In agreeing to hold a retrospective on Damian Hirst, the Tate Modern has started a bloody great punch up: in the red corner, Hirst and gallery plus a number of influential apologists; in the blue, Julian Spalding and a hotchpotch of makers, writers and agents, all lining up to have a crack at what they consider the greatest con job since Victor Lustig sold Andre Poisson the Eiffel Tower - twice.
So, what, pray, the fuss? Well, the Tate sees Hirst as one of the world's most significant living artists, 'his works...explicitly concerned with the fundamental dilemmas of human existence...the fragility of life, society's reluctance to confront death, and the nature of love and desire', while Spalding can barely speak (or write), so infuriated is he that the Tate should sell the world a bunch of 'found objects', advising any present owners of Hirsts that best they sell, 'before they become worthless. Because worthless they will be, when everyone realises that they've given nobody anything.' Add to this Hirst's wealth, the price tag on his works and the fact that Brian Sewall, one of Hirst's most vociferous critics, once and famously referred to Hirst as 'fucking dreadful.' Fight on.
Accusations of plagiarism, unoriginality and false authorship abound. Sewall himself claims Hirst is simply repackaging the University of Leeds' anatomy museum. In 2003 the Stuckists pointedly exhibited a shark that had once - and for two years before The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - featured as an object of curiosity in the shop window of a Shoreditch electrician. Will Brand said in his critique of Hirst's recent exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, The Complete Spot Paintings: 'Just to clarify, so that nobody from the future gets confused: we hate this shit. Everyone hates this shit. These spots reflect nothing about how we live, see, or think, they're just some weird meme for the impossibly rich that nobody knows how to stop.' To which Hirst variously replies, yeah, so what and fuck you. I auctioned this shit off for £111m in 2008. The world's most visited art gallery wants me. Fuck you. We're in round 3. No one's wearing gloves.
Of course, popularity's no guarantee of great shit. Nor is money. (Just look at Jack Vettriano - popular, rich and shit). Besides, our reasons for seeing Hirst at the Tate may well differ wildly from those that galvanise us to see, say, Gerhard Richter at the Old National Gallery in Berlin. Hirst's a very successful businessman. The Tate's a very successful business. These guys know how to put on a show. We may well be going not for very art related reasons. Plus Spalding's already right - at least partially: market-wise, Hirst's pretty much had his day, which was 2008, when at least a quarter of his work was worth nearly 10 times what it was in 2000. It's less than three and half times that now and there's little sign - at least at the moment - of the exhibition reversing forecasts. It's a red line. And it's getting steeper.
All of which leads back to a quieter - the jabbers - section of the blue corner, who may well be doing the most damage. Here the main bone of contention seems to be the notion of repetition. Agreed. This is serious stuff. Repitition, as you know (yes, you do) is a mainstay of art. Paul Cezanne painted Monte Sainte-Victoire incessantly. Van Gough couldn't leave yellow alone. Yayoi Kusami, also, incidently, showing at the Tate, hallucinates in patterns, her most recent installation, The Passing Winter, the culmination of decades of compulsive spot making. Warhol - for whom repetition, when 'transposed to canvas', is art - did the soup can stuff. Repetition in Hirst's case, however, seems neither to express variation (all patterns must vary) nor to to comment successfully, like a Warhol, on - for example - the metro-monotony of everyday life. Contrary, to the Tate's claims, Hirst looks to have run out of breath, his memento mori themes - shockingly realised in the form of A Thousand Years, and about which both Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon raved heavily - exhausted, his spots, skulls and ashtrays symbols of nothing special. Works like The Aquired Inability to Escape tell us nothing new: we get it, and now we're locked up in it, a bunch of things signed off by some smart ass title. It's the shark idea, the cow head idea, the poo, the flies, a diamond encrusted skull, the same old idea, over and over again. We know what we're getting. We're not surprised. It's not death. It's a load of old tat.