If asked to name several things we like and dislike, I'm certain that most people could answer instantaneously. I like Indian food, football, America and a whole host of other things besides. I dislike The Sun, gastropubs and Ryanair and a whole host (probably the list is longer) of other things besides. It's rare that two things on either list coincide and rarer still that something from one list coincides with something from the other. It's unlikely that I'm going to find a decent curry in America, and I hope that I'll never find myself reading The Sun on a Ryanair flight to Dublin (that's the airport named DUBLIN (Prestwick) in case you were wondering). I refuse to watch comedy awards ceremonies just in case the unholy trinity of James Corden, John Bishop and Michael McIntyre appear on screen at the same time.
It was with a certain sense of trepidation therefore that I approached last night's Channel 4 introduction to the Tate's retrospective on the work of Damien Hirst, combining as it did two of my 'dislikes', namely Hirst's work and the presenter of the programme, Noel Fielding. I don't find Hirst irritating at all, though I believe there's little artistic merit in his back catalogue. I have always found Fielding's popularity a total mystery. Nevertheless, it was with an open mind that I watched; maybe this was the show that would open up to me hitherto un-noticed subtleties in Hirst's work and perhaps Fielding was the man required to delve into Hirst's particular brand of artistic genius and have a good stir round.
In fact, the programme involved Damien talking in quite a bored manner about his output from the last 25 years while Fielding tiptoed around him like a Schoolboy needing the toilet, clearly in raptures just to be near the great man. Anything that Hirst said was eulogised by Fielding as though seminal words of wisdom dropped from his mouth like pearls every time he opened it.
Fielding started by comparing Hirst to the Devil, and was then amazed to find out that he was 'quite nice'. Hashtag: insight. We later found out that he 'wasn't like Dr Death at all' (whoever he might be), but instead was 'charming'. Good to clear that one up. We were told on many occasions that he was the first person to do things (put a shark in an art gallery, cut a cow in half) as if this alone was indicative of genius. Fielding was once an Art student himself (which is why I suppose he was allowed near this programme) but his own interest in Art seemed to go little further than a fascination with the shocking.
It was odd that we kept returning to the originality in Hirst's work, bearing in mind how tired and un-shocking it now looks. Originality in itself is not enough to justify great Art, and just because no-one has done it before does not mean that it's worthwhile. Brian Sewell was afforded just a few minutes of the programme, but he was allowed to make the point that just because the shark is in an Art gallery, this is not sufficient to classify it as a work of Art. Even if this was the point that Hirst was trying to make, he was about 80 years out of date with this idea, first introduced by Marcel Duchamp in 1917.
We then moved on to a new concept: the shark is dead, but it looks as if it was alive, and therefore it makes us question our own mortality. Really? Does the same thing not occur every time we see un-squashed roadkill on the A1? Hirst suggested that his fascination with death came from School, when he was asked to handle a human skull. He said that he was not able to reconcile the fact that this had once belonged to a living human being. This hardly shows great imagination on his part and presents us with the simplistic and eternal question about the nature of soul - the fixed atoms and molecules from which we are made and the extra undefinable something that makes us human and individual. Hirst is posing no new questions; he is not holding up a mirror to life or death; he is not producing works of Art, unless you consider that there is a certain beauty in the animal itself, either on the outside or inside.
I have been to see Hirst's work on several occasions over the years: his Pharmacy (the only part of his work I do have time for), his Twelve Apostles, his flayed goats with syringes and pills, his cow skulls with embedded scissors and his recent blue skull paintings (the last one did nothing for me save to prove that Hirst isn't very good at painting and in this sense only it's one of the most daring things he's ever done).
Much of Hirst's work boils down to the question: 'Is it Art?'. For me the answer is yes, just not very good or interesting Art. It's a bit like an OK-ish piece of GCSE coursework. You'd have no problem grading it as a B (or maybe a little higher), but it has little to say beyond that. I usually tend to define modern Art as being all about asking questions and engendering emotions, irrespective of whether those emotions are positive or negative. Hirst's work leaves me with a feeling of 'meh'. He's another example of a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Just like many of the exponents of Britpop managed to burgle careers out of the nation's mid-90s obsession with 'Cool Britannia', so Hirst and the other YBAs managed to ride by for many years on the fact that what they were doing became fashionable for a time, despite the limitations of its Artistic merit.
I might go along to the Hirst retrospective, but only to wait outside to ask the paying customer the old Sex Pistols question:
'Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?'