Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Emperor's New Clothes?

I can deal with London perfectly well when I'm not thinking about it. Never the slightest problem in finding my way from A to B, with or without a map. Find somewhere decent to eat, or take a rest, find something to see.... just try me.

Or, rather, don't try me. If I have to actually SHOW someone these things, all my knowledge mysteriously evaporates. Today, a woman asked me the way to the bank and I couldn't remember whether the bank in question was left or right. Duh. (I only live here). When I met my friend P. who'd come to London to visit the Tate Modern, I forgot which Tube stop to use. Double duh (I was only there last Saturday.) Then, I couldn't remember which station exit to use. Triple Duh. (I only go there several times a month.)

Luckily P and I have known each other since we were both 14, so I don't think she thought I was losing my mind.... . So we found the Tate, and went in to see the Damien Hirst art show.

Is Damien Hirst well known outside Britain? I suspect not. Yet, according to the Tate, he's "our greatest living artist" and his work commands enormous prices.

He likes to create displays of pickled sheep and pickled sharks....

And he has done a skull studded with diamonds,

and set out many glass cases full of surgical instruments and other medical things...

(photo: White Cube)

And he's done a room out like a pharmacy, with shelves of medicines...

And in his early days he did lots of paintings of dots...

He has also created displays with cigarette butts

And used thousands of butterflies, which were flying around in a room and crawling over withered fruit, as you see here...

He makes rather intricate and decorative paintings using their wings.

And he's very, very rich, and massively hyped.

In the past, both P and I had attended shows of massively hyped artists, only to find that the artists were pretty good after all, despite the hype. We both like contemporary art, so we hoped for insights into the human condition, or new ways of looking at visual things. We hoped to be moved, to admire, to think twice about what we'd previously taken for granted.

It was very crowded, and P and I mingled with the crowds and dutifully looked at the sharks, cows, dots, cigarette-butts, butterflies, and lots of items that seemed to have come directly from a medical supplies shop.

There were a few eye catching and skilfully designed objects, in particular large paintings made of butterfly wings, and yet they were not beautiful when you looked at them closely. There was too much sticky looking gloss paint, too many bits of wing that were damaged or painted over. Things which had been naturally beautiful had been made to look rather tacky.

There was a certain interest in examining the dissected cows,

... although my vote would go to the Grant Museum for dissections or pickled specimens.

And finally, we emerged into the inevitable gift shop, and found clocks, necklaces, tee shirts, wallpaper and so on all decorated with images from the show. Much of it is attractive, most of it is typical museum shop stuff and priced accordingly -here's the link if you want to see it too.

Then this wallpaper caught my eye.

It was a limited edition, and the price was NOT reasonable - at £675 a roll. That's 834 euros, or $1,042 US at current conversion rates.

I kept looking and found many other items, similarly priced - thirty thousand odd pounds for a set of plates in the butterfly designs, for instance, or around £35, 000 ($54,000) for a print of one of the butterfly pictures.

Any sympathy or empathy I had with his work disappeared when I saw the outrageous price tags. Instead, I felt like a punter, a mark or whatever slang term you care to use.

Now, I don't blame Hirst for capitalizing on his flair for publicity and getting lots of money. But I couldn't help thinking of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes.

In this story, an emperor is tricked into believing that he is buying a suit of wonderful clothes whereas really he is buying - nothing. He has spent a fortune, and he is nude, and nobody dares to point it out to him except one little child.

I didn't say any of this to P. Instead I say, "So what do you think of Damien Hirst?"

She smiled.

"He's a good businessman, isn't he?" she said. "Er .... shall we go and have a cup of tea?"

Then I knew P and I saw eye to eye on this particular thing.

So I directed her (uncertainly, wasn't quite sure of the way - after all, I've only been there about 1,000 times) down the riverside to the Royal Festival Hall where we had a very nice cup of tea!


  1. I'm not familiar with this artist but I intend to look him up. I admire the way you put out effort to keep up with the current art scene.

  2. I had not heard of Damien Hirst before but I really am not up on such things. That's what I like about blogging, you learn something new every day. A very enjoyable read, thank you.

  3. I don't know about DH, but Grayson Perry, if you ask me, is brilliant (and his new TV series is quite something).

    I used to make art with cigarette butts, but gave up doing so about 27 years ago.

  4. It sounds like you had quite an enjoyable day with your friend, and that's what counts above all. I did take a liking to some of that wallpaper, although not at those prices...

