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Damien Hirst is An Artist

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On Good Friday I halted myself mid mouth-off:

"Any twit could buy a pork chop, chuck it outside, watch the maggots hatch and the pigeons come; any idiot could stage a meditation on life, death and the food chain in their backyard."

It was the caffeine talking. I couldn't sling pork chops onto my beloved Brixton Hill; I wouldn't see the point. Likewise, I haven't the slightest inclination to suspend mammalian cadavers in gallons of formaldehyde. I wouldn't phone Australia to secure the mother of all sharks, import one, souse it and then stage it in a gallery? An artist would. Just as another once painted pythonesses with man arms on the ceiling of a Roman cathedral at Il Papa's bidding.

According to one dictionary, 'artist' is informally defined as "a habitual practitioner of a specified reprehensible activity." Well yes, quite. What kind of person, after cuckolding his benefactor, shaves the knavish mane from his guilty head, sprouts a penitent's whiskers, secures human body parts, and skulks about a studio with the decomposing cuts so that he can witness their putrefaction, and capture it for his canvas? Who'd cook up such a grisly concept? Theodore Gericault; that's who. But was it art? An Artist would think so. He'd take a cool look at 'Le Radeau de la Meduse,' appreciate the dwarfing impact of its cinematic scale, the desperateness of its drama, and thence rapport with what a nineteenth century artist invested in siring a conceptual masterpiece. By the way, a few centuries previously when Sandro Botticelli took a notion to turn his mate Dante's 'Inferno' into mediaeval Manga, that was a concept too, right? Just asking.

By now somebody will have muttered "But he doesn't do it himself." This puts him on a par with that Restoration charlatan Peter Lely, Britain's most renowned royal portraitist in Anthony van Dyck's wake. As his reputation grew, and demand for his portraits along with it, he established a hive of apprentices to see to the limbs, the fabrics and the interiors in which his subjects were pictured. The man himself confined his skill to likenesses. Gasp! Renaissance experts speculate that the dexterous digits of that other miscreant, Fra Angelico, are detectable in the detail of Lorenzo Monaco's later output, theorizing that Angelico was one of Monaco's apprentices. Later in Fra Angelico's own esteemed vocation the hands of others are discernible in the detail of his altarpieces, as he too had to marshal a crew of apprentices to stay abreast with demand. Art history heaves with canonized individuals who mobilised project teams, rather like movie directors who farm tasks out to second units without ever having their artistry brought into question.

Saatchi has to be mentioned at least once, Saatchi. Maybe Mapplethorpe's edgy erotica would have been hallowed in the murky cellars of New York's S&M scene from whence it drew some subjects, but would he have become quite as feted without Sam Wagstaff? The monied Manhattan socialite curator who obsessively amassed a vault of photographs, bidding hitherto unheard of amounts for some, so that it became fashionable to fritter fortunes on snaps. The fact that Wagstaff's unique undertaking transformed the perceived value of photographs during his renowned passion with Mapplethorpe did the photographer and his captures negligible harm. That Renaissance rascal, Benvenuto Cellini, did very nicely out of the Bishop of Salamanca until His Reverence got tardy with the moola. Still, the church and the Medicis were the best gig in town; this was a no-brainer for the Renaissance mob. Oh yeah, and William Theed the Younger helped define Victorian London's allegorical sculpture landscape, largely because Prince Albert was in awe of the young man's prodigious chisel skills.

I once subscribed to the "An Artist isn't an artist!" lobby. Not that I was nearly informed enough to define what an artist was at the time- not that I am now? It's been a fashionable declamation to spout ever since An Artist seized the contemporary art conversation by its throat; we're still squabbling about him. Whether any of us actually know what we're talking about often snakes beneath the radar broadcasting his patrons' wealth, and the snide critic headlines he greets with unruffled disregard. People dislike him: his face, his attitude, the company he keeps. We're curmudgeonly when means are bestowed upon people we don't like, especially if they do anything we think we could. We have at An Artist with our grudging rapiers because he's overrated, overvalued, overpaid and over there. Success is selective and it should have selected somebody more talented, somebody nicer, a 'proper' artist, anybody but him. The collective lunacy of the cognoscenti swoons at his feet and An Artist gets pilloried for their excessive hysterics.

Now, where can I buy a vat load of formaldehyde?