In defence of Damien Hirst
James Heartfield puts the case for a dead sheep
Not that Damien Hirst needs any defending by me or anyone else - he's just
sold a sheep suspended in formaldehyde for £25 000. Hirst's dead sheep
has provoked a chorus of tutting at the profligacy and pointlessness of
the art market, as the army of people who don't know about art but know
what they like, sound off. One letter in the Times from a highland
sheep farmer in dire straits offered cut-price dead sheep at £12 500
each. One artist one-upped Hirst by tipping black ink into the sheep's glass
case and renaming it 'Black Sheep'. For his troubles he was arrested, but
the sheep has now been returned to its original off-whiteness.
Hirst's sheep seems to be proof of Kurt Vonnegut's proposition that the
art market is a conspiracy between the artists and the rich to make poor
people feel stupid. It ranks alongside Carl Andre's bricks - a pile of fire
bricks bought by the Tate Gallery for thousands in the seventies. Then,
too, the chorus demanded 'What's all that about, then?', before adding 'Any
fool could do that!'.
But the truth is that it takes a special kind of fool to sell fire-bricks
to the Tate or hawk pickled sheep in the Serpentine Gallery: it takes an
artist. More than 100 years ago Walter Sickert sued the critic John Ruskin
who said of his impressionist painting, completed in a matter of hours,
that he had thrown a jar of colour into the face of the public. Sickert's
case was that the painting might have taken hours rather than days or months,
but it was the product of years of training. He won.
The Scottish sheep farmer thinks she can undercut Damien Hirst by selling
dead sheep half-price. But the price of a dead sheep is £45 at my butcher's
not £12 500. And if Highland landowners cannot compete in the meat
market they have no business bleating to us, not after they cleared the
crofters off their estates to make way for their uneconomic sheep. In any
case, Hirst's buyer is not buying a dead sheep any more than the Tate Gallery
was buying fire bricks. What was on sale was an original Damien Hirst, not
a gamey old sheep that has been stinking out some moor for the last two
Hirst's sheep has been soaking up the formaldehyde in the great vat of animal
parts that spews out from his studio. These include a fully-grown shark,
similarly preserved and suspended in a tank of fluid, as if caught in motion;
and Mother and Child - cow with calf, this time cut in half down the middle
so you can see their innards and walk between their dismembered parts as
they stand motionless in four glass cases.
As Vonnegut says, some art is a private joke between dealers, buyers and
artists. Throughout the eighties, Joseph Beuys exhibited great quantities
of lard and felt. Unless you were aware that Beuys had been shot down over
Siberia while serving in the Luftwaffe, and then saved by nomadic herdsmen
who packed his frozen body in felt and lard, you would never guess the significance
that this stuff had for him. If you knew the story, you could share in his
attempts to recreate the experience of coming back from the brink. If you
didn't, you were just another pleb who thought it was a load of old lard
But Hirst's joke is far from private. His dead sheep is everyone's property.
The image belongs to us all, though the work does not. Cartoonists across
the country immediately made the connections between a sheep immobilised
in fluid and the prime minister, in an echo of Denis Healey's quip that
being attacked by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep.
The real measure of the sheep's success - after its price tag - is that like
Carl Andre's bricks it has become a point of reference, featuring in the
news and editorial pages of most newspapers. This dead sheep savaged us
Why are people surprised at the price of an original Damien Hirst? They
are not surprised at the price of a piece of canvas decorated by Leonardo
da Vinci - even though canvas and colours combined can only have cost a few
bob. Art has to be expensive otherwise nobody would ever engage in this
unrewarding and precarious career. It's a bit like that scene in the Treasure
of the Sierra Madre, when the old-timer explains to his fellow gold-diggers
that the man who strikes lucky will gain by the efforts of all the other
poor suckers who dig in vain. The bad artists are the ones that make the
good artists expensive. The extra the collector pays for is their unsuccessful
labours (and a number of them seemed to be on show at the Serpentine alongside
Of course there is always someone who misses the point and thinks that it's
just a dead sheep in a glass case. Perhaps someone who thinks that some
of the notoriety will rub off if he tips some black ink in to stain the
sheep. But nobody ever remembers these martyrs to philistinism. A few years
ago the excellent sculptor David Mach built a U-boat out of old tyres on
the South Bank, to the usual uproar. One unfortunate was so overcome with
hatred for the tyres that he snuck up one night with a can of paraffin and
set light to the rubber, only to be overcome by fumes and fall to his death
in the flames he himself had ignited. It's sad, but you have to laugh at
such a wilfully ignominious end.
