SAATCHI ART: the usual questions

Remarks on the work of Damien Hirst

But is it art? heads up the list of questions people ask about Damien Hirst and Co not because 'people' are old farts, but because things with Hirst's (and Co's) names attached are put in art galleries, and in the parts of art galleries usually reserved for works of art (you don't find them in Lost Property or the Gents or, I assume, the Ladies). Now that the galleries include the Tate and the Royal Academy, why should there be any doubts?

In front of me I have a photograph of a heavy object captioned - and I assume without irony - 'Away from the Flock 1994 Steel, glass, formaldehyde solution and lamb 96 x 149 x 51 cm Courtesy White Cube, London'. This is a work by Damien Hirst, as you probably recognise because a lot of effort has gone into ensuring that recognition. But has a lot of effort gone into the work? And is it a work of art? And, if not, what is it?

Art works standardly have what one might call a material base - they are made of something. Clay, marble and oil paint are familiar old - fashioned artist's materials. Glass has a venerable history as an artist's material - it is the stuff of stained glass windows - and steel sculptures have been with us for - what? - a century. But in Away from the Flock the steel and the glass aren't being used as material for the art work - they are being used to stop the formaledehyde draining away. They function as does a frame around a canvas, and the frame around the canvas is (standardly) not part of the material worked by the artist and thereby not part of the work. We don't go to galleries to look at frames, though it is a topic of conversation that they are sometimes out of keeping with the work. Sometimes we meet non-standard situations - Gauguin's paintings are sometimes framed by Gauguin's carved frames, and so we can talk about them as part of the overall work. If you say that I've prejudged the status of Hirst's steel and glass, I invite you to try talking about them as parts of the work. I think you'll soon agree that it is the more charitable interpretation to regard them as one does the standard gilt frame. There's not that much to be said, is there?

What about the formaldehyde? That's there to stop the lamb from rotting. It's not a new artist's material, like perspex or fibreglass. Hirst hasn't made a work in formaledehyde, has he? I'm not saying that a work could not be made in formaldehyde, for I can certainly imagine a work made in water (it's standard form is the fountain), and so if it can be done in water, it can be done in formaldehyde. It would simply stink.

We are left with the lamb. Is this a new artist's material, worked by Hirst?

Another Saatchi artist (Marc Quinn) has sculpted a self-portrait head out of several pints of his own frozen blood. That is an intelligible act, if in the end merely gruesome. But I doubt that human blood will catch on as an artist's material - it is not very practicable or flexible. In addition, the fact that a work is made of blood will dominate our perception of the work. And this will be bad for the work. We will find it hard to ask, Is it a good head? because we will be thinking too much about what would happen if the refrigeration failed. Is lamb in any better position to acquire status as a new artist's material?

Hirst hasn't worked in lamb any more than he has worked in steel, glass or formaldehyde. He's instructed his technicians to stick a lamb in a tank and shut the lid quick. This is called conceptual art, in recognition of the fact that no material at all has been worked by the artist, who has nonetheless had an idea. Since there is no artistic working of any material (simply some steel and glass cutting skills), it's irrelevant whether Hirst heaves the lamb into the tank himself or gets some heavies to do it for him.

But if we're dealing with an idea, do we need the object? Do I need to see the actual tank to talk about it? Can't I just say that it's a good idea or a bad idea or that the idea reminds me of lobsters in French supermarket tanks?

Artists standardly work with materials, but equally they standardly work with an existing medium - by which I understand all the known ways of working with those materials. We allow a special category of naive artistwho works with a material without knowing anything - or, at any rate, very little - about ways of working made available by the traditions of the artist's own or other cultures. The stereotype of a naive artist, because he's got a picture in the Tate, is Alfred Wallis, the St Ives painter of boats on plywood. But it's obvious that even he had looked at other people's pictures and, maybe, done Art at school - just like a thousand other so-called naive artists. Wallis hangs in the Tate as a sentimental gesture on the part of the serious artists of St Ives, who patronised him. (In the same kind of artistically irrelevant way, Sir Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales get their pictures hung. One should not assume that national galleries are just about hanging the Best).

What has this got to do with Hirst? The relevant question is to what medium, in my sense, his work relates. But the answer to that is far from clear. One answer might be Conceptual Art, and if that is the right answer, then the next question is to consider what Hirst has added to or modified in the tradition of conceptual art. What doesAway from the Flock do that had not been done before?

1997 or 1998, unfinished; not previously published

(You may download this article for personal use. For any other use, please consult me by email. If you are listing my work in a bibliography, please give the place of publication as Thank you.)