I have a dear friend – an immensely gifted writer and artist – who not only produces wonderful work of real craft and quality but is faithful to it also. He is his art; his art him. What he creates reflects his character, no more than this, provides a window to his soul, and the soul one finds there, in each work, is perceptive, honest, probing and rich in thought and feeling. His creations can never be described as mediocre, shallow and superficial, these characteristics that define so much of contemporary art and culture.
As I look at his drawings, which can be found everywhere throughout his home, in his kitchen, living room, hallway and landing, I wonder why on earth he is not more valued, his art more appreciated. His work is not only better than many well-known and successful modern artists, but possesses a greater depth and integrity as well. He is perhaps a victim of these noble qualities, however.
Many of us see clearly the shameless and greedy charlatan in Damien Hirst, the false and talentless exhibitionist in Tracey Emin, yet we dare not voice such truths, these faux artists lauded by so many. How can so many be wrong? Quite easily, as history testifies to, many artists though celebrated in their lifetime subsequently judged to be average and overrated. The public is easily led, the likes of Charles Saatchi acutely aware of this. The man can give anything value if he gets behind it sufficiently, puts his name to it.
And yet it is precisely Hirst’s and Emin’s capacity for deceit, and their complicity in Saatchi’s and other collectors’ mercurial profit-making dance, which explains their success. The hollowness of Emin is clear enough when we see her commission for David Cameron – a pink neon sign displaying the words “More Passion”. That is it, the kind of sign you’d expect to see on a shop front. It is not art. She claimed she wanted to give Cameron, the moral conservative, some “cool”. In truth what she gave him was the perception of cool, much needed after he’d locked up so many young people in the aftermath of the London riots. Where Ai Weiwei uses his art to challenge and subvert poor and immoral governance, Emin uses hers to prop it up, now little more than a Conservative Party lackey it seems.
Art must have a moral purpose, even if, in the case of Michel Houellebecq, the enfant terrible of French letters, this intends to illustrate nothing more than the utter foolishness and futility of practically all human endeavour. It must not be driven solely by profit and fame, Hirst and Emin slaves to both. There is little art in Hirst hiring others to make his art. Ai Weiwei might do the same, yet he is motivated by political conscience – to undermine the Chinese Communist authorities – rather than personal greed and vanity. And there is little art in Emin’s patchwork quilts, these works based on the hollow and unimaginative conceit of violent and sexual expletives expressed on something as “wholesome” as a patchwork quilt.
Houellebecq, the great cynic with his mighty sardonic wit, would likely concede this is precisely why they are so successful in this modern age of ours, which has made art out of that which is not art, wealthy fools like Elton John paying millions for their vacuous and unremarkable work. Behind the grand and provocative titles of their works, which you hope like Nietzsche’s writings will express something profound and prophetic about human nature and the human condition, they express nothing but the artists’ deceit – Hirst and Emin are brilliant salespeople, masters of presentation and hype, understanding fully the value of provocation and sensation in order to sell their work. Yet what they are selling is empty and purposeless, serving them but no one else.