I went to Tate Modern with my ten year old daughter and came across a work by Damien Hirst called ‘Forms without Life’.
It consisted of large polished shells, mounted in display cabinets on the wall. A beautiful object, I thought.
“What do you think of that?” I asked my daughter.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s not very creative is it? All he’s had to do is go into a shop and buy some beautiful things and put them on the wall. And he shouldn’t do that anyway because it just means they kill more animals to get their shells. It’s not art.”
“But do you know what this piece is called?” I asked. “It’s called ‘Forms without Life’ – so it makes people think about precisely those things, the fact that something died in order to make a beautiful object for the viewer”
“Well, OK, so it is art, but it’s still not creative” she said dismissively. And I had to admit she had a point.
What more can we expect of an artist than that they allow us to see the world in a different way and that they produce objects of ‘beauty’ or wonder? By this measure Damien Hirst is undoubtedly a great artist. Yet there is something deeply uncreative about his work.
How can this be?
Freud explained in his theory of the Oedipus complex the ordinary human difficulty of going further than our parents. For a girl to go further than the mother; for a boy to supercede the father. The perennial battle between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, is a common theme of literature and life, and I detect something of this battle in the creative work of Damien Hirst. Or rather in the inhibitions which stifle it.
In recent years Damien Hirst has produced a number of huge spot paintings. When I walk round Tate Modern I find spot paintings by Sigmar Polke painted 30 years earlier. When I go to the science museum I find an anatomical toy that is exactly the same as one he has produced, but twenty feet high. My daughter has an art set – it’s called ‘Swirl Art’ – where you put paint on a rotating circle of card and see the patterns that result. Hirst does the same, on a massive scale, with his spin paintings. Damien has taken what is handed down to him from the father and made it bigger – bigger spot paintings, bigger anatomical toys, bigger children’s art sets – as if the dangers of more elaborate creative thinking are too great. You might say that everything is open for him to turn into art; an endless source of objects-in-the-world. Yet something is missing.
A creative process might involve many stages and levels. Disparate elements from the outside world and the inner world are brought together in the conscious mind; they are synthesised through a mysterious ‘creative process’ into an idea (or an abstract ‘form’) – using memories, thoughts, desires, fears – and realised by the technical skill of the artist into an ‘object’. That process is often flattened out in the case of Damien Hirst. One thing comes in (from the outside world) and one thing goes out again. In some cases he even eschews the technical aspects of the process, leaving it to others to manufacture the object.
It is a creative act that bears traces of anxious expectation and inhibition. Homage is paid to the precursor/archetype through slavish imitation. At the same time it is aggressively appropriated and made his own. He’s going further than the father while staying in the same place. For some reason (if we are to put this in terms of the Oedipal drama) it is too dangerous to really confront the father and supercede him. He’s too powerful. This is a father who has never had feet of clay, who never lost the lustre of childish idealisation, who never seemed full of shit. The differences in size between Damien’s productions and the children’s prototypes emphasise the difference between the two or three year old child and the father who suddenly appears on the scene and steals from him, as actually happened in Hirst’s early life.
But why should the father have such an inhibiting effect? Freud answered the question in his case history of ‘Little Hans’, a child who suffered from a phobia so severe that it prevented him from leaving the house. For Little Hans the phobic object, ‘horse’, was the repository of many fears. The horse may bite, it may fall down, it may die, it may run out of control, it may knock you down, and so on.
One characteristic of the horse was particularly frightening; the fear that the horse would bite him. “The idea of being devoured by the father is typical age-old childhood material” says Freud, “It has familiar parallels in mythology (e.g. the myth of Kronos) and in the animal kingdom. Yet in spite of this confirmation the idea is so strange to us that we can hardly credit its existence in a child” (Freud 1926). We are even less likely to credit the specific fear which Freud asserts provides the motive for the phobia in this case: “His fear that a horse would bite him can, without any forcing, be given the full sense of a fear that a horse would bite off his genitals, would castrate him” (Freud 1926)
As we know, the castration fear intensifies, or we might say begins to seem real for the little boy, when he comes to realise that his mother does not possess a penis. He makes the hypothesis that she has been castrated, and fears a similar fate for himself. The female genital, often compared to the shells of molluscs, becomes a ‘form without life’, since the truly living part of it (as far as the little boy is concerned) has been removed.
Damien Hirst is stuck at this point, his creativity inhibited by an unusually intense castration anxiety. Unable to engage or ‘play with’ this symbolic connection, he is (or was) unable to imbue new life into the objects which, as my daughter observed, have simply been transposed from a shop to a gallery. (Imagine what, say, the Chapman brothers could have done with the same shells).
According to Freud, children make the further assumption that the father is the agent of this violent removal.
In one of his other works Damien Hirst provides an identical answer. In exhibiting a tiger shark in a glass tank of formaldehyde he represented in unmistakeable terms the castrating father who cannot be avoided. In calling it ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ he suggests that the primitive image of the father in the unconscious does not die. Something in this emotional landscape is frozen – petrified we might say. The child’s image of the terrible father casts a chilling shadow over the rest of his life. Out of the cataclysm Damien Hirst manages to be a successful artist, and a good one. He becomes the seeming paradox of the uncreative artist.
Added Jan 2010
Am I the only person who thought that Damien Hirst’s exhibition at the Wallace Collection No Love Lost, Blue Paintings, was a real development of his work and a terrific show? So why was it universally panned by the critics, or rather why were intelligent commentators like Adrian Searle put into a quandary over the show? When Searle describes what he saw, it sounds like serious art that is enhanced rather than diminished by the multitude of influences and progenitors which he says Hirst has incorporated into the works. Then out of the blue (as it were) with little that can be described as legitimate evidence, he asserts:
“There’s a lot of niggling overdrawing. In the 1950s Bacon was great at scribbling-in far-off figures or clunky cars on a distant highway. Hirst cannot compete. Bacon’s work had an air of authority; he also exercised a lot of quality control, and threw the things that didn’t work out. I don’t think Hirst does. This is painting as method acting. He just keeps at it. Hirst’s paintings lack the kind of theatricality and grandeur that made Bacon succeed. At its worst, Hirst’s drawing just looks amateurish and adolescent. His brushwork lacks that oomph and panache that makes you believe in the painter’s lies. He can’t yet carry it off.”
Surely it is Hirst’s previous work that is characterised by ‘theatricality’, ‘grandeur’, ‘oomph’, ‘panache’ and ‘lies’? And in my estimation, by ‘adolescence’. This exhibition shows that Damien Hirst is growing up, and through ‘the exegencies of life’ (as Freud called it) reconfiguring his relationship to castration and creativity. Clearly it is not something that pleases the critics (and perhaps the art market) who would prefer him to remain the enfant terrible of the no-longer-young British artists.
Do art critics act as surrogate parents for artists?
What effects could this have on their psychological development?