Art eternal

Damien Hirst made the news again this week. I guess that is his purpose in life – self-promotion, marketing. This time he was grabbing the headlines after he admitted that some of his art is indeed “rather silly“. Quite.

What grabbed my attention more however, was Hirst’s assertion that his work will still be on show in 200 years time. He predicts longevity for his art.

Well perhaps this will happen. The world is a fickle and contrary place and who knows, a couple of centuries down the line we may very well be standing in galleries and marvelling at pickled sharks.

The thing is though, when you imagine this scenario, you kinda smirk, admit it. It seems preposterous, the idea that we will actually admire these objects in the future.


After all, it is equally possible that Hirst will be heralded as a pioneering artist in the future, that in years to come people will look back at his creative output and proclaim him to have been an important figure, the best representative of a late twentieth century art form that snubbed its nose at convention and set out to challenge our ideas as to what art means. But I doubt it.

I doubt it for purely instinctive reasons. I’m no art critic. I have no background in art history. None of that stuff. But I like art. I love art.

Art that is true that is.

Joseph Beuys for example, was not an easy artist to get to grips with. He challenged us at every turn. But for me, he succeeds where Hirst fails.


I think it was his philosophy, his manifesto if you like. This is what Beuys had to say for himself:

“To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom.”

Now to me, this statement tells me something, not just about Beuys’ art, but about his understanding of how it touches people. What it is that art represents to us. What it means to us. How it makes us feel. Why it is important.

Beuys understood that art can unleash something within us all – not just freedom, but an understanding of the world, of ourselves, that we can’t quite iterate. He understood, and could convey, the need we have for art. The need we have for it, because it allows us to express those notions about life we find so hard to articulate. Perhaps that was why his work knew no boundaries. For him art served a real purpose in life:

“Art is,” he said, “a genuinely human medium for revolutionary change in the sense of completing the transformation from a sick world to a healthy one.” (full quote here)

In comparison, Hirst and his contemporaries seem rather placid, rather cynical. Less real. Less honest. Less eternal.

Today, I’m off to a Schiele exhibition, here in Amsterdam.

Two hundred years from now, we will stand in art galleries and admire the work of Schiele.

Now does that notion strike you as preposterous? Does it make you smirk and raise a quizical eyebrow? No, eh?

And why not?

Again, it seems so obvious. Look at those self portraits of Schiele. Look at the eyes, the intensity of that gaze. The terrible familiarity of it. Every brush stroke contains something so very, very human. All our frailities and energies; all our beauty and disgust; all our pain and delight; all our awe and our fear. His paintings sometimes make us want to look away – such is their intensity.

Schiele simply understood. He understood what art needs to express, what art needs to make us feel. he understood what it is in art that should confront us. How it should convey all the contradictions and complexities about our ideas and feelings concerning this damn thing we call life.

Schiele makes sense to us because we can see he meant it. He was real.

Here’s Schiele in 1909, quoted from the Neukunstgruppe manifesto:

“Art remains forever the same: art. That is why there is no new art. There are new artists…..The new artist is and must be completely true to himself. He must be (a) creator. He must be able to build his own foundation directly and quite alone, without relying on the past or on tradition….Formula is(his) antithesis.”

Hirst could easily have said the same himself perhaps, and like Beuys, his lack of preciousness and sentimentality about art could be seen as a simple continuance of the revolution started by the likes of Beuys.

Read that Schiele quote again though, because there is something telling within it.

It all comes down to that one word. True. The artist must be true to himself.

That’s the crux of the matter.

I see no truth in Hirst. Perhaps that is why I find it so difficult to imagine us, two hundred years from now, admiring his dots and his sharks?

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