Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne contrasts two new London exhibitions featuring the work of, respectively, David Hockney and Damien Hirst.
Art has often possessed a political significance. Van Dyck’s grand portraits of Charles I were meant to project an image that would bolster that effete monarch’s doomed attempt to build an absolute monarchy. Meanwhile, the spruce Dutch interiors from the same era spoke of the quiet assurance of a triumphant middle class. Art continues to express a political consciousness today, as can be seen by an examination of two new, rival exhibitions in London, each of which represents a distinct social and political vision.
The first and most impressive of these is the magical collection of David Hockney’s landscapes at the Royal Academy. I do not know, and would not care to ask, which party Hockney votes for at general elections. But this much can be asserted with certainty: he is a conservative painter.
In a famous passage, the great philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote that “to be conservative… is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”.
Hockney’s landscapes, on public display from this Saturday, are on one level a meditation on this Oakeshottian theme…
Let us now turn to Damien Hirst, whose display of spot paintings opened at both of London’s Gagosian galleries last week. Just as Hockney is conservative, so Hirst fits in tidily with Michael Oakeshott’s definition of the progressive: “You will not be bound by unprofitable attachments to particular localities, pieties will be fleeting, loyalties evanescent; you may even be wise to try anything once in search of improvement.”
Hirst’s spot paintings are abstract and universal, lack humanity and have zero reference to time or place: his exhibition is being shown simultaneously at 11 galleries around the world. Skill is not required: no late nights at life class for Hirst, who gained an E grade at art A-level and scarcely knows how to draw. “There is no such thing as a good as opposed to a bad spot painting,” noted the Telegraph’s art critic Richard Dorment in a review last week. Hence the need for experts to explain to a baffled public why Hirst matters: the arts establishment love him so much because he gives them a priestly role…
Hirst today is starting to look like a figure from that most distant of periods, the recent past. He came to popularity with New Labour in the 1990s and shared so many of its characteristics. Both took advantage of a curious epoch in our national life when appearance and reality merged, and notions of truth and beauty were debased to such an extent that a spot painting could seriously be considered as high art.
New Labour (like Damien Hirst, often accused of plagiarism) adored him. Tony Blair purchased two paintings for the government collection and put one of them on the wall of his study in Downing Street. In 1998, Chris Smith, then the culture secretary, burst into print with a work called Creative Britain. On the front of the book the hapless Smith placed a print of one of Hirst’s paintings (title: beautiful, all round, lovely day, big toys for big kids, Frank and Lorna, when we are no longer children).
It was one of Hirst’s spin paintings (a precursor to the spot paintings), which had taken all of 30 seconds to make. He achieved his effect by placing his canvasses on a centrifuge, and pouring cans of household gloss paint onto the surface. The finished pieces, circular in shape, were mounted on steel frames and sold for large sums to gullible American and Japanese bankers…
Read the whole thing.