LM Archives
  8/3/00
  2:56 am GMT
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar
 

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 weeks.

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 and felt.

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 all.

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 Hirst).

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, really.

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 in advertising.

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 either.

'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 the Co-op.

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 the bikesheds.

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, please'.

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

Blurred vision

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 American.

'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 blue.

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

Subscribe to LM

 
 

 

http://www.informinc.co.uk/LM/LM69/LM69_Living.html

Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk