I t’s odd, isn’t it, how time takes the edge off the edgy, making the outrageous respectable and turning yesterday’s enfant terrible into today’s eminence grise. Socialists are not the only ones who’ve had trouble putting permanent revolution into practice.
In the 1960s, the Beatles shocked middle-aged parents with their long hair and lapel-free suits. In 2005, organizers of the U.S. Super Bowl shocked kids in a different way by inviting former Beatle Paul McCartney, now 62, to star in the halftime show that Janet Jackson made so notorious last year. Anything less cutting-edge or controversial than the droopy-faced, knighted, billionaire rocker would be hard to imagine — precisely the organizers’ goal, although it might have been a bittersweet feeling for Sir Paul.
Still, an old Beatles lyric from 1968 foresaw the moment: “You say you want a revolution. . . You can count me out./ Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right?”
In art as in politics, there is often nothing more comforting, familiar and everyday than an aging rebel or his works. Bob Dylan songs are played at suburban weddings. Salvador Dali’s paintings grace placemats and postcards. That boxy Bauhaus architecture looks just plain boring now.
And in New York last week, Britain’s scapegrace art punk of the past decade and a half, Damian Hirst, now 39, looked back on his rebellious youth and dropped a bombshell, pronouncing some of his attention-getting projects “a bit silly.” Those would include the various dissected farm animals, dead butterflies and paintings done by shaking pigment onto a spinning canvas.
Isn’t it amazing how much perspective a few years afford? It is as well to be clear: Mr. Hirst has not abandoned his iconoclastic vision. Don’t be misled by the fact that the new exhibition of his work, which he was in New York to promote, consists of 29 frankly un-Hirstlike, super-realistic oil paintings, with nary a pig or a cow or a jar of formaldehyde in sight. Closer inspection reveals the familiar bad-boy touch surviving in the content, if not in the medium. The paintings are coldly clinical renditions of photographs of gruesome hospital scenes, dissecting tables, a mortuary, drug addicts, suicide bombers and the like.
The bad boy also revealed that he hadn’t even painted most of them. Assistants did most of the work, while he just stepped in at the end to add a spot of blood or do the eyes. “I don’t like the idea that it has to be done by the artist,” he said candidly. “I think it’s quite an old-fashioned thing. Architects don’t build their own houses.”
So, Mr. Hirst has remained true to his urge to shock. (And why wouldn’t he, when it has proved so lucrative? In January, a U.S. hedge fund magnate bought his famous preserved tiger shark for $12 million.) What’s new is that it just doesn’t seem iconoclastic anymore. As rich, fashionable New Yorkers lined up around the block to view and buy his depressing new pictures of the tools and emissaries of death, his remarks suddenly seemed — and we hate to say this — positively sensible.
It’s not just because $12 million has a funny way of making any project look sensible, either. Take those comments about not doing his own paintings. That’s actually interesting, not to mention practical. His assistants painted better than he did, he said, so “you’d get an inferior painting” if he did them himself. Besides, “I want to do 1,000 paintings immediately and I can’t do that on my own,” he added, busily signing prints that were selling for $20,000 a pop.
And then there is Mr. Hirst’s sudden grasp of the long perspectives and the discriminating effect they have on a man’s body of work. “You do turn around after a few years and look at your stuff and you think it’s embarrassing,” he said. “You can buy drinks for all the collectors in the world and get your stuff in the museums. But in 200 years’ time, if it’s crap, it’s not going to be there, is it?”
No, it’s not. But Mr. Hirst isn’t the one who is supposed to be pointing that out. What will the art critics do for a job if he is going to start doing it for them? How can we sober and skeptical editorial writers make fun of an artist who so effectively makes fun of himself?
Chatting to reporters last week, he sounded like a crabby old grandpa shaking his head over youth’s frivolity: “People come up to me sometimes and say, ‘You’re in a position where you could put dog [feces] onto a lobster and call it art,’ ” he said. “But why would I? Why would somebody do something stupid like that?”
If he keeps on sounding so rational, Mr. Hirst will find himself getting knighted. Now that would be shocking.
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