appearances, are Damian Hirst and Jack Vettriano really that different?
I had very good reasons for avoiding examples of artists’ work when writing This is Not Art, including the fact that it is all too easy to get bogged down in quibbling about the examples used instead of discussing the ideas involved, but I do mention a few artists by name and I want to describe here some ideas that I have discussed with colleagues since its publication using those artists’ work as examples. The artists are Damian Hirst and Jack Vettriano.
I have argued with artists, art historians and those who claim to be art lovers about these two artists. Almost invariably my interlocutors rate the work of one and utterly despise the work of the other. What neither camp can see is what these two artists have in common. Applying the lens I have acquired since writing the book, the lens that sees art as a knowledge forming discipline, and applying that understanding to the work of both, I now regard much of the work of Hirst in the same vein as Vettriano’s. Both are producing paintings that are not art. Here I will explain why this is profoundly the case and why this is true irrespective of any aesthetic experience their fans might derive from the work. I do not deny that it is possible to have an aesthetic experience from their work. I also refrain from judging those who have an aesthetic experience in the face of a Vettriano or a Hirst. It is not for me to judge the aesthetic experience of others, but it is for me to judge whether something that claims to be art, is art in the first place. As artists, and in conversation with others in the artworld, we must excerise judgement about whether either Vettriano or Hirst actually make art. That is, we must ask, do either of them, contribute to the story of art, nuancing it, making it more complex?
They clearly are both making or producing paintings, but not all painting is art. They both clearly create an aesthetic experience for their fans but numerous disciplines, including archaeology (Vickers & Gill, Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1994) and artists themselves, have demonstrated that an aesthetic experience can be gained from pretty much anything, given the right circumstances. It is not only art that produces an aesthetic experience.
On the other hand, if we understand art as a knowledge forming discipline, then art is defined in these terms, even when it’s difficult to know exactly what type of knowledge is produced and art’s value comes from when it contributes something new, nuanced, more complex to the knowledge currently amassed.
What is very clear in the paintings of Vettriano is that his work is not new, nuanced or more complex than what came before and in fact he seems to produce paintings with no knowledge of the history of the discipline. It is not just that the painting itself is clumsy, because there are plenty of artists whose skill or craft is clumsy but who are nevertheless making art. Instead, the issue is that his paintings embody a nostalgia for a period at some point in the early twentieth century, without the work being about nostalgia. They are clichés. They reconstitute a known and limited range of sentiments and reproduce them endlessly as variations on the same basic matrix. They are the pictoral equivalent of producing fruit flavours for jellybeans in seemingly endless variations. He might be able to patent these new flavours, and make a lot of money, but it can hardly be said to be new knowledge.
The same is true of Hirst’s dot and butterfly works. Like Vettriano, he is rehashing already well-established art clichés, ones that are over 50 years old, a ‘new’ jellybean flavour derived from minimalism combined with Andy Warhol. What is more, he shares this aesthetic approach with most contemporary interior decorators.
The difference between Hirst and Vettriano is not only the class background of their respective fans, but the fact that Hirst did produce art at one time. For example, I am a fan of ‘Mother and Child Divided’ (1993) and see its value as a contribution to the story of art, to art’s collective store of knowledge but just because Hirst once produced art, doesn’t mean everything he does is art. Not everything an artist does is art.
As to the art market, it doesn’t bother me what rich people spend their money on. It could be tulips or Hirst’s dot paintings. What I do care about is art and that, as artists, we need to articulate the value of art in our own terms. Debate it. We must no longer believe it is art because the market tells us it is or because it is shown in galleries or funded by arts organisations. Art is art if and only if it contributes to the knowledge store of art and working within that knowledge base. If it doesn’t, it might be aesthetically pleasing, popular, an act of self-expression, and it might be very important or very precious to its creator, but it is not art. ■
Alana Jelinek is the author of This is Not Art: Activism and Other ‘not-art’, and is currently AHRC creative fellow at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.
Image courtesy of celso_nyc.