x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Modern art: Is it really any good?

Blank paper, bicycle parts and a preserved shark are fuelling a debate over the definition of art, writes Jonathan Gornall, and a forthcoming Doha exhibition will undoubtedly bring that discussion closer to home.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), a work by British artist Damien Hirst consisting of a shark suspended in formaldehyde, was inspired by the film Jaws.
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), a work by British artist Damien Hirst consisting of a shark suspended in formaldehyde, was inspired by the film Jaws.

In 1992, the American conceptual artist Tom Friedman began a work of art that would take him five years to complete. In that time, he spent a total of 1,000 hours staring at a blank, square sheet of paper measuring 82.6 centimetres by 82.6cm.

Today, framed and under glass, it is part of the collection at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where the materials employed in its creation are described as "Stare on paper".

On one level, 1000 Hours of Staring invites all kinds of jokes. Visit MoMA's website, for instance, and it will perhaps amuse you, as it did me, to see that the work is "Not on view".

It was, however, "on view" in London over the summer, as part of a curious exhibition at the Hayward Gallery.Invisible - Art About the Unseen was a collection of works by 26 artists spanning the period 1957 to 2012. It arrived complete with an exhibition essay entitled How to Look at Invisible Art penned by the gallery's director, Ralph Rugoff.

There was, inevitably, very little to see.

Among the other pieces on show was Breath, floating in colour as well as black and white, Bruno Jakob's 2011 contribution to the 54th Venice Biennale. "This work," Rugoff tells us, "consisted of seven parts, six of which" - entirely blank - "were installed outdoors, while the artist kept the seventh in his mind".

Media employed? "Invisible painting, rainwater, light, touch, air, brainwaves and different unknown techniques on canvas."

Some other pieces were utterly derivative, such as Friedman's 1992 offering 11 x 22 x .005 - a Playboy magazine centrefold which the artist had painstakingly erased. In so doing, he had "referenced" Robert Rauschenberg (there is, incidentally, no such thing as plagiarism in contemporary art, only "referencing", or "homage").

In 1953, Rauschenberg at least had the decency to make nothing out of something a little more substantial when he asked the artist Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing for him to erase. "De Kooning agreed, somewhat reluctantly," records the catalogue entry for Erased de Kooning Drawing in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, "and deliberately chose a drawing that would be difficult to rub out".

Perplexity is a common reaction to much of the work of contemporary artists. Are they merely having a laugh at our expense? Is there a fraudulent collaboration afoot - a sniggering conspiracy of artists, galleries, museums and auction houses peddling emperor's new clothes, which we buy into for fear of appearing ignorant?

Julian Spalding certainly thinks so. The former museums director turned art critic let rip in his pamphlet Con Art, published in March with the subtitle "Why you should sell your Damien Hirsts while you can". Art curators, he wrote, "have got into bed with art dealers, art critics and artists to create something to sell to the public which isn't art at all".

This type of concern is, admittedly, hard to resist when one is confronted with an empty plinth labelled Andy Warhol, USA. "Invisible Sculpture". Mixed Media, 1985. Surely to stand gazing at the plinth, lost in thought, is to allow yourself to be taken in?

Well, perhaps not. If you can free yourself from this sneaking fear that you are being taken for a fool, you are left with the opportunity to assess the work for what, if anything, it says to you. And to "like" art, remember, you haven't got to want to hang it on the wall over your bed; substituting "appreciate" for "like" - while understanding that "appreciating" and "understanding" are not necessarily synonymous - is in itself quite a liberating act.

All of these questions - all of this confusion, perplexity and uncertainty - will be visited upon the Arabian Gulf next year with the arrival of what promises to be one of the biggest, most controversial and well-attended exhibitions of contemporary art ever seen in the region. And, for the thousands who will doubtless make the pilgrimage to Doha's Al Riwaq exhibition space, next to the Museum of Islamic Art, to see some of the most famous works by the British artist Damien Hirst, simply looking without prejudice will represent a terrific challenge.

