The Shock of the New New

Damien Hirst wants to paint like it’s 1952. And he wants these paintings to have a ready-made auction impact, one that will make them classically collectible and bid-worthy. The problem is these paintings are instantly forgettable as paintings – momento mori lite. However, what is interesting in the media blitz surrounding the unveiling of this work is the media blitz itself.  Hirst has been publicizing for months that he has cleared out the studios and has been experiencing an existential communion with real work. We have had teaser images and articles planted in all the art world feeders. In a very clever move he has arranged to show them at the Wallace collection – an historic old trove of certified masterworks – in order to add historical heft and gravitas to his work. They are framed in the museum manner, with glass (like Francis Bacon) and installed on appropriate silk wall coverings. The entire presentation is designed as an extended field, a performance that channels the idea of a “great painter” with Hirst donning that Avatar.

There’s a lot of quotable material here:

“Hirst has personally funded a £250,000 refurbishment of the galleries – which have a blue silk background and gilded ceilings – to display his new work, so that the exhibition will be free to visitors.”

“Art’s all about making a comment about the world. I think today you can’t have the same impact that those guys had … there’s too much going on. We live in such a crazy world now that a mere painting on that level doesn’t really work.”

“…you get a bit bored’ of modern art galleries.”

But the killer promo for me is this one:
“These weren’t massive projects put together by the artist’s team of assistants but created alone with a brush and a palette by the 44-year-old father of three.”

This works on three levels –
1. The artist’s hand is involved – HE made the work in humility and out of a need to truly express himself.
2. This is the mark of genius – like Michelangelo on his ceiling, Bacon in his den or Rembrandt struggling in the mirror.
3. He is an ordinary man doing extraordinary things – he is married with 3 kids and he still accomplished all this in his 44th year. Amazing.

But to know what is really going on in the mind of Damien Hirst is to look at his deliberate choice of ironic t-shirt worn beneath the designer sport jacket. It says “The Shock of the New.” Now is Hirst heralding this work as new, the idea of the act of painting as new, the presentation as new, the money involved in presenting the project as new, or is it a way to appropriate Hughes’ critical heft – to assert his right to be part of  the contemporary artists’ pantheon in that cultural classic? I guess all of that may be inherently shocking to some, but it seems a bit like yet another branding campaign to me. I truly do enjoy a bit of flagrant media manipulation….

UPDATE: I just ran across this video and article that stirs the mix even more!  The vid is a hoot hosted by a very stiff presenter who would look right at home floating in one of Hirst’s blue vitrines. All the talking points are there making any real criticism totally superfluous. Brilliant!

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