Art programmes have changed since the days when television allowed the artist to work in silence. To cut a public figure in the media today, an artist must entice an audience with personality, attitude, and a life, particularly a “difficult” one. Recently we learned from the South Bank Show about Damien Hirst’s dollar rise to power, and Grayson Perry’s anguished childhood. On BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, we heard from German artist Anselm Kiefer, born in a cellar in 1945 during a bombing raid, defending his inflammatory views on conflict. Lively copy, but how far do they help the audience engage with the art?
Damien Hirst has “an estimated fortune of £100m”, Melvyn Bragg tells us in Damien Hirst—Addicted to Art. Like Jeff Koons and the late Andy Warhol, Hirst is a global brand. For him, the model of Van Gogh tearing his soul out in private doesn’t appeal. “I prefer thinking of myself as something like an architect… someone like Norman Foster who employs 700 people and does buildings all over the world.” His operation now includes several studios and a host of assistants. He’s adopted the mantle of tycoon with seeming ease. Although Frank Dunphy, Hirst’s business manager, says that when Hymn (2000) sold for £1m Hirst “was genuinely, I wouldn’t say frightened about it, but he’d obviously arrived in a new place”.
“I had doubts when it got to a million,” Hirst agrees. “Art and money. It’s very difficult to bring the two together.”
He’s achieved it with such phenomenal success that he’s pouring the cash into a now considerable art collection. “When it goes back to being about art, then it’s a lot more exciting,” Hirst says. “I think I was afraid of disappearing up my own arse, and to have a lot of irons in the fire I can avoid that. If I can keep myself entertained then I’ve got a good chance of entertaining everybody else.”
In 2005, he became a stately home owner with the purchase of Toddington Manor, a palatial, 1820s Gothic pile in Bedfordshire. £3m is a lot of money, Hirst says, but Mr Dunphy told him: “We can’t afford not to buy it.” And anyway, the fireplaces are valued for insurance at about £250,000. “So when you buy a house for £3m and you’ve got six fireplaces at a quarter of a million, it seems like it’s cheap.” He plans to spend another £10m on restoration, before filling it with his so-called “Murderme collection”, recently shown at the Serpentine Gallery, London. He may leave it to the nation. As a frequenter of Barry and Pugin’s Gothic Palace of Westminster, Lord Bragg looks underwhelmed.
Grayson Perry is another very likable showman. “What’s wrong with attention-seeking?” he asks Lord Bragg. “I still have the same high standards in the studio.” Perry attracted the limelight when he accepted the Turner Prize in 2003 “dressed as a nine-year old girl” in a party frock. His art is equally controversial: pots ornamented with lustre, sgraffito decoration, transfer images and collaged material. “Coming out as a craftsman was almost as hard as coming out as a transvestite,” Perry admits.
His pots “look gorgeous”, The Art Newspaper’s own Louisa Buck tells us. “But you get close up and maybe you get bitten.” Lord Bragg elaborates on Perry’s imagery filled with “graphic scenes of sexual encounter and violence, … of war, pollution, social breakdown of all kinds,” as the camera glances at spicy details. “I make art about what I have strong feelings about,” says Perry. “It’s a pot. How can you be offended by a pot? The vice squad aren’t going to come and confiscate pottery, are they?”
Tapestry is his latest venture into craft. He’s designed his version of an Afghan war rug for his up-coming show this spring in Kanazawa, Japan (21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art). Its central feature is his childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles, dressed as a suicide bomber, balanced on the towers of the World Trade Center, and surrounded by scattered imagery of war and terrorism. We learn nothing of what this symbolism means for him. “I just like the idea of something very handmade and almost rustic,” he says.
The German artist Anselm Kiefer was more outspoken. In an edited exchange on Front Row, John Wilson suggested that the two towers Kiefer has built in the courtyard of the Royal Academy “look like they could fall at any time”, and that “they would immediately, in most people’s minds, represent the Twin Towers of New York”.
Kiefer replies that he would never show them in New York for that reason. “But it’s ridiculous to think only of the Twin Towers because this was one little, little accident in history. It’s not so important. Only the Americans became hysterical about that.”
JW: I think most people would dispute that that was a small moment in history, and it was only the Americans that were hysterical.
AK: It’s really one of the horrible things in the world that such a nation, which is so powerful, gets crazy about two towers.
JW: But it’s not just two towers is it? More than 3,000 people died.
AK: It’s a big drama. Three thousand people is not nothing, that’s clear. But then they killed much more after that.
JW: Surely those events must have informed the artistic process in some way?
AK: Those events happened for me 20 years before. Because I saw this coming in a way. Not directly like this. I made a painting in 1987 or 1988. Such sexual symbols as the Twin Towers, they attract aircraft.
JW: You’re saying it’s almost inevitable that the towers would have been attacked by aircraft?
AK: Yeah. When you show your power off like this, it attracts people.
o The South Bank Show, ITV Productions for ITV1. Grayson Perry, 17 December 2006. Produced and directed by Bob Bee. Damien Hirst—Addicted to art, 1 January. Produced and directed by Lucy Allen. Edited and presented by Melvyn Bragg.
o Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 24 January. Presenter John Wilson. Producer Jerome Weatherald.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The tycoon, the craftsman and the agitator'