From April to September, crowds thronged to London's Tate Modern to see its major retrospective of Hirst's work. The exhibition was sponsored by Qatar Museums Authority and, at some yet-to-be-confirmed time next autumn, it will be this region's turn. It is a tremendous opportunity, not only to see such major works in one place, and so close to home, but also to see them stripped of their familiar surroundings; the very context of the exhibition is certain to throw fresh light on the pieces.

What's more, the exhibition will make the point that in our richly interconnected world, the importance of an individual piece of art can be elevated beyond its mere meaning. For Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, chair of the Qatar Museums' Authority, art "speaks across cultures … [It] is our belief that art - even controversial art - can unlock communication between diverse nations, peoples and histories".

In her foreword to the Tate Hirst catalogue, she added: "Here in London, this exhibition of a British artist, sponsored by an Arab institution and held in a power station transformed by Swiss architects, reminds us that we live today in a truly global world, and that diversity will make us stronger and bring us closer together."

Hirst is one of the most successful and wealthiest contemporary artists, a man whose fame, fortune and business savvy has eclipsed the work he has produced. He is the very antithesis of the "traditional" artist, Vincent van Gogh, who lived and worked in torment and perished in poverty and obscurity.

He even has his own art company, Other Criteria, through which he controls the commercial exploitation of his art and brand. Alongside the usual mugs, T-shirts and bags on sale at the Tate adorned with butterflies, spots and sharks, one could splash out on Transcendent Head, a signed and numbered plastic skull decorated with household gloss paints, a "unique multiple within an edition of 50", for £36,800 (Dh218,204), including VAT.

For some reason, many seem to hold this commercialism against Hirst. Yet in bemoaning van Gogh's destitution, surely we are implying we would rather he, too, had had financial success during his lifetime?

In short, assessing Hirst independently is almost impossible. So much has been written about him, from the moment in 1991 when Charles Saatchi bought his now infamous shark and The Sun newspaper mocked his investment of "£50,000 for fish without chips", that only a recluse could hope to approach it without eyes blinkered by preconceived ideas.

Doubtless Hirst's work will attract large audiences in Doha. Some will come with closed minds, drawn by the controversial reputation and ready only to mock something they think they don't understand and they are certain they don't like. Others will come to see first hand for the first time work about which they have only read, and about which they will welcome the opportunity to make up their own minds.

People find many things about Hirst irritating - chief among them his success, his early, career-making patronage by the market-making collector Charles Saatchi, his frank treatment of art as a business and the belief that he rarely "does" any of his own art, delegating the tedious business of making spot paintings to assistants.

But try to forget all of that. Such things, after all, are time-honoured facts of art life. Michelangelo had his Lorenzo de Medici. Rembrandt had a workshop manned by unknown numbers of lesser painters, each copying his style and producing works, or parts of works, later attributed to their master.

That is not to compare Hirst, a self-confessed hopeless painter, to Rembrandt, a superb technician. But that is not the point, either. The point is that art is the idea first, and the technical expression of that idea only second. And, once you allow this, you may also find yourself being intrigued, rather than irritated, by the observation of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who once said "Everything is art. Everything is politics. You can call it art or non-art, I don't give a damn".

It is not yet clear which of the works that drew crowds to the Tate this summer will make the journey to Qatar. Hirst is a lapsed Roman Catholic and some of his art questions religious certainties in a way that might not sit comfortably in this region. But when the Hirst circus does pitch up in Doha, the headline crowd-pleasing act will doubtless be the "pickled shark", aka The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991).

And it is worth thinking about this piece before seeing it up close for the first time.

 

As Dom Thompson revealed in great detail in his 2008 book The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, the piece was commissioned by Charles Saatchi in 1991 for £50,000 (Dh297,000) and sold by him 14 years later to Steve Cohen, an American hedge-fund executive, who beat off underfunded competition from Tate Modern. Hirst had had "shark wanted" adverts put up in post offices on the Australian coast, paid £4,000 for the predator and another £2,000 to have it packed in ice and shipped to London.

