Tim Cornwell: ‘Real’ art remains an inexplicable concept

DEAR old Damien Hirst. At 47, the formerly Young British Artist is riling them up again. The former Glasgow museums chief Julian Spalding has led the charge, assailing Hirst’s retrospective at the Tate Modern in London as “con art”.

Spalding’s criticisms are not new, and there are those in Glasgow who would say his tastes are just as dubious as Hirst’s, but he’s seized on the moment by publishing a book, Con Art – Why You Ought To Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can.

The theory is the world will turn wise to Hirst’s glitzy fakery, made by others rather than himself, and the bottom will fall out of the market for the British art world’s richest man. More to the point, Hirst’s show has yet again raised the question of what makes real art.

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Hirst’s fellow prize winner Jeremy Deller is all set, we’re told, to create an imitation Stonehenge arising from the green fields of Glasgow next week. Deller is the real deal, a friend insists, and the latest project is typical of that.

Whatever form it takes – an interactive inflatable ancient monument, say – his work is likely to amuse and engage a large audience in Glasgow, and in London, when it travels on. Deller may not have fashioned his plasticated stones with his bare hands but he’s not a mass production artist; his conceptual works, like his restaging of the miners’ strike, Battle of Orgreave, are political and original.

The real art argument is set to rise again over the Cultural Olympiad this year, which has approved 12 major artists’ commissions, doling out £500,000 apiece. This time it’s public money that could have gone elsewhere.

Some of it is justified on the grounds of pure spectacle. You can’t contest the promised appeal of one of the projects, a planned 1.2 mile high, 65 foot wide column of steam that will rise above Wirral’s skyline on the banks of the River Mersey.

Deliciously, it has so far failed to get planning permission, it emerged this week, as the Civil Aviation Authority wants to do safety tests on the column, delaying a launch date timed when the Olympic torch is passing through in June. An artwork which involved downing an airliner – it beggars the imagination.

Defining real art is tough enough. These days you can’t even define real craft. There are public organisations – currently the Crafts Council in England and Craft Scotland up here – which have, with decades of public funding behind them, earnestly worked to make craft work respectable, to promote its traditions and sales.

Craft deteriorates at its worst into kitsch, but if it rises above the genre it can probably be called primitive. But please don’t call it craft, or refer to a craftsperson, particularly not anything shown in a gallery, where craft is a dirty word. The expression is “objects”, and it’s made by “makers”, though the latter phrase is so self-evidently fatuous that it may be falling by the wayside.

The defenders of Hirst’s use of assistants to churn out his formerly original spot paintings, or of foundries whose “craftsmen” produce his sculptures on command, speak of the assistants employed by artists from Titian, Rubens or Rodin to Warhol’s “factory”.

The comparisons are mostly specious. Art historians will decide that a painting or part of it was done by Titian, or Da Vinci, on the particular skill, movement or expression of a head or torso.

Their reattributions of an old master – upgrading or usually downgrading an artwork, from great artist to his pupil or imitator, or to another painter entirely – are sometimes just as baffling and obscure as the conceptual art jargon.

But at least they are looking for beauty or skill. It is hard to imagine an auctioneer’s art scout in two centuries’ time, combing through the dusty attic of some stately home, crying “It’s a Hirst!” after spotting some mouldering shark skin that’s lost its formaldehyde.