  5. Uhm, wow?
    On so many levels.
    But then I don't understand modern art or for that fact current art. I love going to the art museums with my son just so he can school me in art (read one of his lessons here:
    Every time I go to any of the museums gift shops, I look at the crap uhm merchandise that is for sale and wonder who would buy it. At the cost of almost a paycheck for one roll, it won't be me buying that wallpaper any time soon.

  6. I'm probably one of many who hasn't heard of Damien Hirst, but I appreciated your fascinating mini-tour of the Tate. I think Hirst's work is much more lucrative than it is enduring. It has almost inspired me to abandon music and take up art as a profession!

  7. I so totally agree with this Jenny! I almost feel bad to say it, as criticising an artist who must have reasons and motives for wha the does seems bad. But I honestly can't see the difference between the dissected cow, or the pickled shark and what I saw at the Hunterian the other day, and I much preferred that as it was not pretending to be something it wasn't, yet was still inspiring and beautiful. Out of the YBAs I think Tracy Emin is my favourinte as, although I find her a bit annoying, I really find her work fascinating and varies and quite authentic.

  8. Some people pretend to like this rubbish. Damien Hurst doesn't actually make it. He has assistants to do that for him. Mind you, DH is an artist, and if he calls what he does art, then I suppose it is art!

  9. Sometimes I think creating artwork with odds and ends, is perfect and really a lot of fun! Your trying to tell directions made me laugh. Where we live most of the streets have names and a county road number, and some have double names in areas, or names that we just give a road (ha! ha!) So when I used to take some of my children's friends home, they never used names but rather, turn at the red barn then take the second left by the Walleye Mail box and go until you see the green house and take the dirt road after it.....seriously! Sometimes we travel by so many road marks we forget what the names are that's all! Like do we really need them?!!!

  10. Hi Jenny,
    Coincidentally, I was conversing about Damien Hirst with some of my friends back in North America and they were most certainly aware of him.
    Personally, I think the dude who had an exhibit at the Tate Modern of dried Elephant Dung hanging on a wall, has more talent than him. In fact, even the elephant had more talent.
    All the best and enjoy your weekend.

  11. If I am told that someone is a genius artist but I can't see why, I feel dumb for not appreciating the artist's talent. Sometimes, I just don't get it, plain and simple. Also, as you said, the Emperor just might be naked after all.

  12. i think this memory thing and directions happens to everyone eventually. The art work is not familar and i can not say i care for it, tho the tea sounded good!

  13. I think you are correct to determine a "good businessman" and self promotion is very difficult for many an artist. The tea was a welcome resting place.

  14. I have never understood that type of art. Most of it has little appeal to me. The price tags just blow me away. I can see why you'd feel like a mark--LOL! Tea sounds much better. ;)

  15. I only like to look at pretty pictures so I can't comment on Damien Hirst! xD

    BTW, I have the same handicap as you when it comes to my city. I get around pretty well but try and seek my advice on places to visit in Kuala Lumpur and my mind went blank!

  16. I've never heard of Damien Hirst, but his work is interesting. I can't decide if I'm fascinated or creeped out by the skull with bling. lol

  17. Don't feel bad, I have no idea what are the street names by my house, I just know where to turn my car to get home. The cigarette butts and butterflies on fruits are rather unusual to me. We have exhibits here of dissected people which is unusual and morbid; but nevertheless, human curiosity makes it a popular traveling show.

  18. Hurst, like Emin, Beckham and others, have nothing to offer. However they know what sells. Art is not important here, it is appealing to the chattering classes that counts. Which is strange as I have nothing to offer yet remain poor......

  19. I suffer the same mental block when people ask me directions. Even though I know my area pretty well, when I'm put on the spot I instantly mix up my left and my right, and lose all ability to explain the simplest thing!

    Damein Hirst - well, I guess if people are daft enough to pay then he will go on doing what he's doing, but personally I cannot see anything artistic in it.

  20. Hi, Jenny! I think you`re right about this artist. He knows how to get his money :o) Thanks for sharing :o) I liked this tour.
    Have a nice day

  21. Hello Jenny:
    We have not seen this particular exhibition but from all that you say and show here it is clearly not without interest. Perhaps Damien Hirst's creative talents lie in a very fertile imagination which translates itself into the various 'works', some of which we should admire for their originality rather than for either subject matter or execution.

    However, on balance we feel that he simply capitalises upon some past success which has, alas, now turned him into something of a showman rather than, as one might hope, an artist.

