There is an extremely thin line between embodying the tortured soul artiste, the infant terrible, and simply behaving like a self-indulgent twat to the annoyance of everyone else. A key factor which determines this delicate balance lies in the integrity of the artwork produced, combined with the degree to which the artist in question is absorbed in the womb-like protection of the monied establishment. A simple test. When you consider the following names, which comes to your mind first – a visual memory of artworks (doesn’t matter whether good, bad or godawful), or the shocking life story/scandalous rumour/Daily Mail column showing their gurning mug/latest escapade/plonking a crap sculpture in the middle of an innocent seaside town: Caravaggio; Cellini; Koons; Hirst; Emin. Notice how that list begins with an oeuvre of amazing painterly skill and progresses to “that drunk idiot who screamed incoherently in the Tate one time”.
In the history of the development of the ‘artist’ persona as we know it, the anonymous craftsman who created art for devotional purposes did so selflessly, as a mode of worship. The idea of an ‘artist’ distinguished by greater imagination and stylistic development only gradually emerged, signalled with the appearance of signatures: “Gislebertus hoc fecit”, or “I sculpted this church, innit”. Today, the person of artist is equal if not more important than the physical artwork itself, bound together with their produce. So when Koons married porn star Ilona Staller, his home life was shaped consciously as an extension of his artistic produce, just like Lada Gaga wears stupid dresses or any modern actress constructs a persona. Such ‘bad’ or ‘weird’ behaviour is justified within this context as it is backed up by a watertight and rigorous artistic idea, regardless of whatever you may make of ‘Made in Heaven’.
So when there is no real artistic talent, you have not an enfant terrible but an artiste terrible, wilfully whipping their dicks out at the soirée to inject some life into their artist’s persona. Dusty Springfield made food fights her signature party trick, but it didn’t eclipse the respectability of her vast back catalogue. Lucien Freud may have fathered squillions of children without acknowledging any, but the solidity of his technical skill takes central importance in his biography as a vastly significant contribution to 20th century painting. Tracey Emin’s antics however have no back catalogue to fall back on: the sneering pout expressing defiantly her “I’m an artist, you fuckers” stance isn’t fooling anyone when coupled with squiggly doodles of her vagina.
Once, this attitude projected the YBAs forcibly from outside the artistic establishment to within, whether they liked it or not. It’s no coincidence that now both own large properties and small seaside resorts that there is less need to exert themselves. So what of artists already born into bags of money? We remember Dash Snow mainly for behaving badly then dying and photographing it along the way; despite styling himself as a penniless “downtown Baudelaire”, the work is arguably equally insular, introspective and self-obsessed. I don’t believe this is the future of art: there are plenty of visionaries operating today with the talent and imagination to expand and push what we know and think of as art. It is simply a shame that we continue to devote column inches to ‘bad boy’ artist personas because everyone without fail wants to read about it; the most exciting thing about Damien Hirst is not his art, but how much of a total dickhead he is and how much we love to hate him.