Is Modern Art a Sham?

Multimillionaire artist Damien Hirst is unmasked as a mediocre painter

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You might know contemporary artist Damien Hirst as the edgy brains behind "For the Love of God," a $100 million platinum-and-diamond skull. Or perhaps you know him for the modestly titled "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," which to the eyes of someone living looked like a shark floating in formaldehyde. Now you should also know him as a rather poor painter.

The British art world is pouring mockery on the artist's first exhibition of traditional paintings. Critics are universally aghast at Hirst's poor technique, and are reconsidering the longstanding laymen's critique of modern art: Couldn't anybody have painted that? The contemporary art world is having a soul-searching moment, touching on YouTube, previously-rejected hierarchies, and the status of painting. The old question returns: Is modern art a sham?

Here are the arguments:

  • Hirst Admits That Painting Matters  The Guardian's Jonathan Jones calls these developments a "call to order" that "leaves me dumbfounded," and is one of several to argue that "[i]t is not just Hirst who is implicated in this exposure. It is an entire idea of art that triumphed in the 1990s and still dominates our culture." He even argues that "[n]o critic has even come close to the total dismissal of 21st-century art implied by Hirst's turnabout." Here's why:
A whole generation has taken Hirst's licence to produce art that doesn't so much reject as coldly ignore traditions of painting, drawing and sculpture. And now Hirst is basically saying it was all nonsense. He didn't mean it. He wanted to be a great painter all along. But, as any visitor to his show at the Wallace Collection can see, he's not.
  • Modern Art Depends on the Myth of Hidden Technique  Another Guardian writer, Barbara Ellen, who thinks the Hirst paintings "bear more than a passing resemblance to a nightmare an Eighties Goth might have had after buying a bad kebab outside an Alien Sex Fiend show," takes a slightly different tack. The problem, she says, is that "[i]n art, the public has always been told that conceptual artists are more than capable of producing a nice landscape or portrait, but they simply choose not to." But Hirst has "put the kibosh on that," she explains, and in doing so may have "ruined it for modern artists forever."
  • Internet-Age Populism Unmasked  Mark Hudson goes the furthest: Hirst deliberately set himself up for comparison to "his hero Francis Bacon," and the other masters of the gallery, and his "[f]or once, chutzpah wasn't enough." He notices that one reviewer "felt the need to preface his particularly acerbic remarks by reiterating ... one of the great mantras of contemporary art, that 'skills needn't matter.'" But maybe, suggests Hudson, the unanimity of the response to Hirst shows, once and for all, "that skills most definitely do, should and always will matter."

Struck by the surreal nature of Hirst's own comments on his work, Hudson comes to a much broader conclusion that begins to poke at the corners of politically-correct egalitarianism:

Perhaps, in our money-obsessed, YouTube watching, 'skills don't matter' world where nonentities dominate the airwaves and the consumer is king there really is no difference in worth between a real early Francis Bacon and one of the works of his technically challenged, multi-millionaire fan. If today's events do nothing else, they affirm that that is not the case ... While little difference may have been made to the overall trajectory of Hirst's career--or more specifically his prices--it is heartening to see that the world, or those aspects of it represented by the British media, retains a lot more integrity than many would have given it credit for.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.