Militant philistines, like the gang of traditionalist hecklers who hissed
the opening performance of Harrison Birtwistle's latest opera, only end
up advertising their target. Nobody is interested in the hecklers' leader,
a conservative musician of little note, any more than they are interested
in the other work of the sheep stainer, or the opinions of the man who burned
himself to death amid David Mach's tyres.
Meanwhile, Hirst's dead sheep floats gracefully in its case, caught mid-gambol.
Guaranteed against rot for a hundred years, it shows the futility of catching
an image, by taking all the life out of it. It hasn't the drama of Hirst's
floating Shark, or the ghoulishness of the Mother and Child. More pastoral,
Ad-men guilt trip ethics girl
Helen West objects to adverts using moral blackmail
Raised as a Catholic, I'm an authority on guilt-tripping. I've also had
more than my fair share of it, which is why I cannot stand the new drift
Today's ad agencies are pitching a set of moral values at me. The idea is
to guilt-trip the punters into buying their client's product. If I don't
buy it, I must be a heartless bastard.
Well I'm definitely not sold on the idea. I think it's just another image-building
gimmick. A couple of years ago it was Green consumerism, now it's human
rights and ethnic cultures. This girl isn't heartless, but she isn't stupid
'Then make sure your money isn't backing them.' The new campaign from the
Co-op invites you to put your money in a bank which doesn't do business
with oppressive regimes. The Co-operative Bank also boycotts companies who
needlessly damage the environment or are involved in animal experiments
for cosmetic purposes, as well as organisations connected with blood sports,
and companies using exploitative factory farming methods.
Note the judicious use of the word 'needlessly'. The advert's portrayal
of 'oppressive regimes' consists of a photograph of a baton-wielding riot
cop which could have been taken at Orgreave, Trafalgar Square or any Saturday
night rave banned under the forthcoming Criminal Justice Act. When British
police are 'oppressive', presumably they are not doing it 'needlessly'.
The Co-op campaign highlights the bank's ethical policy launched in 1992.
Not that the Co-op has jumped on the PC bandwagon. The ethical policy 'was
simply following our traditional outlook and values established over 100
years ago'. So the Co-op Bank was already established during the scramble
for Africa a century ago. If I look in the archives I can expect to find
adverts saying 'Don't invest in colonial repression'. I think not.
Turn-of-the-century missionary societies used to invite the middle classes
to sponsor little black children. If you have a yearning for those good
old days, you can achieve a warm moral glow with Cafedirect: 'You discover
excellent coffee, they discover school.' Drink enough to give yourself caffeine
poisoning, and somebody somewhere will be handed a free pencil.
Anita Roddick's endorsement of American Express makes my flesh crawl. It
goes along the lines of: I'm a caring business person who respects cultural
differences, and I carry an American Express card. Never have the words
'plastic' and 'Green' seemed so closely linked. I wonder how many Body Shop
employees are respected enough to qualify for American Express. Or is the
contrast between rich and poor just another example of cultural difference?
In the USA, the Working Assets Long Distance network says 'Be responsible,
talk on the phone. Every time you call, we give one per cent of your charges
(at no cost to you) to groups like Amnesty International, Planned Parenthood
and Greenpeace'. Over here we have British Telecom's 'It's good to talk'
campaign. Bob Hoskins tells us 'it's kinder, innit?'. Yeah, Bob, it's kinder
to BT if we don't switch to Mercury. 'We care' echoes British Gas, and don't
we know it? It's because they care that they're laughing all the way to
But it's no laughing matter because we're not allowed to laugh. On 12 May
1994 cigarette companies were told by the government to cut out the gags.
This followed the ban imposed by the Advertising Standards Association on
a campaign promoting Regal cigarettes. The campaign was to have been shown
up north, and featured a comic character called Reg. It was feared that
hordes of youngsters would see the ad and decide 'I too want to be an old,
bald, Northern codger called Reg, stunt my growth and die of lung cancer'.
At this point they would give up playing team sports and disappear behind
Besides cutting out all the funnies, the new code of practice means that
adverts for cigarettes can no longer be sited within 200 metres of a school
entrance. I assume this measure is meant to benefit pupils who live less
than 200 metres away from school, and who never go anywhere else. In addition,
the health warnings on cigarette packets are to be increased in size. Soon
we'll be going into shops and asking for 'a packet of Premature Births,
You can already go into shops and ask for '20 Death'. But I was disappointed
to hear that the Enlightened Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Death cigarettes,
make a point of donating 10 per cent of pre-tax profits to cancer research
charities (anti-vivisection, of course). I'd be happier if they invested
in Bupa on behalf of smokers, because let's face it, there's no guarantee
we'll get treatment on the NHS.
