Monday, December 22, 2008

Your 2008: Hirst v. Hughes

(For the third straight year, I've asked a few of my readers and friends to write about their favorite things from this past year. The series continues here with a post by Sarah Douglas, an art journalist who blogs at The Appraisal.)
For me, one of the more entertaining moments of 2008 came in early September, when, a few days before artist Damien Hirst was to auction millions of dollars worth of his work at Sotheby's auction house in London, esteemed art critic Robert Hughes went on record vehemently denouncing Hirst's art as nothing more than "tacky commodities." He dismissed Hirst's famous shark in formaldehyde – an icon of early '90s Young British Art that British collector Charles Saatchi sold to American collector Steven Cohen a few years ago for a reported $8 million – as the "world's most overrated marine organism," and added that the piece "is a clever piece of marketing but as a piece of art it is absurd." This wouldn't have been so remarkable – lots of people have denounced Hirst – if Hirst hadn't publicly replied to Hughes' critique. The artist came into the ring swinging. Standing in front of his works at Sotheby's, Hirst called Hughes' take on the shark "Luddite," and added, "I wouldn't expect anything less from Robert Hughes. . . . He probably cried when Queen Victoria died."

In fact, their tiff may have been the liveliest bit of artist-critic sparring since Queen Victoria was alive. In 1878, painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler sued the great English critic John Ruskin for libel after Ruskin wrote of one of Whistler's paintings: "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler went bankrupt pursuing his case, and although he won in court, he walked away with a single measly farthing in damages. Hirst, on the other hand, went on, a few days after responding to Hughes, to sell his work for some $200 million at Sotheby's.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hirst & Hughes -- they're both right.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...

I have nothing to add to this post beyond some name-dropping. This past year I had the pleasure of spending time with two of the major figures in this battle---Robert Hughes...and the shark.

The shark now takes up residence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art where I work...presently in year one of a three-year loan to the Met. I don't know that it's "art", but it's visually arresting like nothing else I've seen before, so that alone makes it something special.

As for Hughes, back in the summer I was tasked with escorting him around the museum one day...specifically to view an exhibition on Poussin. Hughes, largely immobile because of his infamous car accident and a rather unhealthy lifestyle, required a wheelchair to get around. For the next two hours or so I had the pleasure of wheeling him around and talking to him as he masterfully expounded upon Poussin. Luddite or not, it was pretty cool.

7:27 PM  

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