  22. The cup of tea sounds about the best part :-) I think your Emperor's New Clothes analogy is spot on!

  23. Thank you for the comments. Regarding the directions, I know that often once I start thinking about what I'm doing, it all goes wrong. That also applies to a physical skill I know well, once it goes off "automatic" I falter. It's probably a form of mild anxiety "help, I need to come up with an answer - do I REALLY know this?" At least that is what it feels like to me.

    (course, it could also alternatively mean I'm losing my mind, haha!).

    I always respect people who are trying to do creative things, and even if I don't like it, I try not to be nasty about it. I know myself how awful it is to have people make cruel cutting remarks. Someone posted in a site that they wanted to throw my last book across the room because they hated it so much - that wasn't nice to read. But, when artists start charging stupid, crazy prices and clearly aiming at those with more money than they know what to do with, I stop thinking of them as creative people and start seeing them as business people aiming at high end luxury aspirational buyers. Or as chancers.

    We all have to make a living and Damien Hirst is making an honest one. And there are plenty of people who have paid those prices and will do all they can to make sure he stays at the top to protect their "investment".

    But this is when I start to sympathise with the folks who say, who are we spending public money on propping up this kind of thing?

    Well, this probably sounds grouchy but that is what I feel! :)

  24. I've read about Damien Hirst, but my response to his art is "meh". I accepted a long time ago that I'm an unsophisticated third-world barbarian: I don't understand and most definitely don't like this kind of art.

    PS: I still get lost on my way to my own home ...

  25. Your Emperor's New Clothes analogy is perfect for this. I have looked at the pharmacy stock room in Tate Modern, and then seen the same at Lloyds the Chemist just down the road. But all credit to someone who may be a visionary, especially if people pay for his wall-paper. (Do you remember the Shed Door in Tate Modern?)

  26. Are those actual Diamonds on that skull? Very cool, in any event.

    Thanks for coming by my blog!

  27. It might have been Paul Harvey who once wrote an article about modern art which he called, "They're Jiving You, Man!"

    That says a lot.

    Any my sympathy on getting lost when you have to show someone else around. It's like driving a car, i don't think about, now i put on the seat belt, now i put the key in and turn, etc. It's habit, i just do it. Then when trying to explain to a novice driver, the brain freezes up. We don't explain what we do, we just do!

  28. I'm an Anthony Gormley* girl myself. I find Hirst's work lacks (artistic) skill. As you say, he arranges things, or paints dots, etc. Well, it might make me a philistine, but if I see a piece of art and think "I could do that" it isn't art to me. (I can pickle stuff - it's just that my pickles are edible and therefore useful!)

    I used to hate Tracey Emin's work until I saw some of her early sketches at a show in Walsall. The girl has talent. You can't blame her for turning out junk like the unmade bed that will bring her money and fame that her (extremely good) sketches never would.

    I've never seen anything of Hirst's that's made me feel like he's actually capable of 'proper' art. But that might just be because I've not seen a lot of his early stuff.

    *And Anish Kapoor, and Andy Goldsworthy, and Elizabeth Frink, and Barry Flanagan, and Ian Rank-Broadley, and Diane Gorvin ... I could go on.

  29. i tend to agree on the analogy, but i do like the discussions that controversial art pieces raise.

  30. I think his work is really weird and I think your friends comment was spot on! I also had to laugh at your opening comments for this post Jenny.

  31. I have never heard of Damien Hirst and I don't understand his art. That's a plus for me because I would not be spending my money buying his expensive artworks. :P

  32. I couldn't agree more about the artist...quite a businessman....or at least his "people" are very good at marketing. But if anyone buys any of that stuff, they deserve what they get! Not much for a LOT of money, evidently!

    I think we become so familiar with our home environs and places we visit so often that we somehow forget the details like street names and station numbers and just go there on automatic pilot without thinking about directions. I've had to think really hard before about how to tell someone how to get somewhere that I could easily find with my eyes closed.

  33. I would tend to agree with you and say that Damien Hurst's work is just not my cup of tea -- for the most part. I am intrigued by the diamond studded scull. What I enjoy about the controversy over say the Turner Prize is the discussions around the question of 'what is art?' Many years ago now, when I lived in Washington, D.C. I took my son age five and a little girl the same age to the Hirshorn Museum. There were several large canvases by Jackson Pollock exhibited and the children just loved them and ran from room to room shouting at the top of their voices "I could do that one!" and "here's another one! I could do that!" They were not being critical -- just tremendously pleased that here was something they could do! The guards throughout the exhibit could not contain their laughter...

  34. Wow! Thank you for a refreshing post!

    I thought at first the prices are high because the museum needs the money. I hope not bad enough because I feel those prices are insulting the buying public.

