Germaine Greer is clear: ‘Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative – revolutionary even.’ She is applying a clever double twist: Hirst isn’t an artist, but a manufacturer of objects who has developed a careful brand. And yet our delight at his doing this – for the forthcoming exhibition is expected to be vastly popular – reflects on us as branded consumers, thus opening up the possibility of returning Hirst to the place of an artist performing social critique.
The thing is that marketing has been a dominating art form throughout history, even before the word “marketing” became part of our working vocabulary. That is why I cited Hirst’s remarks about Rembrandt in my own analysis. Where things get complicated in when analysts such as Brewin try to fold questions of value into questions of marketing.
One way to appreciate those complications is through the film Max. This was an extremely clever attempt to examine Adolf Hitler as an aspiring artist in the period immediately following the First World War. His paintings are, to say the least, naïve; but his sense of discipline is encouraged by the art dealer Max Rothman (who happens to be Jewish). Through that mentoring, Hitler is exposed to the full-frontal assault of the Dada movement and its pioneering efforts in performance art. He is also drawn to National Socialism while it is still virtually embryonic. The punch line of the film is Hitler’s discovery that his true métier may be in oratory as performance art and that National Socialism provided the perfect “stage” upon which he could practice that art.
Am I arguing that Hirst is a latter-day Hitler, building an audience of rabid followers of consumerism as Hitler had done for National Socialism? I am not ready to take quite that extreme position. Nevertheless, I think that anyone who attracts a mass following should be viewed with suspicion. The extreme position I can take is that there is little difference between an eager disciple of Hitler and a faith-driven follower of Jesus. To invoke the language of Marshall McLuhan, both are too susceptible to letting the medium obscure the message.
Ultimately, Brewin is pleading for a more reflective world, which means a world more attentive to messages than media. It is a worthy ambition. In a world addicted to consumerism, however, it may also be a futile one.