Sociological Context

I was reading an article in the Guardian in which the play Art is discussed by three writers. The article was very interesting in the way it discusses what the play says (or doesn’t say) about the contemporary art world. I was, however, taken by one comment made by the Guardian art critic Adrian Searle. He thought that some artists were lucky, or adept at catching a wave “they are remembered not because the work was great, but because of its sociological context”. He continues “the diamond skull of Damien Hirst is precisely that, and I think Jeff Koons is a lot of that. What has he (Koons) added to Andy Warhol? Not very much”.

All art is viewed within a context and all art is a product of its sociological context (whether as a result of or a protest against) what I found interesting about this comment was the suggestion that some artists react to a sociological context in order to increase the marketability of their art.

I’ve seen work by Jeff Koons in the Artist’s Rooms exhibition but cannot recall having seen any work by Damien Hirst other than that in books or magazines. I was personally, not very taken with Koons as I have written elsewhere. But this article made me think more about his work and relate it to Warhol’s. I found myself agreeing with Searle’s comment that Koons did not really add much to Warhol’s work. In fact, although it was interesting to see, I found it rather empty and unfulfilling. The Warhol work I have seen challenged me to think about it, something that most Koon’s work lacked. Some of Warhol’s work is also intensely political, not a description you would apply to Koons or Hirst. Images such as Electric Chair, Vote McGovern, or Birmingham Race Riot all have strong messages

So was a sociological context of the work by three artists (Warhol, Hirst and Koons) so very different? Warhol was operating at a time of considerable change reacting against the establishment and this comes through in his work. It could be argued that Hirst and Koons were creating in a more materialistic time and that this is reflected in their work. I would certainly argue that Diamond Skull is very much a reflection of its time, this point is made very strongly by Searle too. Reading and thinking about this article clarified some of my thinking about art and its context.

As I said all art is influenced by context but it would seem that for some art, or even artists, sociological context is all. But I think that the best art transcends this, the best of Warhol’s work is remembered for what it says and what it challenges as well as for the social context within which it was produced. But the work of Hirst and Koons may simply be remembered for why and how they were created rather than for any enduring stimulus or meaning.