We're not allowed to choke and chuckle, but you can titter at tits - if you're
a woman that is. Although 27 viewers (that many) complained to the Independent
Television Commission about the busty advert for Gossard's Ultrabra, the
ad escaped a ban when its makers presented market research showing that
the majority of women in the target audience were more likely to find it
humorous than offensive. Agency bosses also claimed that the public expects
to see the effect of 'performance' lingerie. So, as well as being humorous,
the heaving cleavage was brought to you in the interests of consumer choice.
Onwards, I say, to the crotch shot in tampon commercials. But only for the
sake of public information and moral uplift.
Alec Campbell flags up the failings of Brit-pop
To their credit, Blur want to be different. Parklife, their third album,
is proof enough that they're on a different track. A crop of sharp-edged
songs, jaunty but wry, make it an enjoyable ride. But where's it heading,
and have we been there before?
Imagine a cocktail of The Small Faces ('Lazy Sunday Afternoon'), The Kinks
('Sunny Afternoon'), XTC for quirkiness, Robert Wyatt for plaintiveness,
and a touch of Carry On-camp: shake 'em all up and the result would
be something like Blur.
Derivative, yes. Revivalist, no. The art of pop music, as Nick Lowe once
said, is knowing what to steal. He could have gone on to say that, once
you've stolen what you need, the trick is to put it together in unforeseen
combinations. That's how you get new wine out of old bottles. And the sound
of Blur is nothing if not intoxicating.
If only they'd left it at that. But Blur have set themselves up as leaders
of the pack known as 'Brit-pop', which also includes Pulp, new entry Gene
(named after the flip-side of 'This Charming Man'), and honourary members
Suede. The self-proclaimed mission of Brit-pop is to save us from all things
'America is so violent in the way it exports itself', says 26-year-old Blur
frontman Damon Albarn. 'I get physically ill when I go there.' Instead of
the frustrated anger and neurosis of the American slacker, Blur insist that
pop music should be about 'good haircuts, your mates, sex, smoking, drinking
and looking good'. I always thought it was about all those things and
anger and neurosis.
Blur's idea of 'looking good' is based on the gawkiest dancers in the archive
footage of Ready Steady Go. They like to think they're at home in
down-to-earth places like Walthamstow dog track. But they dare not go there
on Saturday nights, when their affected appearance and artschool demeanour
draw the mirth of local kids, and stronger reactions from elder siblings.
Never mind. Art student Pete Townshend was copying working class mannerisms
30 years ago, and getting them wrong. But it didn't stop him writing some
of the best pop songs ever.
The pop musicians of Townshend's generation were unlike Blur in one important
respect: they loved America as much as Blur seem to hate it. The burning
desire for American clothes, American records and American dance-steps,
was the impetus behind the birth of British pop. The desire for all things
American was partly derived from a yearning to get away from fuddy-duddy
Britain: the Light programme, Billy Cotton, brass bands and Harold Macmillan.
In the sixties, every swinger in London was trying to break the boundaries
of stale Old Blighty. But Blur regard the pop culture of this period as
the epitome of self-contained Britishness, and they are holding it up as
a shield against the invasion of slacker culture, the insidious cancer of
out-of-town shopping malls and theme restaurants, and the increasing incidence
of American voiceovers on British adverts.
The siege-mentality exhibited by Blur would have been totally alien to the
sixties Mods they claim to be descended from. When Damon Albarn insists
on the importance of 'community...we all need to fit in, to belong somewhere',
he echoes the crusty left-wing intellectuals of the fifties and sixties
who celebrated traditional communities and objected to new-fangled Americanisms
such as juke boxes and espresso bars.
Blur do a pretty good imitation of sixties-style tongue-in-cheek, in the
manner of John Lennon or The Kinks' Ray Davies. They are tongue in cheek
about the Union Jack, which is why Albarn could appear on the front cover
of The Face against a Union Jack backdrop (May 1994), while Morrissey
got into all sorts of trouble when he wrapped himself up in red, white and
Blur 'take the piss' out of sixties style, but they also adhere to it as
the best there is. Their double-take on the Union Jack is in the same vein.
They share wry smiles about being British, while sug-gesting that the British
capacity for gentle self-derision is the mark of a superior culture. Blur
can justifiably claim to have made some superior pop music. But their capacity
for future development is threatened by their own narrow-mindedness.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 69, July 1994