Avant-Garde and Kitsch

The historical opposition of avant-garde and kitsch is finally reconciled in the work of Damien Hirst, as demonstrated here in this masterly performance of self-parody. Not only is this manifested in the buttons (see Ben Davis’ review) which you can buy for 75p, or the 19.95 cufflinks, but also to the fifteen Iron-on Spots, above, which I bought for ten quid.

Such trinkets may appear to be superficially kitschy, in the contemporary sense, yet perhaps they are also a key to a characteristic of the rest of Hirst’s enterprise? Compared to other critics, it has been Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker who has worked hardest to extract some value from what he saw at the New York Gagosian venue of the global exhibition: “Hirst is originally unoriginal, to put it positively: a master of supererogation. His work comprehends all manner of things about previous art except, crucially, why it was created. It smacks less of museums than of art-school textbooks. What may pass for meaning in the spot paintings is the sum of their associations in the history of abstraction.” Despite his scathing reservations for this kind of art, as he concludes, the Hirst phenomenon produces only forensic pleasure: “In the course of one fair and square taunt after another, Hirst surely marvels at what he is abetted in getting away with. “The Complete Spot Paintings,” to his credit, makes no bones about what a certain precinct of the world has come to.”

Comparing the outcome of The Spot Paintings spectacle to some shady forms of post-GFC dealing, Schjeldahl evokes Marcel Duchamp to try to makes sense of Hirst’s strategies: “Duchamp remarked that art is created partly by its maker and partly by its audience. Hirst dumps pretty much the entire transaction into the audience’s lap. The result is art in the way that some exotic financial dealings are legal: by a whisker.”

What Schjeldahl failed to extract from this use of the Duchampian formula is the presence of the shadowy third agent in the creation of meaning, which is the dealer. Of course there are other agencies which confer status on a work of art – notably museums and auction houses – but in this instance the figure of Gagosian himself participates equally in the transaction which leads to the appreciation (if that is the correct word) of this particular body of work.

When you visit a Gagosian gallery, the door is opened for you by a black-suited doorman, apparently groomed to be excessively polite. When Axel and I visited the Gagosian in London, in each of the galleries sleepy black-suited guards outnumbered the viewers. Three young women sat behind a row of computer screens. Another well dressed young man sat at a desk in the shop, where the prints, books, and trinkets such as the Iron-On Spots (above) were for sale. Strangely, despite the apparent similarities, this did not feel like a museum, the role of which is, in part, to strip the work of art of its commodity status. In museums, works of art are no longer for sale. In the Gagosian Galleries, you are made to feel as if you are privy to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, outside of trading hours.


And so I found myself sharing with Peter Schjeldahl the perverse necessity to search for meaning or aesthetic value in the paintings themselves: “I can enjoy looking at one for a while, but to like them would entail identifying with the artist’s cynicism, as herds of collectors, worldwide, evidently do. Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth.” It is interesting, in its own way, to stare at coloured circles, separated by a white ground, to see what you see. And yet there is just enough white ground separating the dots for there to be no discernible cumulative colour-effect, as one comes to expect from abstract paintings, when the subject and content of which is purely the interaction of form and colour. In the Hirst spot paintings, even this effect is denied the viewer. It is an aesthetic of excessive denial.

When Clement Greenberg wrote his groundbreaking essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” for the Partisan Review in 1939, both the word “kitsch” and the concept of the “avant-garde” meant something altogether different. And yet the argument still resonates, over the years. In those days, Greenberg’s use of the word “kitsch” evoked its Germanic origins, referencing a conservative “popular” and academic visual culture. By contrast, the avant-garde was seen as a “bohemian” outpost of bourgeois high culture. Nowadays, kitsch is seen as a phenomenon of jokey bad taste and retro-inspired fashion, and the avant-garde is primarily dependent on its institutional and museological contexts. These are the contemporary meanings that enable Clement Greenberg’s original title, the dialectic of which once appeared so contradictory, to have become perfectly reconciled in Hirst’s practice. But don’t feel sorry for the poor investors, they’re well protected – by the men in black.


#1 darren j on 02.24.12 at 1:21 pm

really? do we have to read about Damien Hirst on this otherwise interesting blog? come on, Iconophilia, what game is at stake here?

#2 Nigel on 02.25.12 at 9:05 am

Ignore at your peril, Darren! Surely the Hirst phenomenon is too symptomatic of the contemporary art world to not be of interest? Like Ai Weiwei, it’s a model of collective agency against which all kinds of contemporary practice will come to be measured…

#3 darren j on 02.25.12 at 10:44 pm

your logic is catholic–if the pope has the biggest house in town, does this mean he is closest to god?

#4 Nigel on 02.26.12 at 3:36 pm

You got it! It means a lot of people believe so, and therefore, and so, dear God, after all, both Ai Weiwei and Hirst already have aspirations to epoch-defining architectural forms…

#5 Quentin on 02.26.12 at 6:49 pm

Perfect place for a discussion of Hirst i reckon…. His project is no different from, say, Takashi Murakami’s, or Koons – a symptom of late capitalism and perfectly in step with the times at one level. Question to Nigel – was the experience of the exhibition as empty as it sounds? And what a cynical exercise, to make a commercial ‘retrospective’ of these works across two continents… why? ‘Because we can’.

#6 Nigel on 02.26.12 at 9:36 pm

It was at lunchtime, during the last week of the show. The few other visitors were whispering, in seemingly reverential (shock and) awe. Or perhaps because they couldn’t find anything to say. And the scale of the eleven (?) simultaneous exhibitions both matches the ambition of the artist, and a kind of flexing of muscle by the the globally dominant gallery. All the links on the other posts here start to add up to an interesting “literature” the other artists haven’t yet generated. Boetti is another precursor I’m looking at right now… And Hirst’s own publications (both authored by himself and others) is also substantial in size and weight, even if I can’t speak to its content.

#7 Quentin on 02.27.12 at 11:23 am

By ’empty’ i meant vacuous. Am wondering what these works actually did as art. I feel for you, getting a chance to visit Gagosian and it being not just a Hirst show, but the dot paintings. At least its good blog content…!

#8 Nigel on 02.27.12 at 11:43 am

Were they vacuous? No, in a sense they were fulsome (fullish, foolish…). Full of implications (as PS observes) and references to the purpose (and meaning) of contemporary abstract art (for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health). It’s as if the artist-as-squirrel searches around looking for the nooks and crannies in which they might find their artworld niche. The paintings are clever, there’s no doubt, as a formula or strategy, as a way of carving out territory, as another kind of enigmatic end-game, which can go on forever. And, it’s obvious, I find them really interesting, as symptomatic of how the artworld creates contemporary art. But, for me, (and I tried hard) they are completely without aesthetic reward. There must be something wrong with a painting, I whispered to Axel, when you have to squint to make it look better! (Richter uses a squeegee).

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