WHATEVER ONE THINKS of its architecture, strolling across the London Millennium Bridge on an early spring morning is an agreeable way to start the day, and I arrived at Tate Modern feeling clearheaded and not a little excited. The occasion was a retrospective devoted to the art of Damien Hirst (the first in Britain since the 2003 Saatchi survey that Hirst publicly disavowed), and I was eager to reconsider the contribution of an artist whose work I have never liked but at the same time have never been able to dismiss.
At opening hour, the timed-ticketed crowds snaked though the Turbine Hall, an exhibition space coextensive with today's expanded audience for contemporary art, a public it sometimes seems Tate and Hirst conspired to invent. Inside the galleries proper, the queue was repeated before the show's hothouse center chamber, containing the long-unseen In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991, but such minor inconveniences did little to undercut the genera) high spirits. Having sacrificed couch and football for the redemptive challenge of art, the crowds were clearly prepared to suffer for culture. "Mummy, it is very mean," commented a worried-looking tot, transfixed from stroller vantage by the rotting cow's head and swarming flies in Hirst's notorious A Thousand Years, 1990. Several rooms on, a basic bloke (not so unlike the artist himself--minus the manor in Gloucester-shire, presumably)--waxed wistful before Black Sun, 2004, an enormous tondo encrusted with more (dead) flies: "I went to school with 'im, you know." I could all but see the cogs turning behind his eyes as he tried to do the math: "Is this, when all is said and done, the art of our time? Well, it must be--'tis the Tate, after all."
My own ambivalence about Hirst runs long and deep. Back in 1992, as a junior editor at this magazine, I com-missioned an essay introducing his work in deference to a trusted contributor who felt it a must, though I will admit (1 am only human) to snubbing the YEA in a public drinking place soon after to make up for having reluctantly serviced his rising star. That was then; today Hirst's world dominance makes me absurd. In fact, seventeen years on, I conceded defeat and included a reprise of his single-artist-auction-as-artwork, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, 2008, in an exhibition I cocurated for, as it happens, this very museum. The hypothesis of that show--"Pop Life: Art in a Material World" (2009-10)--was that the mechanisms of the art machine (and of publicity more generally) had, in recent times, been used by artists as their mediums, much like paint or marble. We traced the impulse from father Andy's "Business art" exploits though the 1980s and into the present, where Hirst's three-ring Gesamtkunstwerk was as pure a test case as one might hope to find.
But purest is not always bestest. If one is willing to take Andy at his word, to own that the "best" art today is Business art, the question necessarily becomes how and why some Business art is better then other Business art and, furthermore, how (this is often the make-or-break point) such artful manipulations of market and media relate to the old-fashioned art object as such.
But first, the show. The curators--Ann Gallagher and Loren Hansi Momodu--(and/or the artist) have been too alert to ignore the exploits of Hirst the impresario, and it would be disingenuous to criticize them for succumbing to the pressure implicit in the retrospective project, whereby the art object proper is separated from the everything else (plenty, in Hirst's case), in the interest of patinating the newly minted master status of the artist at hand. To the contrary, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever was afforded pride of place, and the event was rightly fore-grounded, which is to say, billed as an event-as-artwork rather than simply as a cherry-picked selection of the best objects from the auction. …