Blog post

Thatcher's Warhol: Damien Hirst

Huw Lemmey12 March 2012

Erstwhile bad-boy of Brit-Art Damien Hirst parks up his slightly dilapidated bandwagon at the Tate Modern this April  with a six-month retrospective covering his entire career to date, promising a blockbuster show for one of the world's busiest public art galleries.

As well as featuring some of Hirst's most controversial and best-known works – including Mother and Child, Divided, four vitrines contained a dissected cow and her calf, which helped Hirst win the 1995 Turner Prize – the show will contain some lesser known works that are nonetheless vital to the construction of the Hirst mythos, including his contributions to the early YBA group show Freeze.

 "Yobbish is visceral", the artist once said, positioning his public image somewhere between the moody, aggressive genius of the male painter, cultivated to a nuance by Jackson Pollock, and the rising "laddism" of mid-nineties popular culture so neatly appropriated by the Young British Artists. Today, as Hirst adopts a more business-like persona of cultural manager and art-entrepreneur, his laddish background still plays a certain role in maintaining his cultural capital, but the role of Hirst, and the YBA's in general, in the cultural overhaul of late Thatcherite Britain is clear.

The role of transforming art into a keystone of the "creative industries", instrumentalising critical values for the benefit of ascendant service industries and affective capital, was a tendency Julian Stallabrass featured extensively in his rigorous survey what he called "High Art Lite". This concise and persuasive book became a key text for understanding the YBA's, and became vital reading for young art students: a position it still holds today. "The world of high art lite is very much that of New Labour, of a classless class that is quite particular but pretends to be universal," Stallabrass writes. That particularity, disguising itself so well as populist relevance in the boom years of Brit Art, might return to the fore where economic reality interrupts the myth of a classless society:

High art lite can be viewed as a vehicle of 'endgame capitalism', continuing to make moves but without investment in the principles of the game. The economic crisis has been accompanied by some as yet provisional and uncertain signs of a revival of working-class militancy, particularly in the United States, but also here in Britain. Any further such revival will no doubt remind the bourgeois bohemians of their true loyalties.

Hirst's show opens in a political, social and economic context far removed from the halycon days of Brit Art. Although we may, once again, be living under a Conservative government, Cameron's administration is not one trapped between tabloid sleaze and stuffy Victorian values. Rather, the values of the YBAs, always a louche cheerleader of Thatcherite meritocracy, have transmogrified into the official, informal culture of Britain's neoliberal political class. Stallabrass lays the groundwork of a political understanding of the roots of high art lite, locating Hirst not so much as a "working-class hero", but a "working-class boy made good", every bit a Thatcherite archetype. As Hirst's show opens, timed to run concurrently with the London Olympics as a showcase of postindustrial British culture, Stallabrass' seminal text is as vital as ever.