  35. The Emperor's New Clothes describes Damien Hirst's confidence trick perfectly, I wouldn't have his stuff as a gift much less actually pay money for it. Art is not the word I would use to describe what he produces I'm afraid.
    As for giving directions - I know just how you feel. As soon as anyone asks 'Please could you tell me where X is?' my mind goes totally blank even when I know perfectly well where it is.:)

  36. I hope the tea was less expensive.
    Nice post.

  37. I think Damien Hirst is seriously over-rated, he's just a great self-publicist. I find his stuff rather cold and clinical. There are many other better artists, like Dexter Dalwood, Fiona Rae and Sean Scully. And as Dominic said, Grayson Perry. I wouldn't mind so much if Damien gave some of his vast wealth to deserving causes but does he?

    I've obviously missed my vocation. I should open a gift shop and charge ten times the normal price for everything.

  38. Interesting post. I enjoyed your comments and views on Hurst and fell in with most of them - though he is an artist about whom it is easy to hold conflicting views, I've found!

    But as to him being well known outside the British Isles, I think you'll find that he is: he has studios spread across the globe - he doesn't produce the works himself, of course, just sends instructions to his minions.

  39. Interesting post indeed. Like yourself I do not rate Hirst and possibly all those who produce so called modern art. It is a big con trick and those most tricked are the luvvies of the art world.

    A few months ago I was invited to a preview of works by local artist and although some good - most was of the modern ilk or chocolate box stuff. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable evening until the pretentious luvvies arrived and I then left...

    Dave is correct in that Hirst does not produce the work himself and if one of his minions -I would be very irritated by his ?fame.

    Anna :o]

  40. Very nice blog, I like it! And I TOTALLY LOVE LONDON, what an awesome city!


  41. sounds like a fun and interesting g day!! i have never heard of this artist, but then, i have never heard of many artists!!

  42. Happy to have had the tour with you since it means I didn't have to spend the airfare to get there. I'm always interested in artists that are new to me and this one was. Sometimes I like the art, sometimes not but I enjoy looking and learning and wondering what and why was behind the creation.


  43. Hirst is well known in France. And last year, there was an exhibition of his work near here in Monaco. I must say i don't like most of his work."Showing "dead animals seems violent to me.

  44. A lot of controversy about his "work" or "art"??!! I am not sure if i like or dislike him, and that's one of his talents...he attracts attention, you can't ignore him!

  45. Wow, a skull studded with diamonds is awesome!
    Great post! Love it!

    Stéph❀nie's Notebook

  46. Tea with a good old friend sounds the perfect end to a curious sort of day. I don't think I would have been favourably impressed with Mr. Hirst's exhibit, as so well described by you, and will save my money for tea and scones instead, should a show of his work ever present itself in my vicinity.

  47. I really enjoyed this post. I think that anything to do with contemporary art is a very interesting thing. You can study it and be interested in it without necessarily loving it. After all, the Impressionists weren't very well liked when they just got started.

  48. I agree with the Emperor's new clothes. Try some of the smaller galleries next time, you'll find some great work.

  49. I must admit that I have never heard of Damien Hirst, but then again, I'm not sure his art is of the genre I like. He has,umm, interesting stuff :)

  50. Of course, I'd be biased by your description but it sure doesn't sounds like my cuppa tea.. except of course for the cup of tea part. ;) Still an afternoon with a good friend makes it all worthwhile, I'd assume. And I stink at giving directions, also.

  51. Hi Jenny. Thanks for visit to my blog. I agree with your comment. Lots of new knowledge that I've encountered in your blog. Allow me to join in this blog. My regards.

  52. I've heard of Hirst and seen his stuff...insane. Ditto on the wallpaper. Does it give you instant orgasms just by touching it? Otherwise, what's the point?

  53. I really like Damien Hirst's work. And being an underpaid artist for most of my life I'm kinda glad he's making money out of the work he does. Auto tuned pop stars make incredible amounts of money, so why not auto tuned artists too?

    I love the diamond encrusted skull. :)

  54. Hirst is well known in Germany, too, although of course we have our own "Greatest Artist Alive".
    As for using butterfly wings to make a painting - I do hope no butterfly was killed specifically for the painting!!!
    Indeed, those price tags are obscene. I am glad you and your friend see eye to eye on this, and I am also glad you found the way to a nice cup of tea :-)

  55. How much did you pay for the cup of tea? Hopefully it was more reasonable than the prices you mentioned...I do like modern art (I loved the Anish Kapoor exhibition last year), but some of the hype is getting on my nerves. When I feel like I need some "Back to basic" art, I head to the Tate Britain, Turner exhibition. It does the trick all the time.

