The Players: David Hockney, British superstar artist revered and known by many for his swimming pool paintings; Damien Hirst, British superstar artist known for his "factory" of assistants and that $100 million platinum skull.
The Opening Serve: At David Hockney's forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy there will be no questions as to who made the pieces of art. Posters promoting the exhibition include a smirky reminder, "All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally." Yes, it's a little obvious that David Hockney would create David Hockney's pieces, but the reminders are more of a dig at fellow British artist-superstar Damien Hirst whose assistants to help him create his works. Hockney confirmed the jabs with the Radio Times, "It’s a little insulting to craftsmen, skillful craftsmen." Hockney got a little more philosophical when describing what it was about art and the use of assistants that bothered him. "I used to point out at art school, you can teach the craft, it’s the poetry you can’t teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft," said Hockney who also quoted a Chinese proverb. "You need the eye, the hand and the heart. Two won’t do.”
The Return Volley: Though he hasn't responded to Hockney's quips just yet, Hirst's use of assistants hasn't really been a secret and Hirst hasn't been shy in saying that his assistants are better painters than he is. The Guardian points out that Hirst once said he employed assistants to make works and paintings because "I couldn't be fucking arsed doing it." The Guardian also notes that when Hirst did in fact paint his own works, their own reviewer called it "amateurish and adolescent." It's The Telegraph's Richard Dorment who comes to Hirst's defense. "Hockney knows more about art history than most curators. He is perfectly well aware that artists have not always made their own work," writes Dorment who believes that Hockney is just "teasing" the younger Hirst. "He knows all about Rubens’s studio assistants, the workshops of Lucas Cranach and the technicians who actually carved Rodin’s marble statues. I’ll bet too that he’s cast a critical eye over Hirst’s oeuvre and has decided which pieces (if any) are successful and which aren’t." Dorment closes:
In my view, what matters above all is the poetry. If the work has that then does it really matter how it was made? The question then is – how do you define `poetry’. I find the paintings of Jack Vettriano repellent, but they are certainly made by the artist himself. On the other hand I’m a fan of the Thai performance artist Rirkrit Tiravanija who comes into a gallery to cook and serve delicious Thai food...
I happen to know that Hockney doesn’t think that what Rirkrit does is art, and maybe it isn’t. Who cares? As I said, Hockney is always right and always wrong. That’s why I love to disagree with him.
What They Say They're Fighting About: The philosophy of art and how much the artist matters. That's why the conversation went metaphorical and got into name-dropping in a hurry. Underneath all that eye, heart and craft talk there's an argument of how skillful an artist should be, and Hockney believes that's where Hirst is lacking. Forgive the pun, but in his opinion the artistry in art just isn't valued anymore. What Hirst and his defender, Dorment, would argue is that the final impact of the piece is what matters--hence the reference to the painter and the Thai food performance artist from the latter.
What They're Really Fighting About: Ego. As Dorment points out, Hirst isn't the first or last artist to use assistants and Hockney, being an encyclopedia of art history would know this. But Hirst is one the British art world's brightest superstars--bad-boy-bored-with-painting image and all. And Hirst's work will be the centerpiece of a Tate Modern exhibition in April. If Hirst wasn't, as The Independent puts it, "the king of YBAs", and was just a lesser name--it'd be hard to see Hockney targeting him personally.
Who's Winning Now: Both. If there's anyone who can insult Hirst and his fans and come away unscathed, it's the venerable Hockney. And Hockney's not-so-veiled insults aren't going to exactly hurt Hirst's reputation for being a contemporary, anti-artist artist. When dealing with a subjective topic like art, music or poetry (or even journalism), there's never going to be full compromise or agreement when it comes to who does what best or for that matter, what actually is best. As Dorment points out--even finished products by master craftsmen sometimes don't hold a candle to someone serving up some Thai food. But if you've managed to get someone as revered as Hockney to say that you're dead wrong--then you, like Damien Hirst are on the right track.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.