OK, so admittedly Damien Hirst is still very much with us… But what can you say about an artist’s life’s work when they have died penniless and relatively unknown? The best way to answer is to reverse the question: why does it matter a damn that a collective of individuals have over a certain period encountered an artist’s work during his lifetime and paid good money to own the inner ravings of his psyche? Does the work speak to them on a base and fundamentally earthy level, or is it something in keeping with current fashion and may turn over some cash in a few years’ time? Consider the world-renown Vermeer’s work now enjoys, and imagine that at one time it was as obscure and terribly unfashionable.
Artlyst lysts Fragonard and El Greco – now rightly lauded by art history – as ridiculed by the contemporary market after they had fallen out of fashion. Similarly, the genius of Van Gogh and Gauguin would never be known with the same degree of reverence within their lifetimes as they are known now, perhaps simply because the fashion within art didn’t allow their unique and thoroughly progressive styles within its parameters. In short, what was successful wasn’t necessarily good for the development of art history as we know it: the market and taste is a weird and unaccountable thing. See individual and unusual cases of dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel for lone figures who foresaw long-term significance of Impressionism way before the market did. And spent much of their working careers staying staunchly isolated until the market came round to their notion that, yes, Impressionism was something hugely significant.
Yet what of those who do convincingly and successfully influence the market? The difference is that artists with real vision and verve may not be in possession of good business skills: compared to Van Gogh and Gauguin slaving away, or Gericault locking himself in isolation for 6 months to complete his swansong, the Raft of the Medusa, you need only read biographies of Turner to see how the man rose above others in the limelight mainly because – obviously in addition to his own not unimportant talent – he took the elements of others’ paintings and emphasised them in his own, hitting upon what was successful and how to cultivate it. He was not necessarily popular in the most school-yard sense, but he made himself known.
Which brings me once again to Damien Hirst: a man at the extreme end of the art > business spectrum, where the art seems incidental to the act of making sexy money. Unlike Van Gogh, I thoroughly believe that after Hirst’s death (god rest his soul), the value attached to his art won’t skyrocket, because he has spent his career peddling a brand, not actual art in its rare, pure and truly special sense. Those that are now famous but weren’t within their lifetimes are so because they have brought something new and totally earth shattering that resounds throughout art history and time: Hirst dictates the market simply through marketing something that is incidental, not necessarily art, and when he’s not there peddling it anymore, we’ll either have someone else pander to our blank Chelsea kitchen walls, or maybe, just maybe, new young artists with real flair and vision may get some attention.
Words: firstname.lastname@example.org Photo: P C Robinson © artlyst all rights reserved