  56. I love some/like some/hate some of DH's work but the show is great to go see....for a rich artist doing affordable art check ot Tracy Emin's shop in Spitlefields....really something everyone can afford...she rocks!!

  57. I can honestly say that is the most blinged out skull I've ever seen. Although the mysterious crystal skull might also be a contender.

  58. Can't recall hearing about this artist before but then the morbid kind of art never appealed to me. Your comparison to the Emperor's New Clothes does, though! ;)

    I just bought your biography of Lewis Carroll, got it in the mail today - only read the introduction so far but looking forward to the rest!

  59. Hi Jenny,

    Excellently written post peppered with interesting illustrations of Damien Hirst's "art" (?)! There are so many astutely commercial artists out there. They manage to get their work taken seriously by elite curators with knitted brows and fingers holding their chins -- exactly like those nobles praising the Emperor's new clothes! Where I am now, in this affluent suburb of CA, I find the taste for art and houses to be suburban high-end. I don't quite see it as art or original architecture, just overpriced replicas of European glory. But perhaps I am guilty of the same type of elitism, considering their taste unsophisticated! Ah well, I guess I should just accept the phrase "to each his own", and submit that people will pay what something is worth to them (not someone else's external valuation).

    -- Jenny

  60. I daren't say that I don't 'get' Damien Hirst; I might be classified as belonging to the 'I don't know much about art, but I know what I like brigade.' What I find least attractive about him is that he has crowds of penniless artists working for him, doing his spot paintings and much else besides. Okay, you could say that he spreads his wealth that way, but I somehow feel, that he is taking the mickey. Maybe he isn't, let history judge him.

  61. I enjoyed your Diamond Jubilee post
    Like many on this side of the pond I'm a bit delighted by all things royal

    I think we come to know a city with muscle memory and repeated patterns. I always have to stop and really picture things before I can give directions.

    The diamond skull made me think of Lady Gaga
    don't know that I especially like his work but I find his process and sucess interesting

    thanks for your visit

  62. The diamond skull was in a special booth, and to be honest, P and I decided not to queue for it. We had found the whole show so underwhelming that the cup of tea seemed like a better option. I also don't like the fact that he gets minions to do his work. I know that historically this was often the case, that apprentices did the work of great masters of the past, but then the apprentices were learning a real skill. The clumsily applied paint of the Damian Hirst butterfly pictures, close-up, made me wonder how much the "artists" doing the work really cared. I know someone who did this kind of hack work for an artist and it sounded as if it had very little over any other unskilled job. At least you were out of the rain.

    As for not being able to find the way, I think you've put your finger on it Dianne. It becomes semi automatic. I might be rather hard pressed to remember exactly how I run down stairs, and certainly shouldn't think about it while actually doing it!

    Jenny, it's interesting you say this. In expensive areas, many of the works in small local galleries are most unimaginative. So, indeed, are the decors and gardens. But people with lots of money can often hire people with reasonable taste, and so there is usually a kind of acceptable but corporate look to their places.

    I once visited the home of an extremely famous fashion designer. His entire vast living room, by far the largest room in his posh London apartment, was lined with glass shelves, on which were countless pieces of art glass.

    Clearly his own taste but the most peculiar and oppressive effect, specially since the walls were dark. But memorable, certainly. I did wonder how his kids coped, or even if they were allowed in the room! perhaps they were confined to their bedrooms and the kitchen. The way people live is endlessly fascinating!

  63. Tickled by 'pickled'. Jenny, you have a great blog. Cute piglet down the blog. Will be back for more. Thanks for stopping by.

  64. That is so expensive. I guess we all need to make money but I think that it is very off-putting when you flat out know that you are being ripped off. You would think the artist would know this makes people not interested.
    I'm glad that you didn't get lost on the way for tea.;)

  65. The art v not-art arguments will rage on for ever. I have recently been privileged to go to a young friend's graduation exhibition and have some of the works explained to me by Young Friend. It made me think and see some of the abstract works from the artists' perspective. I still cannot accept Damien Hurst's work as art though.

    Your problem with directions is probably just as you surmised: a mild form of panic. It is, I understand, a very common problem even amongst those who are apparently the least panicky sort of people. The same people often have difficulty with exams even when they are exceptionally good at written work. How do I know all this? Personal experience. I have the same problems and a 'professional' explained it to me.

  66. How nice to find your great blog! Thank you for visiting mine and luring me here xx


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