By Auty, Giles
Review - Institute of Public Affairs , Vol. 63, No. 2
Giles Auty asks whether today's art celebrities could ever be considered great artists.
'Bold knaves thrive without one grain of sense, but good men starve for want of impudence.'
(John Dryden 1631-1700 Constantine the Great )
The human condition-in spite of the myriad wonders of our technological age-possibly changes a great deal less than many of us suppose, as the foregoing quote from the great satirist John Dryden suggests.
John Dryden lived in a century which saw the flowering of two of the greatest artistic geniuses who ever walked this earth: Rembrandt van Rijn (16061669) and Diego Velazquez (15991660).
For those who have been fortunate enough to see major exhibitions by either, or who have simply visited the great repositories of their works in Amsterdam and Madrid, such absolute genius ought to be apparent. But if it were not, then further exposure and education could surely make it so for those who take some serious interest in the subject.
Significantly, no-one drawn from the ranks of experienced art historians and critics would dream of querying the exalted status of either artist. In short, clear visual evidence of genius exists for all to see-albeit at rather an inconvenient distance from Australia's shores.
What then, should one make of contemporary artistic figures such as Damien Hirst, for whom claims of genius have certainly been made by some at least, including-somewhat regrettably-by the artist himself.
But why does the process of recognising or rejecting claims of genius seem so much more difficult as we approach our own time?
Do not some general principles of art apply which can guide us?
Are there not fundamental criteria which could be said to stand outside the boundaries of time?
Damien Hirst first emerged as a phenomenon of his time in the early 1990s. In the ensuing two decades his fame has spread internationally to the extent that many who take little or no interest in visual art would still recognise his name, rather as many who are utterly uninterested in football know of David Beckham.
So is Hirst's outsize reputation merely, or at least largely, a consequence of the levels of fascination shown by today's media with celebrity?
Interestingly, Hirst's former place of training-Goldsmiths College in London-was probably the first such to introduce classes in how to manipulate the media. Hirst certainly absorbed such training well, but is possibly a natural showman anyway, in marked contrast to the great armies of artists historically who see behaviour of such a kind as beneath them.
But as Dryden rightly noted all those years ago, many of the latter paid a high price for their scruples.
Just as artists can be divided between avid self-promoters and more retiring types, so in art criticism a similar division could be said to exist between writers I tend to characterise as gushers-largely on account of their breathless enthusiasm for novelty-and those of a more sober and historically-based turn of mind.
I do not suggest that those I characterise as gushers are necessarily ignorant of history, but only that most seem lacking, just as fatally, in any sense of historical perspective.
To them the history of the world-and not merely that of art-is seen largely as a process of continuous and inevitable progress.
Here it should be noted that a great deal of moral fervour seems to attach itself to a stance such as theirs, largely because of a resultant access to an entirely favourable-seeming rhetorical vocabulary. For cannot such happy enthusiasts style themselves as being on the side of progress, evolution, advance, development and ?fearless' experiment, while their opponents can be accused-among many other things-of ?attempting to put the clock back' and of regressive, reactionary and conservative tendencies?
Such simplistic use of rhetoric, of course, closely echoes its very similar employment in the worlds of politics and advertising. …