Chic art versus Poor art

‘Chic’ is an adjective used to describe somebody elegant, somebody or something having or representing good taste. In its various meanings we could consider it as a synonym for elegant, nice, friendly, pleasant or generous.

In contemporary art, one can say that the “summum of chic style” is represented by Damien Hirst, who currently has a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. But most amusing is the coincidence of the programming in this contemporary cathedral of art, which makes us believe we dream, and makes us wonder if it is just coincidence or sign of mockery.

Indeed, the Tate Modern presents the first Damien Hirst’s retrospective and you would certainly have to live in the desert not to know it. But at the same time, in the upper floor, we can find a retrospective of the Italian Alighiero e Boetti (1940-1994), who represents the contrary of Hirst, because he never had a speculative value in the market of art, and because he never worked for the show.

What adds to the irony of the situation, it is that Boetti sometimes had ideas which can be found in Hirst, in another scale. In 1969, he made a self-portrait, ‘Me taking the sun in Turin on January 19th, 1969’. There are 111 small heaps of cement pressed by hand, placed on the ground in the shape of a body lying on its back. A yellow butterfly is put on one of them. The body lies on its back, arms and legs spread, alive or dead. The insect can be taken as the symbol of the sun or of fragility. This hesitation on the meaning of the work is one of its charms. Another charm is its lightness, the air of improvisation, the way it suggests that it arose from a moment of pleasure.

Hirst also makes use of the butterfly: but in industrial quantity, by thousands, alive sometimes, dead most of the time, on painting, on wallpaper, on umbrella … He downgrades a symbol to the status of a logo.

No such thing with Boetti who did not stop trying materials and changing modes of expression. In his debuts, at the end of 1960s, he did a pastiche or parody of the minimalism and of the New York’s conceptual art: a wooden staircase we cannot climb and a chair on which we cannot sit, then a bright box where ignites alternately Ping and Pong. With tubes of Eternit and rollers of corrugated cardboard, he made a success of abstract quasi–sculptures. At manifestly wrong addresses, he sent letters to famous artists as Marcel Duchamp – who died in 1968-, Bruce Nauman or Sigmar Polke. Non delivered letters, returned to him, of which he made a collection, his ‘Card Journeys’, at the same time fantastic and precise.

The seriousness, the rhetoric, the advantageous postures, he avoids them. In 1968, he imagined a human double figure, to overturn upside down. On one side, it is “Shaman” – the big artist intercessor, Beuys for example. In the opposite side, it is “Showman” – the ham actor, the star, the bad side of the art, Damien Hirst for example (Philippe Dagen dixit). Shaman / Showman should be posted at the entrance of all the museums of contemporary art, as a wholesome warning. The notion of Arte Povera – Poor art – expressed then by the critic Germano Celant suits him as far as this poverty is the enemy of roaming poets of of gravity.

The opposite is Damien Hirst, who was able to declare “it has never been so easy to make art» (sic). Hirst who is presented by “Village Voice” as the richest artist in the world, a full-time businessman and half-time collector, and the most famous of Young British Artists, the creative group of the 90s. But this artist suffers complications consecutive to a diversification disease (‘diverticulitis’), as a result of his efforts as a sinister speculator, by his unrefined cynicism and by his ‘constipated intellectualism’, making 11 simultaneous exhibitions of an execrable work without the slightest interest … (Le Figaro, 20/01/2012). But, Hirst does not care about this, because for him, art is rather a subject of illusion, theater, entertainment, show, intriguing beauty, according to its own confessions. ‘Metteur en scène’ of its world, Hirst adores theater and he plays with all his energy.

Two visions of art, of life, of relation with others, the theatricality and the transcendence,… at a single floor of distance. So, the Tate: coincidence or irony?

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