Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Hirst/Hockney/Rubens: Spot the Difference

David Hockney has joined a long list of far less illustrious figures criticizing Damien Hirst's 'factory' approach to making art. It began with a veiled reference to Hirst (and by extension Jeff Koons and a host of other contemporary art 'CEO's' for that matter) in the poster campaign for Hockney's forthcoming Royal Academy exhibition — "All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally."

Pressed by the Radio Times for clarification of whether this was a sly dig at Hirst, Hockney replied that the prevailing approach to art making promoted by today's art schools and adopted by Hirst et al was "a little insulting to craftsmen."

This inevitably invited the predictable gale of references to Leonardo, Rubens, and Rembrandt, all of whom used assistants. In fact, the history of art is replete with instances in which an artist's success has prompted the recruitment of assistants to help meet the demand of a growing number of collectors.

But what these knee-jerk comparisons between Hirst and Rubens always leave out is that many of the collectors who sought to acquire a work by Rubens direct from the artist stipulated that the work be made entirely by him and not by his assistants. To some clients, not even those pictures to which the artist himself applied the finishing touch were acceptable.

Henry Danvers (1573-1643), art adviser to Charles I, wrote to his colleagues recommending Rubens for a royal portrait commission, but made clear that, "In every painter's opinion he hath sent hither a piece scarce touched by his own hand," and demanded that Rubens paint another "to redeem his reputation in this house." Rubens, in response, promised "a large picture entirely by my own hand." (Jerry Brotton, The Sale of the Late King's Goods, Pan, 2006, p75).

Similar skepticism has long surrounded the work of Rembrandt for similar reasons. In the 1950s, David Roell, director of the Rijksmuseum, wisely declined an offer from Duveen Brothers in New York to buy a Portrait of Hendrickje Stoeffels, attributed to Rembrandt (right), stating that he did not "feel the inner conviction that it is entirely by the hand of Rembrandt." (Suzanne Muchnic, Odd Man In: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture, University of Caifornia Press, 1998, p43). In the event the picture was sold in 1957 (as a Rembrandt) to Norton Simon for $133,500. Simon's wife Lucille later inherited it as part of their divorce settlement, but it was eventually sold at Christie's in New York in 2002 as "Studio of Rembrandt" for $152,500.

Such connoisseurial ponderings are unlikely ever to surround the work of Hirst or Koons since neither of them are artists in the sense that Rubens or Rembrandt were. Hirst and Koons are manufacturers and their output ought to be considered as 'products' rather than as works of art. The fact that they are not is testament to the impoverished critical judgement underpinning the contemporary art market. This is essentially what Hockney was referring to when he said " can teach the craft; it's the poetry you can't teach."

This also helps explain Hirst's justification for employing other people to execute his spot paintings — "I couldn't be fucking arsed doing it," he was quoted as saying.

That blunt statement implies a mean-spirited disdain for the art market and the credulous millionaires whose collective aesthetic myopia has made him rich as Croesus. In other words, they got the 'art' they deserved. The fact that his products lack poetry and indeed even craft (Hirst's butterfly pictures tend to fall to bits) — is confirmation of the gaping chasm separating Hirst — and for that matter Koons, Murakami and the rest of that warehouse generation — from Rubens, Rembrandt, and yes, despite his ludicrous recent landscapes, Hockney himself.

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