David Hockney, our national curmudgeon, has criticised Damien Hirst, saying his art is an “insult” to craftsmen.
What I love about David Hockney is that his public utterances are invariably completely right and totally wrong at one and the same time. Part of the trick is his delivery. Hockney may be our national curmudgeon, but he is such a good natured curmudgeon that it hardly matters whether you agree with him or not. For example, he is entirely correct when he says that smoking is one of the greatest pleasures known to man and that the government should allow anyone who wants to smoke do so at their own risk. But isn’t it equally true that there is some justification in the government’s use of the law to discourage people from taking up (or persisting in) a habit that is, after all, pretty certain to kill them?
And so it is with his comments on Damian Hirst, reported yesterday. Hockney knows more about art history than most curators. He is perfectly well aware that artists have not always made their own work. He knows all about Rubens’s studio assistants, the workshops of Lucas Cranach and the technicians who actually carved Rodin’s marble statues. I’ll bet too that he’s cast a critical eye over Hirst’s oeuvre and has decided which pieces (if any) are successful and which aren’t. When Hockney notes that in his forthcoming show at the Royal Academy “all the works were made by the artist himself, personally” he is teasing a younger artist who probably deserves it and can certainly take it.
It’s what he said later in the interview that I find so moving. “I used to point out, at art school you can teach the craft; it’s the poetry you can’t teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft.’’ He’s saying that students used to be taught how to draw perfectly at the expense of their individuality. Now scores of students graduate from art colleges believing that everything they do or touch or say can be labelled a work of art but they couldn’t draw a rabbit if you held a gun to their heads. There you have it: the difficulty of teaching art in a nutshell.
In my view, what matters above all is the poetry. If the work has that then does it really matter how it was made? The question then is – how do you define `poetry’. I find the paintings of Jack Vettriano repellent, but they are certainly made by the artist himself. On the other hand I’m a fan of the Thai performance artist Rirkrit Tiravanija who comes into a gallery to cook and serve delicious Thai food. Once the show is over there is nothing to look at, but you’ve had an experience that Jamie Oliver would recognize as important: the use of cooking to bring communities together, the rejection of fast and pre-cooked food as the first step in living a good life. I happen to know that Hockney doesn’t think that what Rirkrit does is art, and maybe it isn’t. Who cares? As I said, Hockney is always right and always wrong. That’s why I love to disagree with him.