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Tallis in Wonderland

The Shocking Yawn

Raymond Tallis takes on the strange case of Damien H.

This summer, the Tate Modern in London hosted a major retrospective of the works of one the best-known contemporary British artists. Now that the exhibition has closed and the space has been liberated for more interesting items such as fresh air and daylight, it is appropriate that philosophers should reflect on the collective delusion that elevated this individual to the status of artist, indeed the status of a Leading British Artist.

In discussing the case of Damien H., it may seem inadvisable to talk about his art. Hasn’t everything, for and against, been said already? Those of us who are against will just have to wait patiently for the South Sea Bubble to burst and the credit default swaps to be called in. After all, to vary what was said of the British poetaster Edith Sitwell, H. has more to do with the history of publicity than the history of art.

There is something to be said for this view, but in Damien H.’s case, ‘art versus publicity’ is a distinction without a difference. While his true metier lies in his extraordinary talent for self-promotion and his uncanny sense of what will open the wallets of the wealthy, his achievement as an artist in the traditional sense (in which terms he is slender in everything except sheer quantity) needs to be examined precisely because it is the disproportion between the merit of the work and the attention it has attracted that makes him so intriguing. The art is therefore unavoidable.

So too is the emblematic stuffed shark, which after all is not a bad place to begin, not only because it propelled H. to international fame, but also because it illustrates important features of the case. The item was supposed to shock in various ways: dead sharks are apparently even more shocking than living ones; and a dead shark in a gallery is apparently more shocking than one washed up on the shore. Of course, it is not shocking at all, any more than a pile of dead fish in a fishmonger is shocking. There was, however, a source of the rumour of shock: the critics’ idea of people who would be shocked or who would pronounce themselves shocked. The cry “This is not art!” also helped. Hasn’t all great art been execrated by the philistines? No, actually; but this error is sufficient to kick-start the faulty logic of his advocates:

Major Premise: All great artists have been despised by some critics.

Minor Premise: This artist has been despised by some critics.

Conclusion: Therefore this artist is great.

Gallery spaces world-wide were already well used to housing ‘found objects’ and other pointless items. Sir Nicholas Serota had already bought a can of merde (originating from the colon of Italian artist Piero Manzoni) for the Tate for £22,000. Against such competition, how could a mere shark compete? This is where H.’s promotional genius came in – with the help of adman Charles Saatchi, who commissioned the piece. H. gave his pickled piscine a portentous title: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The title – which philosophers know could have been better illustrated by an empty space – had only a tangential relationship to the shark, but everything to do with its success. This is not just art, folks: it is metaphysical art, addressing a fundamental existential angst – so we must overlook the fatuity of ‘physical’ in ‘physical impossibility of death’. The objection that large dead fish – even sharks – are seen in many places where they are not considered art (such as J.D. Electrical Supplies in Shoreditch, London, where there is a shark on the wall), could easily be shrugged off. What Damien H. has done is to ‘recontextualise’ the item by relocating it to a gallery. As a result (we are told) we saw: a) the shark differently; b) the gallery space differently; c) art (esp., Western, history of) differently; and d) ourselves/our lives differently. That fish was therefore worth every penny of the £50,000 price – small fry of course compared to the hundreds of millions that H. has trousered in the shark’s wake.

The shark is shocking, of course. It is shocking that anyone could claim to be shocked by it. It is shocking that anyone (artist or critic) could claim that it ought to shock people. It is shocking that the real horrors of the world are sufficiently forgotten, or that people are sufficiently sheltered from them, that it is assumed that a stuffed shark would be required to awaken us to the idea of death. It is, in short, shocking that there has been such a conspiracy of artists, critics, dealers, and wealthy clients pretending that the item in question is a wake-up call to those who are insufficiently shocked.

Display Cases

So much for Exhibit 1. The genius of the adman and would-be shock-artist was evident in the titles of subsequent works – Two Fucking and Two Watching (a rotting cow and a bull), Mother and Child Divided (a cow and a calf divided). The latter work is a favourite of Serota, who argued that “the disgust provoked by the work is part of its appeal.” “Art is transgressive” because “Life is not all sweet.” (Who knew?) But the heavy reliance on titles to assert creative ownership got H. into serious trouble, which brings us to Exhibit 2.

In the year 2000 he gave the cryptic title Hymn to a blown up version of a doctors’ plastic anatomical model. Critics were enraptured. It was described as “a masterpiece” and “the first key work of British art for the 21st century.” More importantly, it was bought by Charles Saatchi for £1,000,000. Mr Emms, the commercial sculptor who had made the original and who discovered only by accident that his work had been appropriated, was less impressed, and sued successfully for compensation. The compensation he received was pitifully small.