Suspended in formaldehyde, "the intended illusion", wrote Thompson, "had been of a tiger shark swimming towards the viewer through the white space of the gallery, hunting for dinner". Unfortunately, the shark was poorly preserved and started to rot.

At first, Saatchi's curators tried skinning it and stretching the skin over a fibreglass mould, but "the illusion now was described as entering Norman Bates' fruit cellar and finding Mother embalmed in her chair".

Finally, in 2005, shortly after Cohen had bought the work, Hirst agreed to replace the shark with a second, which he again ordered from his contact in Australia.

But none of this matters. Do we care that it was the idea of Pope Julius II, and not Michelangelo, to have the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted? Do we know or care how many times Michelangelo was asked to pop back with his brushes and ladders to touch up his Creation of Adam, doubtless regularly blackened over the years by the smoke from candles?

Yes, we do, says Spalding. The difference is that "Michelangelo was an artist and Damien Hirst isn't"; the trouble with found objects (and we must allow that a shark caught to order is "found") is that "you can't tell just by looking at them what the person who put them in front of you is trying to tell you, unless he or she has altered them in some meaningful way. Nor does the mere act of placing something in an art gallery, whether it's a stack of bricks, a bin bag or an unmade bed, automatically make it a work of art".

But Spalding's argument quickly runs aground on the rocks of his own dogmatism. There is, he insists, "a world of difference between Picasso's Bull's Head and Hirst's shark in a tank" - but this is a tricky line to take convincingly.

In 1942 Picasso combined two found objects - the handlebars and the saddle from a bicycle - to create his Bull's Head. It looks like what it was intended to be: a visual gag. However, Picasso, of course, is Picasso, and so this simple, childlike play on parts must be taken seriously, as it is by Spalding, who applauds "the sizzling heat of Picasso's imagination", and as it was by The Wall Street Journal, reviewing a Picasso show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2011. "At once childlike and highly sophisticated in its simplicity," Bull's Head stood as "an assertion of the transforming power of the human imagination at a time when human values were under siege".

Here we have part of the problem with contemporary art; it is not so much the art itself that confuses us, as the absolutist interpretations imposed upon it by experts. Leave us alone with it and our thoughts and we can reach our own conclusions, thank you very much.

By contrast, when Hirst talks about his own art, he is refreshingly unpretentious. In a short film produced for the Tate retrospective, the artist is seen in conversation with the curator, Ann Gallagher, as the installation nears completion. For Gallagher, Hirst's art "is an uncompromising exploration of the fragility of existence, using a language that pays homage to the recent history of art as well as the aesthetics of display within western culture".

Perhaps. The exhibition's first room contained some of Hirst's earliest work, including the first Spot Painting (1986), 8 Pans (1987) and the wall sculpture Boxes (1988). "In here", says the artist plainly, "I would say there are lots of things I'm embarrassed about."

One of those things is the photograph With Dead Head (1991), an unpleasantly ghoulish black and white portrait of the 16-year-old Hirst posing, laughing, in an anatomy school with the decapitated head of a cadaver. "It wasn't really an art work, it was just a photograph," Hirst breezily admits. "But then I made it into an art work when I started getting a bit of a reputation for being 'The Death Guy'."

As for the famous shark, it was part inspired by Jaws, a film Hirst grew up with, and the animal "had to be big enough to eat you and in a volume of liquid that would be big enough to frighten you. The fear of sharks is an unreasonable fear, but it's a good way to tap into that fear of death, which is probably a reasonable fear."

Mortality and fear of death have always been popular themes for artists, whether represented literally - Millais' drowning Ophelia (1851-52) accounts for the best-selling postcard at Tate Britain - or symbolically.

So how far divorced is Hirst's shark from, say, Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533)? Both works draw on contemporary images to explore a universal theme in an almost playful fashion. The painting is rich in symbolic objects, but the most striking of all is the puzzling blur across the foot of the canvas. Approach the canvas acutely from the left, however, and the blur transforms into a perfectly executed human skill, painted in anamorphic perspective.

This type of historical context, suggests Will Gompertz, is what is required to "make your next trip to a modern art gallery slightly less intimidating and a little more interesting".

