It is a truth universally acknowleged by at least four people that I have no love for Damien Hirst, Artist; (Damien Hirst, Chap, is quite a different matter: he makes me chuckle, and you can’t put a price on that.) Some of those four (two) who actually give a toss about my views on anything at all have equated this animosity with an antipathy towards Conceptual Art in general: this is not the case.
Admittedly, it’s taken me a while to get over myself and actually look at Conceptual Art with something other than a prejudiced eye, but I’ve found, unsurprisingly, that yes, some I like very much, I ‘get’ it. (I’ve also had to admit to myself that there’s quite a lot of ‘traditional’ or ‘great’ art that leaves me cold: El Greco, for example, – that ghastly palette, those writhing forms, that oppressive, peculiarly tight-arsed religiosity make me feel really rather sick.)
Anyway, back to Conceptual Art.
My problem with Mr Hirst is this: for me, there is no humanity. The artefact – I hesitate to call it ‘art’ – has no ‘heart’. I may have been shocked and disgusted on cue (once upon a time), but this is not the same thing at all. I have never, not once, been moved by anything he has created: it seems the more I put into his stuff, the less I get out of it. Call me old-fashioned (please), but intellect without emotion does not make for good art and never has, be it in music, literature, performance, whatever. Hirst’s work seems to me glib, disingenuous, cynical, the very antithesis of what it is to be humane.
But then, Hallelujah! – I discovered the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres; Conceptual Art became, for me, a whole new ball-game, one that repaid my attention.
What do you think when you see a pile of colourful, shiny cellophane-wrapped sweets? I think, Ta very much, I’ll take two! I think of the big tins of ‘Roses’ we have at Christmas; of giving and sharing. And we are meant to share, to take the sweets and deplete the pile, and every day that the artwork is on show it is restored to its original weight of exactly 175lbs, which, as the accompanying wall-text (text, titles, are the sine qua non of Conceptual Art) tells us, was deemed by his doctor to be Ross’ ideal weight. Safe to assume, I think, that Ross was a fun, social guy, freely giving of his time and spirit. But that note on the wall undercuts all this gaiety with something very serious, even frightening: ‘sharing’ also references Ross’ AID-related death; contagion, infection; ‘share’ too freely and you will be sick. The daily depletion of Ross the work can be read as the daily depletion of Ross the lover of Felix through the ravages of terrible illness. The celebration of someone deeply loved and missed is inextricably tied to the manner of his going, and it is this concept that, while the form of the work is fluid, becomes fixed through constant, daily re-iteration; a kind of Eucharist perhaps, a Holy Communion, where love and loss, participation and memory, combine and become something almost sacred.
This is so far above and beyond anything Hirst has ever done or even attempted to do. I cannot help but be intensely moved by Ross; yes, it’s ‘easy’, but it’s not glib; it’s considered, elegiac, moral, even; it breathes humanity. I’m still inclined to agree, anti-‘conceptually’, with Hockney: art should be about Poetry and Craft; but sometimes, just sometimes, in the hands of a real artist, the poetry is enough.
(Please don’t write me an essay on why El Greco is, like, fab. I’ve read ’em all. Or at least it feels like it.)