When Damien Hirst first exhibited The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the notorious ‘pickled shark’, he had an answer ready for the accusation that ‘anybody could have done it’. “But you didn’t, did you?” he said.
Neat and perceptive though it was, Hirst’s riposte to some extent missed the point.
The implicit criticism is not that he or any other artist do not have the right to make whatever art they want – it takes all sorts, after all – but that they appear – to the imaginary complainant – to be celebrated for making work which does not evidence technical skills beyond those of the average joe.
This is not an unreasonable position. The majority of people expect practitioners in any trade or profession to possess a demonstrable expertise that untrained people do not. We respect (and pay!) professionals, not for what they choose to call themselves, but for their specialist skills and experience. Plumbers, doctors, even professions as vilified as estate agents or politicians, all have a skills base which is prerequisite to success in their area of practice. Why should artists be an exception?
But can ‘anybody’ make a Damien Hirst? In not challenging the premise of the accusation, Hirst does himself (and by inference any other artists whose work is primarily conceptual) a considerable disservice. It’s not true on several counts.
Firstly, Hirst is highly skilled at conceiving objects imbued with meaning and which provoke thought. The capacity for intellectual play is one of the crowning achievements of the human intellect, a building block of innovation innate at birth but suppressed as ‘childish’ by formal education and societal pressure. Relearning it is arduous. As Picasso is said to have said (I can find no original source for the quote), “It took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Anybody who believes that it is easy to conceive an object with those properties should just try conceiving a sentence imbued with meaning and which provokes thought, let alone an oeuvre of objects and images.
There are many who will remain sceptical that intellectual playfulness is a skill, or even if it is, that it is a valuable one. As my father was occasionally wont to say, farting ‘God Save the Queen’ through a keyhole is a skill (indeed, it is one I would applaud). To those I would argue that Hirst is a contemporary exemplar of that body of artists from the renaissance onwards who recognised that the market for their work was greater than they alone could meet and who took on help to meet that demand. In industry, this would be universally hailed as a demonstration of the value of the product or service and a strategy for growth. Somehow in art, it is regarded as cheating. Nobody would criticise or devalue a Dyson vacuum cleaner because James Dyson had not built it himself; but should an artist dare to employ a highly skilled team of assistants to construct the artworks s/he has conceived (read: designed), s/he can expect to be showered in derision for ‘conning the public’ and sometimes even from within the trade for ‘selling out’.
Lastly, neither Hirst nor his critics should dismiss his skills and those of his ilk as project managers. It’s one thing to come up with the concept of pickling a sheep; it’s another completely to do it, and do it beautifully. The first time I saw Hirst’s Away From the Flock I was knocked out by its realisation. It is a measure of the skill of its manufacture that it looks so effortless, but as a project manager myself, I couldn’t help seeing the Gantt chart behind it, from how to slaughter a sheep without damaging its appearance, to researching the properties of embalming solutions, to designing-in the transportation of a large, transparent box containing toxic fluid and a dead sheep.
Arguably there is room for criticism of Hirst’s skills here, on the basis that the shark in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living deteriorated over several years to the point where he had to virtually remake the work. Demonstrably, that project had failings. But like the majority of artists, Hirst’s projects alway hold unique challenges, and the management of any project that breaks new ground will inevitably involve an element of best guessing. No matter how well researched and thoughtful best guesses are, they won’t be right all the time. When his method of preservation failed, Hirst offered to repair the damage at his own expense (an offer that the private purchaser declined). Any self-respecting professional ought to do the same, of course, but plenty wouldn’t.