Joe Mc visits the Damien Hirst room at Tate Britain / 6 September 2010
'Mother and Child. Divided. London 1993' was the first piece of work I saw by Damien Hirst. You might recall it consisted of a cow and her calf dissected, then pickled in formaldehyde. I was revolted by it and hadn't a clue what it was about. A mate who came along with me to the exhibition said something along the lines that the artist was responding to all those who talked about an inner life. And that this 'opening up' was a way of saying 'look that's all there is inside'.
About an hour later out on the street the pickled cow and her offspring were still bouncing around in the meadows of my mind, along with my friend's interpretation and my own beliefs. I felt myself getting steadily angrier. Then I realised that it had been a long time since a piece of art had provoked such emotion. And thought 'nice one' and from then on had the feeling that maybe I had 'got' something of what Hirst was on about. And even started to look forward to new work.
Then, last Friday, I found myself in the Damien Hirst Room at Tate Britain The contents were interesting. Sort of. But it was on the way out that I noticed a carefully mounted and captioned photograph depicting a rat-like grinning adolescent who was holding what at first I took to be a bloated waxwork head of a portly elderly gentleman. Drawing closer, I realised that this was actually a severed human head. The title - 'With Dead Head' - explained everything.
Please don't let me turn into Melanie flipping Philips of the Daily Mail with her vigorous espousal of values reminiscent of John Major's 'back to basics.' And I'm not going down the road of 'this isn't art'. Because I don't have a problem with that. I hate it but clearly see it as a work of art, Those who curate at the Tate obviously see it as a valued artistic acquisition. And I can't deny that Hirst has me again electrified with questions.
But there is something else going on here. Something nasty. Part of my anger comes from an element that Hirst's necrophilia shares with other ghoulish sensationalism on the museum and gallery scene. For example, the mostly excellent Wellcome Foundation openly advertises that they have an enviable collection of shrunken heads. They are obviously targeting the prurient juvenile schoolboy market.
But here again there is a mind-numbing lack of respect for people outside of the Daily Mail zone of acceptable humanity - i.e. the very heart of the heart of 'middle England.' Hirst's severed head looks like an elderly bloke very much the worse for wear and more likely to be a homeless person than a city gent or similar. The shrunken heads in other collections are not British. So is that alright then? Isn't there a certain hypocrisy behind the expectation that we are going to be heart broken by each British soldier who falls in today's war zones, while other remains - who at one time were parents, lovers and probably a lot like you and me when all is said and done - can become objects of crass entertainment?
It's this violation of any notion of equality and the equal right for respect that gets my goat here. But the anger intensifies when I think that neither Tates Britain nor Modern have ever acquired, for their permanent collections, a piece of work from artists who emerged from the Disability Arts Movement.
Colin Hambrook, Kit Wells, Ruth Bailey, Hanne Olsen, Elspeth Morrison and many others have, through the years, done invaluable work in exposing and valuing the work of artists who boldly explore the experience of disability. This website is a glowing testimony to that. Pallant House in Chichester is also ploughing ahead engaging with and promoting Outsider Art.
The vast amount of money that must have been lavished on the photograph of the ghoulish artist and the absence of any work done by artists from the Disability Arts movement, whose work so often radically questions society, are a clear testimony to the values of those who move and shake at the Tate and the British Art Establishment.
Keywords: disability art