The extent of H.’s appropriations (or ‘influences’) – unbecoming for an artist of such supposed originality – is astonishing. The Carolina Science Catalogue (for the bisected cow), John LeKay (Yin and Yang, more like Hymn even than the work of Mr Ebbs), the Spastics Society, the artist Kerry Stewart (Charity), and even the celebrity chef Marco Pierre White, have all been identified by his sworn enemies the Stuckists as involuntary grist to Damien H.’s mill.

And so to Exhibit 3: spot and spin paintings. They are not original (thank you Thomas Downing, Walter Robinson, Blue Peter and many others) – although the reach of H.’s publicity machine is such that he is known to many people ignorant of the history of art by which his originality (or lack of it) might be judged. Secondly, these pieces are manufactured on an industrial scale (a thousand at the last count), and not, for the most part, by The Master Himself. Finally, they are utterly banal, even if quite pretty. They have resonant titles, of course – the names of different brands of pills – which, according to Adrian Searle of the Guardian, “give them a slightly menacing, as well as a dangerously attractive, air.” If you feel unmenaced and (dangerously or otherwise) unattracted by the name of a tablet, you are clearly a philistine.

Adman’s Aesthetics

So much for the ‘art’. But this column is dedicated to philosophy; and so it is necessary not only to identify BS as BS, but also to dig a little deeper. Why has Damien H. attracted so much adulation (as well as, of course, execration, although that mainly misses the mark) to the point where he was granted the apotheosis of a major retrospective in the Tate Modern? What are the conditions that made his rise possible? A few powerful, impressionable characters with wobbly judgement, like Nicholas Serota, and someone wealthy enough to shape the art market, such as adman Charles Saatchi, are not sufficient explanation. More is needed. That more includes: Damien H. himself; gullible billionaires entering the art market, where things can be talked up and down without anyone looking particularly hard at the product; and the way art is discussed – the theory of the purpose it serves and of how it should be evaluated.

Damien H. is an adman’s dream. He was the embodiment of the rebellious artist: from the wrong side of the tracks, out of his head on coke and alcohol, was treated as an equal by pop stars, and was thumbing his nose at an art world that was supposed to be dead (or complacent, or traditional – you choose) before his arrival (not true). He was adored for his chutzpah. Notwithstanding the rotting animals, he made art glamorous, even sexy. And the art market, having found him marketable, marketed him, with the unstinting assistance of the artist, for all he was worth. Rising prices translated into rising value, and rising value further boosted the prices. The wallet became elevated to being the chief organ of taste.

And then there is the theory. I have mentioned the theory of art as shock therapy for those who are insufficiently shocked (“Life is not all sweet”), and the artist as shock therapist. There is also the theory of the artist as one who finds rather than makes his works, which theory dismisses all the traditional skills of the artist as irrelevant – very convenient for the untalented. As Adrian Hamilton, former Editor of the Independent newspaper has said, “Contemporary artists” – he meant some contemporary artists – “have long since rejected concepts of personal creation for ideas of mass production, recycled imagery and synthetic materials.” No-one knows this better than poor Mr Ebbs, the wronged toymaker whose work was misappropriated by H.

And then there is the issue of what Ernst Gombrich called ‘the beholder’s share’: what we bring to the work to complete the experience of it. H.’s po-faced sharks and spotty paintings demand more of the beholder. When we and a dead shark exchange blank stares, we may be at a loss to find any meaning in the experience. While the title of the piece assures us that there is meaning, it doesn’t tell us what it is. We need help, and it is forthcoming. There are plenty of people willing and able to tell you what impact the work must have on you, and what it tells you about ‘modern society’, ‘contemporary life’, ‘the twenty first century’, or some such gigantic abstraction so you’ll feel ashamed of the yawn that overtook you when you were supposed to be overwhelmed by shock. It takes self-confidence to dissent from critic Richard Dormant’s assertion that H.’s endless spot paintings reflect “how the internet is deadening our individuality by making human beings indistinguishable from one another” (Daily Telegraph, 12th January, 2012) by pointing out that the spot paintings series began a decade before the net was up and running. In short, you’ll be made to feel there is something wrong with you if Damien H.’s whimsies don’t hit the spot.

H.’s fortune was made in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp signed that famous urinal ‘R. Mutt’, starting a trend whereby works of art were judged less by the craft and vision that had gone into making them than by the theory upon which they were mounted. Duchamp’s slightly funny joke has worn more than a little thin over the succeeding decades. Perhaps, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the ‘scandal’, we may cry “We are no longer Mutts!”, refuse to be piss-taken any longer, and cases like those of Damien H. will prove to be the last throes of a trend in art that has gone on too long. A little more attention will be freed up to celebrate those who are truly talented, truly original, and truly liberating. It would be cheering to think that philosophy, with its power to detect bullshit, might hasten this process. But I’m not holding my breath, for fear of dying of anoxia.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2012

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet, broadcaster and novelist. His latest book In Defence of Wonder is out from Acumen.

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