At first glance, the direct title of Gompertz's new guide to modern and contemporary art, What Are You Looking At?, seems to suggest the author subscribes to Spalding's belief that "con" is the most telling component of the phrase "contemporary art". But not a bit of it.

Gompertz, a former PR and media boss for the Tate in London whose appointment as the BBC's arts editor in 2009 surprised media observers, is a gamekeeper turned poacher, though not, it seems, one inclined to shoot many rabbits.

But he offers sound advice. Don't worry, he says, about whether the art you see is good or bad. "Time," he says, "will undertake that job on our behalf." It's a fair point. After all, the world's leading art galleries are stuffed with work regarded as worthless during the artists' lifetimes.

Most people, he says, don't "get" much of contemporary art. "They can't understand why something that they perceive a child might be able to do is apparently a masterpiece. They suspect, in their heart of hearts, that it's a sham, but now that fashions have changed, find that it is not socially acceptable to say so."

But modern and contemporary art, he insists, is not a sham, not "a long-running gag being played by a few insiders on a gullible public". True, he concedes, "There are many works being produced today … that will not stand the test of time, but, similarly, there will be some which have gone totally unnoticed that will, one day, be acknowledged as masterpieces."

To appreciate the art of today, says Gompertz, it is necessary only to understand "how it evolved from Leonardo's classicism to today's pickled sharks and unmade beds" - the last a reference to Tracey Emin's tabloid-goading My Bed (1998).

Compare this with Spalding's spitting fury over the fact that "Other ages had Rembrandt and Vermeer, Turner and Constable, Picasso and Matisse. Why do we have to make do with a stack of bricks, a pickled shark and a filthy bed?"

Spalding does not appear sensitive to the Orwellian irony of a former curator of art proposing what is tantamount to censorship upon artists. For him, "Found objects can only be art if they're in art galleries. Real art is art anywhere. The Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa wherever it is."

But pro or con, none of this, from either man, is very helpful when confronted with the shock and awe of Hirst's art en masse. And, as if to underline the futility of arguing "for" or "against" any art, both reach for the same example to make their case - the "found" sculpture Fountain, the 1917 work by Marcel Duchamp.

Legend has it, as Gompertz faithfully relates, that Duchamp, a French artist living in New York, bought a urinal from a plumbing supplies store, signed it "R. Mutt 1917", named it Fountain and, hey presto, "what had been, just a few hours beforehand, a nondescript ubiquitous urinal has, by dint of Duchamp's actions, become a work of art".

This, says Gompertz, was the beginning of what we now call conceptualism, a path that has led us to the door of Hirst himself, and the birth of a new movement he chooses to label "entrepreneurialism".

"It is Duchamp who is to blame for the whole 'is-it-art?' debate, which is of course exactly what he intended," he says. "As far as he was concerned, the role in society of an artist was akin to that of a philosopher; it didn't even matter if he or she could paint or draw."

Duchamp was nothing less than "a genius who emancipated art from the darkness of its medieval bunker … enabling it to flourish and unleash a far-reaching intellectual revolution."

Spalding, meanwhile, dismisses Duchamp as a failed painter and seeks to undermine the myth of the Frenchman as the "exemplar and founder" of today's "Con Artists".

But it doesn't really matter if, as Spalding gleefully points out, Fountain was almost certainly not the work of Duchamp but of a female friend. Whoever created it, and whatever effect they intended to create, Fountain now has its own meaning - thanks to that vital second partner in any artistic enterprise, without which there is no art: the viewer.

And this is the only secret one need know to be sufficiently equipped to deal with whatever Hirst experience is unleashed in Qatar.

"The creative act is not performed by the artist alone," as Duchamp said during an address to the Convention of the American Federation of Arts in Houston, Texas, in 1957. "The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."

Or, as Hirst put it 55 years later, as he pondered the meaning of his art for his Tate retrospective: "I don't think there are answers, there are only questions. It's for viewers to decide what the answers are."

Legion are the questions that will arrive in Doha next year. Have fun finding the answers.

Jonathan Gornall is a former features writer for The National.